Arising from Black and feminist liberation theologies in the 1980s, womanist theology brings a needed focus on the experiences of Black women to Christian theology. Attending to the abuses of slavery, the injustices that brought about the Civil Rights movement, and the present fight for full emancipation for Black people in the United States, womanist theology identifies with the oppressed to empower and liberate. Acting on love and an audacious courage to challenge assumptions, womanists take charge and battle the powers and principalities. Ultimately, their indomitable self-respect fuels a life-saving activism for “family and community.”1
Embedded in the biblical text is a womanist ethos that pulsates throughout the stories of biblical women—the outliers and outsiders who prove themselves to be great leaders of God’s people. For the love of God and the marginalized, they challenge oppression boldly. They are the strong rescue evoked over the woman in Genesis 2:18.
At the forefront of God’s liberating work are women like Esther, Ruth, and Rahab. Upending the racial and sexual exploitation by her king and husband, Esther strategized the survival of the Jews. The Moabite Ruth also risked destitution by initiating marital overtures with her kinsman redeemer, Boaz, and upended ethnic stereotypes along the way. Named as faithful for her courage in Hebrews 11:31, Rahab the Canaanite fearlessly negotiated with Israel’s spies to save her family. The womanist spirit of empathy and self-respect characterize take-charge leaders—a sisterhood that shines in the Gospels, too.
Consider the Samaritan woman who holds the longest conversation with Jesus in Scripture (John 4:7–30, 39–42). Though demeaned by multiple marriages, a woman from a hated tribe disrupts social power to engage a man of privilege publicly. In response, Jesus reveals himself as Messiah. These events disturb the disciples, yet she dashes to bring her community Christ’s liberation.
In Mark 7:24–30 we encounter a Syrophoenician woman who demands equality beside the privileged. Love for her demon-possessed daughter drives her courage. In what seems a cruel conversation, Jesus honors her with an opportunity to demonstrate her dignity. He tells her that he must first feed the children of Israel and not the dogs. The Jews viewed her people as dogs, as undeserving of God’s gifts. Her womanist spirit leaps as she declares, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her response makes clear that the bread of heaven, Christ’s body, is food for the entire world, especially for the so-called dogs—the marginalized. The Jewish, male disciples lack faith that Jesus can feed 5,000, but a non-Jewish woman knows that even a few crumbs from Jesus will satisfy her for eternity. Her faith eclipses the privileged.
In Luke 7:36–50 we meet a woman who, despite her reputation as a prostitute, courageously crashes the party hosted by a Pharisee. Unafraid, like the woman with an issue of blood (Luke 8:43–48), she reaches for Jesus. Washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, she then anoints his head with oil. Outraged, the host, a Pharisee, demeans her character. But her initiative evokes the truth. This woman did what was expected of a religious leader. She humbly washed Christ’s feet. She honored him with a kiss and anointed Jesus just as priests anointed Israel’s kings. Her faith and self-respect exposed the religious pretense of the Pharisee.
These women, and others like them, embody the truth that it is character not tribe or social position that constitutes identity and leadership as God’s people. Though demeaned and exploited as outliers, their suffering is known by the God who sees, who vindicates their demands for equality, and who endures their abuses on the road to Calvary. Their love, self-respect, and commitment to save lives reflects their truest identity as created in God’s image as a strong rescue. Womanists “make a way out of no way,” like their Creator and Redeemer who bore our weaknesses to liberate rather than exploit. Christ alone willingly assumed all human suffering and injustices we perpetrate in order to extinguish that which dehumanizes us all. In Christ, the womanist love of liberation is indeed for family, community, and the world.
1. Kelsi Watters, “Solidarity and Suffering: Liberation Christology from Black and Womanist Perspectives,” Obsculta 12, no. 1 (May 2019): 81.
This article appears in “Womanist Theology: Unraveling the Double Bind of Racism and Sexism,” the Fall 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.