Part two examines the work of black women scholars who identify Christ as suffering alongside black women and calls black Christians to contend with classical Christology.
In the second wave of Black Theology, African-American Christian women emerged as scholars and theologians. Drawing from the work of writer Alice Walker, self-identified “womanist” theologians began to articulate their experience of the Divine as black women of faith living within the United States. While standing in solidarity with their black brothers, womanist theologians critique the longstanding racism of the larger white culture (including the blind spots within white feminist religious and secular discourse) and the persisting sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia of the highly patriarchal institutional Black Church and society. One of the earliest publications within womanist thought dealt with the topic of Christology. Systematic theologian and ordained African Methodist minister Jacquelyn Grant, who is also a former student of James Cone, published “White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response” (1989), a groundbreaking treatise that critiqued white feminist theologians’ views of Jesus Christ and provides a Christology in light of the experience of African-American Christian women. In an earlier published essay, “Womanist Theology, Black Women’s Experience as a Source for Doing Theology, with Special Reference to Christology,” Grant follows her teacher Cone in affirming the symbol of the black Christ, yet she presses the symbol further to include the lived experiences of black women. In the womanist tradition, Grant observes, black women affirmed Jesus as God incarnate and the divine “co-sufferer.” Black women shared with Jesus an experience of suffering and oppression. “They identified with Jesus because they believed that Jesus identified with them.”[i] Although he was God incarnate, Jesus identified with the sufferings of black women by coming alongside them, being their constant friend, and answering their earnest prayers for deliverance, consolation, and liberation. Moreover, Jesus elevated black women’s humanity, thus undermining the patriarchy within both white Christianity and the Black Church. He affirmed them as God’s beloved, created in the divine image. Jesus’ solidarity with black women also signified the end to their suffering. Jesus was a “whole Saviour” (Jarena Lee) who not only liberated black women but called them to proclaim his good news of liberation to the “least of these.” For Grant, womanists differ from their white feminist counterparts by affirming that significance of Christ is found in his humanity not his gender. Therefore, African-American Christian women are more inclined to accept Jesus as their Savior and Liberator, despite his maleness.
Moreover, Grant contends that Cones’ christological title of the “Black Christ” rightly signifies God’s identification with marginalized peoples, but failed to emphasize the particularity of black women’s experiences of poverty, racism, and sexism as a “tri-dimensional” reality in his earlier work. What makes the black Christ universal is his ability to identify with the lived experiences of all oppressed peoples, specifically black women’s experience. Following the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), Grant argues that if Christ makes solidarity with the most vulnerable then, “Christ among the least must also mean Christ in the community of Black women.”[ii] By this she means that the Christ fully identifies with the tri-dimensionality of black women’s experience. Therefore, the black Christ symbol must faithfully represent the One who suffers with black women in all of their particularity. Also, Grant emphasizes that the resurrection of Christ signifies for black women that their suffering does not have the final word. Therefore, Christ is not only divine co-sufferer but the Liberator of black women from all levels of structural oppression. To make the black Christ more inclusive, Grant suggests that new symbols for Christ (e.g. the stranger, the outcast, and the poor) must replace traditional symbols which privilege whiteness and maleness. In so doing, Grant’s Christological reconfiguration points to the universality of Christ’s significance among all oppressed peoples. In another way, in Grant’s view the presence of the liberating Christ becomes so concrete among oppressed peoples, specifically black women, Grant emphatically declares, “Christ, found in the experience of Black women, is a Black woman.”[iii]
In “The Black Christ” (1993) womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, another former student of Cone, surveys the history of the image of the black Christ in African-American Christian experience.[iv] In the book Douglas argues that the image of the Black Christ does not deal with merely Jesus’ physical appearance but symbolizes his commitment to advancing the freedom for not only black women but for all oppressed peoples. While affirming the symbol of the black Christ as conceived by both black and womanist theologians, Douglas also offers a rigorous critique of their work for their narrow and rigid symbolization of Christ which fails to account for the diversity of lived experiences of all members of the Black community, including black gays and lesbians, poor blacks, and black men who stand in solidarity with black women. To remedy this failure, Douglas contends that both womanist theologians and their black brothers and sisters must engage in both socio-political and religious-cultural analyses of wholeness which critiques the interlocking systems of oppression (i.e. racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism) within both the church and the larger culture. For Douglas, the black Christ as a theological symbol is only viable when all black Christians use a diversity of symbols which express the mystery of the living Christ active within the midst of a people struggling for freedom. Thus, the black Christ is two-sided—it not only symbolizes Jesus’ actions, but it also symbolizes the prophetic actions of black people in their struggle to liberate themselves and others from the intersecting structures of oppression.
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Jason Oliver Evans