Liberation Theology as understood by the experience of African and African-American women.
Womanist Theologies of Liberation: An Introduction
By Jessica Glaser
One of the hardest things about trying to create the philosophy, ethic, and strategy for liberation is having to make the case to people who are supposed to be your allies. Our lives are defined not only by gender but by race, class, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, age, and other factors.
Womanist theology grew as a movement in the mid-1980s out of the need for African-American women to express their solidarity with feminist goals while also emphasizing the different and acute ways in which they experience oppression. Feminism has gone through waves of struggle to recognize the intersectionality of gender, race, and class differences among women, and in many cases white feminists have dismissed the concerns of women of color and/or refused to discuss the ways in which white women have benefited (and continue to benefit) from the oppression of women of color.
However, to only look at womanist theology as a kind of reaction to feminist racism would be a huge mistake. Womanist theologians draw on the rich and varied experiences of African-American and African diaspora interactions, theologies, and experiences with Christianity across nearly two thousand years. Their theologies have a way of laying bare not just the blind spots of white Christian feminist theology, but also black liberation theology that does not take gender into account.
- There are incredible interpretations of biblical stories that emerge from the experiences of black women during slavery and Jim Crow, interpretations that lay bare the methods those women had to resort to to stay alive and protect their families. Out of these stories comes a sense of both pride in self-reliance and the absolute need for community.
- Particular attentions are paid to characters on the fringes of biblical imagination, such as Hagar, Orpah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, helping us to see the perspectives of characters white theologians normally skim over and confront the ways in which they have been marginalized in the scripture itself and in mainstream white theology.
- Renita Weems’ Battered Love is a seminal biblical studies work that examines the rhetorical devices that are used by Old Testament prophets to shock audiences into behaving themselves, and the devices themselves are created using the most negative images of women imaginable. In this way, she exposes the violent rhetorical means by which gender and racial oppression is often enacted in Christian religion and society at large, using shame and fear to silence those who might challenge such oppression.
As such, womanist theology confronts injustice in our society in the here and now in the grand tradition of African-American theology. It refuses to settle for less than justice because injustice is not an abstract concept for them; it is their children’s lives that are in danger from police brutality, gang violence, and health care disparities. It is their own and their families’ livelihoods that are threatened by discriminatory and predatory housing, financial, educational, and hiring practices. It is the minds, spirits, and bodies of themselves and their communities that have borne hundreds of years of fear, violence, colonization, slavery, and brutality, leading to lasting individual and community trauma that diminishes quality of life.
Yet womanist theology is often full of joy and hope even as it is confronting injustice. Their confidence is in Jesus Christ and the ultimate justice and love for which He stands. To see a speech by Dr. Emilie Townes or to hear a sermon by Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas is to understand that womanist theology is realistic but also hopeful, trusting in the power of God to change hearts and minds and enable them in their work. It holds society and the church accountable, but offers the perspective that grace is available if people can change. However, womanist theologians will not do your work for you; you must do it yourself. And they believe that you are capable.
The above introduction written by: Jessica Glaser is a United Methodist deacon candidate and recent MDiv graduate of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. She lives north of Buffalo, NY with her husband, cat, and numerous fowl.
Each week we feature a free online resource to read. Some will be blog posts, some short articles, and some more academic papers. We will try to offer more than one when available, but know the best expressions of these theologies are often behind paywalls or in books alone.
Today’s reading is a summary document as well as an extensive bibliography to start or supplement your studies:
Questions to consider
- Why would an African-American woman and a white woman have different images of God?
- If a white woman has social burden in one area (women), does it allow her to connect to folks with more social burdens around race and class than white men can?
- What is a recent revelation to you about African-American women’s experience that you hadn’t been able to articulate before?
Sound off on those in the comments. Try to include the number so we know which you are responding to!
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