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Social Ethics With A Womanist Approach

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Autor:  anton  07 October 2010
Tags:  Social,  Ethics,  Womanist,  Approach
Words: 3479   |   Pages: 14
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Theoretical Paper

African American Social Ethics

with a

Womanist Approach to Religion and Society

CHSO 60023

Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas


Jimmy C. Sansom

Joining heart, mind and soul to divine justice and social justice within the African American community transpires in a number of ways. Looking back in history we find many individuals and movements vying to reach the goal of liberation and equality for al without basis to color, class or sex. Harriet Tubman risked her life while working the Underground Railroad to help free enslaved Africans. Sojourner Truth fought for abolitionism and women’s suffrage. Rosa Parks stood her ground on a bus and refused to move to the back that initiated a boycott of city transportation by African Americans. Martin Luther King, Fr. Rallied many African Americans together in peaceful demonstrations and marches in hopes of gaining freedom and equality for all people.

African American Social Ethics and Womanist Theology focuses on an important approach to Black Church Studies. They share in some of the same beliefs and practices in trying to make gains and strides of an oppressed people. Womanist Theology goes beyond just the social ethics value in that it fights for the double oppression of African American females. Both approaches want liberation for African Americans from the dominant culture but Womanist Theology wants as its ultimate goal liberation and equality for al people. One compliments the other and it is here that I focus theoretically on the approach to Black Church Studies.

Liberation, freedom and equality are the norms for African American Social Ethics and Womanist Theology. Religious authority within the American culture came from a Eurocentristic view that determined an Anglo-American perception should determine the normative values within American society (Roberts, pg. 13). These normative values were viewed differently by the African Americans. Liberation, freedom and equality are what were preached but what was practiced was different when it came to the African American.

The Bible states that slaves should obey their master. Charles C. Jones believed enslaved Africans would become more obedient and calm them down if the Christian faith was taught to them (Roberts, pg. 7). Others thought it would be the demise of slavery because under English rule no Christian could enslave another Christian (Roberts, pg. 6). Those that heard what Christianity was supposed to represent held onto the belief that they would be freed and liberated one day. It was the Eurocentric interpretation that kept Africans oppressed from a Biblical standpoint.

Today, it has not changed much for the African American ethically or theologically. “As long as the white-male experience continues to be established as the ethical norm, Black women, Black men and others will suffer unequivocal oppression” (Cannon, pg. 283). The white majority dictates what the norms are. They are the majority in power, make interpretations and preach to others. Theologians have understood the dominant theological traditions as to ignore human oppression (Douglas, pg. 26).

African American men and women believe in the implied messages of the Constitution and the Bible. All people are to be free and equal. It is not to be free and equal in just religious matters but also to be free and equal in all aspects of society. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on this approach. The outcome was to modify the hearts of white Americans (Roberts, pg. 14). Still, oppression was observed and practiced throughout the African American community. Because of the discrimination present, the Black community created values and virtues on their own terms in order to triumph against the odds against them (Cannon, pg. 282).

Virtue theory says that the main goal for the African American people is the preservation and promotion of the community (Paris, pg. 5). Virtue theory is the determinate measure of value for all humans and their activities (Paris, pg. 5). It is not individualistic. Community comes before self. If you better the community, you will be lifted up in the process also.

Womanist theology wants what is best for all people. They are concerned about the oppression of Black women but ultimately the freedom and equality of the entire community. Black women have been oppressed by their own race. The Black community has oppressed Black women that parallels the oppression the white church has oppressed the entire Black community (Pinn, pg. 30).

Alice Walker coined the word “Womanist” in her writing of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Her tenet is to define what it means to be a Womanist. A Womanist is a Black woman and her theology. The Womanist movement began with the focus on social and religious ethics to not only acknowledge the accomplishments of Black women but to free all people from oppression.

Katie Cannon wants to show how the Black woman has survived and how she relates Black reality in Black women’s writings. Black women’s writings bring forth the positive characteristics of the Black community (Cannon, pg. 286). She wants to show how to inform others how humanity is oppressed everywhere through Black women writers. Black women have carried on traditions, values and ethics to each generation. Literary methods can tell the interpretations of how life was and should be for the oppressed. Literary methods refer to different writing styles such as books, articles, poems or letters.

Delores Williams wants us to know that the primary concern of Womanist Theology is survival and community building and maintenance (Williams, pg. 182). Her goal is to bring forth a positive outlook on economics, spirituality and education for black women, men and children (Williams, pg. 182). She also states that there are four elements needed in Womanist theological methodology: (1) a multidialogical intent, (2) a liturgical intent, (3) a didactic intent, and (4) a commitment both to reason and to the validity of female imagery and metaphorical language in the construction of theological elements (Williams, pg. 184). Multidialogical refers to a Christian womanist theologian to dialogue with other groups about how to help the oppressed. Liturigical intent is the relevance of the worship and actions of the Black church. Didactic intent is how teaching is done in theology.

Kelly Douglas says, “… theology be done so that it advances life, freedom and dignity for all persons. In the very least, our theologies must enunciate the presence and challenges of the sustaining and liberating God of Jesus Christ” (Douglas, pg. 225). Theology expresses the idea of liberation from oppression. She uses a liberation approach to help understand this idea.

Jacquelyn Grant has a number of tenets to be considered. She lists four basic tenets of Feminist theology. (1) Feminist theology seeks to develop a wholistic theology. (2) Feminist theologians call for the eradication of social/sexual dualisms in human existence which is inherent in patriarchy. (3) Conceptualize new and positive images of women. (4) Evaluate male articulated understandings of the Christian faith (Grant, pg. 276). A wholistic approach is one that includes both men and women perspectives in theology. Other tenets mentioned include Jesus identifying with the “little people”, Black women, where they are; Jesus affirms the basic humanity for the least; and Jesus inspires active hope in the struggle for a liberated existence (Grant, pg. 285). Liberation must be addressed in terms of race, sex and class.

JoAnne Terrell has a list of 10-points for the Womanist tenets. I will summarize these tenets by saying that Womanists are dedicated to investigating and generating possible ways for discourse and cooperation that will boost in particular the well being of Black women and girls but include all of society (Grant, pg. 9).

There are a number of ways in which these methods have been carried out. First, Alice Walker coined the term “Womanist” to mean the theology of Black women. She used a poem to get the meaning out. The term had to mean something different from the women’s liberation movement. Once Womanist theology got to be known different methods were used to “work” Womanist theology.

All of the women named above used literary means to expand the movement and to define more precisely what the Womanist movement was about. The Womanist movement is fairly new. Methods of advancing the movement are still being negotiated. Although the movement is fairly new the ethic value still remains from other movements. Womanists still look back at history, religion and culture as sources to express their faith, experiences and opinions (Martin, pg. 27).

Some of the seminaries around the country are now allowing for this type of study. Women like Jacquelyn Grant have started programs dealing with Womanist issues. One of the biggest ways in which these methods have been carried out is in the ordination of women. This allows a way for voices to be heard by many. Many of these African-American women have ventured into areas unknown to them before. They are the first Black women to be tenured or receive a certain degree at a seminary. These women have forged the way so that others may advance and continue the fight to bring justice and equality not only to Black women but all oppressed people.

Womanists need to get their message out to the community. The movement must teach beyond the school or seminary, have the poor and working class women as their partners and must help empower other women to speak out in church and society (Hopkins, pg. 135). Black women make up a majority of the church population in Black churches. This could help the advancement of the Womanist approach if it went beyond the seminary.

Other methods they have used include their own background. Many have used their lives as examples of what it was like before and how far they have come but not settling on complacency. There is still a struggle to be free from the oppression. There are stories of ancestors, friends and relatives that have inspired the movement. These women travel around the country and tell their stories so that others can hear and have hope and self-confidence. They are nurturing the community and their families by showing the positive contributions made by the Black women of the past, present and the hope of the future. In addition to the women mentioned here, their male counterparts are beginning to jump onboard and acknowledging what women have accomplished and what they are doing to make all people a free and equal people.

There have been many contributions made to the well being of the human population by both White and Black people. Unfortunately, most of these contributions that we hear of come from mainly White America and mostly from men. That is not to say that the contributions made by White men are unimportant but there is so much more to hear about and say of the contributions made by Black men, Black women and White women.

Black men have studied and researched the contributions made by other Black men but Black women more than any other have not only contributed in ways that we can’t imagine but they have also been the one that have held the Black community together. There are contributions that Black women have made to the social and religious causes. A few of them were mentioned at the beginning of my paper. Those contributions were major factors in the life of the African American. Other contributions have been made but have not made the headlines for all to see. A woman talking to a child can be a big influence on what that child can become as an adult woman. These smaller contributions can be just as big as the other contributions on an individual level.

As a youth pastor I advocate for the youth and their involvement in the church. I want the church to know how vital the youth are to the church and the community. It is hard to get the church to listen most of the time. I can see the same type of struggle when the Black women need for the church and community to listen to what they have to say. Black women have had a double duty to be seen and heard because of their color and their sex. There have been different approaches to Black theology. I can sense that within the Womanist theology there is more of a bonding, of being on the same page and being in unity with the methods used to promote this theology. The goals seem to mirror each other. The ultimate goal for a Womanist theology is for the betterment and liberation of all people and for all to be on equal footing with society and Jesus.

The challenges for today in Womanist theology are that it is still fairly a new field. When a new process begins, it takes a while for all to get on board. Success doesn’t happen overnight. There are still many denominations and individuals who do not want to recognize women in general and specifically Black women in their accomplishments made to the church and community. There is still active suppression for women in the church and society. Men have a hard time taking away from themselves and giving credit to others, especially women. Black women have been the backbone of the African-American family and community. Today it is the African-American woman who takes care of the household chores, takes the children to church, is the spiritual leader in the house, tells the stories and traditions of the past and makes history alive again.

We as a church and as a people need to recognize the importance the Black women make in society. Womanist theology allows us to challenge ourselves to look at what Christ represents and how we are representing that to others. Our challenge is to take this approach seriously and help get rid of all the oppression and suppression of not only Black people in general but also to elevate the Black woman which has been given the identity as the least of the least.

The Black church today is better than it used to be. More women have been given opportunities in the church setting. James Cone said that Black people should concern themselves with taking care of Black people (Roberts, pg. 17). Womanists have taken it further in the Black church by having Black people take care of community. The Black church is the community. There are more Black women preachers than before but they are still oppressed in the Black church today. Hopkins mentions a group of women created Sisters Working Encouraging Empowering Together when Teresa Fry worked with Black women in churches in order to support attempts at spiritual and social liberation (Hopkins, pg. 137). There are more advancements that need to be made in the Black church today to get the full affect of Womanist theology.

As a seminarian there is much to be learned about Black Church Studies. This is a new field for me to study and get insights on. Whether or not I choose to advance my seminarian experience in this field does not take away from what I am learning. It brings to light that what I perceive to be in line with what I believe the church is doing about the oppression of women may not be entirely true. Confronting these issues in seminary has allowed me to open up my eyes and ears to something that I have turned a deaf ear to or just didn’t realize what was really happening. I have seen enough reaction in seminary by women and particularly Black women to know that all is not right with the life of the church and society.

As a religious leader the Womanist approach has allowed me an opportunity to be in tune with oppression around me. It allows me to be cognizant of how I am really representing the church to others. A religious leader leads and does not hold other people back. Leading is done by example and not just words. I am more aware of the accomplishments of women and how they can help lead. Not only can they help lead, they can do it by themselves. As a religious leader I can acknowledge the leadership a woman can give and support their effort to the church and to the public.

The readings have informed me that there are other voices to be heard. The voices I have heard are not representative of all society. It teaches us to look critically at who has been teaching us and what they have been telling us. Our inclusiveness that we talk about really hasn’t been inclusive at all. Interpretations differ in our readings, understandings and actions. We need to become aware of those that are oppressive to others and also those that do not allow for others to be heard or recognized.

This reflection will allow me to be more conscious of how I preach and teach. I can get different ideas from other races and sexes and allow others to hear where the contributions come from. It allows me to examine myself and ask if I have really been inclusive and fair to all. I can stop and ask myself how a Womanist approach to a certain idea might be looked at. It can remind me of different approaches by different individuals and to take them into consideration while preaching and teaching. Most of all it can allow me to be part of process that Jesus taught to his disciples. I can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem

My personal theological formation of the church is to allow women to take the lead in church activities. Since they comprise most of the people in the church, give them an opportunity to be the example for others. The church must not hinder women in the church or in society. I still see females being oppressed in the church because they are women. Men need to acknowledge that women have something to say and it is beneficial to all.

Society and the church is just now beginning to open up their eyes and ears to what the African-American women in their theology have to say to us today. Jesus showed us how to take care of the least of the least and we have chosen to ignore it. No matter how fair, equal and inclusive we think and say we are, there are others still suffering because of our ignorance. There are two views of society that I can see in this suppression of women, particularly the Black women. One is we just didn’t realize how we were suppressing the Black women and ignoring them. The other view that I am sad to report is that there are still outspoken views against women in general but attack Black women even harder. Other denominations still hold low views of women in society and church. It tells me that society needs a lot of help in realizing the contributions all people make to society without regard to race, class and sex.


Cone, James and Gayraud Wilmore, eds. Black Theology: A Documentary History, Volume II 1980-1992. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993.

Douglas, Kelly B. Review of A Womanist Looks at the Future Direction of Theological Discourse, Anglican Theological Review. 76/2 (1994): 225-231.

Felder, Cain H., ed. Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Hopkins, Dwight N. Introducing Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1999.

Paris, Peter J. Virtues and Values: The African and African American Experience. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Pinn, Anthony and Benjamin Valentin, eds. The Ties that Bind: African American and Hispanic American/Latino/a Theologies in Dialogue. New York: Continuum, 2001.

Plaskow, Judith and Carol Christ, eds. Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.

Roberts, Samuel K. African American Christian Ethics. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2001.

Williams, Delores S. Review of 10-Point Platform for a Womanist Agenda (What Womanists Want), by JoAnne M. Terrell, ed. Union Seminary Quarterly Review 58/3-4 (204): 9-12

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