Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Delores Williams on Black Womanist Theology, the Cross, and the Rape and Defilement of Nature

Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993):

Rape is defilement, and defilement means wanton desecration. Worse, deeper and more wounding than alienation, the sin of defilement is the one of which today’s technological world is most guilty. Nature (the land, the seas, the animals in the sea) are every day defiled by humans. Cultures and peoples (Native Americans, Africans, Jews) have been defiled and destroyed by the onslaught of Western, Christian, patriarchal imperialism in some of its ugliest forms. The oceans are defiled by oil spills, and industrial waste destroys marine life. The rain forest is being defiled. The cross is a reminder of how humans have tried throughout history to destroy visions of righting relationships that involve transformation of tradition and transformation of social relations and arrangements sanctioned by the status quo (148).

"The cross is a reminder of how humans have tried throughout history to destroy visions of righting relationships that involve transformation of tradition and transformation of social relations and arrangements sanctioned by the status quo": in this classic work laying the groundwork for a black womanist theology, Delores Williams struggles with the heavy theological freight given to the symbol of the cross by classical theology--as well as by black male theologians as they founded black theology.

The problem of the cross, Delores Williams insists, is that the death of Jesus has historically been seen as substitionary, as a sacrificial atonement to make up for the sins of the world--and, somehow, simultaneously as love, as an expression of the love of a father giving his son's life for the redemption of the world, and of the love of a son freely submitting to a father in this drama of universal salvation. 

For black women, this description of the drama of redemption, this reading of the meaning of the cross, has ominous--indeed, toxic--overtones. The classic theological parsing of the cross, accepted by black male theologians, depends on the notion of Jesus's redemptive surrogacy

Surrogacy is, Williams insists, something that African-American women have long known a great deal about, and is an experience that they have been unable to find in the least redemptive. During slavery, black women were possessed as property by white male owners who used the black female bodies they possessed as surrogate bodies--as objects of sexual pleasure. Enslaved black women did not own even their own bodies, and were expected to submit to rape at the whim of any white slaveholder who claimed sexual ownership of their bodies. They were expected to function as sexual surrogates at the good pleasure of slaveholders, and had no legal or institutional power to contest this arrangement. Indeed, they were put to death if they sought to contest it.

When they bore children from such arrangements, the demand of surrogacy continued: they were to be surrogate mothers of slaveholders' children born of rape. On many plantations, they were simultaneously expected to "mammy" the children of the slaveholding family--they were simultaneously expected to be surrogate mothers of the children of white families that possessed their bodies, and whose male heads, in many cases, physically violated their bodies.

After slavery, black women continued to be expected to perform this surrogacy function for white children, as they tended to, nursed, watched over, cooked and cleaned for, and instructed the children of elite white families in the former slaveholding states. As in the slave period itself, the surrogacy arrangement depended on economic factors that denied black women any effective ownership of or autonomy over their bodies.

Given such a history, Delores Williams points out, black womanist theologians are necessarily highly sensitized to notions of redemption and the cross that stress the surrogacy function Jesus performed in dying on the cross. Given their history, black womanist theologians find it exceptionally difficult to read move from Jesus's abandonment of his body unto suffering death at his father's will to the denouement predictably articulated by classic theories of atonement: this is all about love. Jesus gives himself in our place out of love for us.

In this drama, God demonstrates his (the God writing the script for this drama of redemption through submission, suffering, and death is decidedly male) overweening love for the world by giving his son's life (and by giving his own life as a son obedient to his father even unto death) for the salvation of the world. The reading of this a script as a script that is all about love is, for black womanist theology, the sticking point.

It was not love that black women experienced in slavery, as their bodies functioned as surrogates for white men raping them, for the children of those white men. It was not redemption that black slave women experienced by losing ownership of their own bodies. Nor was it love or redemption that black women experienced in the period after slavery when they were expected to be surrogate mothers for the families of descendants of slaveholders, as they struggled to raise their own children under well-nigh impossible socioeconomic conditions.

And so Delores Williams's black womanist re-reading of the meaning of the cross as "a reminder of how humans have tried throughout history to destroy visions of righting relationships that involve transformation of tradition and transformation of social relations and arrangements sanctioned by the status quo": the cross is what inevitably happens to those who seek to transform traditions and social arrangements based on historic injustice. The cross is the predictable end of those who challenge longstanding relationships of injustice and call for a revisioning of their societies in which human relationships are more justly arranged--are righted.

This reading of the cross coupled with the historic experience of black female surrogacy enables black women then to look at the sin of environmental destruction through the lens of rape--through the experience of African-American women over the course of many generations (I grew up in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, and saw quite well in my formative years that white Southern men continued even into the middle of the 20th century to assume that the bodies of black women--of any black woman--belonged to them for their sexual use. I saw black women who resisted this arrangement brutalized as I was coming of age.)

What we're doing to the world today at an ecological level, Delores Williams writes in the powerful passage from her book I've highlighted above, is raping the world. Rape is defilement. Defilement means wanton destruction. Viewed this way, the environmental destruction of our planet is all of a piece with the exploitation of subjugated peoples and cultures that have been similarly defiled by cultures of patriarchal imperialism--many of them carrying the cross as their symbol even as they raped, defiled, and subjugated.

There is important hermeneutical power, Delores Williams succeeds in demonstrating, in reading our classic theological and biblical texts through the lens of those who have experienced historic oppression. There is is yet-to-be-fathomed fecundity--for all of us, for the entire community of faith--in listening attentively to the insights of those who read our classic theological and scriptural texts with the eyes of those who have experienced historic marginalization.

There is yet more light and truth to break out of God's word--when, that is, we can break that word out of the clutches of those who continue to insist that they and they alone own it, along with its light and truth. Because they happen to have been born male (and white and heterosexual) . . . .

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