This post is part of our forum on “Womanist Theology.“
Many Black women who have experienced a call to preach identify as Black Womanist preachers with both caution and confidence. We have grown up in historically Black denominations where women participated in all aspects of church life. Yet we rarely saw those women grace the pulpit unless it was a special occasion like “Women’s Day” or “Education Sunday.” When we accepted our respective calls to preach, we did not have the term “Womanist” in our consciousness, but it has been a faithful companion for scores of Black women as preachers and pastors.
Alice Walker’s 1983 collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, includes her classic definition of Womanism. Walker’s articulation of the aspects of womanism allowed many Black women to see themselves in a new light and for those, who like me, had only seen themselves in the light of the King James Version of the Bible as taught and preached by men, this was absolutely revolutionary. Walker’s definition reminded us that it was okay to want know more about the back story of a text even when preachers and Sunday School teachers were not equipped to provide those answers. We did not know that this was the activity of a womanist because we might have still been entangled in the companion term, womanish. While being referred to as womanish was not encouraging or uplifting, being referred to as a womanist was empowering and grounding. We would need this empowering and grounding term to help us make sense of this bible that was often used to hold us back and to keep us “in our place.” Womanism gave us a new place to inhabit with our full selves and that space was welcoming and offered the peace often referred to in church settings.
Long before she coined the term womanism, in 1973, Alice Walker gifted us with a short story entitled “Everyday Use.” It is this short story that reminds me of the ways in which womanism, womanist ways and womanist theology informs and undergirds my approach to a text and also a presentation of the text that may be different from what is expected. Walker’s story highlights the relationship between two sisters and their approach to the appreciation of or use of handmade quilts that had been passed down to their mother and potentially to each of them. The question was whether the quilts and other household items were for show or for use. One sister claimed that the wear and tear of everyday use would ruin the quilt. Perhaps this same line of thought has been applied to our Christian scriptures. It seems that many of our scriptures have been upheld as pieces to be appreciated at a distance, frozen in one meaning and not engaged in a familiar and everyday way.
Those preachers familiar with womanist ways will recognize that these texts offer new found freedom when they are engaged by a woman who loves other women sexually and/or non-sexually. The preacher who reads with a womanist lens will find it hard to blame, ostracize, or criticize the women who appear in the text because the preacher then comes to see them with love. For example, the Genesis 16 passage, which is featured prominently in Delores Williams’s classic work Sisters in the Wilderness, cannot be preached in a way that pits the main female characters, Hagar and Sarah, against one another as women who shared children with the same man, Abraham. A preacher with a Womanist ethic would call for a love of each woman individually and then a more nuanced appreciation for the situation that they find themselves in. It is also challenging to look at the passage and simply state the conflict between Sarah and Hagar is all Abraham’s fault when a womanist is “committed to survival and wholes of entire people, male and female.” The preacher who reads the text with compassion for all of the characters may be inclined to preach that text with compassion for the hearers and may present a word that goes beyond the binary of right and wrong and calls the hearer to consider the complications and also to consider how the children of these parents will be impacted.
Many preachers and many hearers have heard the Hagar text as one which triangulates Hagar, Sarah and Abraham as entangled humans whose actions will impact the lives of the children they have brought into the world. That is one read, but with Alice Walker whispering in the ear of the preacher, there is a gentle reminder to look for the voices in the text that are not amplified. Womanism reminds the preacher to consider that there may be a hearer who identifies more with the unnamed characters in the text. There may be a hearer who identifies with the person in the text who suffers harm and for that hearer, where is the good news? The scholars who asked these questions with Black women in mind have given us a fertile field in which to plant these questions and watch the answers bloom. Delores Williams, Katie Cannon, Renita Weems, Jacqueline Grant and many others have taken the definition from Walker’s prose and made it available to those who are studying theology and figuring out how to read ancient texts from a new perspective that serves the Black women who are preaching and all of those who are hearing.
With this powerful cadre of scholars providing the preacher with thoughtful points of entry to these so-called familiar texts, what happens when the Black woman preacher with the womanist lens stands to preach to those who are not familiar with the Black American experience? Does the preacher trade her womanist lens for another lens that may be a better match for the hearers? For Black Womanist preachers, the answer comes from The Clark Sisters’ popular song, Is My Living In Vain, “No. Of course not!” Womanist thought does not simply apply to the preacher’s approach to the text. It applies to the very life of the preacher. A Black woman preacher whose life is grounded in womanism starts from a place of love and strength. She takes the hearer into consideration as she delves into the text and also understands that it is her love of “the Folk” coupled with the way that she “Loves herself. Regardless.” That undergirds her as she prepares to stand and deliver the Word of God for the People of God. She understands nuance and in the ways that we might read, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” she understands that some things do not stand in competition but rather can stand side by side as complements.
It is entirely possible to preach a sermon that speaks a word of liberation to the oppressed while simultaneously speaking a word to the oppressor without needing that portion of the message cloaked in subversive language. In her seriousness and in her concern primarily for the health and wellness of other Black people, she is able to dig into scriptures with her people in full view and discern what needs to be said to all who are listening and/or eavesdropping. She cannot afford to regurgitate the old traditional readings of texts that have caused undue harm to her communities. She cannot allow traditional readings of sacred texts to privilege the oppressors while she is preaching the liberating word of God. She refuses to be bound by a view of God that does not set the captives free and her preaching makes room for that whether she is preaching to those who look like her or not. The freedom that fuels her preaching comes from the ways that she “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” It is out of the freedom and joy that she finds the words to speak and the power with which to speak those words.
The Black woman preacher may find herself in deepest communion with the holy not when she is buried in the pages of classic theological texts but rather when she is deeply engaged in the work of freedom found in the liberation theology of the funk group Parliament Funkadelic. In the company of those who have gone before her, she finds freedom when she hears the call to “dance [her] way out of [her] constriction.” Perhaps the greatest gift of womanist thought to the Black woman preacher is the gift of joy and freedom that comes from preaching from one’s own center and not preaching as a corrective gesture or in competition with preaching that is centered in other ways. In that preaching, there is power!