The imagined conversation in Women Talking — the acclaimed film based on the aftermath of serial rapes at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia — reflects the irony that false religion oppresses while authentic faith empowers.
The women in the film take solace in the Scripture and songs of their faith — the same religion that produced their community’s toxic culture, harboring rapists.
This contrast between abusive religion and redemptive faith exemplifies why womanist theology exists — and why Anabaptists are embracing this relatively new branch of theology.
Validating Black female experience, womanism empowers, heals and liberates in ways that Women Talking imagines in a much different setting.
As defined by Delores S. Williams, a theologian who died Nov. 17 at 88, womanism takes the “faith, thought and struggle of Black woman seriously as a primary theological source.”
Like Christian feminism in general, womanism expands our understanding of God to include feminine metaphors and affirms women at every level of church leadership.
As a specific type of Christian feminism, womanism validates Black women’s experience and bolsters the church’s commitment to racial justice.
Understanding womanist thought is important as Anabaptist churches and institutions become more racially diverse and as we benefit from female leaders’ gifts.
Paying attention to the voices of Black women, white Christians learn how the world looks to those who have been excluded and devalued due to their race and gender.
“Just like my enslaved African ancestors, I had been taught that God wasn’t anywhere to be found in me,” writes Christena Cleveland in God Is a Black Woman (HarperOne, 2022).
Cleveland describes how metaphors for God influence our perceptions of ourselves and others. She draws a contrast between “whitemalegod” and the Sacred Black Feminine. The former affirms the dignity and sacredness of those who hold power. The latter lifts those at the bottom of the hierarchy. This has a ripple effect.
“If society’s least sacred are made sacred by Her identification with them, then truly all are sacred,” Cleveland says. “Though She specifically declares Black women to be sacred, She affirms the sacredness of all.”
Womanist theology points toward Jesus’ promise that the last shall be first. Black women, Cleveland reminds us, are among society’s most marginalized. Womanism challenges the church to affirm those who have been devalued and to honor the transformation this respect brings.
“Our identities soar when we begin to relate to a God who calls us sacred,” Cleveland says.
Then the ripple effect: The church gains strength as women and people of color rise to leadership and bring skills white men may lack.
Black women, struggling for survival, honed “lifeline strategies” of relational interdependence, communal support and compassion, says theologian Judith Plaskow, citing the legacy of Delores S. Williams. These skills are essential for Christian ministry in a time when loneliness and anxiety afflict so many.
By empowering the excluded, womanist theology serves as a model for Christian ministry. Combining antisexism and antiracism, it embodies two priorities as Christians try to atone for sins that have stained the church’s witness.
One way Anabaptists are working toward racial and gender equality is through events such as February’s Hope for the Future conference, which supported Black, Indigenous and people of color in roles of leadership and influence. Resilience in the face of trauma was one of the themes at Hope for the Future and also at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s annual Pastors & Leaders gathering.
“The gospel of Jesus Christ promises to liberate creation from that which binds or harms,” said Joni Sancken at Pastors & Leaders.
Womanist theology contributes to liberation from harm based on race and gender. Bearing the scars of generational trauma, Black women have much to teach about resilience. Nothing could be more valuable and sacred.