Continuing from last week’s theme of examining the role of black women in the shaping of African American political theology I again explore further dimension create theology that moves beyond liberation. This week we move to the second half of Delores Williams work explicating a womanist view of Christian theology. One of her major points again is to pose a critique of traditional Black Liberation Theology: that is to say while the traditional male-centered discourse of Black Liberation Theology is centered on masculine understandings of liberation, womanist discourse is focused on survival. As folk wisdom in the black community states brothers “dream dreams” but “ the sisters have the vision.” This can be restated to say that often times male-centered black liberation theology has been concerned more with the ideal world, while women have been more concerned with practical world and how to survive in the here & now. This principle has been pivotal in the role that African American women have played in political theology. If Rosa Parks did not sit first, Martin Luther King Jr’s marching would not have been as effective. If Ida Wells Barnett did not count the black bodies that were lynched throughout the United States, there would not be such a comprehensive record of this. Moving beyond this schism that separates womanist from Black liberation theology are the religious claims that Williams pursue in the second part of Sisters in the Wilderness. The second half of her book expounds upon the notion of womanist God-talk. It follows up on some of the implication of the first half by bringing the concern of African American women into theological discourse and into Christological discourse.
For Williams, a re-conceptualizing the Christian narrative begins with changing the axiom of the traditionally male-centered story of salvation. In both Matthew and Luke the stories begin by proclaiming the patrilineal heritage of Jesus and thus showing the importance of the maleness of Jesus a Savior. However, Williams wants to begin this narrative from the perspective of Jesus’ mother, Mary. Thus Mary can become the starting point for the divine revelation of Jesus Christ. She points to the first chapter of Luke as the starting point of this narrative. In verse 35 the Holy Spirit comes upon her and she is overshadowed by God’s power. Mary is a poor pregnant teenager who suffers from a variety of vulnerabilities. Yet she has one thing going for her, that she is filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary in this context is a figure that marginalized women across the globe can identify with. By virtue of first associating Jesus with his mother first he also becomes more easily identifiable with marginalized groups. This interpretation of Mary is not a recent construction however.
The nineteenth-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth used this story to counter white male-centered narratives that sought to deny women their rights. The preacher claimed that women could not have rights because Jesus was not a woman. Truth famously claims “Where did your God come from. God and Woman, man had nothing to do with it.” This statement seems simple enough yet it has deep and ranging theological implications. It sheds light on the inseparability of the divinity of God and the divinity of womanhood in creating what we know as our savior. Also the notion of the virgin birth seems to suggest God’s ability to make a way out of no way. Imagine the uncertainty the Mary must have felt and her struggle just to survive. Not only does God make a way out of no way, God uses her most desperate situation to begin the salvific work for all of humanity. Williams re-conceptualization of the salvific narrative de-center the maleness of Christology and provides hope for the many women who cannot identify with traditional understandings of the salvific narrative.
Delores William’s Sister in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk is a thought provoking text that questions some of the dominant paradigms in both politics and theology. Her work transcends the fields of theology, ethics, politics, history, biblical studies and various other discourses. In particular she begins by questioning the maleness of African American political theology. Williams was a student of James Hal Cone while at Union Theological Seminary. Cone has gained great renowned for his articulation of the black experience in a variety of different fields including; theology, history, politics, ethics, and anthropology . Williams although interested in the black experience believes that not all black experiences are the same. Specifically she is interested in articulating the interest of the black women from a historical, theological, and political perspective. She traces the historical experiences of black women beyond traditional male patriarchal discourse (black and white) using the Hagar narrative in favor of the Exodus narrative. The Exodus story tells how God delivered the Jewish people from the hands of the pharaoh through his servant Moses. Thus the explicit context of this story shows how God used God’s male servant to deliver God’s people from more male oppressor. The Hebrew people are certainly identifiable as people of color, which brings this narrative into the context of liberation theology. Context places this narrative as the plight of the modern day African American. The implicit meaning is that is that this story actually describes the modern day African American.
The voice and therefore, the struggle of modern day African American women is left out of this conversation. Williams examines the plight of African American women in the modern world to the story of Hagar. Hagar by today’s standards is a second class citizen because she is the maidservant of Abraham. She has no control over her own life and even though God liberates Abraham from his oppressor and gives him promises of prosperity, Hagar has no such promise. Thus for Hagar in this story she is not concerned with liberation because that seems like a luxury for her. Hagar’s concern is mere survival. Abraham forces her to leave and face the world all on her own, which in her day was an extremely difficult task because of the vulnerability of women (especially Women of Color). Hagar has only God to depend on for survival and in one of the most emotional moments in the Hebrew Bible she experiences her own theophany. God appears before her in the midst of her vulnerability to ensure her of her survival. God hears the cries of Ishmael and tells Hagar God’s plan for her prosperity through her son. The immediate concern in this story is survival. For Hagar liberation is so far removed it was not even in the peripheral. T
This is pivotal to taking a look at the various African American experiences that goes beyond liberation. Specifically Williams work have great relevance to many black women/ women of color in both the US and the 2/3rds world today. Many of these women do not have any of the assurance that their male counterparts have and suffer from the same vulnerabilities that Hagar suffered from and thus traditional notions of liberation are not even applicable. Williams speaks to the political domination that women of color have felt historically. Her analysis is multidimensional including aspects of race, class, gender, and even sexuality. William’s use of the Hagar narratives expounds upon an issue that is critical to modern day biblical interpretation: that is necessary to continually develop relevant narratives that go beyond liberation to address the myriad of issues that we are faced with today.