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.
This week for those follow the sports world there has been much ado about the video that has recently surfaced about Ray Rice concerning his assault cause on his then fiancé ( current spouse) Janay Palmer. While the details of the video are indeed graphic one does not need to see it to imagine what happened to Janay Palmer in the video. However, judging from its constant replay from various media outlets it would seem that the video completely changed the situation. Whether it is players who have now openly condemned Ray Rice and his actions or NFL who has suspended Ray Rice indefinitely for his actions it would appear that video evidence has changed everything. Examining the way video evidence has effect public perception of both Ray Rice and his actions reminds me of the Jean-Francois Lyotard’s writing on figurative discourse.
Lytorad in his early writing states “What is important in a text is not what it means but what it does and incites to do.” (Lyotard 1984b: pp. 9-10). For Lytorard what a text does is to transmit a message that has a certain effect on the recipients. Furthermore, a text incites transforms energy into other texts such as paintings, photographs, film sequences, political action, decisions, erotic inspiration, and even acts of insubordination. In this way text can broadly be conceived as particular story that is being told through a narrative in discourse. Thus according to Lyotard the video evidence of Ray Rice’s assault also serves as a form of text. When examining this text though we can see what it has done and what it has incited us to do. For starters this text has portrayed a different picture about domestic violence. As many people from various media outlets have already noted domestic violence is not pretty, it presents the very worst in humanity. Video imagery of this has caused many people to no longer leave the portrait of domestic violence to the imagination. This in turn has evoked a very visceral reaction from many people. Previously, those who were calling for Roger Goodell to lose his job over his handling of this incident were minimal at best. Currently, these voices have grown so loud that Goodell has hired and independent firm to investigate the way the NFL has handled this issue. Furthermore, Goodell in recent weeks has openly admitted his egregious mistake with his original two game suspension of Rice and has also adapted new policies and procedures to address domestic violence in the NFL. Not only has the video incited the NFL and the Ravens into action it has also affected other teams as well. Where previously the Carolina Panthers had not given a second thought to playing Pro Bowl linebacker Greg Hardy (convicted of beating and threatening to kill his girlfriend), deactivated him for their week two matchup. I think Lyotard has rightly stated the important of the form of a text within a given context. This evident through looking at narrative stories through the various forms of texts and the reactions that they have elicited.
He elaborates on his notion of text in his work Discours, figure. Lyotard in this work notes that the nature of discourse has primarily been shaped by written text and the language used within a given text. However, he believes that there is another layer to every given form of text. There is a constitutive difference which is not to be read but to be seen (Lyotard 1971; p.9). It is this aspect of discourse that has continually been forgotten. In other words, for any form of discourse Lyotard wonders why it is only the language and the written of a text that perceived by most people. This brings us back to the Ray Rice domestic violence case. Prior to the release of the video written testimony of incident had already been revealed. We had heard from Ray Rice and various other outlets what had happened. However, despite this there was seemingly no consensus on how to view the situation. More importantly those who possessed the power to rectify the situation such as the Baltimore Ravens organization and Roger Goodell did not believe they had enough evidence to enforce a harsher punishment. They privileged the written discourse over the other figures and forms that tell this specific narrative of domestic violence. One could convincingly argue that the first video released along with Rice’s original apology (which did not include his wife) are sufficient forms of text to necessitate a harsher punishment of Rice’s actions than the two game suspension he received in July. The privileging of the discourse as written text is precisely what Lyotard argues against in his discussion of binary opposition in his work Discours, figure. Binary oppositions are the conflicts between figure and discourse.
In this sense discourse is used to describe written text and language while figure implies the various other forms that a text can have. All too often saying is privileged over seeing, reading over perceiving and universality over singularity. He stresses figure, form, and image in semiotic theories over language. It leaves one to question why there is such an emphasis on the written/ linguistic nature of discourse instead of the various forms that discourse can occur in. For the Ray Rice case it begs the question why must video evidence be necessary to truly begin to address the issue of domestic violence in the National Football League. Should not the other forms texts that tell this story also have substantial weight? In any case reflecting on the writing of Jean Francois Lyotard can provide a way to reflect on a myriad of socio-political issues including domestic violence and how we often fall into the trap of binary oppositions. Perhaps the texts we should start with is the stories of survivors and victims of domestic violence themselves, and allow their stories to transform our views and practices.
This week, a group of my friends including Suzannah Paul and Austin Brown have launched a writing project on feminism and faith. This will include a synchroblog and 30 second podcasts. As a U.S. Black CisHet male theologian in dialogue with womanist and feminist theologies, the diverse setting and promising goals of the project are exciting. Some of the questions the #faithfeminisms project will be asking:
“How does feminist thought or theory shape your faith expression? How has your theology stirred you to work for liberation? What tensions do you experience, and how do you navigate them? How are you complicit in oppression within and outside the church? How have you failed as a feminist, and what are you learning? What challenges does the future hold for our daughters and sons who will carry on this work? Does fighting for justice make way for peace? What does healthy conflict entail? How are privilege and power wielded for good and ill? How can we honor a multiplicity of voices without perpetuating further marginalization? How can ministries seek liberation and shalom? What does a robust, intersectional, liberative feminist theology look like in practice? What is the relationship of contemplation to activism? Who teaches and inspires you? What brings you hope? How do we grow as a movement for justice and as communities and people of faith?”
I plan on working on at least 2 posts focusing on a few questions: “What does a robust, intersectional liberative feminist theology look like?” And, “What does healthy conflict entail?” And “How am I complicit in oppression inside and outside the church?” If you’re interested in doing a guest post for this synchroblog, comment below.
The synchroblog ends Friday, July 25th, here is a link to the #faithfeminisms website for more details about the synchroblog.