Saturday, March 23, 2013

Racism and Sexism.

I've been reading some essays by Delores S. Williams this week in response to James Cone's black liberation theology. Williams responds to Cone from a black womanist perspective, and I wish I could express how challenging her writings have been to read over the last couple of days. There is so much to say about Williams and her questions, concerns, critiques, and objections to black liberation theology despite her support of it. One can not read Williams and emerge unchanged in relation to her particular critiques of black liberation theology (or a general biblical hermeneutic of liberation). What I find particularly remarkable about Williams' critiques of Cone is that she makes him aware of how critical sexism is to the fight for liberation and the inherent interconnectedness of racism and sexism. The patriarchal subjugation of black women is not simply a secondary or minor issue that must be addressed within the black community, but rather an essential part of the black struggle against racism. These are some of the powerful questions she asks of Cone:
"It sounded good, indeed, to hear Cone say, 'If we black male theologians do not take seriously the need to incorporate into our theology a critique of our sexist practices in the black community, then we have no right to complain when white theologians snub black theology.' 
Yet when I paraphrased some of the quotations from Malcolm X and others that Cone used in the 1986 preface [of A Black Theology of Liberation], I was stunned by the kind of action intimated for black women struggling to be free of sexist oppression in the black community. I found myself asking: Could Cone affirm the action for black women that logically follows what he and Malcolm X say in the book? For instance, take this quote from Malcolm X that appeared in Cone's new preface: 'I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that won't let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion.' As a black womanist-feminist theologian, I paraphrase that quotation to say, 'Any time I have to accept a religion that won't let me fight a battle for oppressed black women, I say to hell with that religion.' Inasmuch as black Christian religion - manifested in the practice and theology of the black church - is often antagonistic to women's struggle for liberation, black Christian women could say, 'To hell with the black church and the black expression of Christian religion in it.' This could mean that the black church in America might cease to exist, since black women are its blood, bone, and sinew. If black women said 'to hell with the sexist black churches' and left them, thereby allow them to crumble, could Cone validate this action? Part of me wants to say he could; another part of me is uneasy, given the absence of black women's words of wisdom and advice from Cone's preface. All the inspiration, wisdom, and advice contained in the material Cone quotes comes from men like Malcolm X, and on occasion, W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King. Not a single woman is named, quoted, or given credit for contributing to the transformations Cone says he had made in his thought and style in the last twenty years. 
My attention focused upon another quotation from Malcolm X cited by Cone in his new preface: 'Don't let anybody who is oppressing us ever lay the ground rules. Don't go by their games, don't play by their rules. Let them know now that this is a new game, and we've got some new rules...' Paraphrased within my womanist-feminist framework this quote reads: 'Don't let anybody who is oppressing black women ever lay the ground rules. Don't go by their games, don't play the game by their rules. Let them know now that this is a new game, and black women have got some new rules...' In the African American community the rules for 'the church game,' 'the political game,' 'the mating game,' and a host of other games have been determined by males. Should black women, 'by whatever means necessary,' destroy the male rules and inaugurate new games determined by black women's rules? Can the new consciousness about black sexism which Cone claims in the 1986 preface support such a power shift in the black church, in the seminaries where black men and women teach, and in the black community? And I wonder if Cone, who says 'I knew racism was a heresy,' would also agree that sexism is heresy? Part of me says he would." 
- Delores S. Williams, "James Cone's Liberation: Twenty Years Later," 190-191.
Cone responds to Williams' questions with an incredible amount of openness and sincerity. I was genuinely impressed with the type of receptivity that Cone displayed in his response in light of Williams' quite pointed and critical essay. While Cone admits that he has a long way to go and didn't quite "get it" before given his particular male perspective and experiences, he expresses a sincere desire to appropriate womanist concerns as an essential part of his theological trajectory instead of making or viewing sexism as some sort auxiliary concern. There is so much for all theologians to learn from this exchange between Williams and Cone. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to read it.

1 comment:

Rod Lampard said...

Not that I am of the same caliber as James Cone nor am I black or an American, but I can relate to his comments on some levels. Your description of Cone's reply to Delores Williams reminded me of my own 'Johari blind spot'.

I have found it extremly helpful to gain a women's perspective in my own theological journey. Particularly from women such as Jean B. Elshtain, Dorothy Sayers, Marva Dawn, Corrie Ten Boom and Sally Mortgenthaler (and at the risk of sounding pretentious, I will add this blog and its author in that list).

However, I am not a big fan of the overly critical nature feminist theology seems to have. E.g.: the appearance that feminist theogians want to grind all pre-1960's theology into partriarchal dust. Perhaps we men find the language too confronting or dare I say belittling? I am yet to conclude on why. Right now my own thoughts here are YES the theological Gentlemans club needs to include the ladies and cherish their perspective for a holistic theological viewpoint.

The caveat is that both men and women need to keep theology and ideology separate. As Barth argues: 'theology must be the critique of ideology...otherwise we are taken over by the party line...and become it's mouthpeice' (Barth cited by Gorringe 'Against Hegemony' 1999,pp.3 & 99).

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