Problem and Providence in Black and Womanist Theology
Copyright 2001, Telford Work. Draft: Do not cite without permission.
The black theology movement, now about 35 years old, has from the beginning demanded the right of black Americans to speak of God through their own experience. The movement has affirmed the story of African America as a legitimate, indeed privileged perspective upon God's nature and work.
My thesis here is that this story points beyond where many black and womanist theologians have been willing to take it. It is not only a story of survival "in the wilderness," but of survival and liberation -- in fact, of the further blessing (in J. Deotis Roberts and Martin Luther King, Jr.) of liberation and reconciliation. The soteriological themes of survival, liberation, and reconciliation require an expansion of two categories in black soteriology that are sometimes too narrowly developed. First, the cross is not merely a moral influence on its observers, nor merely a victory of the just over evil, but a redemptive sacrifice on behalf of those defeated by justice's own victory. Second, election is not God's division of humanity into black and white, female and male, oppressed and oppressor, or even blessed and cursed in order to save one and condemn the other. Rather, it is God's choice of Israel, a people often oppressed and occasionally oppressive, and above all of its righteous son Jesus -- not only for its benefit or his, but for the benefit of all the families of the earth.
Let me stress that this paper does not call black and womanist theologians to accept the corrections of "white theology" (though such a call, like its converse, would not necessarily be illegitimate). Instead, it tries to draw out the resources of their own traditions, and particularly the resources of the black Church's deeply experiential and biblical visions of theodicy and providence. It reviews the context of the black Church's experience of God, then considers the constructive black and womanist soteriologies of Major Jones and Delores Williams. By locating their claims in the wide narrative context of black faith, it supports their affirmations, but draws out implicit soteriologies in both projects that require stronger affirmations of both the Anselmian theory of atonement and the Pauline doctrine of election. Such affirmations strengthen the black Church's resources for negotiating Christian life after liberation.
Is God a White Racist? The Providential Center of Black Faith
To be African-American is to be a member of a cultural and linguistic nation (ethnos) defined in part by its West African cultural heritage, by its forcible removal from Africa, by its estrangement from the cultures of both its mainly white context and its own past, by the ultimately unintelligible modern European concept of "race," and by shared experiences in slavery and segregation.
These factors shaped African American faith in countless ways. Above all (for our purposes), black America retained the deep faith in a supreme God that it inherited from African religion.1 White Christians have tended to think black America's African religious heritage was something that stood in the way of the gospel. In fact, it was almost the opposite. Traditional African religions usually worshiped a powerful, providential creator God, who once lived close to humanity, but withdrew to the sky after an ungrateful and accidental human act.2 Black America's continuing belief in this transcendent Lord saw it through its encounter with the racist gospel of white America.
However, its faith in God the creator was put under incredible stress. White supremacist theology in the nineteenth century posited that blacks were biologically inferior, because they were children of Noah's son Ham (Gen. 9:25).3 Slaves were taught from both Testaments that the God who created them had made them to be the perpetual servants of God's superior white children. Quite rightly, they reacted with shock and pain, not unlike modern-day Jobs: God is still God; but can the God we have been worshiping really be a white racist?4
Thus theodicy -- the problem of evil in a world created by a good God -- became the fundamental frame of black Christian theology.5 We need only slightly expand this thesis by William R. Jones to claim that evil and providence take central places in black American theologies. This profoundly distinguishes them from patristic, medieval, and Reformation theologies, for whom questions of evil and providence are more marginal.
Which Chapter in Which Story?
American Africans have offered a whole spectrum of answers to Jones' question, from acceptance of God's racism to radical rejection. Most found the resources to deny that God is a white racist.6 Some rejected theodical assumptions along with their conclusions, and lost their faith in God. Others associated their status as outsiders with their withdrawn, present-yet-absent God, finding in their otherness a reflection of God's own.7 An "Ethiopic" school of interpretation found in biblical Egypt, Ethiopia, and Cush the glorious past of African civilization, and used it to conduct its own triumphalist culture-war against the white West.8 Still others turned the slaveholders' theology on its head, literally reversing it, so that the original, unfallen humanity was black (Eden is not in Europe, after all) and that sin caused the creation of white people. White racist theology begat a black racist theology that drew equally heavily on genetic pseudoscience.9
Slaveholders had shorn slaves and their descendants of their geographic home, their ethnic heritage, and their family relationships. In effect, they had "de-narrated" black America. Ironically, this de-narration became the foundation of new African-American stories:
The Muslim's "X" symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my "X" replaced the white slave-master name of 'Little' which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. Mr. Muhammad taught that we would keep this "X" until God Himself returned and gave us a Holy Name from His own mouth.10
Yet God provided the black Church much more than the story of having lost their story. As slaves and their descendants became Christians, they learned the stories in Scripture, and in them many found their own story. And when God re-narrated black Americans, God called them not the children of Noah's cursed son Ham, not even the culturally superior children of Ethiopia, but the children of enslaved and liberated Israel. America was not the Promised Land after all, as the Puritans had taught. America was Egypt. God was not the god of Pharaoh, but the God of Moses, the God of the disinherited and denarrated. Thus black America learned to see its destiny not in subjugation, but in exodus.11
Benjamin Mays' The Negro's God finds three African-American visions of salvation proceeding from this common center. The first, which predominated from 1760 to 1860, envisioned God's work as "liberative," accomplishing the black struggle for freedom as the God of Israel had lifted the Hebrews out of their Egyptian slavery. The second, which predominated from 1865 to 1914, envisioned God as no longer useful to the cause of justice and freedom for black America. Like wandering, grumbling Hebrews, emancipated but still segregated black Americans still knew God, but no longer as a liberator. The third, which predominated from 1914 to the time of Mays' writing in 1937, envisioned God as promising divine reparation for earthly suffering.12 Here the hopes of black America shifted from this world to the next, as the earlier optimism of the nineteenth century came crashing down on both white and black America.
These are different answers to the question of how black America's exodus narrative fits into Israel's exodus narrative. At their heart lie differing doctrines of election, providence, and eschatology: How will black America's story conclude? Is the exodus a timeless principle of liberation, a manifesto that applies to any nation experiencing oppression? Or is it a one-time event, among whose beneficiaries one must belong in order to experience its freedom? Is exodus past, present, or future? In what sense is it universal, and in what sense is it particular to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
There was no lack of storytellers. Reading the land of their ancestors as the Land of Promise (and making the same eschatological mistake as the Puritans), some freed slaves went back to Africa and founded Liberia. Some, including the Nation of Islam, looked forward to being separated from white America as the Hebrews had been separated from Egypt and Canaan. Others, among them Martin Luther King, Jr., awaited inclusion into the greater people of God, seeing black America in terms of "the foreigner living in the land" (Deut. 24:18-22). Still others found in black America lost tribes of Israel, and saw their redemption as the direct fulfillment of God's promises to Moses.
What Shape Salvation? The Soteriologies of Major Jones and Delores Williams
Black theology burst on the theological scene in the 1960's as an heir to this entire tradition of black reflection on God. Its theologians reclaim and reject various strands of their heritage, answering these questions and retelling the old stories in widely diverse ways. They overwhelmingly revive and intensify the liberationist strand of African-American faith that had predominated before the Civil War. James H. Evans, Jr. summarizes black eschatology in that one word: "liberation."13 Practically every writer in James H. Cone's and Gayraud S. Wilmore's two-volume historical survey embraces liberation as the overriding category of salvation. J. Deotis Roberts is an exception that proves the rule -- not because he denies liberation as a central concern of black theology, but because he goes so far as to place reconciliation alongside it as a necessary (and secondary) dimension.14
Major Jones. It is in the liberationist cluster that we may place The Color of God: The Concept of God in Afro-American Thought, by Major Jones, the late president of Gammon Theological Seminary. Jones's doctrine of God is a "radical orthodoxy" (Gayraud Wilmore) that affirms ecumenical concepts of Trinity, Christology, soteriology, and pneumatology. It treats them not as corrective borrowings from a foreign, white theological tradition, as Joseph Washington might,15 but as authentic embodiments of the fundamentally healthy black experience of God -- an experience Jones traces to a spiritual heritage not from America, Geneva, Wittenburg, or Rome, but from sub-saharan Africa.
For Jones, Christology is the black Church's historical answer to its particular problem of evil. God's providence culminates when the black messiah enters into solidarity with the oppressed, assuming and redeeming suffering humanity. Jesus disproves God's racism without compromising either God's power or goodness.
Soteriology seems to be one of the topics in which Jones is radically orthodox. He claims that black Christians see Christ's passion as securing God's love and release for them, in a "more or less classical representation of the traditional doctrine of the atonement" that combines the concerns of Anselm and Abelard (83). Yet all is not as conventional as it looks, for blacks appropriate these categories according to their relevance to black faith: "We reformulate every Christological question across the full range of God's own experience in Jesus Christ as he lived among us, when we ask: 'What does this mean for Black people'" (84)? This means Christology is reformulated according to black doctrines of theodicy and providence. "Black theology believes in Jesus in all the generic senses of traditional Christology; but more importantly, Black theologians consistently revise the meaning of Jesus as specifically pertinent to Black people, as specifically the Christ of their liberation" (86).
The result does look somewhat Abelardian, but it is not at all Anselmian. In a key passage, Jones repudiates a category basic to that theological tradition -- "redemptive suffering." He calls the cross "more burdensome example" of God's solidarity and identification with the oppressed, "than redemptive requirement" to satisfy God's wrath. It is neither expiatory nor propitiatory. Any "sacrificial" dimension is only in the sense that it is costly to Jesus himself. It cannot be the Son's sacrifice to the Father.
This is because "Blackness is not what it was said to be by generations of White theologians -- a sign of God's wrath. Blackness is not a sign of punishment for being Black; it is rather a profound and mysterious assignment from God by which Black people have been called to bear witness to the message of his judgment and his grace to all nations, and especially to White America" (98). In effect, Jones' liberation Christology abandons the soteriology of the Reformed and Arminian traditions from whose categories black American theology has usually drawn, and returns to the theme of Christus Victor that (according to Gustav Aulen) once dominated the Christian world, continues to dominate in Eastern Orthodoxy and Lutheranism, and increasingly dominates among theologians of liberation.
Delores Williams. Our second soteriology, Sisters in the Wilderness by Delores Williams of Union Theological Seminary,16 shares Jones' theological method, but arrives at radically different conclusions. Like her black Church, and like Jones, Williams engages in what she calls a hermeneutic of "identification-discernment" in which believers read the biblical stories to discern where they belong in its narratives, and where and how God will meet them in their predicaments. In the Tillichian tradition of correlation, Williams looks for where the faith of oppressed black women resonates with Scripture and tradition. Only there are Scripture and tradition allowed authority.
How do oppressed black women experience the work of God? Not as liberation. Women remain at the mercy of racial, class, and gender oppressors. Where the black (male) Church has identified with Israel in exodus as paradigmatic of their own standing in America, she on behalf of oppressed black women identifies with Hagar and Jesus in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that modern-day Hagars, chased out of their social world by oppressors both male and female, meet the Jesus of the temptation narratives. In their survival rather than their deaths, Hagar and Jesus offer ways for God's most invisible and marginal people to survive. Williams' project best fits the middle era of Mays' analysis, in which God was no longer viewed as a liberator.
This has tremendous consequences for Williams' interpretation of Jesus' life and death. Both are significant; but only the former aids the salvation of black women. "Jesus does not conquer sin through death on the cross. Rather, Jesus conquers the sin of temptation in the wilderness by resistance" (166). Only the ministry of the living Jesus offers resources for "the oppressed of the oppressed" to survive the "double jeopardy" (Frances Beale) of their blackness and femininity (144). "God through Jesus Christ gave [black women] new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. God helps [the invisible] make a way out of no way" (198). Williams' soteriology of the wilderness holds up the temptation narrative as the paradigmatic saving event in Jesus' career, and the ethics of the Kingdom of God as portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels as the font of social healing. The wilderness redefines even the resurrection. It is not a manifestation of Jesus' victory at the cross (cf. Col. 2:14-15), but a victory of Jesus' ministerial vision over evil's attempts to kill it, of which the cross was only one example, and an unnecessary one at that (164-165).
The significance of the cross lies in its purely negative symbolism. It is "the image of human sin in its desecrated form an image of defilement, a gross manifestation of collective human sin" (166). Williams thinks this must be so because any positive saving significance of the cross validates suffering and sacralizes violence. It supports and intensifies the suffering African-American women have endured for centuries. A cross-centered soteriology not only leaves them invisible, marginal, and unliberated, but withholds the resources they need to survive at the hands of patriarchs and racists. For Williams, the category of atonement is one long exercise in underwriting oppression (162-164). "There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross," she claims. "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. 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" (167). On these grounds, Williams accuses both the pioneers of black theology and traditional theologians like Martin Luther King, Jr. of leading black women "passively to accept their own oppression and suffering -- if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive."17 On the same grounds, she dismisses all of the traditional atonement theories (ransom, satisfaction, victory, and moral influence) as resting on the category of "redemptive suffering," even if they develop it in different ways.
Can These Visions Be Reconciled? Black and Womanist Theology in Panoramic Perspective
At first the claim that Jesus in the wilderness and even Jesus' broader career offer hope of survival to God's most invisible and marginal people may seem puzzling, since by themselves they seem to offer less than complete liberation for the marginal. For example, Jesus is sent to Israel, not to "Hagarenes." His survival in Egypt and his triumph in the wilderness bring him back out of these God-forsaken places and back into Israel. The ethics of the kingdom specify perfect obedience to the Law of Moses, which theocratically marginalizes both women and non-Israelites. Its institutional organization restores an Israel with twelve men under an eternal King. Jesus leaves scraps for Syro-Phoenician dogs, but nothing like the inheritance he promises his Jewish followers. How can Williams claim that Jesus' career offers more than scraps as resources for women in the wilderness?
Williams can do it because oppressed black women are implicitly identifying Jesus' and Hagar's narratives from a panoramic, canonical perspective that ends in the full inclusion of both Gentiles and women under God's eschatological rule. They interpret the wilderness narratives in the context of the whole story. They follow God's sustenance of Hagar and Jesus through to their happy conclusions: "Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand," the angel tells Hagar, "for I will make a great nation of him" (Gen. 21:18); "Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee," the angel tells the women at the tomb. "There you will see him, just as he told you" (Mark 16:6). Both the "survival" and "liberation" strands of biblical assurance are for Williams' people. That is why both are deeply embodied in the black Church's practical faith.
Occasionally this broader perspective peeks through in Williams' analysis. Are soteriologies of liberation universally illegitimate, or only ineffective for black women? It is never completely clear. At times Williams seems to reject other visions of the atonement entirely (166-169). At other times, she seems merely to deny that the "liberative" strand in black biblical experience applies to black women (2-6). Then perhaps -- since many in the predominantly female black Church do experience God as a liberator, and do not reject faith in the cross -- it applies also to those black women whose experiences of God are liberative. The scope of Williams' critique is hard to identify, because the scope of her inquiry is purposefully limited to the experience of oppressed black women, and this experience by definition excludes experiences of liberation. While she admits that the Bible supports a soteriology of liberation, she finds it not ultimately important to her people. The question is not one of right or wrong, but of allowing "poor, oppressed black women and men to hear and see the doing of the good news in a way that is meaningful to them" (199).
Yet what poor, oppressed blacks hear and see is already received as located within the context of the whole economy of salvation. It facilitates survival because it ultimately promises more. Thus what Williams affirms ultimately depends upon what she denies.
This is equally true of Jones' account of how black America appropriates God's promises of liberation. During Jesus' career, there is every indication of his solidarity with Israel as its divinely accepted representative, but little indication of his solidarity with Gentile sufferers, even those whose sufferings resemble Israel's. The conviction that Jesus has assumed and redeemed suffering humanity, that Jesus' blackness resembles the blackness of the nations, comes only as Gentiles (in fact, Gentile centurions) believe promises that have only reluctantly been addressed to them (Acts 10). Only on the basis of their faith can Jones ultimately claim that Jesus did not "restrict partnership (with humanity) to an elected people, so that they only by their obedience to a covenant might enter into his fellowship. Rather, God lowered himself and freely accepted the worst conditions of the human race, bar none" (99).
What we see in Jones and Williams is a black Church that appreciates the moments of Christ's career with different degrees of intensity, yet still depends on the whole canonical story for their significance. Here the black Church does not depart from classical or contemporary Christian practice, as many non-black theologians allege, but resembles its fellow Christian traditions. All of us have long engaged in Williams' hermeneutic of "identification-discernment," whether or not we have admitted it. The black tradition's polarization over valuing nativity, wilderness, ministry, cross, and resurrection resembles the greater Christian tradition's polarization over the soteriologies of deification, moral influence, satisfaction, and victory.
Yet along with the black Church's long tradition of soteriological favoritism comes a related tendency towards soteriological exclusivism. And this exclusivism (like those of other traditions) ultimately contradicts the black vision of salvation.
The solution is not for the black Church to adopt a supposedly "catholic" synthesis of atonement theories, exchanging its theological distinctives for a homogenized, even majoritarian "ecumenism." Nor is it for black America to follow the program of democratic liberalism and integrate with its neighbors. Like Anabaptists and other beleaguered minorities, the black Church is right to worry that these false universalisms would be further theological invasions by the ones who marginalized them in the first place. (Besides, black and womanist theology's commitments to the privileged, even critically unassailable status of their own people's experiences make either proposal a tough sell, especially coming from a white, male, American, Republican theologian!)
There is a better reason for soteriological inclusiveness: The canonical setting in which Christian traditions, including black Church traditions, implicitly read their texts in order to support their particular visions of salvation. This is not merely a "white" hermeneutical strategy, but is built into the practical faith of the black Church. Williams brings the panoramic perspective of Galatians and Ephesians to her reading of the Hagar narratives, in locating families' wilderness experiences in a greater narrative that looks beyond wilderness to another time (160). Major Jones appeals to the entire scope of God's economy of salvation for an adequate answer to the fundamental question of whether God is a white racist.
Monday's Coming: Beyond Survival and Liberation
Here my own mainly white theological tradition offers an illustration. A century ago, evangelicals considered the doctrine of penal-substitutionary atonement one of the five "fundamentals" essential to authentic Christian faith. This soteriology was often developed exclusivistically in evangelical theology. Today, however, internal as well as external forces increasingly push evangelicals into affirming soteriologies of moral influence, victory, and deification. These usually take places alongside Calvin's vision of atonement, often qualify and inform it, and sometimes critique it.18 We have learned to see them not as alien branches that need to be resisted to preserve our insights, or grafted in to save our faith from its own weaknesses, but (also) as growths of our own vine that we have been too quick to prune.
Similar dynamics characterize black and womanist theology. If pursued and followed, the internal logics and panoramic narrative contexts of these two theological traditions provide further divine gifts of what Williams calls "new vision to see survival and quality-of-life resources where we have seen none before" (203). They deepen and widen the liberation that Jones' black Messiah brings those who suffer. They do this by pointing to a fuller appreciation of black faith that is more than survival, and more than liberation. They keep the black Church alive and flourishing and unceasingly restless until it receives what was promised (Heb. 11:39). Furthermore, they ultimately undercut both Jones' blanket denial of the redemptive quality of suffering, and Williams' denial of the soteriological value of the cross. Why? Because in their different ways, both these traditions locate black men and women's salvation with respect to Israel.
In the gospel, the nations have histories that are both already theirs, and fundamentally new. The primordial and patriarchal narratives announce that the creation of the nations, including both Israel and black America's ancestors, is protologically significant: They are part of the plan. The prophetic and apocalyptic narratives announce that God's inclusion of the same nations in the faith of Israel is eschatologically significant: It is through Jacob that all will be blessed.
Thus, along with the first-century Jewish and Gentile Church, black Americans experience the Hebrews' call, enslavement, liberation, wandering, conquest, apostasy, exile, return, and apocalyptic future as in some sense their own.19 They remember signs and wonders past, and learn a confident expectation of signs and wonders to come. Rather than splintering divine liberation into an exodus and conquest for every nation, which would simply perpetuate the cycle of violence among nations, the gospel emancipates the black Church through the one exodus Jesus accomplished at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). The survival and liberation of the African-American nation, like that of all the nations, is its unearned but long promised share in the survival and liberation of the nation of Israel.20
Black and womanist theologies justly highlight and reclaim chapters of the Christian story that many Christians have chosen not to hear. But the scope of Israel's story points black theology beyond securing liberation for the oppressed, and points womanist theology beyond gaining resources for survival in the wilderness, because Israel's canonical story is only begun in its opening chapters of exodus and wandering.21 God's promise is that all will eventually take part in the story's culmination. When these storytellers choose not to hear other chapters of what is after all still their story, or when they conduct theological "dialogues" with only some chapters and not others, they undermine their own places in the story.
This brings us back to theodicy and providence. Each new context for God's people requires different resources. In the wilderness, evil's most pressing problem is the threat it poses to survival itself; and God's provision is sustenance -- water for Hagar's and Moses' people, food from Ishmael's bow and from heaven. In slavery, the problem is whether God is fundamentally against Hagar or the Hebrews; and providence is the promise and fulfillment of life together in freedom for both bedouin Ishmaelites and emancipated Israelites. In the former case, this comes in God's gift of the social space needed to grow a nation away from Abraham's and Sarah's oppression. In the latter case, it comes through the liberating blood of paschal lambs, which point back to a lamb God would provide to spare Jacob's life (Gen. 22:8), and forward to a lamb slain for the sins of the entire world.
Then, in freedom, theodicy gains new occasions, in the evil perpetuated among God's people. Soon after Abraham's promise is fulfilled, Ishmael mocks Isaac, laughing at the second-born son of laughter (Gen. 21:9, cf. Gen. 21:6). This calls down the wrath of the protective mother through whose folly he was named (Gen. 18:12-15).22 Soon after the exodus, the sins of newly freed Israel accumulate: Oppression of fellow Hebrews, oppression of new Canaanite neighbors (not all of which is divinely sanctioned, Deut. 16:9-12), and the oppression of God that is idolatry.
This is the Israel into which Jesus is born. Joseph A. Johnson, Jr. claims that Jesus' ministry liberates those on the fringe of society: the sick, the possessed, the gentiles, and even the guilty, "the prostitutes, the thieves, the murderers, the robbers." Johnson passes over the most poignant group of all -- the tax collectors -- but his point remains: Jesus is the liberator of all. But how does liberation happen after God's people have themselves engaged in further oppression? Johnson says that Jesus "makes himself accessible to those who need him."23 But how? (And what about those not on society's fringes?)
For Ishmael and his mother, providence comes as fellowship in Egypt (Gen. 21:21). For Israel, it comes as a Law to preserve the nation's holiness, and a sacrificial system that cleanses it after the Law is violated. To be a liberated people is to be under a new, just master (cf. Rom. 6-7). After the gospel of exodus comes the law of Sinai. The survival strategy for wilderness wanderings includes the legal and priestly resources that continue to regulate the new life in and out of the Promised Land. When the new master's law is broken and the cycle of violence is unleashed inside the camp, the law demands reconciliation. This takes the form of sacrifice -- even the sacrifice of innocent blood in exchange for the lives of the guilty. The tabernacle and temple are systems for the liberation needed after liberation. They maintain God's identification with the oppressed after they themselves engage in oppression. They are resources of reconciliation. They point forward to the cross, which now liberates not as Israel's paschal lambs liberated the innocent, but as its sin offerings liberated the guilty.
Israel's history in and out of its promised land proves that survival and liberation ultimately depend on reconciliation as much as reconciliation depends on them. How then do law, sin, and priesthood work among the liberated black people of God? Here black theology seems to stammer. Cone and Wilmore's two-volume Black Theology: A Documentary History pays remarkably little attention to life after exodus. It offers much liberation, but precious little law.24 In concentrating on justification, it often ignores the process of sanctification.25
This theological and practical vacuum has understandable historical reasons, in black theology's reaction to a history of whites characterizing themselves as "noble, manly, wise, strong, courageous" and characterizing blacks as "patient, long-suffering, humble, self-effacing, considerate, submissive, childlike, [and] meek."26 Arranged in this way, white and black "virtues" excused and even glorified systematic oppression. In reclaiming the "white" virtues, black theologians have seemingly abandoned the "black" ones. Yet these are no less crucial to forgiveness and reconciliation.27 White oppression and black capitulation have pushed black theology into pursuing a theology of glory that has little practical to offer when the violence is black-on-black. Here black and womanist theology neither lead nor follow the black Church, but get in its way.
The first Christians found many dimensions of providence in the cross, each of which echoes an earlier chapter in the world's history of salvation, and depends on other dimensions for its work. One, a means of victory, takes on the imagery of Passover (1 Cor. 5), envisioning the cross as freeing captive Israel and recreating a people holy to God. This is the image with which black theology consistently resonates (for instance, in the work of James H. Cone).28 Another, a means of healing, takes on the imagery of the serpent Moses lifts up in the wilderness for healing (John 3:14), seeing the cross as conferring eternal life on the world. It is an obvious point of contact between the cross and womanist soteriology. Yet another, a means of identification, takes up the imagery of God's presence in the tabernacle (John 1:14-18), envisioning the cross as the incarnate God's universal communion with sinning and sinned-against humanity. This is the basis of Roberts' twofold soteriology of liberation and reconciliation.29 Still another, a means of satisfaction, takes up the imagery of sin offerings and Temple, envisioning the cross as freeing sinners through the shedding of innocent blood.30
Williams rejects this last vision as endorsing a surrogacy that must interpret black women's suffering as redemptive and sacred. Jones rejects it by translating it in trans-national categories, as a claim that the cross frees whites by the blood of blacks. But the Temple was not an institution for forgiving Canaanite or Babylonian or Roman sins through Jewish blood; it was an institution for atoning for Jewish sins through the blood of animals. It was not a substitute for righteousness that allowed sinners to continue life as usual, but a sign of new righteousness that made a life of sin unthinkable. We would better translate the sacrificial cult by claiming that the sacrifices of innocent animals maintained the holiness of black America, disinfecting it from the depravity of white America. This culminated in one, and only one, atoning human sacrifice, which did not merely rehearse the old sacrificial arrangements and endorse their contradictions, but superseded the system by resolving them. It was performed not by a high priest against the victim's will, but of a high priest according to his will. Its most important feature is also its closest parallel with the old system: It was not performed on behalf of the innocent, but of the guilty (Rom. 8:3-4). This act reconciled Israel so fully to God that it rendered the sacrificial system not only unhelpful but misleading (Heb. 5-10), and opened a way even for the nations to enjoy God's blessings. The sacrifice of the cross is not a justification for lynchings, but an act of radical inclusion that warns the world never to lynch again in light of God's vindication of Jesus its victim.31
"Friday's here," the black Church has long reminded itself, "but Sunday's coming." The middle chapters of Israel's saga remind us all that Monday is coming too -- a day after liberation, when yesterday's victims become today's repentant sinners.32 It is on that day that freed slaves and mothers surviving on the margin learn that they too are capable of injustice, and that the life of their nation depends on both law and forgiveness. It is on that day that they find a new taste in the blood they drink at Church -- the taste of freedom even for oppressors.
The common lesson of these visions of atonement is not simply that the work of Christ is multidimensional, nor simply that different people may legitimately identify with different aspects of God's work on their behalf.33 It is that the coherence and happy resolution of the narratives of God's people depend upon the harmonious interplay of all of these visions of salvation (along with others), in order to bring survival and liberation and forgiveness and reconciliation to people in different stages of need. Only a soteriology of careful harmony can affirm what Miroslav Volf calls "solidarity in sin" without mistaking it for "equality of sin."34 Jesus' death and resurrection bring new life for the dying, vindication for the innocent, amnesty for the guilty, and peace for all.
This harmony of soteriologies is not a confusion of soteriologies. It is crucial to the exodus story not to turn Passover into a sin offering. Any soteriology that relies too exclusively on Anselmian atonement theory (as feudal, colonial, and postcolonial European soteriologies conveniently have) risks doing just that. It levels the world into a mass of common guilt, falsely condemns those God has judged and acquitted, and showers a cheap grace on oppressors that leaves them unjustified, unholy, unreconciled, and unsaved. Jones' and Williams' rejections of redemptive suffering have great force against such soteriologies. Their critiques point traditional Western theologies toward more discerning theodicies and accounts of suffering, and toward more just visions of providence. But the converse is also true: It is equally dangerous to reduce salvation to a paschal acquittal for the innocent. This would polarize communities into camps of apparently absolute innocence and guilt, overlook the sins of the supposedly innocent, nullify guilty verdicts on the basis of the "victimhood" of perpetrators, and leave hardened oppressors no recourse but further oppression and renewed cycles of violence.
Chosen to Suffer? The Problem of Election
The black Church faces a similar challenge on the matter of election. Confronted with racist, Calvinist, and Arminian doctrines of election, American Africans reinterpreted election according to their experience of their good but distant creator. In response, the black Church typically taught variations on a theme that identifies black America with Israel, as the elect people of God. Whether African-Americans are elect as suffering servants whose mission is to witness to God's humanity,35 or as people chosen along with Israel to share in Yahweh's liberation,36 or as fellow blacks whose connection is genetic and whose task is to achieve their own liberation,37 they are elect with respect to Israel. This causes friction when black doctrines collide with doctrines that depend on other visions of election.
Jones affirms against Joseph Washington's doctrine of black election to suffering servanthood, a kenotic vision of atonement rooted in incarnation: "God lowered himself and freely accepted the worst conditions of the human race, bar none."38 God's identification with humanity would be Barthian in its scope, but for Jones' stress on the Christological particularity of Jesus' blackness. Jesus' identification with the oppressed over against their oppressors is essential to the victory his life wins on their behalf. In such a vision of salvation, election as nationhood and atonement as redemptive suffering are a fatal combination. So Jones rejects the idea of election as national and covenantal. He denies that God would "restrict partnership (with humanity) to an elected people, so that they only by their obedience to a covenant might enter into his fellowship." His rejection of redemptive suffering likewise depends on a context of national election: "We reject any identification of oppression and suffering with redemption. Blackness is not a sign of punishment for being Black."39 We can more clearly see the logical fallacy he has uncovered by transposing "Jewish" for "black": "Jewishness is not a sign of punishment for being Jewish."
National election and redemptive suffering are equally fatal to Williams' vision of survival in the wilderness, but for opposite reasons. From their common theodical starting point, "Is God a white racist?" black and womanist theologians reason differently. The traditional male identification with elect Israel-in-exodus ignores the traditional female identification with Hagar as non-elect. For black women who "read the entire Hebrew testament from the point of view of the non-Hebrew slave," she says, "there is no clear indication that God is against their perpetual enslavement." When male black theologians make the exodus narrative normative, their patriarchalism marginalizes the non-elect people whom God sustains in the wilderness of their exclusion and invisibility.40 For Williams, national election combines with redemptive suffering to glorify women's surrogacy -- the defiling of the non-elect for the benefit of the elect.
Against the idea of election as nationhood, Jones describes a soteriology of participation in Christ's blackness, and Williams describes a conviction that God's favor takes familial rather than narrowly racial shape (e.g., Hagar and Ishmael helping each other survive in the wilderness). Yet these affirmations are actually quite close to a Pauline doctrine of election -- when Romans and Ephesians are read as answering the question of Jewish/Gentile relations rather than offering individualized salvation-histories of justification by grace through faith, as they usually are in the Lutheran, Reformed, and Arminian traditions.41
Indeed, Jones' and Williams' affirmations depend on such a doctrine of election. The meek, poor, and oppressed are happy (makarioi, Matt. 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-23) not because they are oppressed, but by virtue of their Christlikeness. God's providence is for them, in a community overflowing with spiritual gifts. They belong to a body liberated in Christ's death and resurrection, brought together for its own edification in the Spirit, as a new creation in the midst of the old. Even Hagar's story ends happily because of her relationship to Abraham, and not merely in spite of it: "As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring" (Gen. 21:13). This connection is not made clear to Hagar,42 but it is clear to the reader: All the families of the earth, even the "non-elect," are beneficiaries of God's choices. Only the God of Abraham and Jesus can be both the God of the wilderness and the God of the exodus, both the God of the desert and the God of New Jerusalem. Only this God can liberate those who survive, and forgive those who oppress after their liberation.
Election, properly developed, is the qualification that can support biblical and traditional accounts of the cross and resurrection, yet repudiate their abuse in underwriting further injustice. While Romans punished Jesus -- in part for being Jewish -- God did not. Rather, Jesus took on the sin of Israel as a living sacrifice, at the Jordan and at Golgotha, and God accepted that sacrifice, and liberated and exalted both the chosen Son (Luke 9:35) and the chosen people he represents. While Sarah punished Hagar -- in part for being Egyptian? -- God did not. Rather, God had mercy on her by virtue of the universal promise to Abraham.
In renarrating African America, God has been telling more than short stories. God has given this suffering people parts in the story. Unless Christians can tell where people's sufferings fit into which parts of that whole story, the gospel will fail to sustain, liberate, reconcile, or glorify. A doctrine of providence centered in a panoramic vision of atonement and a truly biblical doctrine of election properly locates the concrete sufferings of God's oppressed people in the one story of their salvation. It confuses neither America nor Liberia with New Jerusalem.43 It respects the redemptive power of suffering in Christ (Col. 1:24, Eph.1:4, Rom. 8:28) without sacralizing the suffering God sent Jesus to end. It enables theology to respect the problem of evil without falling into a false dilemma that classifies all suffering as glorifying and self-redemptive, or as defiling and oppressive. It honors the internal logics and narrative forms of both black and womanist theology, while telling more than these traditions currently tell by themselves. It also eases their tensions with traditional theology, even as it refines their critiques in order to correct others more effectively. The full story of God's deliverance of African America reflects a black American faith that speaks faithfully and truly from its privileged perspective on God.
6 William R. Jones himself embraces an existentialist variety of free-will theodicy he calls "humanocentric theism." He claims that God's gift of human freedom makes humanity the co-creator of its existence, relegates God's involvement to persuasion rather than coercion, and leaves African-Americans in charge of whether to resist or endure suffering. To alleviate suffering, they "must desanctify it by taking it out of the hands of God. African-Americans must rely only on themselves and seek their own liberation." See Evans, 64-65, referring to William R. Jones, 193.
11 Evans, 41: "By identifying themselves with the Hebrews, African slaves declared themselves as insiders in the scriptural drama. While slaveholders focused on ancient Israel as a slaveholding society, the African slaves saw ancient Israel first as a nation descended from slaves."
13 Evans, 152. He develops a soteriology that is entirely liberative, calling Jesus both "a political messiah or liberator, and spiritual mediator/healer" (97). Jesus as healer and Jesus as liberator are essentially comparable categories, especially in the gospels.
17 Williams, 200. These claims leave me utterly confused about another claim she makes of the black Church: "The black church cannot be made respectable because it is already sacralized by the pain and resurrection of thousands upon thousands of victims" (205). If sacralization by pain and resurrection is not redemptive suffering (cf. 1 Peter 3:17-4:2, etc.) what is?
19 Jones and Williams sometimes imply and others allege that African-American Christianity is incompatible with Pauline soteriology. But the black soteriology of incorporation into Israel matches Paul's hermeneutical strategy for the Corinthians. Because the nations are adopted into Israel when they are adopted into Christ, Paul can tell the mainly Gentile, uncircumcised Corinthian believers that "our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea" (1 Cor. 10:1). This resemblance should give black theologians pause before they disown other Pauline tropes. See Williams, 4-5, 164; Jones, 98-99 (though without naming Paul). See also, for example, Orlando Patterson, Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Civitas, 2000), helpfully reviewed in "Dionysus and Jim Crow," The New Republic 223 (8/28 and 9/4/2000), 9-10:42-49, here 46.
20 God's act of inclusion thus blesses all people, whether they are narrated by powerful and sinful discourses, denarrated and atomized by modernity, or renarrated by postmodern acts of their own fragmented and misdirected wills.
21 Though for Williams wandering is first Hagar's wandering, in appropriating the Israelite and temptation narratives, her tradition identifies also with Israel's forty years of wilderness wanderings.
22 Williams does not develop this pun in the narrative, instead focusing on Sarah's repression in terms of the threat Ishmael posed to Isaac's inheritance (cf. 27-28). The effect is a clean distinction between victor and victim. Yet the text presents Ishmael's "playing" (mtsakheq, "laughing") as the occasion for Hagar's and his exile, and Paul interprets Ishmael's action as persecution (Gal. 4:29). Here the effect is the depressing moral ambiguity of a troubled household.
25 Evans characterizes Cone's central concern as justification of the oppressed before God and the grounding of true humanity in the freely given acceptance of the oppressed by God -- "autonomy," and Roberts' as sanctification of the oppressed in their relationships with God and the human family -- "community." These are two functions of empowerment (112). Evans himself proceeds to concentrate on liberation.
30 It is perhaps this sense that Cone can affirm in citing Mark 10:45's "ransom for many" as evidence that God's freedom for the poor is more than the liberation of slaves from bondage. See "Biblical Revelation and Social Existence," in Cone and Wilmore, 1:173.
32 Cf. Roberts in Cone and Wilmore, 1:119: "I do not accept Black liberation versus White oppression as an adequate formula to cover the human condition of estrangement. Therefore, I do not hesitate to suggest liberation between Blacks and Blacks as well as between Blacks and Whites. It is unwise to make these structures too ironclad, for suppose the oppressed became the liberated? What happens to our theology then?"
33 It is on these grounds that Wilmore is open to other visions of atonement, affirming that there may be "several valid approaches to the One Eternal God," even white ones. See "Black Power, Black People, Theological Renewal," in Jones and Wilmore, 1:132.
34 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 81-82.
35 Joseph Washington, The Politics of God (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 158, quoted in William R. Jones, "Theodicy and Methodology in Black Theology," in Cone and Wilmore, 1:144.
36 James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970), 181. Cone redefines the Church as "that grouping [of all men] which identifies with the suffering of the poor by becoming one with them" in "The White Church and Black Power," in Cone and Wilmore, 1:78.
41 I justify these claims more fully in Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), and The Reason for the Season: Christology through the Liturgical Year (in progress).
42 While Williams uses source criticism to keep this "Elohist" passage artificially separate from chapter 16's Yahwist passage (31), and even to imply that the god of Abraham and the god of Hagar may be different gods (22-29), this is surely not how African American women typically read Hagar's story!
43 Cf. Evans, 154: "In thought coming out of the African Diaspora, heaven is often referred to as 'home,' and home often means 'Africa.' Hell meant the plantations of the American south and the Caribbean, the physical and temporal alienation that characterized slavery and colonization. Heaven meant the return to a state of community, mutuality, and wholeness."