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How Do Black Women Seek Liberation in the Black Church

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Womanist theology is a form of reflection that places the religious and moral perspectives of Black women at the center of its method. Issues of class, gender (including sex, sexism, sexuality, and sexual exploitation), and race are seen as theological problems

Womanist theology takes old (traditional) religious language and symbols and gives them new (more diverse and complex) meaning. This form of theological reflection cannot be termed "womanist" simply because the subject is Black women's religious experiences.

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In the fall of 2008, newspapers, talk shows and blogs exploded with news that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the African American minister from Chicago's Trinity Church, had denounced the United States with inflammatory language: "God damn America!" Wright's most famous parishioner was the leading Democratic contender for the presidential nomination, Barack Obama. Trinity was Obama's spiritual home -- the place where he had found religion, where he was married, and where his daughters had been baptized. Rev. Wright, a former Marine with a Ph.D., had served as his spiritual mentor. While many white voters seemed surprised, puzzled and shocked by Wright's angry rhetoric, African Americans were less so. Obama seized the moment to deliver a profound meditation on race in America, a speech titled "A More Perfect Union." Tracing the deep historical roots of racial inequality and injustice, Obama put Wright's anger into historical context. In very personal terms, he also described his experience at Trinity: Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America. Eventually Obama broke with Wright and left Trinity, but his speech illuminated the role of the black church in the African American experience. Standing apart from the dominant white society, yet engaged in a continuing dialogue with it, the church evolved with countless acts of faith and resistance, piety and protest. As historian Anthea Butler has observed, the church has been profoundly shaped by regional differences, North and South, East and West, yet in both the private and public spheres, the church was, and remains, sustained and animated by idea of freedom. The term "the black church" evolved from the phrase "the Negro church," the title of a pioneering sociological study of African American Protestant churches at the turn of the century by W.E.B. Du Bois. In its origins, the phrase was largely an academic category

Many African Americans did not think of themselves as belonging to "the Negro church," but rather described themselves according to denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and even "Saint" of the Sanctified tradition. African American Christians were never monolithic; they have always been diverse and their churches highly decentralized. Today "the black church" is widely understood to include the following seven major black Protestant denominations: the National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ.

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On behalf of the African-American community it serves, a theology of suffering seeks to clarify the meaning of the liberated Word and deed of God in Jesus of Nazareth for all women and men who resist forces of evil (Hopkins, Dwight N, 2012). One way of clarifying the meaning of the liberated Word in Jesus is to examine suffering through narrative - specifically, remembering and retelling the stories of those who have gone before us, as well as honoring ancestors and victims of slavery. This allows African-Americans to see more clearly the similarity between the martyrdom of Jesus with their own narrative. For example, Jesus’ death by crucifixion reflected African-Americans’ death by circumscription

This circumscription involves an ongoing experience of brutality at the hands of white people and institutions. In other words, black people see the identification of Jesus’ suffering with their own as they relive His painful narrative at the hands of white oppressors. The narrative of the suffering Jesus highlights His liberating activity for African-Americans. As suffering Lord He has victory over His enemies, and the enemies of the ones whom He has identified Himself, for He carries their wounds in His body. In their affliction, He is afflicted; in their oppression, He is oppressed; despite His Resurrection He is not removed from their suffering. The suffering Christ still bleeds for and with His people, which is why the black faith explodes with joy, but through encountering the liberating power of God through suffering. Their suffering is for the sake of freedom, justice, humanity, and God. Though black theology places a great deal of emphasis on suffering, the Resurrection is just as significant (Grant, Jacqueline, 1993). The Resurrection is an event for Jesus, in that something radical has happened to Him. It is also an event for the disciples in that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances awaken for them a bold witness of the gifts the Spirit will bring.

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In a word, womanists and black cultural critics alike oppose sexism, classism, and homophobia by turning to and actively critiquing black cultural productions. Through African American literary theory and cultural criticism, these critics seek to retrieve black cinema, music, and literary productions from the margins of American life. The goal of this strategy of retrieval is to defeat monolithic presentations of black life and experience.

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Crawford, Elaine. “Womanist Christology: Where have we come from and where are we going.” Review and Expository, 95 (1998): 367-382.

Grant, Jacqueline. “‘Come to My Help, Lord, For I’m In Trouble’: Womanist Jesus and the Mutual Struggle for Liberation.” In Reconstructing the Christ Symbol: Essays in Feminist Christology, Ed., Maryanne Stevens. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.

American Academy of Religion Academy Series, No. 64. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1989.

Hopkins, Dwight N, and Edward P Antonio. The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology. Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012

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