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.

 

 

Jesus’ Words to the Disinherited: Salt, Light, Justice, and Anger 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Eyes close-up little boy

“You are the light of the world.” — Jesus (Matthew 5.14)

Last week we talked about the difference it makes when we place the Sermon on the Mount in the context of Jesus belonging to and speaking among the community of the oppressed.

I’ve taken this week’s title from Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. If you have not read Thurman’s work, you really do owe it to yourself to do so. It’s a short read, and packed with insight.

There are four passages from the Sermon on the Mount that I’d like you to consider this week. Notice how each changes when we name their audience as the disinherited.

The Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matthew 5.13)

New studies show how first century farmers used salt as fertilizer added to manure to enrich their soil. With this metaphor, Jesus encourages his audience to more fully engage this world, “the earth,” not to escape it. The metaphor is about re-enriching the nutrient-depleted soil of this earth. Jesus directs the oppressed to place their focus on “this world,” not the next. He directs his audience away from escape and he empowers them to make a difference in the world they live in.

Imagine it this way. Compassion and safety for everyone are just two of the plants that grow out of the soil of a healthy society. When certain voices are marginalized or pushed to the fringes, their absence depletes the social soil. Jesus is here telling the marginalized and oppressed that they are the salt of the earth. Their inclusion can give back to the soil of a society the nutrients of a wider consciousness and perspective that enables compassion and safety for all to grow again. Including marginalized voices enables one to integrate the many diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: inclusion uproots weeds of fear and insecurity, and provides rich soil for a society to produce compassion in the place of those weeds.

Our societies today are depleted of compassion and safety for those who share this globe with us but whom our systems also force to live on the fringes. Jesus actually believes they are the “salt,” or the fertilizer, and their voices will give back to the soil the nutrients that need adding back to the societies of our world. Remember, Jesus is looking at the disinherited when he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

As we have said so often, Jesus’ shared table must not be homogenous. It is at a heterogenous table that we share our unique and different life experiences, form a more beautiful and coherent world view, and make this world a safer more compassionate place for us all. Through this teaching, Jesus is saying that it is the subordinated, the oppressed, and marginalized who restore the nutrients of society’s depleted soil. It is the disinherited who are the “salt of the earth.”

The Light of the World

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine. (Matthew 5:14-15)

When we understand Jesus’ audience to be the disinherited Jews, those who are pressed down, and those who are silenced even among the ones forced to live on Jewish society’s fringes, it becomes empowering to hear Jesus affirm that they are the light of the world. Jesus is investing those around him with value and telling them not to hide their light. They are to “let their light shine!”

Some of you who are reading this have been told that your voice is not welcome. You have been made to feel you are “other.” To you, first and foremost, Jesus would say, “You are the light this darkened society needs.” Remember, darkness is only the absence of light. When we exclude and marginalize voices, their very absence creates darkness in society. And as Dr. King so famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Jesus is telling you that the inclusion of your voice brings “the light.” Your story is worthy of being shared at Jesus’ table. It is to you that he says, “Let your light shine!”

There is also another truth to what Jesus is saying here. Too often, Christians have taken for granted that they are the light of the world when they have been the ones in society calling for the exclusion of those unlike themselves. Whether it be with Jews and Muslims during the crusades, the silencing of women’s voices by patriarchal Christians, Black voices by White Christians, the voices of the poor by rich Christians, or the voices and stories of those who belong to the LGBTQ community by christians in general.) Yes, there are exceptions, but as a rule, Christians have made some of the loudest calls for certain voices, certain stories, to be pushed to the margins. Certain people are not ordained worthy of being heard.

Again, when anyone’s voice, anyone’s story is shut out from Jesus’ shared table, the absence of that voice creates darkness. It is the excluded and marginalized in every situation who are Jesus’ “light” that must be brought back to dispel the darkness that their absence created. When Christians exclude and marginalize, they cease to be “light,” and instead become the creators of darkness itself. “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6.23) It would be well for those who have historically claimed to be the “light of the world” to listen to Jesus’ words here.

Surpassing Retributive Justice

Unless your justice surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.20)

The community that Jesus is speaking to here is one whose theism, morality and ethics had been shaped through the interpretations of the Law and the Prophets approved and taught by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These groups were the religious educators of the Jewish working class. To get through to the people, Jesus must first disturb their confidence in these teachers, and in this saying, Jesus points out the inadequacy of the approved teachings.

The Pharisees believed in a Messiah who would usher in world peace, and many believed this peace would come through a sword retributively raised against Israel’s enemies and energized and supernaturally empowered by the strictest Torah observance.

The justice that Jesus is placing before them in Matthew is of an entirely different nature: it is a restorative, transformative, liberating justice that includes one’s enemies. Jesus is clear in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. “Fullfil” here in this verse is pleroo, which means to complete or to perfect. In the very next verse Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The word here for “accomplished” is ginomai which also means “to perfect or complete.” By implication, that which precedes this perfecting is imperfect or incomplete. What Jesus addresses in verse 20 is the retributive, punitive justice that is often found among those who have been oppressed and marginalized. Retributive justice is one of the elements that Jesus is referring to as incomplete, partial, underdeveloped and imperfect. Yes, within the Law and the Prophets one may find a justice defined as an eye for an eye. But one will also find a more complete, restorative, transformative Justice, too. Jesus is calling his audience away from an imperfect retributive justice to a more complete and holistic restorative kind. Jesus’ quality of justice was to “surpass” the eye-for-an-eye justice longed for by his contemporaries. So is the justice of his followers.

Liberation from Internalized Anger

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)

This passage, our last for today, is where we see Jesus beginning to describe how his teachings would surpass the teachings his community was used to hearing. As we discovered last week, Jesus invites us to stop viewing well-being as solely external and recognize its internal nature as well. In this passage, Jesus is naming the hatred that those who have been wronged so often feel toward those who have wronged them. He teaches that the external liberation the disinherited so deeply long for is founded on prior internal liberation. An example of this is found in his teachings on nonviolence. These teachings were not simply techniques for more effective protest: they were that and they were also much more than that. Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence was rooted in an internalized love for enemies and forgiveness that enabled the Jesus follower to think and feel radically differently toward their enemies, to transcend revenge and instead work for their enemies’ transformation. Ponder what Jesus is saying in Matthew 15:

“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’ Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’ He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’ Peter said, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ ‘Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them. ‘Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.’ (Matthew 15:10-20, emphasis added)

If Jesus’ disinherited peers were to experience liberation from their enemies, it would be because they were internally liberated from ‘anger’ against one’s enemies. Anger, wrongly placed, too often turns efforts that could have been restorative from transformation to retribution and mere punitive revenge. As King also said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This teaching highlights two ditches, two places we could stumble. One ditch is the idea that the disinherited need to focus only on external liberation with no thought for their internal relation to their oppressors. The second is the belief that all one needs is internal liberation, and that when this is in place it no longer matters whether a person is externally liberated. This second ditch has been dug over and over throughout history in the path of the oppressed: it pacifies the oppressed and leaves the status quo unchallenged and undisturbed. I see this too often, even today.

But make no mistake: Jesus’ new social order, Jesus’ new world, what he called “the Kingdom,” is a world where all oppression, injustice, and violence is put right, internally and externally. The new world subverts the status quo here, now. The whole system is to be dismantled. Jesus’ revolution doesn’t end with internalized liberation from hatred, fear, and anger toward one’s enemies. That is only where Jesus’ revolution begins.

HeartGroup Application

Reread Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and reflect on the significance of Jesus’ audience being his own community, a disinherited people. May this small interpretative key turn on some more lights for you as it does for me.

  1. Choose a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this week and contemplate its meaning within the context of his audience being his fellow oppressed. How does this audience inform your understanding of his words?
  2. Journal what you discover.
  3. Share your insights with your HeartGroup, your Shared Table, this week.

In the introduction to Jesus and the Disinherited, Vincent Harding eloquently states that Jesus’ teachings are replete with significance for any group being subordinated in modern domination systems: “Latinos, Native Americans, Southeast Asians, many women, and gay and lesbian people are only the most obvious additions” and the Black people Thurman originally wrote to. Today, so many make up the community of the disinherited, oppressed, marginalized, or as Thurman would put it, those whose backs are against the wall.” Jesus’ teachings directly empower these community members to live with dignity and creativity as they move toward liberation.

Whatever your place in this world, whether you belong to the community of the poor, the Native Americans, African-Americans, cisgender women, women of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, YOU have the power to enrich the nutrient-depleted soil of our society, YOU are the light of this world, and it is your voice that must be heard at Jesus’ table as we journey together toward a meaningful, more coherent whole, and a safer, more compassionate world for all.

Jesus’ new world is coming. In fact, in those whose hearts the Kingdom’s mustard seed has already sprouted, Jesus’ new world has already begun.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, enriching the soil of the earth around you, and shining bright like cities on hills, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you.

And I’ll see you next week.