Technicolor truth-telling

Living in the overlap of womanist theology and Anabaptism

Malinda Elizabeth Berry, associate professor of theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, presents the charge to the graduates at AMBS’s commencement service in August 2020. — Peter Ringenberg/AMBS Malinda Elizabeth Berry, associate professor of theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, presents the charge to the graduates at AMBS’s commencement service in August 2020. — Peter Ringenberg/AMBS

I feel honored to be in a unique place to speak to the overlap between womanist theology and Anabaptism. In my experience, 99.9% of Anabaptist-Mennonites are unaware of womanist theology beyond the basic idea that it focuses on Black women’s experience.

And there is so much more to ­womanism than that.

In The Womanist Reader, Layli Phillips Maparyan defines womanism as “a social change perspective rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces.”

Womanism is so bold as to believe it is possible to end all forms of oppression among humans, restore the balance between people and all of Creation, and reconcile material and spiritual reality.

Working on this article has taken me back to things I wrote over the past two decades that helped me draw from both womanism and Anabaptism. It has been joyful for me to embrace womanist theology’s insistence on truth-telling and its technicolor vision for wholeness.

I know that to some, womanism sounds like identity politics, which the church should transcend. Identity politics focuses on gathering people together based on shared aspects of identity to make change. Many Christians read passages like Galatians 3:28 to say that if we focus on differences, we risk being divided by worldly forces rather than united in Christ.

While there is merit to this way of thinking — Paul sees how tempting it is to focus on differences — the ­passage can also make the opposite point. Anti-slavery abolitionists and women’s rights proponents used Galatians 3:28 to envision unity and freedom from social and political hierarchies.

To understand womanism, one has to believe that rather than erasing social identity, Christian formation should help us integrate our social identity into our calling to follow Jesus.

One example of doing theology this way that influenced me was Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver, who tried to widen the circle of conversation partners to include feminist, womanist and Black liberation theologians in his book The Nonviolent Atonement.

My womanist role models — who include Delores S. Williams and Emilie Townes, my professors at Union Theological Seminary, the intellectual birthplace of womanist theology — rely on varied modes of expression to speak of God (poetry, novels, dance, music, visual arts, film). They didn’t need to teach me how to do this. I already knew how to follow the impulse to understand Toni Morrison’s novels as a commentary on “America” and Western Christianity. What I didn’t know was that this was womanism showing up in my life.

What I did need to learn was the big-H “How”: To be a womanist theologian is to 1) scoop the complexities of my identity into my arms and hug them into the name “Black Woman,” and 2) listen to my gut and heart and trust that my head will follow.

This is the work of a lifetime, and it isn’t easy. I’m committed to being my fiercely intelligent womanist self in Anabaptist institutional spaces where my insider-outsider presence brings as much complexity and confusion as it does diversity.

Being shaped by womanism helped me articulate two central tenets of my Anabaptist-Mennonite theology.

First, the shape of the cross is also the shape of a figure, a human trying to reconcile what it means to be an individual whose life takes place in ­systems that heal and hurt.

Second, the three core ideas of womanist theology outlined in Williams’ work — wilderness, survival, quality of life — helped me see that Doris Janzen Longacre’s More-with-Less Cookbook and Living More with Less are about more than simple living. They offer patterns for doing theological work that follow the contours of womanism.

So yes, for me, there is significant overlap between womanist theology and Anabaptism. But I wonder: How does this overlap with our preference for doing theology by beginning with the question, “What did the 16th-­century European reformers think?”

Melinda Elizabeth Berry teaches theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

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