Salvific Teachings: Womanism and the Gospel

Herb Montgomery | September 7, 2018

 

Picture portraying three Women of Color

Photo Credit: Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash


“Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the ‘gospel of God’ is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.”


 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

This week we take our third and final look at Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of the experiences of members of vulnerable communities who daily face marginalization, domination, exploitation and/or oppression. We are going to listen at the feet of one of the greatest womanist theologians of our time, Delores S. Williams.

 

Last week, we considered how many feminist theologians reject the sufferings of Jesus as redemptive because of the lethal fruit this interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion has produced in the lives of women. Womanist theologians hav e the same concern.

 

“African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering — if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive.” (Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 161)

 

Seeking an alternative source of redemption in Jesus other than his sufferings, Williams addresses one the most historically damaging interpretations of Jesus’ death: Substitution, or as Williams calls it “surrogacy.” It doesn’t matter whether a theology represents Jesus standing in the place of God or of people. To the degree that Jesus was a substitute, representative, or “surrogate” sufferer in one’s interpretation of Jesus’ cross, then to that same degree surrogacy takes on “the aura of the sacred” and is divinely validated as an acceptable way for people to relate to each other. After all, if Jesus or God both participated in surrogacy, surrogacy itself cannot be impugned without calling the morality or justice of both Jesus or God into question as well. That has a particular import for Black women, historically forced into surrogacy during and following the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (For further discussion on the oppression of Black women specifically in the context of surrogacy see Sisters in the Wilderness; The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p 40-60)

 

“In this sense Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind. Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred. It is therefore fitting and proper for black women to ask whether the image of a surrogate-God has salvific power for black women or whether this image supports and reinforces the exploitation that has accompanied their experience with surrogacy. If black women accept this idea of redemption, can they not also passively accept the exploitation that surrogacy brings?” (Delores S. Williams; Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 127)

 

Some differentiate Jesus’ surrogacy for humanity from the historical surrogacy role of Black women under the subjugation of their oppressors by saying Jesus’ surrogacy was voluntary. Williams finds such rhetoric insufficient:

 

“After emancipation, the coercion associated with antebellum surrogacy was replaced by social pressures that influenced many black women to continue to fill some surrogacy roles. But there was an important difference between antebellum surrogacy and postbellum surrogacy. The difference was that black women, after emancipation, could exercise the choice of refusing the surrogate role, but social pressures often influenced the choices black women made as they adjusted to life in a free world. Thus postbellum surrogacy can be referred to as voluntary (though pressured) surrogacy.” (Ibid., p. 41)

 

Williams offers an alternative interpretation of Jesus as a source of redemption. Jesus, she explains, gave “humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” This is, by far, my favorite paragraph from Williams on this subject:

 

“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Ibid., pp. 130-131) 

 

Now, it is up to us whether or not we will follow Jesus and practice his vision, whether we will follow this “ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life.” If the world doesn’t seem that different after Jesus than it was before, then it’s not that Jesus’ teachings have been tried and found wanting. As Chesterton stated, they have “been found difficult and left untried” (What’s Wrong with the World, Part 1, Chapter 5).

 

To focus on Jesus’ Kingdom of God theme as “the gospel”, the good news, and the source of redemption holds the most weight in the gospels. The gospels do not define the good news as “Jesus died for you.” The good news of the gospels is, every time, the Kingdom among us.

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

 

Notice that in this passage, which is not at all unique to the gospels, the “gospel of God” is the announcement of the arrival of the reign or kingdom of God, who desires a world that is a safe, distributively just, and compassionate home for everyone. This was indeed, good news to the oppressed, marginalized and exploited of Jesus’ time, and it’s good news in our time as well.

Consider this statement in Luke’s gospel:

 

“ So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the gospel [euangelion] and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:6) 

 

What I love about this passage is that it tells us that followers of Jesus were t preaching the gospel far and wide, but Jesus had not yet died, much less been resurrected. What, then, were his followers telling people when they proclaimed the gospel? Whatever it was, their message was a gospel without a cross and without a resurrection. We have to let that confront us. 

 

According to Luke, it is possible to preach the gospel and never mention the cross or the resurrection. What were they sharing instead? They were announcing the kingdom and it was good news! The good news is always primarily about the kingdom, the new social vision for humanity that Jesus taught was possible here and now.

 

Consider  the book of Acts and take note of the gospel they were proclaiming:

 

“But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God . . .” (Acts 8:12)

 

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

 

“Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” (Acts 20:25)

 

“They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23)

 

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28.30-31)

 

I believe Delores Williams is onto something significant.  Survival, liberation, redemption, salvation, and quality of life—in the Jesus story these are the themes that come through what Jesus called the kingdom or reign of God. Again, “The kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” This is what is salvific about Jesus and his teachings.

 

Williams continues, “Humankind is, then, redeemed through Jesus’ ministerial vision of life and not through his death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience. Neither can Christian faith affirm such an idea. Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132)

 

As challenging as Williams’ words are to our traditional interpretations, they hold promise, too.y Consider again the book of Acts. Even after Jesus died, the gospel was primarily about the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus had died and was resurrected but the story of the gospel would not include his death  fin its proclamation of the kingdom, and the emphasis when Jesus’ life story was told was not on Jesus’ death but his resurrection. The good news, in other words, was not that Jesus had died, but that he was alive! The Romans couldn’t stop him, and  a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold this prophet of the poor. He was still out there, still recruiting, still calling people to “follow me.” 

 

Notice the good news now emphasizes his resurrection over his death:

 

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33)

 

“You crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:22-24)

 

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32-33)

 

“You handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-16)

 

 “. . . Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10-11)

 

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30-32)

 

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:36-43)

 

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead . . . And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13:35-38)

 

It is quite possible that atonement theories that focus on explaining how Jesus’ violent death saves us are trying to answer the wrong question. To use Williams’ phrase, a “more intelligent” question might be how do Jesus’ teachings save us? What does salvation mean for us here and now? Why did the proclamation that Jesus was alive inspire such hope among the  oppressed communities of Galilee and the surrounding areas in the 1st Century? However one interprets  the story of Jesus’ resurrection today, we cannot miss that it gave hope as good news to the early followers beyond hope for an afterlife. It gave them hope for this life. The reign of God had come near. The powers that be had tried to stop it, but failed. Another world is possible.

 

If what we learned last week holds any weight, if interpreting suffering as being redemptive is deeply damaging to marginalized and vulnerable communities, then this week we are being offered an alternative interpretation. tThe teachings of Jesus are salvific:  his vision for life and human community, his vision of distributive justice, the golden rule, our loving of one another as the interconnected begins that we are , his call to solidarity with those presently oppressed. These teachings and more point to a way that’s different from the course the status quo is presently pursuing. It’s a way or path to life. And it still calls to Jesus’ followers today.

 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1.14-15)

 

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And thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

 

Another world is possible. 

 

I love each of you dearly.

 

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

Being Full of Pity 

by Herb Montgomery

Rainbow in mountain valley during sunset. Beautiful natural landscape

“Be full of pity, just as your Father is full of pity.” (Q 6:36)

Luke 6:36: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We can split this week’s saying into two parts. The first portion is obvious: the call to adopt God’s “pity” and apply it to the way we relate to each other. The second portion of the saying involves Jesus naming God our “Father.” Let’s begin with this second part first.

Many have described Jesus as progressive for his era in his estimation of and relation to women. Eliel Cruz’s piece 7 Reasons Why Jesus Would Have Been a Proud Feminist highlights some of the evidence for this. Yet Jesus still taught in the gender inequality of his culture.

In a presentation I gave in the summer of 2015, The Radically Inclusive Jesus, I argued that Jesus taught that women also bore the image of the Divine. In the Gospels, Jesus uses feminine images to represent God and God’s reign. (See Matthew 13:33; Luke 15:8; Luke 13:34; and Matthew 23:37.) Writers also argue that including feminine images for God as Jesus did was perfectly in harmony with the Hebrew scriptures (see “Biblical Proofs” for the Feminine Face of God in Scripture).

There is more to the affirmation of women in the Jesus story than egalitarianism however. Marcella Althaus Reid (Indecent Theology) is just one theologian who has pointed out the problems created for women because both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives begin with a virgin birth. Matthew also centers male perspectives and voices in sections of his gospel, including the Sermon on the Mount. Delores Williams (Sisters in the Wilderness), Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse), and Rita Nakashima Brock (Journeys of the Heart) all critique traditional interpretations of Jesus’ death and how those interpretations have contributed to the abuse of women. This week’s saying presents another challenge to the treatment of women within Judaism and Christianity, and that challenge is Jesus’ gendered term for God, “Father.”

Karen Armstrong makes a helpful statement in her book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions about the patriarchy of Axial Age cultures like Judaism:

“The Axial Age was not perfect. A major failing was its indifference to women. These spiritualities nearly all developed in an urban environment, dominated by military power and aggressive commercial activity, where women tended to lose the status they had enjoyed in a more rural economy. There are no female Axial sages, and even when women were allowed to take an active role in the new faith, they were usually sidelined. It was not that the Axial sages hated women; most of the time, they simply did not notice them. When they spoke about the “great” or “enlightened man,” they did not mean “men and women”—though most, if challenged, would probably have admitted that women were capable of this liberation too . . . It is not as though the Axial sages were out-and-out misogynists, like some of the fathers of the church, for example. They were men of their time, and so preoccupied with the aggressive behavior of their own sex that they rarely gave women a second thought. We cannot follow the Axial reformers slavishly; indeed, to do so would fundamentally violate the spirit of the Axial Age, which insisted that this kind of conformity trapped people in an inferior and immature version of themselves. What we can do is extend the Axial ideal of universal concern to everybody, including the female sex. When we try to re-create the Axial vision, we must bring the best insights of modernity to the table.” (p. xxii)

I agree with Karen here. In the New Testament we witness a push and pull in the stories of women for liberation from male-dominated oppression in the early churches. That these stories survived means that at least some women in the early church felt Jesus’ teachings set them on a trajectory of egalitarianism. One book that made a strong case for the beginnings of equality for women in the Jesus story is Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee. (Unfortunately this book assumes firm gender binaries.) Elaine Pagels also acknowledges this struggle in her book The Gnostic Gospels. She writes that one of the differences between those who won and those who lost the power struggle for control in the church of the second and third centuries was their difference of opinion on whether women and men were equal.

So again, I agree with Karen’s statement above. The trajectory of the Jesus story can inspire us to bring to our reading of the gospels the “best insights of modernity.” As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the Pharisees eventually embrace recognizing every person as bearing the image of God, regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. That same trajectory eventually allowed people to recognize the image of God in women as well as men, too. We see this trajectory acknowledged in the writings of the controversial New Testament Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) James V. Brownson (Bible, Gender and Sexuality) pointedly states that within the New Testament there are two streams.  One is egalitarianism and the other patriarchy.  The question we have to answer for ourselves is whether we perceive Jesus as pointing the way from the stream of egalitarianism toward patriarchy or from patriarchy toward egalitarianism.

So today, as we recognize the equality of “male” and “female,” it is just as appropriate to speak of God as a parent, to refer to God as both mother and father, or “Mother-Father” God. We could just as accurately say, “Be full of pity, just as your Mother-Father God is full of pity.” [1]

Pity Versus Compassion

The saying for this week follows Jesus’s reference to a God who causes the sun to “rise” and the rain to fall on all indiscriminately and Jesus calls us to imitate this.

The word for “pity” in Luke, which the International Q Project most believes reflects the Q document, is oiktirmones. Oiktirmones can be translated as compassion, pity, or mercy, and each of these translations has subtle differences, so let’s discuss each of them.

Compassion is sympathy for those who are suffering and a desire to alleviate their suffering and work toward their liberation. Pity can imply a feeling of superiority; whereas mercy is compassion shown toward someone who deserves punishment or harm.

Most can more easily embrace the ethic of compassion toward the suffering than they can muster the ethic of compassion on those who deserve punishment (mercy). And pity is even easier than both.

The teachings and example of Jesus do affirm compassion toward the suffering and oppressed. Yet the sayings of Jesus we’ve explored over the last few weeks also teach us how to relate to our enemies, those who persecute and oppress other people.

When we apply pity or compassion to our persecutors, enemies, or oppressors, the differences become clearer. Pity contains the temptation to believe that we are superior and disconnected from oppressors. But our goal is interconnectedness, not superiority. All humanity is connected, and Jesus sets the radical transformation of oppressors as the goal we should strive for.

As Howard Thurman relates in Jesus and the Disinherited, the slave participating in slave masters’ Christian worship services could easily reason, “I’m having hell now. When I die, I shall have my heaven. The master’s having his heaven now. When he dies, he will have his hell.” And the following day, speaking of the master, that slave could say “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven, ain’t going there!” (p. 60)

But the deep human desire is not to merely survive this life’s oppression, but to thrive through liberation. Compassion will get us closer to liberation than superiority ever will. Perhaps, oppressors should be pitied for being captive to a system of injustice that is broader than them, but compassion in the form of mercy can lift us above mere pity to work toward the transformation of our oppressors.

Let’s also note that Matthew uses the term teleios, usually translated as “perfect.” Teleios is the Greek word from which we get our modern word telos. A telos is an ultimate goal or aim. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains that he had come not to abolish the Torah but to bring it to completeness (pleroo). He is in agreement with Hillel in seeing the Torah as the beginning of a trajectory that is not complete until it ends in compassion. Whether someone is our peer and able to reciprocate, lower on the social pyramid and without the ability to reciprocate, or an enemy, higher on that pyramid, we follow Jesus by treating them with the compassion and mercy we would want to receive. For Jesus, the reign of God is people taking care of people. And that was the aim that the Torah always pointed to.

In this, we come back to our original points this week. The Jesus story is part of that Jewish trajectory that ends with egalitarianism not only between men and women, but among everyone. At the end of that trajectory, no one dominates or subjugates another. We have a world where we learn to serve one another rather than create more efficient means of depriving others. In that world, we choose the way of compassion for everyone, a compassion as indiscriminate as the shining sun and falling rain. In acknowledging that our world is a shared table, we wake up, nonviolently confront evil, and transform our world into a safer, more compassionate home for us all.

The way of compassion is rooted in being “full of pity, just as your Mother/Father is full of pity.” (Q 6:36)

HeartGroup Application 

1. This week, write out what compassion looks like, in your view, for the three groups we mentioned above.

a. Those presently suffering from whom you will not receive anything in return.

b. Those you consider your peers who have the ability to reciprocate when you give.

c. Those with whom you believe you have a negative relationship.

2. Discuss with your HeartGroup what each expression of compassion looks like and which of these three you feel would most transform your world.

3. Choose one of these three compassionate actions to practice this week.

Thank you for joining us this week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

 


 

1. I did not get to choose the title of my first book, Finding the Father. The publishers chose that title.