Theological Principles – incarnation, emmanuel, ecclesia – to guide the journey into re-imagining God
The following article was originally published in the May/June 1994 edition of Church & Society. Download a PDF of the original here.
Barbara de’Souza worked for almost eight years among poor communities in Säo Paolo, Brazil, and developed a two-year course in health education for women. The area she served had only one public health clinic for more than 80,000 people. Barbara provided basic health care information and instructions for doing community health work. Women gathered each week to learn anatomy from the head down, learning about the illnesses of various systems and their causes and about the politics of health care in Brazil.
To help them learn, she had her classes create a life-sized doll and put the correct anatomical features on her, and she had them draw posters to illustrate biological processes. A peak moment during the course was reached after about a year of instruction when they studied the reproductive system. The women lost their inhibitions with each other and developed a group spirit.
In the act of learning how their bodies worked, the women came to what Barbara describes as a spiritual awakening. Barbara says,
It is at this [mid]point that they can feel the power and beauty of their [reproductive] system as women…Then the image of God includes their image, that of creation, creating a new being, and God is also feminine!
Now remember, this is not a theology course but a health course! Yet it became obvious to me, after years of experience, that women cannot discuss their bodies, learn the beauty of them, without theology entering, without a questioning of the patriarchal system—not only of the church, but of all society! And with this comes the questioning of the lack of control they have, in this system, over their own bodies; the questioning of who is responsible for their feelings of guilt and shame when it comes to knowing and enjoying these bodies. 
One woman’s story stands out from the others, and I tell it with Barbara’s permission. Doña Julietta was from an abusive marriage, could not handle money, was unable to do anything outside of her home without her husband’s permission, and believed she was stupid, slow, and unable to learn. In order to come to the meetings, she told her husband she was attending a prayer meeting at church. And she had to bring her seven-year- old daughter along. As the weeks proceeded, it became evident that she was slowly able to learn. Although she could barely read, she was good at spatial relationships and made well-organized posters. She was also a lively member of the group, supporting and cheering others on as they struggled to learn new material.
At the time the peak of the course arrived, Julietta’s husband said to her that he was tired of her going to prayer meeting every Wednesday. He beat her and forbade her to go by locking her in the bedroom. When she did not come and there was no word, the group discussed what to do. Because her husband was rude and abusive, they decided not to go to her house. The next Wednesday when Julietta’s husband saw her whispering to her daughter, he suspected something, so he repeated that she could not go. Her daughter, to be helpful, said, “But Papa, they don’t really pray at the meeting; they look at a big naked doll and talk about it.” Furious, he beat Julietta and locked her in her room again.
What re-imagining of God would allow us to look in a mirror and say that we see, in our embodied, whole selves, someone we love?
But Julietta had had a taste of feeling loved and important, so she climbed out through the window and arrived in her beaten state. She told the group that as a child she had been passed from one member of her family to another, because her mother had died in childbirth. No one cared for her because she was plump and shy. She felt ugly and useless. She hated mirrors all her life because she looked ugly and stupid to herself. But she told the group, “Now when I look in a mirror, I see someone I love!”
The whole group cried and began to tell stories of their own years of oppression. They ended that meeting by praying together for strength to continue toward the time when they could love themselves as made in God’s image, the image in the mirror.
What re-imagining of God would allow us to look in a mirror and say that we see, in our embodied, whole selves, someone we love? How can divine images affirm the complex, ambiguous, often difficult lives of women all over the world who swim in the riptides of oppressive, exploitative systems?
How can we come to understand our daily, earthbound, ordinary acts of care; our emotionally charged, demanding relationships; our solitary, reflective moments; our work for our societies, for our churches, for each other, and for our life on the earth; and our very physical selves as images of sacred power, of God with us and in us in our very flesh?
Nancy Mairs, an American Catholic feminist who struggles to live with multiple sclerosis, opens her spiritual autobiography Ordinary Time by declaring that
God is here. And here, and here, and here. Not an immutable entity detached from time, but a continual calling and coming into being. Not transcendence, that orgy of self-alienation beloved of the fathers, but immanence: God working out Godself in everything… the holy as verb. 
Mairs invites us to plunge ever deeper into our very flesh, our existence as matter—the same root word as mother, mater, the growing trunk of a tree. To explore our earthbound lives, we must look, as Mairs says, “where we are needed.” The life-giving power of women is this seeing of sacred power in ordinary needful acts, in daily care, persistent presence, and embodied living.
Marilou Awiakta’s poem “Motherroot” describes this sacred power:
needs two hearts
one to root
and one to flower
One to sustain
in time of drouth
and hold fast
against winds of pain
the fragile bloom
that in the glory
of its hour
affirms a heart
unsung, unseen? 
And what images will open our own eyes, so long clouded by patriarchal ideas and images? What enables us to touch, to smell, and to see here the presence of God, the motheroot? What will help us to see in the mirror an image of God, an image to love?
Three theological principles guide the journey into re-imagining God that follows.
First, incarnation compels us to look within ordinary, earthbound existence for clues to divine presence, within the humble lives of those, in Adrienne Rich’s words, “who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”  Looking for incarnation as verb is to look for the activity, not the individual, in which love is manifest. For the Spirit of God in our midst moves fluidly, finding homes for her presence as hearts open, looking elsewhere when hearts close. The revelation of incarnate spirit comes from the margins of life, from the heart of life-giving power, from motheroot.
Values such as loving care and interdependence in industrial and post-industrial societies are in grave danger as multinational capitalism continues to spread like an epidemic.
The second principle is emmanuel, images of God who is with us in the ambiguous realities of our lives—not in the idealized realm of one-dimensional heroes or sanitized saviors, but in the messy middle of life as lived each day. We need images of lives that touch deeply into our own pain and struggle, a touching which, at its most powerful, points to God with us, Emmanuel.
The third principle is ecclesia, from ek, out, and kalein, to call. Ecclesia means to call out, to summon together into an assembly. It is grounded in the Christian confession that God is love and we are to love one another. We must look for images that bind us to each other more strongly in communities—ecclesia—struggling for justice, for wholeness within ourselves, with each other, and with the earth, for passionate, committed living. We must look to images that help us resist disconnection, alienation, denial, and apathy. For we need each other beyond all speaking and more deeply than we know, at the core of our deepest motheroot, in our very body-selves, as ecclesia.
And so I offer images for these three principles, incarnation, emmanuel, and ecclesia.
For incarnation I begin with an old story.
Jesus…went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matt. 15:21-28)
This is the story of a woman with no extraordinary power. The disciples find her persistence obnoxious. And even Jesus is rude to her. She, however, will not be deterred. She has courage and audacity in the face of their rejection—what my friend Rebecca Parker calls mother-bear energy, fiercely protecting her child. She gives Jesus a smart retort, and wins the argument.
She gets Jesus to concede because she shifts the focus of the debate away from her own status as outsider and toward Jesus’ responsibility for his power. Jesus refuses her because she is outside his people, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She replies, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “Although I am a Gentile, true justice will nourish me as well as it nourishes any Jew, because it is time.” She turns the tables on Jesus.
The transformative power of love comes from the marginal and from those abused by the powers of domination and injustice who demand responsibility from the powerful. When Jesus is oppressed by the principalities and powers of the world, he reveals the incarnate power of God, as he does through much of his life and at his death. But when Jesus has structural power over another—marginalizes her—divine power confronts Jesus from those margins. In other words, she is the incarnation of God to Jesus. Jesus acknowledges this revelation when it happens with the words, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And this is how the transformative power of God is revealed, the power of motheroot.
In being concerned with the status of victims, we are prevented from facing squarely the misuse of power, which is always wrong, regardless of the status of the victim. Churches that would be in solidarity with women must learn this lesson. Women must be included equally in all decision-making capacities and leadership roles of the church, not because women can do things like men or better than men, but because the marginalization and disenfranchisement of any group by another within the church is a corrupt abuse of power. True justice is not partial. It excludes no one.
To take responsibility for power and to find incarnation, we must understand the ambiguous realities of human existence. To exist at all is to have some power to hurt others. Even a fetus has power to affect the life of its mother. Infant children do things that drive parents to distraction. No living thing is totally without power. We must not be confused, living in the messy middle of things. Those who have power must understand their power and take responsibility where they can for preventing harm to others.
Divine power confronts Jesus from those margins. In other words, she is the incarnation of God to Jesus.
In the web of complex relationships in which we live, each of us finds ourselves in both positions. Sometimes we hurt; sometimes we cause hurt. It is up to us to be alert to our own uses of power so that we are able to resist abuse and to resist abusing, to resist oppression and to resist oppressing others. Remember, incarnation is an activity—God as verb—not a state of being. When we take responsibility, we can use our power to love, to nurture, to enable freedom and willfulness in others, thereby incarnating the love of God. In taking responsibility we can say that the incarnation of God is here, working where she is needed, where we are needed.
The activity of incarnation is loving, what Audre Lorde has called erotic power. The Canaanite woman loves her daughter against all odds. Hers is neither a sweet, sentimental love that is quiet and passive, nor an objective love that is selfless and detached, but a fierce love that stands against the powers that thwart her passion for healing and wholeness. This power of God reaches out from the margins as motheroot. She does not allow her need for approval or respectability to interfere with her need to keep her daughter alive.
The Canaanite woman’s daughter is possessed of a terrible demon. What does it mean to be possessed of a demon? It means we have lost ourselves. Our psyches have split themselves off from our flesh, from our bodily home, and they wander lonely and afraid. We no longer possess conscious control of our own behavior and have lost our capacity for incarnation. Our psyches have become subject to powers too painful to resist. In children, such demons are named emotional abuse, molestation, rape, and physical violence. Possession is the sign of soul murder happening in a child. The Canaanite woman is fighting for the soul of her daughter, for the return of her daughter’s incarnation to her. We are fighting for the soul of the church too long possessed by patriarchy.
Millions of the world’s women have lived out love’s fierce commitments at great risk to themselves, perversely persisting against all odds. Erotic power, God incarnate, enters into life through the work of ordinary women, through our struggles and vulnerabilities. That power is born in our passion for physical and spiritual healing and wholeness. It is found in our protective embracing of relationships against powers of control and violence and destruction. Our passions feed motheroot. Without it no society can survive.
The second image of God I propose, emmanuel, is contained in a story the ethicist Sarah Ruddick tells of a mother named Julie, whose first child was born colicky and difficult. For four months the baby slept no more than one hour at a time and for six more months slept only two hours. Like many mothers in male-dominated industrial societies, Julie spent hours alone with her baby. Her husband, a struggling student, was often away, studying and working. Day and night Julie helplessly paced the floor as her beloved baby gasped for air. Sleep deprivation drove her mad. One night alone, in her dreams, Julie heard the baby screaming, only to awaken to the reality of that awful sound. In her own words, Julie says,
I stumble toward your room and switch on the low lamp so the light will not startle you. You…wail and call. Trembling, I walk to your bed and check your diaper. I try to speak, to soothe, to give voice to my presence, but my throat constricts in silent screaming and I find I cannot touch your tangled blankets. I force myself to turn and walk away, leaning against the doorjamb. My knees buckle beneath me and I find myself huddled on the floor. “Please do not cry. Oh child I love, please do not cry. Tonight you can breathe, so let me breathe.”
And I realize my chest is locked and I am gasping for breath. I picture myself walking toward you, lifting your tininess in both my hands and flinging you at the window. Mixed with my choking I can almost hear the glass as it would smash and I see your body, your perfect body, swirl through the air and land three stories below on the pavement. 
Sick from her vision, Julie vomits, changes her baby’s diaper, and barricades the nursery door against herself. Later that night she wraps her daughter in blankets, carries her down the stairs, and rides the bus all night long thinking her child would be safe with her if they were not alone.
In a society that neither values nor supports her commitment to her child’s well-being, Julie struggles to keep her child alive. Despite having reached her own breaking point, she summons the energy to protect her child’s life and preserve their bond, even when the enemy is her own exhaustion. Her daughter grows into a fine young woman.
Julie did all she could to keep her child alive and safe; what she did was enough. In the midst of despair closing in on her, her love for her baby was shield enough. The blankets and her arms are a mother’s compassionate embrace, the embrace of God with us, emmanuel. And she is one of millions of mothers in places like Mogadishu, Managua, Manila, Moscow, and Minneapolis who struggle against hunger and malnutrition, AIDS, abandonment, domestic violence, political repression, racism, and war. These mothers struggle body and soul to protect and nurture life. Sometimes they sell their very own flesh to keep themselves and their children alive. Sometimes they fail and grieve the losses. Nonetheless, millions of women perversely persist against a myriad of destructive principalities and powers. This God emmanuel rides the bus with us all night long and is with us in our suffering and struggle in the messy middle of our lives.
This God emmanuel rides the bus with us all night long and is with us in our suffering and struggle in the messy middle of our lives.
Such acts of loving care are lived out also by those who are not biological mothers. I am not a biological mother, but I care about the fate of our world and its people, especially its children. Anyone who has struggled to reduce suffering in our world has probably at some point felt that raw edge of exhaustion and hopelessness. Our experiences of tragedy and evil may drive us to the brink of despair. If we care at all, we will feel pain, over and over. Hostility to children and to women in the world is rising, as is evident in the escalation of child prostitution and the growing sex industries around the world. Values such as loving care and interdependence in industrial and post-industrial societies are in grave danger as multinational capitalism continues to spread like an epidemic. And an increasing number of women struggle in the Two-Thirds World under a myriad of dire circumstances.
It is miraculous that so many of us still make commitments to care for each other and our children—and honor them. And such commitments must be made by everyone, including men. Saving our difficult world from its own destruction requires our fiercest, most committed loving from women and men.
The passion of such love is governed by a commitment that perseveres persistently through every feeling we experience. This commitment is emmanuel indeed, the pain and joy of motheroot.
I suggest one more image of God, drawn from the story of my own life. Almost exactly a decade ago, I learned that I had a Puerto Rican birth father. I had grown up believing my stepfather, who brought my mother and me from Japan when I was six, was my birth father, my only father who had died in 1976. When my Japanese mother passed away ten years ago, she left behind my adoption papers. They contained no information about my lost father. Through a series of coincidences, accidents, and searching, I discovered his name and an old address in Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico. I went there to find what I could, not knowing if he knew anything about me or why such a secret had been kept from me for so long.
I found ten aunts and uncles and many cousins who had hoped that I would be found someday. My father, who had left Korea when I was six months old, was living in New York. My mother had cut all contact with him, which is why I did not know of him. I met him later. In that visit to Puerto Rico, I found grandparents, including a grandfather who prayed every night before he slept that he would see his first grandchild before he died.
My grandmother did not pray; she was sure this child she loved only from a few faded baby pictures would someday be found. She was so sure I would come that she had pasted those pictures to her dresser mirror, where she peered expectantly at them for thirty-three years. And my Abuela Maria was right. I arrived unexpectedly one winter looking for a family I wasn’t sure existed. It never occurred to me they would be waiting for me with open arms. I was amazed to learn that a grandmother, whom I did not know and who knew me only from faded photographs, cared passionately that I would be well and that I would return. My grandmother’s commitment to loving me did not rest on my knowing her but on her memory of me. Abuela Maria loved me although she was unknown to me.
To be loved even when we do not know we are being loved is the power of ecclesia in our lives: to be called out by those who care. And this ecclesia of motheroot comes through flesh, through the legacy of bodies of our people who enfold us in a vast circle of kinship and care. Belonging to generations of a people creates a huge sea of memory that nurtures hope and love. This sea surrounds us with people who did not know us and whom we may never know. The imaginations and promises of generations of grandmothers and grandfathers have called us out and remain in the memory of our legacies. God here, and here, and here, ecclesia.
To be a citizen of the world without generations of memory to anchor us to herstory and to the earth is to float without patterns, without dreams, without meaning—without ecclesia. Without a people and their legacies, we live without those who made miracles and kept their promises, without those who held fast against the winds of pain. For each of us there have been thousands of people, over many centuries and across many miles, who have loved us without knowing us, hearts unsung, unseen. Their hopes and dreams for the future, and their hard grittiness that clings to life against all odds, keep life going as they hold fast to the bonds of love and care. And through our hopes and dreams, through our holding to life against all odds, we too pass on this legacy of loving those who will never know us.
I arrived unexpectedly one winter looking for a family I wasn’t sure existed. It never occurred to me they would be waiting for me with open arms.
Because I was adopted by my stepfather, I have been given an additional legacy. It binds me to many other adoptees who struggle to understand the legacies, the ecclesia, brought to us by the suffering of our biological parents. Without people to belong to, whether through birth or adoption, without those people whose hopes are like faded photographs on a dresser mirror peered at expectantly, the world is a cold, lonely, and hopeless place.
But ecclesia is not easy. While the world without ecclesia may be lonely, the legacy of our peoples includes the ghosts of those who murdered souls, the demons, as well as those who loved us, the angels. To have a people means to inherit an ambiguous historical legacy, an enfleshed reality passed body to body, incarnate spirit to incarnate spirit, heart to heart, truth and pain grounded in earthly life. For all its ambiguities and tragedies, this affirmation of ecclesia is why my life is tied to the church. Church that is defined in the broadest sense possible includes the wild women, the marginalized, and the heretics, as well as the patriarchs. In the church I have a legacy of the lives of ordinary women. To live with integrity within that highly ambiguous legacy, we must listen to the angels and the demons.
Without a people we have no healing presence in our lives, no incarnate spiritual legacy. We have no solidarity in our suffering, no emmanuel. And we have no context of meaning within which to shape a life, no ecclesia. As we struggle with incarnation, emmanuel, ecclesia, we must continue to peer into the mirror and say, “I see someone I love.”
In case you were wondering, Doña Julietta continued to attend the health course. She sometimes came late and teary-eyed, but she came. She also summoned the courage to give a Blood Pressure Awareness Day lecture in church, educating everyone about how to control high blood pressure, which affects about 50 percent of the Brazilian population. She took more than a hundred blood pressures. Someone in the congregation told her husband of her work in such glowing terms that he asked her to read his blood pressure, his mother’s, and two friends’. She finished the whole two-year course.
needs two hearts
one to root
and one to flower
One to sustain
in time of drouth
and hold fast
against winds of pain
the fragile bloom
that in the glory
of its hour
affirms a heart
Motheroot in the mirror, let us remember and celebrate her. Amen.
 Quoted from a private 1993 letter to the author. Used with permission.
 Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), pp. 11-13.
 Marilou Awiakta, “Motheroot,” in Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983), p. 230.
 Adrienne Rich, Natural Resources: The Dream of a Common Language (New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1978).
 Sarah Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), p. 67.
AUTHOR BIO: Rita Nakashitna Brock is Associate Professor of the Humanities at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. She is the author of Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroad, 1988) and of Guide to the Perplexing: A Survival Manual for Women in Religious Studies (edited with Judith Plaskow; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992). This is adapted from her address at the plenary on Re-imagining God at the Re- imagining Conference, November 5, 1993, in Minneapolis.
Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!