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Published Date: September 5, 2020


Published Date: September 5, 2020


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“She Is in Bitter Distress”: A Womanist Ethic of Advocacy

For the past thirty years, many African American women as theologians, ethicists, and Bible scholars have consistently used a womanist interpretation, which we call our “hermeneutic” (a method for reading and studying the Bible or theology), to engage the intersection of race and ethnicity, gender, religion, and class. Such engagement is grounded in communal affirmation, or the betterment of the “entire people.”

In this article, we will observe how the Shunammite woman reacts to her situation with an interpretive lens that is similar to womanist thinking; her story can be found in 2 Kings 4:8–37. The story can be summarized this way: A wealthy Shunammite woman tells her husband they should create a room for Elisha (verse 10), a “man of God” who passes by their home regularly and eats with them (verses 8–9). In return, Elisha promises that God will give her a son (verse 16), only for that son to later die (verse 20). Although her son dies, the Shunammite woman’s passionate and focused determination prompts her to advocate for her son. Her ethic of advocacy instructs us; it is grounded in communal survival, works strategically with allies, often carries and bears witness to trauma, and boldly speaks truth to power.

A Womanist Ethic of Advocacy Is Grounded in Communal Survival

A womanist framework allows us to create space not only for ourselves but for those around us. In this Old Testament story, Elisha was an itinerate preacher. It is often tempting to presume that the leaders among us never need support or advocacy. By advocating first to make space for Elisha, and later advocating for her son, the Shunammite woman teaches us about an ethic of advocacy which both transcends self-interest and solidifies the self. In this way, her ethic of advocacy provides us with a new lens for understanding communal wholeness.

I define an ethic of advocacy as an internal mandate, grounded in practices of advocacy, which sees communal wholeness as intricately linked to the wholeness of oneself. If Elisha is lacking, then something within the Shunammite is also lacking. This notion of connecting beyond one’s self-interest ultimately brings value to us as well as those around us.

The Shunammite woman’s story is particularly relevant today. Many in the US observe the precariousness experienced by African Americans who are disproportionately harmed or killed by police or while in police custody. A womanist ethic of advocacy identifies social organizing and protest as essential to communal wholeness. African American women do not watch husbands, brothers, uncles, or sons encounter danger while sitting silently. We mediate with our minds, bodies, and spirits. Likewise, the Shunammite woman, who is rooted in national solidarity in her ancient culture, provides a commitment to what Alice Walker calls “survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” When Elisha suggests making life easier for her by speaking to the king on her behalf, she refuses stating, “I have a home among my people” (2 Kgs. 4:13). Like many of us, she is rooted in community.

A Womanist Ethic of Advocacy Works Strategically with Allies

The Shunammite woman shows us we must create communal wholeness. This happens, in part, through consistently building alliances to maintain community. Womanist wisdom identifies the presence of God in and among her people—and she knows when she is somewhere that’s devoid of God’s presence. A womanist ethic of advocacy values true alliances, which put aside self-interest to maintain community or create effective change within community.

The promise of a son for the Shunammite woman is key. Because her husband was old, the likelihood was that she would lose her property with his death. A son would give her security. Even if we do not advocate for ourselves, true community implores others to speak our pain and speak our names. In this story, Gehazi functions as an advocate for the Shunammite woman when pointing out to Elisha that she needs a son (2 Kgs. 4:14). Despite her vulnerability, she dared not hope, and never made the request, which seemed like a logical extension of her self-preservation. She responded to Elisha’s promise: “‘No, my lord!’ she objected. ‘Please, man of God, don’t mislead your servant!’” (2 Kgs. 4:16).

Her fears are relatable. As Black women, we are often unable to articulate our own pain. While we march boldly on behalf of the African American men killed by police, we are strikingly silent when African American women also endure the same fate. In fact, most do not even know the names of African American women killed by police. Women such as Aura Rosser (age 40, 2015), Rekia Boyd (age 22, 2012), Aiyana Jones (age 7, 2010), Shelly Frey (age 27, 2012), Kayla Moore (age 41, 2013), Miriam Carey (age 34, 2013), Natasha McKenna (age 37, 2015), Michelle Cusseaux (age 50, 2014), Tanisha Anderson (age 37, 2014), Sandra Bland (age 28, 2015), and Breonna Taylor (age 26, 2020) are but a few in a long list of names.

A Womanist Ethic of Advocacy Often Carries and Bears Witness to Trauma

Later in the story, the reader is told the son is with his father. When the son complains of his head hurting, he is immediately sent to his mother (2 Kgs. 4:19).

Black women know that boys who appear to be “sick in the head” often appear to be our responsibility. It is our responsibility to train and protect their minds. But sometimes, the trauma is too great. Theories of genetic research tell us that Black people carry the trauma of racism in our very bodies. This theory indicates that extreme stress, such as with racism, can literally impact our DNA—and it can be inherited generationally. We continue to carry the trauma of slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and the daily traumas of insult, both microaggressions and macroaggressions that exist in every instance where people weaponize our skin color against us.

A recent example of the weaponizing of Black skin can be observed in the actions of Amy Cooper, a white woman who was videotaped while calling police with a false report of “an African American man” threatening her in Central Park. Aggressions are evident in the actions of police officers who body slam African Americans, who may die in their care, merely for the accusation of nonviolent crimes. When police officers act as executioners, it is similar to lynching. As a vigilante practice, lynched bodies, often burned or mutilated, hung from trees, and they created bodily and psychic trauma for entire communities.

These traumas are in our bones. And, when we watch, in real time for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the knee of a police officer take the life of an unarmed Black civilian, that trauma embeds itself within us. We carry that trauma in our very spirits. We pass this on to future generations.

The Shunammite woman’s response is to carry that son, a traumatic loss, as we carry traumatic loss today. But her trauma is not lowered into a grave. Rather, she moves up to higher ground and walks up to the room she created for the prophet, Elisha. There, she lays her son on the bed of the prophet and proceeds to confront that lost hope.

When she approaches Elisha, the story says she “took hold of his feet” (2 Kgs. 4:27). Many preachers interpret her as deferential in this verse. I don’t think we’ve interpreted this section properly. There are two hints typically overlooked. First, her physical presence is such that Gehazi seeks to restrain her, but Elisha says not to restrain her because she’s in “bitter distress.” Second, her statement to Elisha is not one of humility or gentleness; it doesn’t sound like she was bowing at his feet. So why did Gehazi seek to restrain her? I theorize that she went for Elisha’s neck, and as he moved (2 Kgs. 4:27), she fell at his feet. This explains both Gehazi’s desire to restrain her and her bold tone.

The Shunammite woman speaks to Elisha, saying, “‘Did I ask you for a son, my lord?’ . . . ‘Didn’t I tell you, “Don’t raise my hopes?”’” (2 Kgs. 4:28). This statement, full of womanist “sass” and courage, transcends language. She never says her son is dead. Elisha, however, instantly knows a miraculous response is needed. Elisha sends Gehazi to lay his staff on her son. But that does not provide the needed change!

A Womanist Ethic of Advocacy Boldly Speaks Truth to Power

Today’s Black Lives Matter protests remind us unjust policing must stop. And following the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, it is apparent that no-knock warrants (where police officers may enter a home, unannounced, and begin shooting) are unjust. In this case, the officers entered Taylor’s home while she was sleeping and shot her eight times. Tragically, they were in the wrong house.

Our current conversations about race need to boldly deal with social parity and equality. We are aware that current practices of redlining keep superior public schools only available to a select few. Those with superior education, inherited wealth, good paying jobs, and access to housing loan programs possess several wealth acquisition strategies often denied people of color—particularly those of African descent.

We are now marching up that mountain like the Shunammite woman. The well-intentioned action of Gehazi laying the staff on her son was ineffective. Today, like her, we are demanding a real change. And, much like the Shunammite woman, we will not leave until we get the stakeholders and the power brokers to the negotiating table.

Elisha knew what it meant to negotiate with allies. Elisha’s mentor was the prophet Elijah. When his mentor was about to leave him, Elisha declared, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you” (2 Kgs. 2:6). Now, the Shunammite woman says these exact words to Elisha (2 Kgs. 4:3). She speaks truth to power. Elisha, perhaps resonating with the way he felt when he uttered those words, obediently follows her. Elisha goes to her son, stretches his body out on the body of her son, and releases ruakh (or “spirit, breath”) into him. It is his own release of spirit-filled humanity, his breath, that is released to the boy. This facilitates resurrection.

We have that same power. We too can release spirit-filled humanity by speaking up, marching, protesting, and advocating. Inequity for one is a problem for us all. As we looked at the face of George Floyd, under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, we saw humanity denied. Today, we are moving toward an ethic of advocacy where we take a stand because it is the only humane option.

The biblical principle of mishpat (a term related to justice-making, which appears over 400 times in the Bible) encourages us to seek out justice for the most vulnerable in our societies. With current dialogue moving us closer to police reforms, community investments, and desegregation, we are moving closer to defunding white supremacy itself. If we do not fear losing our “privilege,” we can reach toward what must be had: a release of our bitter distress and an equitable world where we can all breathe.

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.