"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.


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.

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