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The Liberating Wisdom of Black Women

Stories share wisdom. They have the power to make us laugh or cry. From the first line to the final page, they lead to new truths about the world, and by extension about us. They can speak of justice in a way that is uniquely provoking or discomforting. Think of the following first lines from well-known novels and the story that follows.

“You better not tell nobody but God.”

(The Color Purple, Alice Walker, 1982)

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.

(A River Runs Through It, Norman McClean, 1978)

The first sentence sets the stage for the rest of the story. We have a guide that directs to a starting point – whether the story’s path wanders by a trout stream in rural, early-20th-century Montana or a farm in the Jim Crow southern United States. Stories take the reader into lives and experiences far removed from their own, which means that they can provoke a range of responses. Stories can provide a universal reflection of what it means to be human.

But stories, even fiction, can be much more than entertainment. They share culture and indicate the passage of human existence. They can tell us where and when we are in the span of known history. They describe how we got here, which things we should and should not do, and they offer a glimpse of what comes next. Our stories connect to each other. And even when all other things have been taken from us, we retain our ability to tell stories and connect us back to those people and places that came before. Stories ultimately have the power to liberate us. [1]

In terms of how we construct our faith, stories open the door to new understanding. They invite us to be better people and to dig deeper into our faith. The opening description of The Message Bible says; “It is significant that God does not present us with salvation in the form of an abstract truth, or a precise definition or a catchy slogan, but as story…Story is an invitation to participate, first through our imagination and then, if we will, by faith, with our total lives in response to God.” [2]

Every civilization has told stories. Stories shape our future. They clarify our past. They frame our connection to the divine, to God. “Stories are largely what enable us to communicate values and virtues such as love, courage, peace, and audaciousness;” says Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway, a womanist theologian and editor of the 2014 book Living Water, Living Stories. “In the sharing of our stories, we come to grips with our realities and our choices … our defeats, defects, double mindedness, and our disillusionments. In the telling we find a sense of quiet grace and moral courage to do as our ancestors said, ‘Keep on, keeping on.” [3] Our stories reflect shared experiences and those shared experiences are the center of a faith that speaks to liberation as the lens through which we view our Christology.

Inside and outside of canonized Scripture, many of our Christian stories reflect a Eurocentric, patriarchal faith. Transitioning away from a colonizing faith rooted in modernity requires re-integrating the stories that were passed over and forgotten under the patriarchal praxis of the first two millennia of Christianity, especially those of indigenous and non-European women. We must incorporate new perspectives and give voice back to those who have been silenced by two thousand years of oppressive patriarchy and racism, specifically the long line of powerful mothers who compelled Jesus to speak for universal justice. Only in that reclamation, can we reconnect to a positive Christology.

Jacquelyn Grant notes that for many African American women, the only “consistent force which has enabled them not only to survive” pain in this world was the promise of eternity living with the peace of Jesus. [4] Black and Brown women have been denied the Christ that white women cling to, because this Christ has become imbued with whiteness. Jesus was a poor, Jewish, middle-eastern man, but a white Christ still looks down on African American woman from a spot of power in many protestant churches reminding her of a country trapped in whiteness and privilege. “In the white church tradition, Jesus Christ has functioned as a status quo figure. Because historically Christology was constructed in the context of White Supremacy ideology and domination,” Grant concludes. “Christ has functioned to legitimate these social and political realities. Essentially, Christ has been White.” [5] Without a new hermeneutical lens that is not centered in patriarchy and white privilege, we have no pathway to reclaiming the stories that most connect with the lives of many women, especially Black and Brown women.

This reliance and relationship with Jesus, not Christ is an essential tenet of womanist theology. Throughout his life, Jesus treated women as people fully able to take responsibility for their own sinfulness, but he also challenged societal standards of his time regarding gender roles. He does not speak to the women or about the women in a manner different than the way he speaks of or to men. “Jesus didn’t treat women any differently than men” says Sarah Bessey in her book Jesus Feminist. “We weren’t too precious for words, dainty like fine china. We received no free pass or delicate worries about our ability to understand or contribute or work. Women were not too sweet or weak for the conviction of the Holy Spirit, or too manipulative and prone to jealousy, insecurity, and deception to push back the kingdom of darkness.” [6]

Lilly Nortjé-Meyer notes that what people understand about what it means to be male or female is impacted by their “social and historical location.” [7] Throughout his ministry, Jesus steps out of his own location and speaks for a future when gender is just another construct that will fall away once we eliminate the distance between God and humanity (also known as sin). The Gospels are “infused with dualistic language and perspectives” regarding gender roles, but by looking at the way Jesus treated the women in his world, we gain greater clarity and understanding. [8] “Many of the seminal social issues of our time - poverty, lack of education, human trafficking, war and torture, domestic abuse - can track their way to our theology of, or beliefs about, women, which has its roots in what we believe about the nature, purposes, and character of God,” Bessey notes in her book. [9]

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder identifies four steps critical to a well-developed womanist faith praxis, based not on the peace given to humanity in Christ’s resurrection but on the radical role-model we see in Jesus:

1. The Bible must be viewed contextually not in a vacuum. It is “setting sensitive”.

2. It holds “gender dynamics, race matters, and class systems” up for re-evaluation.

3. It is confrontational. “It seeks to antagonize and agitate any unjust society and unethical activity. It even challenges the biblical text itself when the context does not speak covertly or subliminally to the reader in her current-day setting. This hermeneutical approach is a type of ideological sandpaper for a text that is millennia removed from its present-day readers.”

4. It is not monolithic. Bessey notes this need to be a faith with many captains guiding many ships, not a single pathway to encountering God. “As each African-American woman who chooses to read the Bible brings to the table a different set of experiences, ideas, agendas, and practices, the outcome of their engagement differs. Whereas race, gender, and class triangulate this methodology, the path that respective authors, readers, and interpreters use to draw this triangle is different and subjective. Womanist biblical interpretation is as organic as the people and time that produce it.”

The female lineage of Jesus also becomes a central tenet of our faith under a womanist praxis. While the scripture might name God as a Father, the life of his son Jesus points us back to a mothering God. Jesus knew what it meant to be oppressed. He was conceived with the stain of illegitimacy, even after Joseph agreed to marry his mother. Jesus was free of shame, and when Jesus speaks to our liberation, he is commanding us to set aside our own shame. Hearing that message in the stories Jesus tells in Scripture allowed black women to push back on the shame that whiteness and patriarchy had heaped on their shoulders. Once that was clear, they focused on lifting each other up, each generation of new women massaging the shoulders of the one that followed. A womanist tradition is one of surviving, no matter what.

Reclaiming our stories of liberation through Jesus (or Christ) means revisiting the way the narratives about Jesus have been handed down. Maps lead forward, but they also lead back. As we read them, we cannot just dismiss the names mentioned in them. If the Gospel leads to liberation, then the only way it can be read is through a womanist praxis. Our Christology does not have to become womanist. If Jesus came to liberate, our Christian theology has always been womanist. We just forgot to listen to some of the stories.

Womanist theology speak specifically to the African American experience, but other women are adapting to claim a similar hermeneutic. Ada María Isasi-Díaz is a Mujerista theologian. “I am an activist-theologian, and for me doing Mujerista Theology is one of the ways I participate in the struggle for the liberation of Latina women and our communities in the USA,” she notes in the introduction to her book on the subject. “The goals of mujerista theology have always been these: to provide a platform for the voices of Latina grassroots women; to develop a theological method that takes seriously the religious understandings and practices of Latinas as a source for theology; and, to challenge theological understandings, church teachings, and religious practices that oppress Latina women, that are not life-giving, and, therefore, cannot be theologically correct.” [10]

Womanists and other female liberation theologies all agree on one other point beyond their similar goals and construct. Each supports the work of the other groups, but none of them claim to speak for all human experiences. Karen Baker-Fletcher says that we lived in a faith tradition for two thousand years that always emphasized conformity. As part of our liberating womanist theology, we must instead strive to honor the uniqueness of each human experience. “The truth we Christians seek, beyond all our words and all of our labels, is found through unity in diversity. It is the common ground we all long for. No one theology alone is capable of revealing this common ground. We require a diversity taken together, each with its distinctive gifts," says Baker-Fletcher. [11] When we begin to greet people as the sum of their identities, we open our eyes to see and encounter God through them.

We each have a story.

They are not the same, but each one deserves to be honored.

That is a womanist hermeneutic.

That is liberation from the bonds of patriarchy and colonialism to reclaim the full diversity of Parent God’s creations.

Works Cited

Baker-Fletcher, Karen. Dancing With God: The Trinity From a Womanist Perspective. St Louis: Chalice Press, 1996.

Baldwin, Bebe L. Living Water, Living Stories: African-American Women and Their Biblical Sisters. Edited by Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway. Self Published, 2014.

Bessey, Sarah. Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible's View of Women. West Monroe, Louisianna: Howard Books, 2013.

Crowder, Stephanie Buckhanon. When Momma Speaks: The Bible and Motherhood From a Womanist Perspective. Louisisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler. But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1992.

Grant, Jacquelyn. ""Come to My Help Lord For I'm in Trouble": Womanist Jesus and the Mutual Struggle for Liberation." Jounral of Black Theology in South Africa 8:1 (May 1994): 21-34.

Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria. Mujerista Theology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996.

Lee, Deborah Jian. Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2015.

Niditch, Susan. "Genesis." In The Women's Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H Ringe, & Jacqueline E Lapsley, 27-45. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Nortjé-Meyer, Lilly. "The "Mother of Jesus" as analytical Category in John's Gospel." Neotestamentica (New Testament Society of Southern Africa) 43, no. 1 (2009): 123-144.

Roberts, Kyle. "Reading the Virgin Birth as Legend (or Creative Hagiography)." Patheos. December 15, 2017. (accessed March 2018).

[1] (Crowder 2016) [2] The Message Bible [3] (Baldwin 2014, iv) [4] (Grant 1994, 21) [5] Ibid 27. [6] (Bessey 2013) [7] (Nortjé-Meyer 2009) [8] Ibid 125 [9] (Bessey 2013) [10] (Isasi-Diaz 1996) [11] (Baker-Fletcher 1996)

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