Katie Geneva Cannon was the first African-American woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and her work focused on the areas of Christian ethics, Womanist theology, and women in religion and society.

Photograph credit: Union Theological Seminary

Women’s History Month, a good time to focus on Womanist Theology

Dr. Marvin McMickle

March 14, 2019

One of the things that can helpfully be examined during Women’s History Month is the emergence of what is known as Womanist Theology. This approach to biblical analysis, theological reflection, and ethical and practical application rests upon the premise that context should always be a part of Christian proclamation. For womanist theologians, the context is shaped by three factors: race, gender, and class. More precisely, Womanist Theology asks in what ways Scripture can and should be read and applied through the unique socio-cultural position of being an African American woman living in or near poverty.

The matter of being African American is relevant when one lives in a society shaped by and guilty of white supremacy and white privilege. Being a woman is relevant in a society that retains many elements of patriarchy and male-centered institutions; most especially African American churches. Living in poverty is relevant for women in a capitalist society, especially single women with children living in poverty ($24,000 annually for a family of four), or extreme poverty ($12,000 annually for a family of four). What does the Bible have to say to the women who live under these circumstances? What does the Bible have to say to the people and policies that are responsible for the perpetuation of inequities driven by race, gender, and class or income? What does the Bible say to the church in terms of its role and responsibility in addressing and calling for the elimination of any and all disadvantages and forms of discrimination faced by African American women living in poverty?

Womanist Theology is a critique of earlier approaches to biblical interpretation that may have separately addressed race, gender, or poverty, but never attempted to address them as inter-related realities. For instance, Black Theology, associated here with the work of James Cone[i] focused primarily on the issue of race and racism within the context of American Christianity. Cone wondered how it was possible for white theologians to overlook the brutality being experienced by black people while those theologians were writing about the Bible and its implications for church and society. Cone also attempted to address how it was possible to be both black and Christian despite the behavior of so many white Christians over the last 400 years. However, as powerful as Cone and others were in exploring matters of race, they were not initially focused on the blatant sexism or homophobia within African American churches.

Liberation Theology, associated here with the work of the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez,[ii] focused on poverty and wealth disparity with a primary focus on Central America and South America. It confronted the policies and practices of governments and private corporations that caused or contributed to systemic economic inequality. Attention was brought to the issues of the minimum wage for workers, the imbalance between the salary of workers and upper management in various companies, and the inability to afford health care, child care, or transportation to work. These are the things that work to perpetuate poverty from one generation to the next. However, Liberation Theology did not give much attention to sexism, domestic violence against women, or the patriarchal nature of the church.

Feminist Theology, associated here with the work of Rosemary Ruether, Letty Russell, and Phyllis Trible,[iii] focused on the sexism in church and society and on the way biblical texts were used or misused to justify and perpetuate the limited leadership roles afforded to women. In partnership with secular voices like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, feminist theology (and feminism more broadly) included such issues as wage disparity between men and women, women’s reproductive rights, and the representation or depiction of women in popular culture. Yet, black women noted that feminist theologians and cultural advocates were nonetheless the intentional or unintentional beneficiaries of white privilege and access to economic opportunities not available to women of color simply because they were women of color.

Nothing being said here should in any way be read as minimizing the importance, even the urgency, of considering race, gender, or poverty as aspects of the human experience that determine how some people are required to face the world in general, and their world in particular, on a daily basis. The church universal needed to be confronted with the issues of racial discrimination and race-based violence, the public and private policies and practices that have resulted in gross wealth disparity in this country and around the world, and the sexism that takes the form of physical and emotional violence and the patriarchal practices that have limited opportunities for women in the church and in the broader society.

The point being made here is that it has been possible for some people to experience one of these realities without necessarily having had to experience the other two. For instance, as an African American male in a racialized society I was nonetheless able to earn more money in my first job at the age of 24 than my mother earned when she retired at the age of 65. My exposure to racism has been substantially muted by being a somewhat affluent male. Thus, Womanist Theology as associated with the work of Katie Cannon[iv] seeks to make church and society keenly aware of the conditions faced every day by persons that face what Jacqueline Grant called “the tri-dimensional experience”[v] of being a poor, black woman in a capitalist and patriarchal culture where even the black church participates in your marginalization. Womanist Theology should not be cut off from its historical antecedents, which date back to Jarena Lee seeking ordination in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1809 and being told by Richard Allen that “our discipline knew nothing at all about it – it did not call for women preachers.”[vi] 

Since the emergence of Womanist Theology, other forms of biblical interpretation have emerged that seek to call attention to other groups and other voices that focus on other ways in which human lives are marginalized or simply ignored within the church and within the wider society. They include such efforts as Post-Colonial Theology, which considers the impact of colonial rule and the impact of empires, both in the Bible and in the last several hundred years. Queer Theology has emerged to address the experience of the LGBTQ community and the way in which biblical verses have been used to define, demean, and even dehumanize persons in that group. Native American Liberation Theology has also emerged to respond to the ways in which Native people in all of the Americas have been robbed of their land, their way of life, and their traditional religious practices. Christine M. Smith has compiled a helpful set of sermons that give voice to these and other overlooked and underrepresented groups.[vii]

Women’s History Month is a good time to focus on Womanist Theology as part of a continuing conversation about the contexts in which the Bible was written, in which it is currently being interpreted, and in which many who read the Bible are living every day.

Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Seabury Press, 1969), A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970), God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018).

[ii] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

[iii] Rosemary Ruether, Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1972), Letty Russell, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), and Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984).

[iv] Katie Cannon, Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (New York: Continuum, 1995), cf. Toward a Womanist Homiletic: Katie Cannon, Alice Walker and Emancipatory Proclamation by Donna E. Allen (Peter Lang, Inc., International Academic Publishers, 2013).

[v] Marvin A. McMickle, “Womanist Theology,” in An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002, pp. 274-275.

[vi] Ibid, pp. 70-72.

[vii] Christine M. Smith, Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Want the latest from The Christian Citizen?
Subscribe to Christian Citizen Weekly

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This