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"Making a Way Out of No Way" - Why a Theology for Black Women Matters to You (and me)


Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology

-       Monica A. Coleman

The last of my black theology readings (for the present, at least… hard to keep my wheels turning effectively while trying to keep this baby asleep) is Monica Coleman’s Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology. 

Previous theologians I’ve covered here would be identified as Womanist theologians: both Keri Day and Monya Stubbs.  But Coleman’s book is really a primer on Womanist Theology, laying groundwork for the type of thought that emerges from a Womanist perspective.  Coleman’s introduction illustrates her previous work with domestic abuse victims, and highlights the story of a young mother who was beaten and had much of her hair torn out by her boyfriend.  That same night, Coleman and several volunteers helped braid this battered woman’s hair, knowing that she “would not feel strong enough or woman enough to go to work, confront her boyfriend, or be seen anywhere in public as long as her hair looked like this.” (2)  This is the contextualization critical to understanding Womanist theology, and as I reflect, all manifestations of liberation theology. 

I’m reminded of my high school youth “mission trip” to Skid Row, Los Angeles.  As the director of a local shelter walked our group of 20 white kids through the neighborhood, I distinctly remember an older black man sitting on the sidewalk, saying, “There’s trash walking our streets today.” 

While some of the kids felt offended, I simply felt ashamed, but didn't fully understand why.

Years later, in my early twenties, I volunteered to go to the Tenderloin district of San Francisco with another church youth group.  As we walked the streets in similar fashion, a young black man said, “You all can take your bibles and go home.  You ain’t making anyone’s life better.”

A theology of the oppressed must understand the world of the oppressed.  Too often, well-intentioned theologies steeped in Western privilege have done more harm than good by condescending to the location of the oppressed without comprehending that location.

According to Coleman, “Womanist theology is a response to sexism in black theology and racism in feminist theology.” (6)  This doesn’t define Womanist theology, but it establishes the matrix in which Womanist theology is relevant and necessary.  It calls out the myopic and often-selective ways theologies, movements and advocacies are formulated and executed.  “Making a way out of no way” is the mantra repeated throughout the book – the spiritual reality of marginalized black women, who have no social collateral, and little tangible to cling to but hope that God still has the power to make the impossible possible, and aid them in overcoming oppression.  In addition to typical language of freedom for the oppressed, Womanist Theology uniquely advocates for freedom for all “creatures” as well, and adds “survival, quality of life, and wholeness to black theology’s goals of liberation and justice.” (11)  It is truly an holistic theology, so while the theology of black women may not immediately sound like it pertains to you (or me), the opposite is true: this is a way of thinking much more intimately connected to all our lives than the esoteric theologies of supernatural salvation and the afterlife (although they have their place) or worse, those systems deliberately developed to perpetuate a Western, capitalist religious economy.  It is about survival, quality of life and wholeness, liberty and justice.  It answers more than where will you go when you die?  

Womanist theology is as big as all of creation... which is pretty cool.

More to come…

Unfinished Business and My White Guilt

I'm currently home on paternity leave, and today the doorbell rang around midday.  I almost didn't even get up.  The doorbell has been ringing incessantly with Amazon deliveries of crib sheets, diapers, bottles and how-to books (and all the other things we didn't have enough of on "d-day"), so I'm used to hearing a single ring and finding packages left on the porch.

Today I got up and peaked through the glass and saw someone standing outside.  I opened the door to a young African American man.  A few things struck me instantly.  First, after ringing the bell, he was standing back at least twelve feet from the door.  His hands immediately came up, open-palmed, and he said, "Don't worry dad, I'm one of the good ones."  Before I could process any meaning, he said, "I'm here to talk a little bit about a home cleaning product I've been introducing your neighbors to..."

Then he made a joking comment about needing to make enough money to pay for chicken, watermelon and Kool-Aid.

From there he spent a few minutes demonstrating a multi-surface cleaning product that cost $40 a bottle.  "If I can sell this soap, it'll keep guys like me from selling dope."  And to be honest, if I had the cash handy, I would have bought it.  But what stuck with me was the initial bombardment of racial "schtick" this young man employed, presumably to make white homeowners in this white neighborhood feel comfortable enough to open their front door.

There's a black man on our front porch... but at least he's standing a safe distance back...

Then the "watermelon" jokes: a wink and nod that he understands his social "place."

This stuff breaks my heart, and moreso because for how heavily the guilt of my own privilege weighs on me (to be honest, it's one of the defining features of my adult psyche), that guilt leads to relatively shallow action and change on my part.  I try to vote as an advocate, I try to speak as an advocate, I try to choose actions and behaviors that are sensitive and responsible to marginalized and discriminated-against people.  But when it comes down to it, my privilege and comfort are as intact as ever, and my neighborhood remains white and sterile...

So the brutal truth is, my white guilt actually just allows me to feel a little bit good about the fact that I feel bad.

And that doesn't do a damn thing.

Reading Keri Day's Unfinished Business has been timely, then, because it raises questions about what the role of the church is in creating liberating communities and economies for the poor and marginalized.  Unfortunately, while the black church in particular has been a crucial leading force in the  Civil Rights Movement, Day illustrates how it has become co-opted and complicit in propagating a prosperity gospel developed and promoted by privileged whites to undergird a capitalist society, not a Christian economic structure that favors the "least of these."  To this end, to reference Gustavo Gutierrez, the only "option for the poor" is to work harder, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and pursue the American Dream.

There are folks in my local church who marched in Selma, people who made actual sacrifices to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s.  But in my lifetime of churchgoing, those people have been the exception.  So the question Day's book leaves me with, as a privileged straight white male, is what responsibility all churches - not just black churches - have for supporting the struggle to thrive in America.

In the end, Day brings her argument around to focus on the core issue of poverty, which transcends race and identity, but in an age of increasing wealth disparity automatically conjures discussion of both.  Jesus of Nazareth wasn't ambiguous about his attitudes toward haves and have-nots, but the white American church in particular has allowed and even perpetuated a perverse gospel that has little if any resemblance to Jesus' New Testament teachings.

As inspired readers, we always inevitably ask, "So where do I start?"  It's clear to me that we can start by reconstructing the missional focus of our churches.  That means doing more than giving money and volunteer time to the "right" ministries.  It means first deconstructing the classism that has malignantly crept into our communities of faith, and building fellowship that transcends socio-economic, racial, gender and sexual differentiators.  When our community reflects the values it idealizes for society at large, then it can be prepared to speak prophetically to broader systemic injustices.










Unfinished Business (Post 3)

I have unfinished business... and our baby came!

Moses was born exactly two weeks ago, and everything they say about sleep is true.  Nada.

Meanwhile, I have a lot of good reading to do in between burps, poops, feedings, crying, a few minutes of sleep, diaper checks, and a beer here and there.  But it's good work.  Little Mo is amazing, and I am happy.

Meanwhile:

Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America
 - Keri Day

In Chapter 4, entitled "Guilty Until Proven Innocent," Day deconstructs the conservative Evangelical political endeavor to marry public charity to conservative social values based in personal responsibility reflecting middle class white privilege.
Under the guidance of the George W. Bush administration, charitable choice grew out of conservative Protestant values.  Faith-based initiatives reflect a religious tradition "that focuses on the individual and a nineteenth-century philanthropic tradition in which the wealthy not only distributed handouts, they also imposed demands and discipline on the poor. (71)
Day points out that popular religious advocates for this type of charity (e.g. Beliles and McDowell, America's Providential History) believe the fundamental responsibility of Christians is to increase society's wealth, and according to a Genesis 1 theology of dominion, the earth's abundance and resources are unlimited for those who have the work ethic and the faith to be blessed by God.

Day goes on to describe ways in which contemporary public welfare policy has become a new form of "Jane Crow," singling out and further marginalizing and limiting the lives and endeavors of black women.  This is done in three ways.  First, through the imprisonment of blacks.  While it's widely known that young black men are the most incarcerated group in America, "poor women of color are the fastest-growing group being disenfranchised by public policies that support this prison industrial complex.  While almost one million women are under the control of the criminal justice system, over half of the female prison population is black." (79)

Second, black women are limited and marginalized through their lack of participation in the labor force.  Because of the harshness of narcotics laws, female drug offenders can't secure employment, which perpetuates reliance on the welfare system, and increases the likelihood of entering an illegal or underground economy.  Further, welfare employment programs relegate recipients to the lowest paying jobs.

Finally, the reproductive rights of poor black women are controlled in a number of ways.  Public policy through welfare programs discourage  black women from having children.  It has incentivized the use of birth control by black women, and Day describes how Norplant, a synthetic hormone that suppresses ovulation, has been widely distributed in inner cities populated primarily by poor black women, all over the country.  Legislation has even been introduced in several states that would make the use of Norplant a requirement for welfare eligibility.

The following chapter, "The Unfinished Business of the Poor People's Campaign," explores the compounded misery of black women by their further marginalization and mistreatment within the church.  Despite monumental efforts toward civil rights, black women have remained outside the often-patriarchal leadership.  Day writes: "If the Black Church is to be a community of transcendence for poor black women, it must honestly address oppressive black masculinities and their implications for poor black women." (105)  Though imperfect, Day believes the black church is still the best hope for a prophetic voice for black women, and a vehicle to provide hope and leadership for the poor.

"Unfinished Business" - Post 2


In Chapter 1 of Unfinished Business, Day challenges the oversimplification of the “Black Church,” arguing that it is more than simply an institution of prophetic social witness.  Black churches are diverse, complex and sometimes ambiguous in their theological and sociological positions.  While churches in post-Emancipation black communities became hubs for education, empowerment and liberation, some questioned the liberative capacity of a religious institution conceived as a “slave religion.” Prominent black intellectuals of the Reconstruction period like W.E.B. Du Bois critiqued the “Negro church” as a “failed institution that had plunged into political irrelevancy…” (17-19)

Later and even more severe, into the twentieth century many black churches rejected strategies of the American Civil Rights movement.  For some, it was “unlawful methods and strategies,” but for others like the Church of God in Christ, political aims were unnecessary and eschatologically-irrelevant.  “In the 1960s COGIC interpreted justice issues as issues that would ultimately be resolved by God in the coming eschaton.  Because of these core theological convictions, it remained separate from civil rights demonstrations and protests.” (20)

Next, Day explores the prevalent concept of the Black Church as a “surrogate world,” a “world within a world” in which blacks can be safe and authentic in the midst of broader culture.  Here, there is economic, cultural, spiritual and political respite for a marginalized people.  However, Day articulates the critiques of womanist scholars (since this is a blog… “Womanism is a social theory deeply rooted in the racial and gender oppression of black women.” – Wikipedia) who reject the concept of surrogacy due to the dominant and historical marginalization and oppression perpetuated within black churches.  While some may find refuge, there are “many black persons today who live black communities, including previously incarcerated black men, poor black women, black homosexuals, and black lesbians, may not feel welcomed or understood within these ecclesial communities.” (24)

Day does an excellent job of illustrating the ways in which our oversimplification of the Black Church not only dishonors the complex work of generations of religious and cultural leaders, but also stifles the voices of the marginalized from within, to continue that complex work inside the church.

"Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America"


Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America
-       Keri Day

13 days and counting till this baby’s due date!

… So, all bets are off.  Could be any moment.  In the meantime, I have some more good reading.  Currently, I’ve been working on Keri Day’s Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America. 

The book takes a critical look at societal marginalization of black women, and explores how the black church may be either a helpful partner in their liberation, or complicit in their exploitation.

Day opens with an illustration that has stuck with me for days.  She describes an episode of 20/20 with Diane Sawyer, where the poverty of Appalachian Kentucky is explored in vivid detail.  Toothless children, drug abuse, short life spans, lack of education and even lack of basic infrastructure and services typify the area Sawyer calls the “forgotten and hidden America.”  Sawyer goes on to discuss the historical and cyclical problems that perpetuate this extreme and longstanding poverty. 

Sawyer used structural explanations of poverty when describing the rural, impoverished white people of Appalachia, and I immediately thought of the man insidious cultural representations of black poverty in America.  Sawyer’s portrayal was a stark contrast to the ways in which black poverty in America has tended to be associated with personal irresponsibility. (1)

From there, Day moves to discuss the all-to-familiar cultural portrayals of poor blacks in America, with men depicted as “thugs” and criminals, and women as “welfare queens.”  (2)  Unfinished Business delves particularly into the plight of women, and identifies ways in which the contemporary economic environment in America (which Day calls “Advanced Capitalism”) is particularly exploitive, commodifying human labor and even aspects of humanity itself.  The myth of the free market suggests that everyone has an equal opportunity through hard work.

America’s advanced capitalism is imbued with neo-liberal political meanings… that engender oppressive outcomes for poor persons within America, especially for black women, the focus on this book.  It is the selfish political interests of the wealthy that usually guide economic practices within the United States, and the rich get richer and the poor grow poorer.

Early on, Day begins to build a case for how the black church must critically address its strategies for helping the poor, and more aggressively and prophetically critique aspects of capitalism that creep into black life, and black religious life in particular.  The hyper-consumerist strategies within the ministries of Bishop T.D. Jakes are offered as an example of this subtle and “spiritually-consecrated” enterprise.  Instead, the church must engage in redemptive re-identification of what is “valuable” and precious, who deserves dignity, and how to help black women transcend the value-identifiers of capitalism.

More to come…

Stubbs - "Indebted Love" (Post 3)


As an exploration of Paul’s dealing with subjection in Romans, Indebted Love engages the wrestling between Jesus' divine, uncompromising idealism, and Paul's own religious tradition and pragmatism in helping a nascent church build a solid footing.  How does Christian transformation look in community?  How does it impact society? 

Just as Tubman reflected on her subjection and discerned that God called her to make the transformation a reality of heaven into ‘home’ by pursuing freedom for herself and others, Paul invites believers at Rome to live within the transformative realm of the divine and to pursue freedom… (79)

Stubbs equates this pursuit of freedom with the establishment of an environment of Christian ethics that echoes Jesus’ exhortation toward the Kingdom of God.  Christian transformation demands tangible outworking in the real world.  “Tubman’s transformation was twofold: God called her to freedom, and God called her to free others.” (79)

Stubbs explores Romans 5:12-21, wherein “Paul describes opposing spheres of existence,” contrasting the humanity of Adam with that of a new human order in Jesus Christ.

… To reign “in life” through Jesus Christ is to live a transformed life guided by the principles of grace and justice, rather than self-aggrandizing manifestations of death.  Partnering with Christ “in life” to produce environments that invite and sustain life is the work God demands from believers, and it is also the gift God grants, through Jesus Christ, to believers. (85)

As I read Stubbs’ exegesis, I’m reminded of Paul’s practical nature.  Where Jesus called people to take up crosses, to “come and die,” (as Bonhoeffer summarized) Paul tries to find balance between the liberation of Christ and a new kind of faith community as it exists in a broader culture.  There, Paul “becomes all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9) while still struggling to maintain an authentic, differentiated gospel message. In the household code of Colossians 3, Paul seems chiefly concerned with differentiating Christianity from other controversial and often subversive contemporary religions.  Andrew Lincoln writes in The New Interpreter’s Bible:

Any upsetting of the household’s traditional hierarchical order could be considered a potential threat to the order of society.  In Greco-Roman culture, wives, children, and slaves were expected to accept the religion of the paterfamilias, the male head of the household, and so religious groups that attracted women and slaves were particularly seen as likely to be subversive to societal stability. (653)

Jesus was quickly identified as a threat to Roman rule and Pharisaic authority.  Paul recognized the potential threat to the early churches, and wove a subversive ethic of love, interdependence and mutual submission into a community narrative that would not overtly challenge the empire.  In Chapter Five, Stubbs explores how submission to domination does not necessitate agreement or surrender.  She shares an illustration of a slave named “Joe” from Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman.  In it, Joe is a highly-prized and highly-paid-for slave, valued, loyal and affirmed, but still whipped by the slave master to reinforce the domination-subjection mindset. (98)  After submitting to the brutal whipping, Joe finally decided to escape.  Physical submission to the brutality did not change his mind about slavery.  Stubbs concludes that in Roman’s 13, “Paul’s supposed call for subjection by the believers in Rome to the governing authorities is part of his rhetorical strategy.” (99)  Stubbs imagines this as descriptive, not prescriptive text, and after verse 7, Paul moves into re-imagining a more “horizontal” way of being.

While I immediately thought Stubbs’ conclusions here may be helpful for reconciling certain dissonant aspects of Paul’s writings in a contemporary setting, I was initially not convinced that “descriptive” was the intended tone of Chapter 13. 

The end of Chapter 12 concludes:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (12:17-21)

The very next verse, 13:1, begins: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”  Suggesting an immediate switch from a higher calling of Kingdom-ethics, where enemies are treated as brothers and sisters, to a coded observation of unjust political reality, seemed far-fetched to me.  However, later Stubbs references T.L. Carter’s article, “The Irony of Romans,” which argues that Paul is using irony in his commendation of the state, as a rhetorical device to covertly subvert the authority of Rome.  Carter’s argument made me reconsider:

The original audience of the letter shared with Paul a common experience of oppression at the hands of the authorities and were aware of the abuses that took place in the opening years of Nero’s reign.  The consequent implausibility of Paul’s language would have alerted his readers to the presence of irony.
(Novum Testamentum XLVI, 3)

Stubbs book ends on a very contemporary note, examining current political debates about budgets, government fiscal policy, social services, and debt.  What kind of world do we want to live in?   How does Christ’s gospel, interpreted through Paul’s letter to Rome, help us frame current discussions, both religious and political? 

The notion of debt/indebtedness challenges each of us to pause and reflect on the mindset out of which we discern our beliefs and thoughts about human interdependence.  Essentially, debt… reflects the idea that people are obligated to give because they have received. (145)

Such an ethos extends into taxes, employment, education, ecology, infrastructure and investment, and every other aspect of our public lives.  “We give, because we receive.”  This is the message of the Gospel, it is the sensibility of Paul, and it is the liberated and liberating life of Harriet Tubman.

Monya A. Stubbs – "Indebted Love: Paul’s Subjection Language in Romans" (Post 2)


I’ve been out of writing commission for a little while now.  My only excuse is: this baby is coming, and life is upside down!

… That doesn’t change, does it?

Monya A. Stubbs
I can honestly say that my reading in black theology has deeply impacted me in my day-to-day thinking.  It’s not that I didn’t think about the issues of race, class, privilege and identity before.  These are things I’ve been wrestling with for the last decade.  But the clarity of moral purpose and vision in the work of these theologians convicts me all over again.  “How can we sit still?!” 

I’m also reminded, as I write and petition for the equality and affirmation of my LGBTQ sisters and brothers, that the continuing battle for civil rights cannot pick and choose whom to favor.  The progress for LGBTQ acceptance has come leaps and bounds, even in the last decade (and I'm living proof of that).  Simultaneously, the present-day U.S. political landscape seems to continually unwind much of the racial progress made in the Civil Rights Movement.  Contemporary Tea Party/Libertarian dogma deconstructs the responsibility of a government (“by the people, for the people…”) to defend certain basic rights, leaving it in the hands of a free and unfettered marketplace to somehow elevate human greed into a benevolent, equalizing force.

Similar arguments can be made about the stymied progress of the Feminist Movement.

I am convicted, spiritually and intellectually, that the Civil Rights Movement needs to be reignited, and broadened in its scope.  We cannot call for affirmation of our gay and lesbian neighbors if we are not demanding equality and liberation for our black and brown neighbors, as well as parity for women.  We too easily pick and choose where our focus goes (understandably, because time and resources are finite) rather than demanding all civil rights for all people, in simultaneity.  But energy builds on itself, and when enough of us begin to speak with one voice, the finitude of our efforts becomes unimportant because of the number of us standing up and saying: we demand human rights; we demand equality; we demand justice.

Stubbs writes:

When asked how she felt about the success she experienced in leading so many enslaved men, women, and children to the free North, Harriett Tubman is reported to have replied… “I freed a thousand slaves.  If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more.”  The greatest challenge Tubman encountered was not the dangers of escaping from the South to the North…  Rather, according to Tubman’s statement(s), the greatest challenge she faced was one of ideology.  The enslaved men and women whom she could not convince understood the institution of chattel slavery as natural and absolute. (29)

What injustices and oppressions have we accepted as natural and absolute?  What horrors have we numbed ourselves to, rather than facing head-on?  How do we change the tide, starting today?

Indebted Love: Paul’s Subjection Language in Romans - Monya Stubbs (Post 1)


Indebted Love: Paul’s Subjection Language in Romans
-       Monya A. Stubbs

After a few books featuring more social criticism and less theology (West and Dyson), it’s been a pleasure digging into the singular focus that develops in Stubbs’ Indebted Love.  The first chapter opens with an introduction to Stubbs’ use of Harriet Tubman as the interpretive rubric through which she evaluates the meaning of Paul’s subjection language in Romans.

The book begins with this quotation from Tubman:

I had reasoned it out in my mind, there were one or two things I had a right to – freedom or death.  If I could not have the one, I would have the other, but no man would take me alive.  I would fight for my freedom as long as my breath lasted, and when the time come for me to go, the Lord would let them take me Harriet Tubman. (1)

From Tubman’s words, Stubbs discerns three key interpretive points:
 
-       First, Tubman recognized the landscape she inhabited.  Under chattel slavery, she and other slaves were subject to institutional oppression.  By her own words, she first “reasoned it out” that she was subject to this oppression.  This required recognition of the systemic violence and domination.

-       Second, Tubman demonstrated the spiritual and ultimately the theological value of reason and examination.  Tubman did not simply reject slavery out of hand, but she followed an intellectual and evaluative process that led her to determine that because slavery denied human dignity, it could not be God’s will (immediately this process parallel’s my own deconstruction of traditional church teaching on homosexuality).

-       Third, out of Tubman’s recognition of slavery’s oppressive evil, she experienced empowerment and transformation.  Her worldview, beliefs and actions were altered.

Stubbs explores the tension presented in Paul’s instruction to live under subjection to God, to governing bodies and powers, and to one-another as mutually-submissive members of Christ’s body.  Paul seems to affirm this paradigm, but then illustrates Christ’s rescuing of humanity from the domination-subjection reality. (24)

More to come…

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