Adding place as a key part of wholistic liberation theology


An assignment for my independent study in Black Feminism, Womanism, and Religion, was to read and respond to Jacquelyn Grant White Women’s Christ Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. I argue that through bringing in an analysis of settler-colonialism and the more-than-human to our liberation theologies, they become wholly, rather than partially, liberating (which is one of Grant’s goals).

Sarah Nahar, 20 March 2023 (20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq)

Jacquelyn Grant’s text White Women’s Christ, Black Women’s Jesus makes a contribution to womanist theology in that she argues that “racism/sexism/classism, as a conglomerate representation of oppression, is the most adequate point of departure for…wholistic theology and Christology” (2). This is because Black women’s lives are impacted by the racism/sexism/classism conglomerate oppression. Even if they did not write systematic theology in the 18th and 19th centuries, Black women “possess the potential for…the development of wholistic theological and christological construction[s] which are wholly rather than partially liberating” (3). Grant delineates how most feminist theology is race-blind and therefore reproduces racism even as it challenges sexism. The result–be it in biblical, liberationist, or rejectionist feminist theology–is only partial liberation. Grant calls this “capital W” White feminist theology, and offers womanist theology (lower case w) as her point of departure for a contextual, liberation theology that can adequately support the freight of liberation for all.

As an important critique of the sexism pervasive in US Christianity, feminist theology has exposed patriarchy and delineated patriarchal theology’s negative impact on women.  Firstly, traditional patriarchal theology does not reflexively recognize that a theologian’s life experience influences how they do theology. And even when the influence is recognized, patriarchal theology reifies a male perspective–an abstract universal ‘man’–becoming the center figure (3). This re-centering of men as ‘universal knowers’ by patriarchal ways of theologizing does not value the life experiences of women as important sources for theology, nor welcome the challenges their experiences bring to the tradition (3, 25). Patriarchy saturates the structures of Christian churches and seminaries as well.This has led feminist theologians and church women to develop “alternative sources and/or interpretation of sources,” as well as study groups, institutional audits, and advocacy collectives to reveal entrenched patriarchal attitudes and leverage power to create change within and despite them (3ff, Chapter 2). 

Recognizing and placing value on life experience as a legitimate source for interpretation was a key intervention made by feminist theology and advocacy, as one of the ascendant liberation theologies of the day. Grant groups feminist theological intervention in three groups, labeling them biblical, liberationist, and rejectionist. The Biblical feminists “are those who see Scripture as the primary source of theology” (4). The liberationist feminists are in two streams: those who see Scripture as a central authority and their relationship to it as a primary source of theology, and others who view Scripture as one “but not an overriding source for doing theology” and give primacy to “women’s experience as a source for critical reassessment of Christian tradition (5). The rejectionist feminist theologians “view both scripture [sic] and tradition as irredeemably oppressive” (5). Grant notes a correlation between the different groups’ theologies and christologies. 

The greater the emphasis upon human experience, the less emphasis upon the Bible and tradition. In their emergent christologies, the greater the emphasis upon women’s experience, the less the emphasis upon and importance of Jesus as divine.

US feminist theology’s experiential referent in development of biblical, liberationist, and rejectionist theologies has been White women’s experiences however. This is a particular experience, yet these theologies have tended to universalize “women’s experiences” in the same way they critique patriarchal theologies for universalizing “human experiences.” The assumption made by feminist theologians that “all women are in the same situation with respect to sexism,” perpetuates racist erasure of the experiences of Black women (195). Slavery, segregation, experiences in domestic work, and other aspects of Black women’s lived reality have “created such a gulf” between White and Black women that White experiences are not relatable to Black women. It follows then, that the theological interpretations that flow from White women’s experiences are also unrelatable to Black women as their experiences “have been far from the same” (198). With race uninterrogated, US feminist theology has been limited, and inadequate. In addition to this only supporting partial liberation, this elision makes feminist theology seem irrelevant to Black women who have been targets of White women’s racism (and sexism from White and Black men). 

US feminist theology happens in a context where White women are part of an oppressing class and Black women are in an oppressed class. Though some shifts have happened since the time of slavery, the basic contours of the power dynamics been White and Black women have not changed. Black women’s experience in the US “involves a convergence of racism, sexism, and classism” (198). The US feminist movement–though there are some antiracist feminists in it–has overall mirrored the structure of broader US society and “therefore taken on a racist character” (199). For example,

White women have defined the [feminist theology] movement and presumed to do so not only for themselves but also for non-White women. They have misnamed themselves by calling themselves feminists when in fact they are White feminists, and by appealing to women’s experience when in fact they appeal almost exclusively to their own experience” (200)…

Grant notes that this defining of the rules and then soliciting others to play the game does not break with societal patterns, and if White women wished to challenge how racism/sexism/classism operate, they would be more precise and self-aware in their naming of the movement, and more humble with how they approached women of color, being careful not to define the experiences of others.

Black women’s distrust and frustration with White feminism has led many to reject feminism and feminist theology. However, there is among Black women an “increased willingness to do an independent analysis of sexism” (201). Grant argues that a single issue analysis “has proven inadequate to eliminate oppression” and that liberation from racism/sexism/classism are all connected. From pages 203-205 Grant lists a plethora of writers, activists, preachers, and novelists who’ve wrestled with how to get free while living in the US. In this list, she introduces Alice Walker’s term womanist and its definition as part of Black women’s interventions in a racist/sexist/classist world. Grant sums up her list of intellectual production, as well as numerous Black women not remembered in history by noting that a womanist is 

a strong Black woman who has sometimes been mislabeled as a domineering castrating matriarch. A womanist is one who has developed survival strategies in spite of the oppression of her race and sex in order to save her family and her people (205).

Grant goes on to mention that employing womanist survival strategies invites Black women to be who they are and do what they do, regardless if that means acting in more traditionally masculine and/or more traditionally feminine ways–womanism is not confining. In this definition of womanism, more reformist and radical flavors of feminism are encompassed and transcended because the purpose of womanism is individual and collective survival in an oppressive world.

Theology that comes out of the experiences of Black women can be called womanist theology, Grant writes (205, 209). She cites literature that has supported the development of womanist theology by Black women and men (206-209). She insists that an analysis of the conglomerate racism/sexism/classism must be present, emphasizing the importance of centering the “daily struggles of poor Black women” as since that is the majority of Black women, it is the “gauge for the verification of the claims of womanist theology” (210, 221). I want to hear more about the biblical, liberationist, and rejectionist trends in womanist scholarship, as I found Grant’s delinations of feminist scholarship helpful. For example, Williams-Jones writing on the Pentecostal tradition might be categorized as biblical womanism, while Cone and Grant’s writing might be liberationist womanism, and Hurston’s writing, or even Walker could shed light on a rejectionist thrust. I am not completely sure, but think that keeping a similar structure would have been helpful in doing comparative work and providing alternatives to the White feminist theologians. 

Grant does speak to the use of the Bible and the role and significance of Jesus in womanist tradition. The section on the Bible, which can be summarized as used only when it is a helpful tool to womanists, was much shorter than the section on the role and significance of Jesus. In stark contrast to the Christ white women found oppressive and oppressively used, womanists see Jesus as a co-sufferer with them. He is the divine that empowers them in situations of oppression, rather than diminishes them in any way. In a way remarkably close to how Jesus articulated his self understanding in what gets recorded as “The Lord’s Prayer,” the affirmation of Jesus as God decidedly means that White people and their power structure were not God and were not holy (213). Furthermore the significance of Jesus is one of political freedom, and identification with him can allow Grant to say that Christologically, Jesus becomes Black. Black people, and especially Black women are living a life today that “reflects the cross of Jesus” (216, 220). Grant is citing and building on Cone’s work here…by rooting in particular experience, Grant theorizes that Black/womanist theology avoids universalizing (a critique of White feminist theology) while still being able to connect with the human experiences shared with others (217). In addition to challenging womanist theologians to take class and widening inequality seriously, she argues that they must examine the connection between the oppression of women and theological symbolism used in the church. Feminist theology, she argues, will not be wholly irrelevant in this project, but it is limited in the support it can give. Finally she exhorts womanist theologians to do constructive theology. This encouragement to constructive theology occurs in the last paragraph before a final quote! I wanted to hear her constructive theology, as well as more about how womanists should engage the ecological and more-than-human (such as Grant cites Rosemary Radford Ruether doing pages 139-141). It is for this constructive project that I offer another axis of thought, that of place and settler-colonialism, which in a way touches on–because it is located in, impacted by, and in power relations with– the ecological and more-than-human, but retains its center of gravity in the social.

Grant chooses to develop Christology from the perspective of Black women because “Christology must emerge out of the condition of the least” and the conglomerate of racism/sexism/classism presents “one such situation of the least” (6). Furthermore, Black women’s life experiences offer an

evaluative criterion for testing the limitations of the feminist perspective in theology and Christology, because Black women are a significant minority group of women in the United States and because they have claimed that Jesus Christ has played a dominant role in their lives (6).

I affirm Grant’s point of departure and work, because she calls racism/sexism/classism a conglomerate and a representation of how interlocking systems of oppression function. It does not seem like she is saying these are the only things going on. So I offer the addition of place (as an analytical lens) and settler-colonialism (as an oppression) as an extension to her conglomerate.

I think the extension of racism/sexism/classism to racism/sexism/classism/settler-colonialism is absolutely necessary for two reasons. Firstly, because the experience of Black women in the US is different than those outside of the US due to imperialism, and secondly because the place where the contextual/liberation theology work happens is alive–and the people who see themselves a part of that living land/water, that is the Indigenous peoples of that place–their presence and/or absence impacts how Black women (and everyone) theologize and develop christologies.

Jesus’ ministry existed in a place that wasn’t Europe, the US, Africa, or Asia in the geopolitical sense. It was the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean watershed, sometimes called Imperial Roman Palestine. What it means to absorb (through reading, hearing, and seeing) an indigenous story from there in other geographical places must be interrogated…let alone the question of interaction with the text across time and geopolitics. In the case of doing Christology in the US, how Christianity got to Turtle Island is via the same people who currently constitute the dominant culture and hold patriarchal authority–White men. Interrogating its journey from a revolutionary pacifist praxis of marginalized community groups to becoming mostly a message that governmental emissaries used for military and domination purposes provides an additional line of inquiry by which to problematize Christianity’s overdetermination of itself as a universal phenomenon leading to a universal experience of Jesus Christ. 

As is understood in other liberation theologies, place matters because where one is located in the context of empire and imperialism greatly influences worldview. Though I have not read all of the texts, feminist and womanist theologies do not interrogate sufficiently how US imperialism influences their biblical, liberationist, or rejectionist theologizing. Grant’s concept of the conglomerate of oppression helps us get towards asking questions related to place and settler-colonialism; if nothing else to examine what limitations in our thinking there might be, and to know that we must keep pushing at our intellectual boundaries if womanist theology is to be “wholly rather than partially liberating” (3). Grant writes that “Black women must recognize that racism, sexism, and classism each have lives of their own, and that no one form of oppression is eliminated with the destruction of any other” (221). Therefore, the oppressions can be examined in connection with one another. Examples of questions related to place and settler-colonialism in conversation with each of the conglomerate’s axes could include: 

  • Racism – How does racism (and other forms of racial/ethnic othering such as Orientalism) in the US have an impact on other places in the world?
  • Sexism – what are the connections between patriarchy and US imperialism? How does patriarchy play out in other places in the world, and on sovereign Indigenous land “in” the US?
  • Classism – What does it mean to be suffering, as poor Black women do, in the context of the world’s richest nation? Even if not benefitting much from the country’s wealth, what global exploitation is taking place to ensure that the US remains the world’s richest nation? (Classism can also bridge to a critique of capitalism)

My thought is that the answers to these questions above would function to both connect Black women transnationally in shared struggle as well as highlight the particularities of Black women’s experience in the place called the United States, in which Indigenous women are dispossessed due to racist/sexist/classist settler-colonialism. 

Black women in the US are unwilling settlers, but we are settlers nonetheless. Our ancestors who were trafficked to the US via enslavement did not travel willingly to this land mass where thriving Indigenous cultures existed. Our enslaved ancestors suffered loss of land on the African continent, were stripped of their individual agency, and denied sovereignty. When they expressed any communal self-determination they were met with violence from dominant groups. This marks us as very different from Europeans who retained individual agency, expressed their system of governance, claimed land as settlers, and claimed African peoples as property. However, in our efforts to emancipate, self-determine, and self-govern, people of African descent often use and rely on the wealth of the land, and appeal to the apparati of US government power. This is often done without direct connection with Indigenous communities who were/are dispossessed of land, suffered/suffering genocidal losses, and were/are actively marginalized and erased by the racist colonial system. When Black people make demands of the government system, they make demands as settler-citizens who are requesting that rights and access be afforded to them. And each thing that the government grants (however reluctantly it is granted) further dispossesses Indigenous peoples. The racist settler-colonial system is set up to pit Black and Indigenous communities against one another. It is for this reason that Indigenous community decolonization activists have asked Black community activist leaders, particularly Black feminists who already mobilize an understanding of intersectionality, to integrate an analysis of settler-colonialism alongside their analyses of racism, sexism, and classism. In short, those triple oppressions are occurring in a specific context which needs to be named and is itself dynamic and not a static backdrop to our community’s experience of devastation. If Black organizing takes the state as a foregone conclusion, we are inadvertently oppressing those communities who struggle against the state itself. In doing liberation theology, integrating an analysis of settler-colonialism means:

  • Recognizing that there are stories that arise from the earth and peoples here that we must orient ourselves around, and not only orient around the liberation story from an indigenous wisdom tradition from the eastern mediterranean.
  • Critically analyze the Christian tradition for how it arrived to the place in which we encountered it, and what impact the worldview of settler-colonialism has on it.
  • Seeing ourselves as caught within systems of oppression, not only targeted by systems of oppression.
  • Liberation and holistic health of humans is linked with the liberation and holistic health of the land in which they are struggling for sufficiency.
  • A belief that sufficiency is possible outside of current parameters of what dominant systems say is possible.
  • Make common cause with Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous feminists.

An analysis of settler-colonialism will only deepen commitments to what liberation can look like on this land mass (as well as others). A liberation theology taking this into account would mean liberation for Indigenous Peoples as well, however they define that. There are biblical, liberationist, and rejectionist Indigenous feminist theologians as well. For womanist liberation theology to be wholly liberating, ideally theologians would be in conversation with one or more streams of Indigenous feminist liberation theology. 

Interrogating place is in no way contingent upon indigenous women being Christian or “claiming that Jesus Christ has played a dominant role in their lives” (6). (This was one of the evaluative criteria set forth by Grant as to why she chooses Black women to study). As conversation with Indigenous feminists (theologians and not) has uncovered for me, however, many do acknowledge that “Jesus Christ has played a dominant role in their lives” and not by choice. He and ‘the Church’ are those responsible for writing and implementing The Doctrine of Discovery (a set of 15th century papal bulls that condoned and arbitrated murderous colonialism) and then set forth the structures that created:

  • land dispossession, and extractive relationships with the land and other species,
  • plantation enslavement of Indigenous peoples and the Hacienda system, 
  • boarding schools run by Christian churches for the purpose of ethnocide, 
  • the criminal justice system geared toward a certain eschatology, 
  • demonization of ranges of native gender and sexual expressions, 
  • suppression of languages, cultural and religious expressions (until the 1978 Religious Freedom Act offered a modicum of reprieve from Christian hegemonic settler-colonial patriarchal white supremacist impoverishment). 

In their own way, these structures of settler-colonialism impacted, and continue to impact Black women as well. Talking at these intersections, which White feminist theologians have not done, will add so many more dimensions to Christology and soteriology. Womanist theologians should not do theology for Indigenous communities, but in the US, womanist theology should not be done without an analysis of place and settler-colonialism. Ultimately, Grant does not write as a rejectionist, though also doesn’t say where she is, beyond womanist. For this reason I tried to formulate the questions about the conglomerate in such a way that Black women who are still interested in Christianity’s continuance can overcome the limitations that would plague womanist liberation theology if settler-colonialism is not considered. This addition aims to build on Sobrino’s work that Grant quoted, “the idea that perhaps the whole will be radically altered when liberation of the oppressed is considered as an integral part of the whole” (11). Bringing into focus the experience of being displaced Indigenous Africans doing theology with eastern Mediterranean stories on Turtle Islander’s indigenous land dealing with oppression from European Americans is quite the crucible–these are dimensions to consider when seeking to do wholly liberating womanist liberation theology in the US.

Note: Furthermore, and overall, this paper talked a lot about men and women, male and females. There was not reference to sexual orientation, gender identity, the fluidity of gender, trans* identity, or queerness. Heterosexism is the paradigm that most feminists work in now, bringing together their concerns about how heteronormativity is functioning in a damaging way in society, and certainly in the church. This very month many anti-trans bills are moving through state legislatures. We must look to queer womanist theological Christologies and soteriologies for guidance and to create wholly liberating theologies.

About SEN

Born on United Nations Day, I am actively involved in the process of figuring out how we can live together well on this planet, given our similar and different truth claims. Thanks for joining me on the journey!

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