Emerging in the mid-1980s, womanist theology is the work of African-American women theologians, church historians, ethicists, sociologists of religion, and biblical scholars. The term was coined by Alice Walker, who offered a definition of the word in her 1984 book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Walker described a womanist as a "Black feminist or feminist of color" who is bold and assertive, relishes African-American culture, and is committed to the flourishing of the entire African-American community. Womanists explore the Christian faith in view of the unique experience and contributions of African-American women. Their focus is both historical and contemporary. It therefore gives voice to the particular concerns of African-American women, celebrates their strength and creativity, and is a form of resistance to the oppression they have suffered. Their goals include developing and transmitting insights that will lead to justice, revising theological doctrines so as to make them more inclusive, and, ultimately, making connections with other groups.
Womanists believe that traditional theology has not taken account of their experience. They have turned to black and feminist theologies in an effort to rectify this situation. Yet womanists have felt obliged to move beyond both, viewing them as wanting in significant ways. They object to the sexism of black male theology and the black church, as well as the racism of feminist theology. They stress what they call the multidimensional oppression of African-American women, who have been the victims of racism, sexism, and classism. Although they distinguish their movement from feminist and black theologies, womanists are not separatists. In fact, they see in their movement the possibility of reaching out to other communities. With all African Americans they share the reality of racism. Sexism gives them a point of contact with other women. Moreover, the poverty experienced by African-American women binds them to all poor people.
The sources used by womanists include the Bible, the thought and lives of historic African-American women, slave narratives, and African-American women's literature. Biblical scholars attempt to reinterpret biblical texts from their unique perspective, pointing to the need for different strategies of interpretation. In so doing, they focus on women of color in the Bible. Figures such as Hagar, the queen of Sheba, Mary, and others are explored to understand the ways in which they had been portrayed in the Bible, how they dealt with their situations, and how these texts have been interpreted. These scholars' primary interest in the life of Jesus centers on his identification with and concern for the poor. Church historians and ethicists seek to uncover the contributions of African-American women of the past. They ask how these women functioned within the church and within the African-American community. Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Jarena Lee, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett are among the women who have been of particular interest. In addition, the historians and ethicists have explored how the African-American church women have influenced the black community through their collection activities in the black church during slavery, the women's club movement, women's missionary societies, and political organizations. In addition, ethicists attempt to specify the values and virtues that can be used by contemporary African Americans to improve conditions.
Theologians have sought to reconstruct Christian doctrines, especially the doctrine of God and Christology. Like black, feminist, and liberation theologians, womanist theologians see in the Exodus evidence that God is particularly concerned with the poor and the oppressed. They stress this less than their black male counterparts, however, focusing on survival in addition to the theme of liberation. This notion of God's concern for the oppressed enables womanists to counteract the negative images of African Americans portrayed by the larger society. In thinking about the life and the work of Christ, they tend to stress his historic importance to the African-American church, especially women, and his ministry to and solidarity with outcasts. Jesus is therefore understood as a political messiah who suffers with and liberates African Americans.
Drawing on the example of historical figures and black women writers, ethicists attempt to uncover the values that have sustained the African-American community in the past, as well as those values that are needed today. They point to the fact that African-American women have embodied a communal ethic that has sought the survival of the whole community. To nurture the black community, African-American women have formed strong, supportive, nurturing relationships among themselves. These scholars have looked to the black women's literary tradition to understand the nature of these networks. Ethicists and theologians have found the works of novelists Toni Morrision, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Margaret Walker, among others, especially fruitful.
In the late 1980s there was a debate in the field about the advisability of adopting the secular term "womanist," particularly in view of Walker's endorsement of lesbianism in her definition. Despite this controversy, the term has gained widespread acceptance among most scholars. More recently, some womanists have debated whether womanist and Afrocentric thought are compatible. Some, pointing to the sexism of Afrocentric thought, have averred that womanists cannot embrace it. Others, however, believe them to be compatible, suggesting that womanism is inherently Afrocentric.
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