A Theology of the Other in an Ecumenical Reality Part 3

The Danger of the Incarnation

There is an ever-present danger when living an incarnational life. The vulnerability of this space posses the ability to instill humility through the rigors of life. The closeness that is fashioned in such intimate containers unmasked all pretentiousness and facilitates true authenticity. The pressure of incarnation produces fresh ministry that addresses problems, but will definitely redirect those locked in the process to reshape their preconceived narratives.

The realness of incarnation centers on the fact that you are “actively” present in life.[1] This becomes an ecumenical reality for many as they journey through the process of incarnation. Incarnation invites others to either join or destroy. The easy work of incarnation is mythical at best, but painfully articulated within the body like the ink of tattoos –simply works of art without any purpose for change. It takes a tremendous level of humility to navigate through streams of unfamiliarity sometimes just to encounter a dislike.

One who embodies the methodology of incarnation intuitively or mystically unearths evil aspects of racism (really prejudice) as they work through ecumenical issues. This unveiling of this Christological schism, as Eboni Marshall Turman denotes in her work Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, becomes counter-intuitive to “the negative and positive poles of a dichotomous racial hierarchy.”[2] Alternatively, the more one is authentically locked in the imago dei (image of God) to a particular culture or denomination, the greater the potential for others to become uncomfortable around that person/individual –especially those who make it their reality to dislike that person/individual based upon cultural or denominational aesthetics. Their adjustment is to use identification as the power play –so no longer is the imago dei the primary identifier but racial and denominational hierarchy now guides the perspective.[3]

Ecumenism places those in the minority at a disadvantage and must be clearly addressed if an ecumenical reality is possible. It is Cornel West, who presses the issues that Europe’s need to be the prototype in its “retrieval of classical aesthetics and culture” set forth a “normative gaze” that produced the “myth of white supremacy.”[4] The invisible construct with visible wounds shackles the very metaphorical hands and feet of those in the margins –black and brown people. The call for ecumenism places them at a crossroads that asks, “How is the question of unity a viable alternative?” The importance of the incarnation becomes and is more about what then where…The importance of a Christ that is willing to come and dwell is important but when identified as the “Other,” actual presence is of most significant. James Cone denotes the need for an actual presence as it affirms the struggle of grappling with a maintenance of humanity to a future realization of humanity.[5]  Cone also shares the response of John Knox who states, “The phrase ‘Jesus is our Lord’ designates, not primarily an historical individual but a present reality actually experienced within a common life.”[6] The need for an eschatological reality is a cultural perspective that ecumenism has to take seriously.[7] The fact that Jesus is a very “present” help in the time of trouble is paramount. Whether he is a physical presence in the Eucharist or symbolic is irrelevant, as long as he can provide bread for the impoverished family. The volume of the everyday experience of those trapped on the underside of poverty becomes an intermingled perspective within the narratives of the gospels. Incarnation becomes an existential struggle to prove humanity rather than the salvific experience of deliverance.

The danger of an incarnation that is not properly articulated leads to further issues and problems –a complex issue of “identity [that] emerges from the paradox of enfleshment.”[8]Simply stated the need to understand that some people will have to endure more than others when it comes to ecumenism –“assertion of enfleshment as a paradoxical phenomenon where the reality of multiple ways of being within the flesh that sometimes complement but more often contradict each other.”[9] This problem is addressed by Zora Neale Hurston in her novel Every Tongue Got to Confess.[10] She tells the story of an African-American who wanted to join a white church because it was the only church in town but was rejected. Her relative further more tells her that they would not have allowed Jesus to join that church either.[11]The role of race enters into this equation and asserts itself as the prime decisional component overshadowing everything else. This paradox of enfleshment again renders the “Other” powerless as an ecumenical reality is introduced.

The WCC is trying to reintroduce, rethink and reinterpret the very essence of what has been called community. They are trying to soften the traditional perspective that will inevitably make living incarnationally more of a viable outlet.[12]  They understood that they had not heard the voices of those who represented the “Other.” [13] The need to approach everyone and every culture with the mindset of a global habitat transformed their platform. The places where incarnation could be dangerous they made attempts to address. James Cone states that the Third World theologians began to insist that a definition of ecumenism move beyond interconfessional issues and address issues of poverty, struggle and social justice –in other words deal with issues that those in poverty deal with in everyday incarnational life.[14]  The goal being to readjust the concept to where all are considered the “Other” rendering all the opportunity to be treated fair.[15]

[1] To be actively present means that there is a tangible presence and not something identified symbolically or spiritually encamped –the realness of the incarnation.

[2] Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, The Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon, New York: Palgrave Mcmillan,59.

[3] James Cone, Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids,1986.,143 highlights the world of H. Richard Niebuhr in the Social Sources of Denominationalism (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1929): “The causes of the racial schism are not difficult to determine. Neither theology nor polity furnished the occasion for it. The sole source of this denominationalism is social.”

[4] Ibid.,Turman,60.

[5] James Cone, God of the Oppressed, HarperCollins:San Francisco:1975, 126.

[6] Ibid., 126.

[7] In James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, New York: Seabury Press, 1969, 121. Cone rejects the entire thought of eschatology. He states, “If eschatology means that one believes that God is totally uninvolved in the suffering of man because he is preparing them for another world, then black theology is not eschatological. Black theology has hope for this life.”

[8] Ibid.,Turman.,1.

[9] Ibid.,1.

[10] Zora Neale Hurston, Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folks Talk From the Gulf, New York: Harper Collins, 2001

[11] Ibid., George and Smith.,56

[12] Ibid., The Church.,23.

[13] Ibid., Speaking, 142.

[14] Ibid., 142.

[15] In most of his work James Cone has made extreme efforts to redirect the conversation to show how black and brown people are being marginalized profoundly by the church. His deliberate naming of the “Other” as black  was more of a construct than color designator. He intentionally sees God on the side of the oppressed and thus God is intentional about coming to see about their well being.  See James Cone, God of the Oppressed, San Francisco:1975


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