Painting Sojourner Truth By Angela Yarber


This month, I am reminded of the importance of Jacquelyn Grant’s work on womanist Christology.  In White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, Grant reviews the white feminist discussion of the so-called problem of Jesus’ maleness, while beginning to construct a womanist response to this incarnational conundrum.  She states, “It is my claim that there is a direct relationship between our perception of Jesus and our perception of ourselves.”[1]

Beginning with Mary Daly, feminists have responded to Jesus’ maleness in a variety of ways.  Daly argues that because the person of Jesus is male, the male is recognized and celebrated as the superior being.  Because of this, the male Jesus is to be rejected or exorcised because Jesus’ gender identity contributes to patriarchy and does not hold salvific power for women.  Rather than rejecting Jesus altogether, Rosemary Radford Ruether asks the seminal question, “Can a male Jesus save woman?”

Jesus’ gendered identity is an issue of incarnational theology because, according to the Christian tradition, God had to become human.  So, God became flesh, just like you and me.  But God did so in the person of Jesus, a male who appeared to fall into one side of the constructed gender binary, the side that has power and privilege.  So, Ruether’s question begs us to consider how one whose gendered body is afforded power and privilege can relate to those without power and privilege.  Grant notes that white feminists claim that “the doctrine of Christology, from its initial formulated inception has been problematic for women…the fact that the church teaches that God’s incarnation is uniquely represented in the historical male figure Jesus, provided for the predominance of the one-sided Christological interpretation throughout the history of theology.”[2]

Feminists like Letty Russell respond to Ruether’s question through a liberation perspective by highlighting Jesus’ universal participation in the new humanity.  The maleness of Jesus is part of what other theologians called the “scandal of particularity”–his gender had to be constructed in a particular way.  Russell argues that Jesus had to have been a man simply because of the patriarchal context in which he was born; his message would have been lost if Jesus was born into the body of someone gendered female.  So, Russell challenges women to disconnect Christ’s work from his maleness.  Jesus’ gender, according this perspective, is not as important as his message of liberation and salvation.  Therefore, the maleness of Jesus is merely incidental.  The humanity of Jesus, however, is salvific.

In contrast, Rita Nakashima Brock does not think that a male Jesus can redeem woman, saying:

If Christology is to be reclaimed in feminist visions, the image of an exclusive divine presence in a ‘perfect’ man called Jesus who came to be called the Christ is disallowed.  The doctrine that only a perfect male form can incarnate God fully and be salvific makes our individual lives in female bodies a prison against God and denies our actual, sensual, changing selves as the lover of divine activity.[3]

Brock proposes that Jesus, and his maleness, be decentralized in the Christian tradition so that the stories and experiences of women can come to the center.  Still, Elizabeth Johnson revises traditional Christological understandings of Jesus by deeming him Jesus-Sophia, speaking about how wisdom is made flesh in the person of Jesus.  This wisdom-in-flesh liberates what has previously been twisted into justification for patriarchal domination.

Grant criticizes these views by highlighting the way many white feminists have presumed a sisterhood of experience based on gendered oppression, while neglecting or ignoring the way women of color have also experienced oppression based on racialized identity.  She explains that Jesus is understood in diverse ways in the womanist community, but primarily as a co-sufferer.  Jesus is one who understands what it’s like to be oppressed and marginalized.

Before Alice Walker ever coined the term “womanism,” an abolitionist and women’s rights activist who escaped slavery articulated poignantly this Christological debate, while also pointing out the ways white feminists ignored the strength of black women.  At the 1851 Ohio Women’s Convention, Sojourner Truth raised her voice to proclaim one of the most nuanced and powerful “sermons” about incarnation ever uttered:

 Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman!  Where did your Christ come from?  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with Him.  If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!  And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.[4]

Grant nuances this beautiful argument further, noting that today, the Christ who is found in the experiences of black women is a black woman.  Jesus is incarnate, gendered, and racialized as a black woman.[5]  Or, as many thoughtful theologians have proclaimed, Jesus was a male, yes, but the Christ could be a woman.  In this case, Christ is incarnate as a black woman.

Sojourner Truth, Angela Yarber, Womanist TheologySo, it is no surprise that Sojourner Truth joins with the myriad other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist that I write about each month:  Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, and Fatima.

Sojourner Truth stands tall, proud, and strong, her heart crying out to us:

With arms strong
Enough to carry
The weight of the world…
“Ain’t I a woman”
She cried on behalf
Of all those broken and bound.

The powerful words proclaimed by Sojourner Truth, and highlighted in Grant’s book, remind us that many women have important contributions to make to theology, but their voices often go unheard due to the privileges and oppression associated with race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and ability.


[1] Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 63.

[2] Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 83.

[3] Rita Nakashima Brock, “The Feminist Redemption of Christ,” in Christian Feminism, ed. Judith Weidman (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 68.

[4] Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I A Woman,” in Feminism, ed. Schneir (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 94.

[5] Grant, 220.

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University.  She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality.  Next year, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today.  She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.  For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com

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Categories: Art, Christology, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Womanist Theology

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11 replies

  1. In Old Testament material Wisdom and the Spirit, both feminine concepts, were prominent prior to the birth of Jesus. Then, one has the statement, “The Lost Q Gospel….Q’s orientation in Jewish Wisdom tradition suggests that the earliest followers of Jesus used Wisdom categories, not apocalyptism, to lend significance to their teacher and founder.” Stephen Patterson
    Then we have: Jesus “became Wisdom (f.) from a Deity to us” (1 Cor. 1:30 GNT)
    And :
    “…but we speak a Wisdom (f.) of a Deity in mystery,
    the one (f.) having been hidden,
    whom (f.) the Deity foreordained before the ages for our glory (f.)” etc.
    (from 1 Cor. 2:6-8 GNT)
    Many New Testament texts then refer to Jesua with the NEUTER gender, not the masculine, and speak of the NEUTER “fullness of the Deity.” (1 Cor. 2:10 GNT)
    This is very interesting material, for in the Greek language one can specify either masculine, feminine, or neuter gender. One can ask why the male gender wasn’t exclusively used in passages pertaining to Jesus. The early concept of Jesus was not what modern English translations of the Bible would have one believe.
    See my eBook, “A Gender Neutral God/ess” for a discussion of this New Testament material.

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  2. Thanks, Jennifer. Your work sounds interesting. I deal a lot more with these issues in my forthcoming book “The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship.” It will be out later this spring.

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  3. Angela, I’m very interested to learn about your technique and your media in the terrific pieces of art. What medium do you work in? Are you “drawing” on the computer, or do you work with paint on canvas? Oil or acrylic? And that leads to my next question–do you have your paintings hanging all over your house? It’s wonderful to live with art on the walls.

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  4. Thanks, Barbara! All of my icons are acrylic on canvas and some include mixed media (pieces of mirror and sharpie). They range in size from small (8″x10″) to very large (5’x3′). About half are in my home or office and they rotate in galleries, such as my upcoming Holy Women Icons show in Greenville, SC in April. The other half have been purchased or given as gifts and are in the homes and galleries of others. With the exception of a select few, all of them are for sale and/or available for exhibitions. Sojourner Truth, for example, is a smaller canvas and was purchased at my first Holy Women Icons show in CA in 2010.
    You’re right about having live art on your walls. There’s something powerful about having all of them together in a show. It’s as though all my favorite and most inspiring women throughout history are gathered into one room!

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  5. Thank you for this excellent article and as a recovered Christian, I am surprised to be defending Jesus but,… I would like to comment on the quote “Jesus’ understood gender identity contributes to patriarchy and does not hold salvific power for women” … my reading of the accounts of Jesus (not from the watered down modern versions of the bible) but by use of other sources, is that he venerated the women around himself. He so honored his mother and consort that he visited them after death and said to the jealous disciples that Magdalene is the “Queen of the Stars” (or more correctly, “Queen of Heaven”)… it’s clear that male followers distorted his words and his life work. AND later, organized Orthodoxy took salvation away from women – not Jesus.

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    • Thanks for these thoughts. I think it’s important to note the context of the quote. It came from the paragraph when I was describing how Mary Daly perceives the gendered identity of Jesus. As I noted, she asserts that Jesus does not hold salvific power for women. I don’t think Daly would deny that Jesus’ treatment of women was positive and that he overturned many social norms in his treatment of women. But Daly contends that his gender essentially disqualifies him from being able to save women.

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  6. I love your artworks and your words. x

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