As a “Christian womanist theologian” I was very engaged by the recent dialogue concerning “Gendered Imagery of God” (March 13). In response to that very thoughtful post, it was asserted that Christian womanist have not addressed this issue, especially as it concerns the maleness of Jesus. In fact, christological concerns have been a central focus within womanist theology, particularly given the centrality of Jesus and the cross for the black faith tradition. With this being the case, the maleness of Jesus has not been ignored. It has been addressed by womanist religious scholars from the early beginnings of womanist theological reflection. This issue, however, has emerged not from a discussion of God or Christ apart from issues of “survival and wholeness” for the black community, male and female.
In this regard, interest in the gendered if not also racialized imagery of God and Christ begins not with metaphysical discourse about god in god’s self, that is the Godhead, but rather with the faith and struggles of ordinary black women as they navigate life in a church and society that is often hostile to fullness of their embodied humanity. Womanist theologians have engaged christological issues, including gender exclusive imagery, because of our active commitment to the survival and freedom struggles of black women. One can see this in pioneering womanist texts such as Jacqueline Grant’s White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (1989) and Delores Williams Sisters in the Wilderness (1995). I also discussed Jesus maleness in The Black Christ (1994). In this blog, I have posted a section from The Black Christ as an example of early womanist thought regarding the gender and color of Jesus, even as I hope it continues to raise relevant issues for our discussions today concerning the meaning and image of Jesus and God for black women. From The Black Christ:
What does Christ look like? What symbols and icon can we use to capture the significance of Christ for Black men and women as they fight for dignity and freedom . . . A womanist portrayal of the Black Christ avails itself of a diversity of symbols and icons. Theses symbols and icons are living symbols and icons as Christ is a living Christ. That is, womanist portrayals of the Black Christ endeavor to lift up those persons, especially Black women, who are a part of the Black past and present, who have worked to move the Black community toward wholeness. These portrayals of Christ suggest, for instance, that Christ can be seen in the face of a Sojourner Truth, a Harriet Tubman, or a Fannie Lou Hamer . . . . to portray Christ in the face of Black heroines and heroes signals that it was not who Jesus was, particularly as a male, that made him Christ, but what he did. Essentially, Christ’s biological characteristics have little significance to discerning Christ’s sustaining, liberating and prophetic presence.
In addition to highlighting the presence of Christ in those who work toward Black wholeness, a womanist Black Christ will consistently lift up the presence of Christ in the faces of the poorest Black women. These women, as an icon of Christ, are important reminders of accountability. . . . It is only in a commitment to insure the life and wholeness for “the least of these” that we can grasp the radicality of who Christ is for all Black people. . . .
A vital and effective Black Christ must reflect the complexities of Black reality. A womanist Black Christ is one who can respond to those complexities—that is, the Black struggle to “make do and do better” in face of racist, sexist, classist and heterosexist oppression. A womanist Black Christ avoids the myopic concern for White racism. At the same time a womanist Black Christ enables Black women and men, girls and boys to see themselves in Christ and Christ in themselves.
As I now reflect on my grandmother’s faith in Christ, I realize that the Christ in her life had to be one who understood more than just what it meant to live in a racist society. My grandmother’s Christ was one whom she could talk to about the daily struggles of being poor, Black, and female. So, it is in this regard that I continue to learn from my grandmother’s faith. Her faith in Christ’s empowering presence suggests, at the very least, a womanist Black Christ. But most importantly, it is in the face of my grandmother, as she struggled to sustain herself and her family, that I can truly see Christ (pp. 113-117).
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.