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Briefly Explain the Impact of Womanist Homiletic in the Black Church

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Preaching is a service-centered career, a vocation for those in the ministry to adhere to the biblical mandate: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” With traditional African American preachers, one may often hear them use the terms “call” or “calling” in their discourse about becoming preachers

Moreover, one may also hear them acknowledge this vocation as one not made by their own choosing but through a mysticism of acute hearing—obedience to the divine call from God to preach the gospel. Additionally, even children of preachers understand “the call” as something not only significant but sacred, even though there are pressures from peers to make them somewhat ashamed of being a “preacher’s kid,” such as the pressures I have experienced.

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In 1993, Townes published Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope, which pressed womanist theologians and ethicists toward questions of activism by asking what womanist God-talk reveals about black women for community. That same year marked the publication of Williams’s groundbreaking Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, which condemned the patriarchal assumptions of black liberation theology, particularly its emphasis on the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death for the black community. Positioning black women’s suffering against white atonement theories, Williams argued that Jesus’ suffering does not save black women. To venerate the blood of the cross is to glorify surrogacy—the idea that the suffering of one allows for the redemption of many. Because black women have historically been surrogates, to glorify surrogacy is to regard black women’s subjection as sacred. Black women have stood in the place of others, domestically and otherwise, for centuries. Whether by coercion (as in the role of Mammy) or voluntarily (as the Nanny), black women have suffered because of their status as surrogates. The idea of redemptive suffering that emerges from atonement theory, Williams noted, has not left space for church and society to critique the causes of black women’s suffering but has led to deeper pathologizing of black women’s lives. To glorify the cross of Jesus (as a redemptive tool) is to glorify suffering. Black women carry enough crosses to know that there is no glory in suffering. Instead Williams emphasized Jesus’ “life and ministerial vision,” calling followers of Christ into resistance that engenders and buoys black women’s survival and quality of life. Williams honed her arguments about the sin of surrogacy by examining the story of Hagar as told in Genesis 16 and 21. She identified Hagar as an African slave woman who was subject to racial, gender, class, and sexual oppressions. However, Williams noted, Hagar is also a single mother who resists her oppressors and, in the wilderness, names God for herself

This God does not liberate her but does provide her the means to survive in the wilderness.Womanist theology is a diamond with several facets, which were first illuminated in the work of Cannon (ethics), Grant (theology), Williams (theology), Weems (Bible), and Townes (ethics). It has evolved in some significant ways since its early days, returning to Williams’s fundamental hermeneutical question about whose voices are missing—and giving increasingly broader answers. Yet it remains committed to its original orientation: a concern for the black church and community, the privileging of black women’s experiences, an intersectional perspective that sees oppression as multidimensional, and a blunt interrogation of doctrine and prior theological claims (as evident in the critical scholarship of Karen Baker-Fletcher and M. Shawn Copeland).

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The confluence of religious belief and political activism continues to challenge historians from a variety of fields

For example, outside of the aforementioned works on the United States, there are clear parallels between this dissertation and Suzanne Desan’s Reclaiming the Sacred. Desan aims to “analyze lay religious change in the context of political and cultural turmoil and probe the long-term effects of revolutionary religious activism.” She notes that historians of the French Revolution have “exaggerated and reified the opposition between the Revolution and Catholicism,” while they have also tended to understand Catholicism “as a static, single entity.” Desan complicates these notions by describing changes in the laity and noting the ways in which revolutionary ideology impacted their religious practices (Mouw, Ted, and Barbara Entwisle, 2006). Many Catholic villagers, she writes, “sought to reconcile loyalty to their religion with loyalty to the Revolution.” Her emphasis on “the striking flexibility of culture and politics” during the 1790s parallels some of the main objectives of this dissertation. Court rulings and federal legislation facilitated the gradual death of Jim Crow during the 1960s and 1970s, and many black and white southerners faced a crisis of faith. Some were compelled to courageous acts that openly defied traditional racial customs, while others retreated to the scriptures in attempts to maintain the status quo. But the social upheavals of the 1960s forced many people to reassess their religious practices, and congregants from numerous denominations often determined the responses of their local religious bodies in light of their experiences and interpretations of the events of this era. Indeed, the current factions within many major Protestant denominations have their origins in the civil rights and antiwar movements. While acknowledging this dissertation’s intellectual debts and substantive antecedents, in terms of methodology and evidential base, it differs from previous literature in several ways. Historians who have researched the complexities of religion and racial mores have generally relied heavily upon printed materials (Nuechterlein, James). Denominational periodicals, decrees from annual conventions, and other written documents such as sermons and personal letters provided the bulk of primary sources. These approaches illuminated the perspectives of ministers or ranking officials in denominational hierarchies, but they rarely revealed the sentiments of the mass of church members.

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In the final analysis, this paradigm is a minimal construct to consider when examining the complexity of African-American women’s sacred rhetoric in preaching. Cannon’s work provides a critical analysis of sermonic content focusing on linguistics. This project presents a paradigm for analyzing sermons by African-American womanist preachers to unmask the themes of womanist thought in the performance and content of their preaching as we move toward a womanist homiletic. Ultimately, this discourse will contribute to our understanding of the Black preaching tradition through an examination of sermons by a womanist preacher. The sermons for analysis are by Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall, an accomplished leader in the Black church and a nationally acclaimed preacher.

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Robinson, Edward J. “‘Like Rats in a Trap’: Samuel Robert Cassius and the 'Race Problem' in Churches of Christ.” Ph.D. diss., Mississippi State University, 2003.

Royse, Nyal D. “A Study of the Environment of Harding College as Perceived by Its Students and Faculty and as Anticipated by Entering Students.” Ed.D. diss., Memphis State University, 1969.

Verkler, Billy Duan. “An Application of Cognitive Dissonance Theory to Reference Group Behavior: A Study of Racial Attitudes of Church Members in Searcy, Arkansas.” Ph.D. diss., Mississippi State University, 1970.

Mouw, Ted, and Barbara Entwisle. “Residential Segregation and Interracial Friendship in Schools.” American Journal of Sociology 112, no. 2 (September 2006): 394-441.

Nuechterlein, James. “How Race Wrecked Liberalism.” First Things 155 (August/September 2005): 32-38

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