Plundered Bodies

Ida B. Wells and the Incarnation as Theological Exemplar and Rationale for Racial Justice

ida_b_wells

The following is a paper I wrote for a recent theology class. The themes in the paper are resonant to much of what I post about here, so it’s possible a few readers may be interested in what I explored in these pages. I welcome your feedback and suggestions; these are themes I expect to return to regularly.

At 2:30 A.M. On March 9, 1892, three Black men were dragged from their jail cells in Memphis, Tennessee by “seventy five men wearing Black masks.”[i] Tommie Moss, Will Steward, and Calvin McDowell, targeted for their resistance to mob violence against Moss’ grocery store, struggled against the vigilantes as they were led to the railroad. Along they way they were shot and mutilated before arriving at the scene of their lynching, an event that one newspaper described as having been “done decently and in order… with due regard to the fact people were asleep.”[ii]

Ida B. Wells was the publisher of Free Speech, a Memphis newspaper that focused on Black life in the city. She was away when her friend Tommie Moss was lynched. After an initial response in her paper in which she urged her peers to “leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property,[iii] she followed up with an even more direct editorial on May 24th.  “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape White women. If Southern White men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”[iv] Wells was correct that public sentiment toward the lynching of Black bodies would eventually shift, though at this point she couldn’t have imagined how long it would take or what a pivotal role she would play. She also didn’t foresee that this editorial, with her indictment of White fear, would provoke serious enough threats in Memphis that she would need to flee for the relative safety of Chicago where she would commence her anti-lynching campaign in earnest.

Any reckoning of Wells’ life and impact must consider many things: her gender and race; her move from Memphis to Chicago at a time when many African Americans were doing the same; her varied and influential roles as a publisher, editor, writer, and activist; and her relationships – sometimes friendly, often not – with influential leaders in the civil rights and suffragist movements. But Wells was also a self-consciously Christian person and it is this aspect of her life in which this paper is most interested. Despite regular, sometimes life-threatening, opposition exacerbated by her race and gender, Wells was singularly focused on raising the public’s awareness about the tragic injustice of lynching. What role did her Christian faith play in her courageous activism?

It is an impossible question to answer. Though Wells was a prolific writer and occasionally wrote about Christianity, there is little to be found about how she understood her faith compelling her work. Yet it is clear that she had a “dynamic religious faith”[v] that must have deeply informed her work for racial justice. It is my assertion that, as a Black woman within a profoundly patriarchal and racist society, Wells provides us with an important example of the Christian pursuit of racial justice. Though the many particularities of her Christianity are not accessible to us, we can consider how properly appropriating certain Christian doctrine is more or less likely to lead contemporary American Christians to engage in the struggle for racial justice in a manner similar to Wells. The particular doctrine on which this paper will focus, for reasons that will become clear, is the incarnation. Simply put: Does belief in the incarnation make it more or less likely for a Christian to pursue racial justice with the courage and conviction exhibited by Ida B. Wells?

Theologian Sarah Coakley writes that the incarnation is “the central Christian claim that Jesus uniquely manifests the invisible God”[vi] and that “the orthodox doctrine holds that Christ was ‘fully man’, not only the possessor of a human body.”[vii] The Church faced early challenges from those, like the Gnostics, who denied that Jesus had taken on flesh as well as others who believed that Jesus was a great teacher, adopted by God perhaps, but not divine in his nature.[viii] In response to these challenges, Antiochene Christians emphasized Jesus’ humanity while Alexandrine Christians articulated a unitive Christology that tried to hold together Jesus’ humanity and divinity, though at times “something of his full humanity” was sacrificed.[ix] It was at the ecumenical council in 451 that the church agreed on what we know as the Chalcedonian Definition which states, in part, that Jesus is two natures in one person, “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” In short, since 451 Christians have generally held that Jesus, in taking on human flesh, was one person with two natures, human and divine.

In 1892 Frederick Douglass, one of Well’s most faithful supporters, wrote to congratulate her on a publication detailing recent lynchings throughout the South. In his letter he wrote, “If American conscience were only half alive, if the American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a screen of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.”[x] Douglass’ disgust at White Christianity was reiterated by Wells at various places throughout her writing. Two examples will suffice. In Quincy, Mississippi five people, three men and two women, were lynched after being accused of poisoning a well despite having been found innocent at the inquest. About the event Wells wrote that “neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment. Had it occurred in the wilds of interior Africa, there would have been an outcry from the humane people of this country against the savagery which would so mercilessly put men and women to death.”[xi] While traveling in England, Wells was asked about the response of “churches and great moral agencies in America” to oppose lynching. She was specifically asked about what had been done by the world-renowned evangelist D.L. Moody. She recounted, “I answered- nothing. That Mr. Moody had never said a word against lynching in any of his trips to the South, or in the North either, so far as was known.”[xii] Both of these examples show the disconnect that Wells observed between what White Christians claimed to believe and their violent behavior, whether overt or tacit, toward African Americans.

Wells’ experience with White Christians calls into question whether the doctrine of the incarnation is important for racial justice. Whether or not most of those who carried out the lynchings were cognizant of orthodox Christology, most of the preachers in the silent pulpits certainly were. Kelly Brown Douglas attributes such silence by White Christians to “Slaveholding Christianity and the White Christ.”[xiii] This form of Christianity allowed for “the justification of slavery, Christians to be slaves, and the compatibility of Christianity with the extreme cruelty of slavery.”[xiv] We can safely assume that Slaveholding Christianity, as understood by Douglas, would allow for lynching  in the same way it allowed for slavery.

Throughout The Black Christ Douglas makes it clear that the violence and deviancy of Slaveholding Christianity can be attributed in large part to a belief in the incarnation. As Douglas explains it, this form of Christianity believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah “because God was made flesh in him. The incarnation itself is considered the decisive feature of Christianity.”[xv] Salvation, then, comes through belief in the incarnation, of what God did in Jesus. With belief being the primary identifier of faithful Christianity, “White people could be slaveholders and Christian with guilt or fear about the state of their soul. (italics in original)”[xvi] The focus on belief in the incarnation is especially problematic for Douglas when Slaveholding Christianity is contrasted with slave Christianity which “had little to do with God becoming incarnate.”[xvii] Christianity as appropriated by slaves was focused on Jesus’ life and his actions, especially his compassion toward the oppressed. This priority on Jesus’ life is reflected in Douglas’ own life and in her womanist theology. She writes, “I believed that Jesus was Christ because of what he did for others, particularly the poor and oppressed.”[xviii]

Though Douglas doesn’t write about Ida B. Wells in The Black Christ, one can assume that she would not attribute a belief in the incarnation to the activist’s anti-lynching work. Because, for Douglas, the incarnation calls only for belief, the Christian is not compelled “to carry forth Jesus’ liberating work.”[xix] The complacency by White clergy during both slavery and lynching suggests “that Blackness is irrelevant to Christ” and “allows White racism to go unchallenged.”[xx] In contrast, a focus on Jesus’ life and actions on behalf of the oppressed, as exhibited in slave Christianity, means that protest and advocacy are intrinsic to Christian identity. Through Douglas’ perspective, one can imagine how belief in Christ as “one person, two natures” is at best only peripheral to racial justice and, more likely, a hindrance that needs to be discarded and replaced with a focus on the life and actions of Jesus, especially as expressed in the Gospels. Unlike the White Christ, The Black Christ kept slaves and participants in the Civil Rights movement from spiritualizing the “Christian concept of freedom.”[xxi]

Throughout her reporting and editorials about specific lynchings, Wells was intensely focused on the bodies of the lynching victims. In Memphis, Lee Walker was hung by a mob after being accused of assaulting a White woman. Wells describes the scene with a gaze that pays special attention to Walker’s defiled body. She writes,

As the body hung to the telegraph pole, blood streaming down from the knife wounds to his neck, his hips and the lower part of his legs also slashed with knives, the crowd hurled expletives at him, swung the body so that it was dashed against the pole… The neck was not broken, as the body was drawn up without being given a fall, and death came by strangulation. For fully ten minutes after he was strung up the chest heaved occasionally, and there were convulsive movements of the limbs… The body fell in a ghastly heap, and the crowd laughed at the sound and crowded around the prostrate body, a few kicking the inanimate carcass.[xxii]

Though the White mob regarded their victim as an “inanimate carcass,” Wells’ description of Walker’s body forces her readers to acknowledged this man’s enfleshed humanity. To be Black in America is to, even now, experience what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the sheer terror of disembodiment.”[xxiii] It is “a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters the orbit of all our lives and, like terrorism, this distortion is intentional.”[xxiv] Wells recognized that the terrorism of lynching was not simply an existential threat to the country’s principles of individual liberty; it was a more basic threat to humanity so that, in the eyes of America, Black lives were valuable only for what could be taken from them. Or, as Coates writes, “The plunder of Black life was drilled into the this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom.”[xxv]

Any Christian approach to racial justice must take seriously Wells’ attention to bodies and Coates’ claim that to be an embodied Black woman or man in America has always meant being subject to plunder by the state and its White citizens. Does Kelly Brown Douglas’ disregard for the incarnation in favor of Christ’s life and actions adequately address the plundering of Black bodies?

Brian Bantum is sympathetic to Douglass’ critique of the doctrine of the incarnation. He writes, “We have reduced the question of Jesus’s life to a spiritual mind game of belief, as if the real question is how do we ‘know.’”[xxvi] Like Douglas, Bantum observes how White Christianity has focused on right belief about the specifics of the incarnation to the exclusion of discipleship. Theologian Willie Jennings also understands the move away from the early creeds which said little about the “emancipating” life of Jesus: “And there is much to be celebrated in this current state of affairs, not the least of which is recognizing that Christian faith is life- affirming and liberating.”[xxvii] Yet despite their sympathies to critiques about the incarnation, both Bantum and Jennings think the way toward a theology of racial justice that esteems Black bodies is one which prioritizes Christ’s two natures in one person.

Bantum reads the history of modernity through the lens of European colonialism and finds that one result is the assertion of “European particularity above all other particularities.”[xxviii] Such a universalizing of cultures means that bodies are torn from their contexts and now “signify possibility or impossibility, blessing or curse.”[xxix] Jennings too sees the project of colonialism as having an unprecedented affect on bodies, both on European and on those of their subjects and slaves. In the “new worlds,” under the gaze of the European colonizers, “the earth itself was barred from being a constant signifier of identity. Europeans defined Africans and all others apart from the earth even as they separated them from their lands.”[xxx] This separation of bodies from creation laid the groundwork for a theological form that “reduced theological anthropology to commodified bodies.”[xxxi] Race, as Bantum and Jennings show, was first a theological articulation before it became the social construct we know it as today.

While Bantum and Jennings share Douglas’ criticism of racialized theology, they make the important distinction of focusing on colonialism rather than the early ecumenical councils as the source of Black oppression and captivity. So while Douglas is inclined to set aside the Caledonian Definition, Bantum and Jennings want to return to these very early theological explanations of the nature of Christ and his body as a way toward racial justice. Drawing from Irenaeus, Jennings states plainly that “there is no emancipation without incarnation.”[xxxii] And Bantum, in acknowledging how colonized theology has made our bodies “to be problems,” states that we necessarily cannot also be the solution: “We must look to another.”[xxxiii]

In the hands of these two theologians, the incarnation is not simply a doctrine that requires belief, but a rearticulation of our embodied humanity. Following Athanasius, Jennings rejects the idea that Jesus is only “the marker of the places of needed emancipation,” an idea which makes salvation only a possibility and one that relies entirely on our own “praxis of obedience.”[xxxiv] If the the human effort to free ourselves cannot be trusted, as both Bantum and Jennings believe, than we are dependent on the one whose flesh “binds all humanity together with the one creation.”[xxxv] From this vantage point, holding a belief in the incarnation does not allow a disengagement from the work of racial justice. Rather, the fully human and fully divine natures of Jesus subverts the colonial project of detaching individuals and cultures from the creation while affirming the cosmic work of Christ in uniting humanity.

Douglas is right to show how the incarnation has often blinded White Christians to the pursuit of racial justice. Her solution to this is to highlight the life and actions of Jesus which privilege the oppressed and marginalized. While it is true that the Gospels emphasize an ethic of freedom for the oppressed, the incarnation too should be seen as a rationale for justice. In the incarnation, “Jesus takes on the condition of marginalization.”[xxxvi] Not only does the incarnation demonstrate God’s identification with those on the margins, we who confess Christ as savior are “incorporated into a new people”[xxxvii] and can thus no longer tolerate the disembodiment suffered upon Black and Brown bodies.

For Bantum and Jennings, the incarnation, rightly understood and appropriated, subverts racist theology, affirms the particularities of one’s humanity – especially those who have been erased by a White supremacist society, and binds us to others “who bear the name of Christ, people who often fail to live up to that name.”[xxxviii] Racial justice, these theologians believe, must be rooted in the incarnation. As Bantum writes, “This is the substance of the gospel: the one who was far has come near.”[xxxix]

Ida B. Wells is an indispensable example for contemporary American Christians about the nature of racial justice. Despite her systematically marginalized status as a Black woman, Wells wrote with piercing insight, seeing the particular bodies that others missed and exposing the heretical silence of White Christians who saw no reason to speak or act against rampant lynching. By setting aside the incarnation, Kelly Brown Douglas helps us toward Wells’ example in at least two important ways. First, she exposes the captivity of White Christianity to the oppressive assumptions and blindness of the old Slaveholding Christianity. Though its tactics have evolved, it must be admitted that the fruit of much White Christianity remains bitter indeed, especially for those who suffer under its disembodying theology. Second, by placing the incarnation in the background, Douglas allows the spotlight to shine brightly on how Jesus lived and on what he did. The tendency to marvel at the incarnation before skipping to the crucifixion is subverted and we are forced to reckon with the implications on racial justice from the Black Christ’s life and actions. In the work of racial justice both of these are important theological insights which can serve to redirect our attention from a compromised White Christianity to the Black Christ.

Yet despite the potential benefits of downplaying the incarnation, to the question of whether belief in the incarnation make it more or less likely for a Christian to pursue racial justice with the courage and conviction exhibited by Ida B. Wells, the answer has to be that the incarnation greatly aids the work of racial justice. As Jennings and Bantum show, the incarnation has the possibility to heal the colonialist wound of a racialized worldview. Enfleshed in human and cultural particularity, the God-Human Jesus incorporates our bodies into his. Though we cannot free ourselves, our identification with the Black Christ allows us to pursue the particular, embodied work of racial justice that we find exemplified in the life and vocation of Ida B. Wells.

 

Works Cited

Bantum, Brian. “New Birth and the Realities of Race.” Covenant Companion (September, 2012): 10-15.

Bantum, Brian. Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010.

Coakley, Sarah. God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity.’ New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015.

Douglas, Kelly Brown. The Black Christ. New York: Orbis Books, 1994.

Giddings, Paula J. Ida: A Sword Among Lions. New York: HapperCollins, 2008.

González, Justo L. and Pérez, Zaida Maldonado. An Introduction to Christian Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

Jennings, Willie James. “‘He Became Truly Human’: Incarnation Emancipation, and Authentic Humanity.” Modern Theology 122 (1996): 239-255.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, ed. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997.

Schechter, Patricia A. “Biography of Ida B. Wells.” Illinois During the Gilded Age. Accessed May 8, 2016, http://gildedage.lib.niu.edu/wellsbio.

 

Endnotes

[i] Giddings, Paula J. Ida: A Sword Among Lions (New York: Amistad, 2008), 182.

[ii] Ibid., 183.

[iii] Ibid., 189.

[iv] Roster, Jacqueline Jones, ed. Southern Horrors and Other Writings (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 52.

[v] Schechter, Patricia A. “Biography of Ida B. Wells.” Illinois During the Gilded Age. Accessed May 8, 2016, http://gildedage.lib.niu.edu/wellsbio.

[vi] Coakley, Sara. God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 21.

[vii] Ibid., 348.

[viii] González, Justo L. and Pérez, Zaida Maldonado. An Introduction to Christian Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 80.

[ix] Ibid., 81-82.

[x] Roster, 51.

[xi] Ibid., 112.

[xii] Ibid., 140.

[xiii] Douglas, Kelly Brown. The Black Christ (New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 10.

[xiv] Ibid., 12.

[xv] Ibid., 13.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid., 21.

[xviii] Ibid., 111.

[xix] Ibid., 37.

[xx] Ibid., 38.

[xxi] Ibid., 41

[xxii] Roster, 114-115.

[xxiii] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (New York: Random House, 2015), 12.

[xxiv] Ibid., 114.

[xxv] Ibid., 111.

[xxvi] Bantum, Brian. “New Birth and the Realties of Race.” Covenant Companion (September 2012), 15.

[xxvii] Jennings, Willie James. “‘He Became Truly Human’: Incarnation, Emancipation, and Authentic Humanity.” Modern Theology 122 (1996), 244.

[xxviii] Bantum, Brian. Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010) 15.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 43.

[xxxi] Ibid., 58.

[xxxii] Jennings, Willie James. “‘He Became Truly Human’: Incarnation, Emancipation, and Authentic Humanity.” 246.

[xxxiii] Bantum, Brian. Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity. 8.

[xxxiv] Jennings, 249.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Bantum, Brian. “New Birth and the Realties of Race.” 14.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Jennings, 249.

[xxxix] Bantum, Brian. “New Birth and the Realties of Race.” 15.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

4 thoughts on “Plundered Bodies”

  1. David, this paper is fire! Grateful for the historical dimension in Ida B Wells; unfortunately many women figures in the fight for black humanity are often overshadowed by a sole on historical male figures. I love the dimension that takes serious the body in your theological analysis, with incarnation as embodiment and identification with suffering in the margins. How colonialism, not just the creeds, can be a starting point for redeeming our humanity in theological analysis and activism. I’m also super grateful for the juxtapositions with Bantum and Jennings, especially the part about racism originating rom theological imagination, before it became codified as a social construct. Loved that. Thanks for this! It was visceral (in a good way), scholarly and can stimulate so much conversation in the church (and beyond).

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