Series editor’s note: Throughout 2021, “Deeper understandings” will continue to engage the ELCA’s commitment to authentic diversity. Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar will carry on this theme in the next issue. —Kathryn A. Kleinhans, dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio
In 2019, Lutheran womanists from around the world gathered for the Womanist Wellness Convening in St. Louis. We gathered 20 miles from Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown had been killed by a police officer in 2014. We gathered in the city where, during a 2017 peaceful protest against another police shooting, a grandmother had been arrested for protecting her 13-year-old grandson (about the age of Jesus when he went into the synagogue) as he was being held on the ground by police, unable to breathe due to his asthma.
The women gathered at the Phyllis Wheatley Heritage Center, named for the first African American author of a published book of poetry, who had been kidnapped by slavers in 1753 at age 7 or 8. As the center’s director stated at the gathering, Wheatley’s works transcend the hardship of racism, sexism and poverty and continue to challenge and admonish God’s people that prejudice and bigotry are decidedly un-Christian. This was a womanist gathering.
The term “womanist,” coined by Alice Walker in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (Harcourt, 1982), is drawn from the experiences of African American women. Womanism centers love as the orientation one should have to the world. Elements of tradition, community, health, survival and wholeness of all people are also central to Walker’s definition. This perspective takes seriously issues of race, class and gender.
Womanism centers love as the orientation one should have to the world.
Womanists work toward the wholeness and sustainability of the community and our ecosystem. They understand that our work and responsibility for stewardship, justice-seeking and equity is the work our Creator has given us individually and collectively.
Theologian Katie Geneva Cannon said that womanists must engage in radical self-care “to do the work one’s soul must have.” Womanists understand that their God-given voices matter. They reframe what it means to be God’s people in order to respond to God and more freely to others, addressing the world’s ills.
For Lutheran theology to be transformative and relevant to all of God’s people, we must explore how we understand God. Reading the sacred text through the lens of race, class and gender, as womanists do, opens up new understandings of God.
“How are the children?”
Race analysis helps us understand that Jesus could not have been hidden in Egypt if he had been a blond-headed little boy. Class analysis helps us understand the position of the slave girl Hagar (Genesis 16 and 21) and begin to hear what God is saying to us through her story. Gender analysis helps us see not only that Moses was a liberator but also that the midwives Shiphrah and Puah played a major role in God’s redemptive story (Exodus 1).
What would it mean for us all to be midwives, understanding that our role is to work for the lives of God’s children—understanding that race, gender and class do matter?
Late last year, the women gathered again—with men too. This time, we met virtually with our Lutheran siblings. We gathered amid a pandemic during which, months earlier in Minneapolis, another Black man had died after uttering the words “I can’t breathe” and calling for his mother. Shiphrah and Puah were not around to save him. We gathered in a year when the people of this country could not come together to engage in class analysis in order to create a better world where all people would flourish.
Only if all the children are OK is the community OK.
This time, we gathered to say goodbye to Cheryl Angela Steward Pero, the first African American Lutheran woman to receive her doctorate in New Testament study. She was committed to womanist principles and desired that womanist theology be taught in the academy and in the community. So, in her honor, we call for the midwives to birth something new in this church and world.
Extended to all God’s people, this is a call to work for the wholeness of the community and our ecosystem. It’s a call to shared leadership and engagement, to offer everyone dignity and the right to live, with an understanding that our collective work and responsibility for stewardship, justice-seeking and equity is the work our Creator has given us all.
It’s also a call to respond in action to the African greeting “How are the children?” Only if all the children are OK is the community OK. It is a call to radical self-care, a call to love.
Womanist theology is constructive in that it envisions and reconciles what is and the powerfully productive kingdom of God that should be. Engaging in a womanist way, we would be poised to spread the good news, understanding the complexity of race, class and gender—and knowing, too, that God is with us.