Womanist theology saved my faith

I needed empowerment, not another call to serve and suffer

Sarah Ann Bixler and family — from left: Juliet, Sarah, Calvin, Eve and Benjamin — in 2016 at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she first encountered womanist theology. — Courtesy of Sarah Ann Bixler Sarah Ann Bixler and family — from left: Juliet, Sarah, Calvin, Eve and Benjamin — in 2016 at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she first encountered womanist theology. — Courtesy of Sarah Ann Bixler

I was raised in a male-dominated world. Growing up near Lancaster, Pa., in the 1990s, I never heard a woman deliver a sermon. I had no female role models in my early years of church leadership. Women were celebrated for their in-the-background roles of service. Though I knew many women who were leading subversively, I didn’t recognize it.

It was not until I worked for Virginia Mennonite Conference in the early 2000s that I saw the church calling and affirming women in leadership roles. Even then, there were disheartening and angering moments when I thought, If I were a man, I would be treated differently.

With a limited view of women that emphasized servant leadership, the first time I sincerely thanked God for creating me a woman was when I became a mother. I felt a sense of power that was uniquely female.

But when my next pregnancy ended in miscarriage, this false epiphany came crashing down. Less than a year later, the premature birth of my daughter shook me to the core.

I could not reconcile the female images of servanthood and experiences of suffering with a God I longed to believe was loving, in whose image I was created good without needing to prove my usefulness. I searched for a God who could affirm me for who I was, not for what my body could birth.

Where Mennonite theology and practice fell short for me, womanist theology saved my faith.

In my first year in seminary, 2013, I encountered womanist writers. They spoke to the longings of my soul. In Making a Way Out of No Way, Monica Coleman described how a view of God as omnipotent and providential did not address the complexity of African- American survivors of domestic abuse.

Coleman’s writing introduced me to womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant, who described Christ as a Black woman, a savior whose suffering was like the suffering of women. Because God experienced suffering alongside humanity, God cared enough to save.

This was an important shift for me: God saves out of empathy and compassion, not to make a sacrifice for human sin. Coleman pointed out how a sacrificial theology justified abuse and suffering, and I had seen that in the Mennonite church. I didn’t need any more of that. I needed a God who felt my experience and had the power to make me whole.

Theologian JoAnne Marie Terrell provided another breakthrough. Instead of God requiring blood to atone for sin, Terrell said God reveres blood. As Christians, we can recognize blood as a powerful symbol in life and death but not hold God responsible for its being shed. For Terrell, Jesus’ offering himself unto death witnesses to God’s love and sets an example that instructs and saves.

The redemptive womanist vision of Jesus’ death and his shed blood offered me hope. With Terrell, I saw a new vision of “the empty cross [as] a symbol of God’s continuous empowerment.” I found a God who not only suffers with women but has the compassion and the power to liberate us from suffering.

This is what I needed: a word of empowerment, not another call to serve and suffer. I realized womanist perspectives pointed me toward a nonviolent theology more in keeping with Anabaptist convictions than some of the ideas I picked up earlier in Mennonite communities.

In the 10 years since my introduction to womanist theology, I have listened to womanist theologians to deepen my Anabaptist theology. Working out our theology — which literally means “words about God” — is a lifelong task. For me, womanist theology was the pivot point from despair to hope.

Portions of this article were published as “For the Love of Motherhood: Theological Reflections on Birth, Miscarriage and Infant Loss” in All You Need is Love: Honoring the Diversity of Women’s Voices in Theology, edited by Jennifer Castro (Mennonite Church USA, 2016).

Sarah Ann Bixler teaches formation and practical theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, where she is associate dean. She is a member of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. 

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