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Letter To A Theologian

For this assignment we were tasked with impersonating a theologian and responding to a another theological from the perspective of your chosen person. I impersonated Delores Williams responding to JoAnne Marie Terrell's essay "Our Mothers' Gardens: Rethinking Sacrifice"

Dear JoAnne Marie Terrell,

It was a delight to be featured so prominently in your essay “Our Mothers’ Gardens: Rethinking Sacrifice.” It is always great to hear another womanist perspective enter the conversation on Christian soteriology. As both of us can agree, it is necessary for us as black women to grow beyond classical theologies on atonement and redemption and reimagine Christ. Your Abelardian-inspired view, that the salvific significance of death comes through learning from the life that preceded it, is a value that I hold. However, it is interesting that this view leads you to an opposite conclusion than mine about “the cross.”[1] For you, the sacramental nature of the Christian passion narrative solidifies the sacrality of Jesus Christ and the nature of God. In your words, there is something of God in the blood of the cross,[2] and that there is a “potentially salvific notion with communal dimensions” in your view of sacrifice that gets lost in the language of surrogacy.[3] From this, I could not help but to view your essay as a direct response to my critique of soteriology via surrogacy. Overall, in this letter I hope to urge you to see that the cross for the Black experience is not theodicy, but tyranny. Death does not inevitably point to life, death points to death.

The death of black people is not pedagogy. You say that what is potentially liberating for women in your notion of sacrifice is the ability to learn from other women’s experiences, and to analyze their exercise of creative and moral agency.[4]Your view runs the risk of aligning Black women’s oppression as a “prized or desirable”[5] sacrifice for the sake of our learning. This is a slippery slope that can seldom end in liberation. We both hold a level of resentment towards the history of surrogacy that informs our social locations today. Yet on the path to liberation, it would be a mistake to try to reframe this history, or to adopt a “live and learn” attitude. We must instead uncover the theological foundations in which our history rests on so that we can both dismantle this notion altogether so our posterity can build anew.[6] This is what I aimed to do in “Black Women’s Surrogacy Experience and the Christian Notion of Redemption.” Why it might seem like the sacrality of sacrament is lost in the language of surrogacy is because it is…and always has been. Sacrifice is always a loss, and black women can no longer afford to lose.

The task as womanist theologians is not merely to learn from the experiences of Black women to craft our theology, but to witness to black women directly and show them that their salvation does not depend upon any form of surrogacy made sacred by human understandings of God – a posture that black women intimately understand as a source of their unique/unparalleled oppression in America.[7] In this way, I begin with a language of surrogacy because it is so present in the zeitgeist of my audience not to derive my theology from it. I begin with surrogacy so that my audience can begin to deeply understand the problematic nature of sacrament as the beginning of salvation, or more insidious, necessary for it. If it is your view that the death and torture of Jesus Christ, of Emmitt Till, or Aunt Betty, or even your mother’s abuse, should be likened as sacrifices to God, then I must ask: What does your God find desirable in abuse? To which God did they give their lives for? Frankly, this view runs the risk of idolatry and is contradictory to your acknowledgement that the life-giving lessons that comes from all these cases are the lives that precedes them.

I concede that perhaps my view does not take into consideration the full weight of Scripture, especially in my focus on the Synoptic Gospels somewhat disregarding the Fourth Gospel. Yet it’s important to acknowledge that soteriologies are intrinsically time-bound and have thus always surpassed scripture. Since antiquity, the view of Jesus was that of the ultimate surrogate who was a substitute for human sin. It’s a view that rests on inhumanity, however highly Christological it is. Therefore, I would be willing to seriously pursue your redemptive posture towards the blood of the cross after we decouple the history of “Jesus as surrogate” conceptions of the cross from philosophy that continues to oppress us.

We can both agree that there is something salvific in Christ, but you must remember that Christ is much more than the cross – that is true holistic spirituality.

In constructive solidarity,

Delores S. Williams

[1] Terrell p.37 [2] Terrell p.46 [3] Terrell p.49 [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Williams p.31 [7] Williams p.29

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