Deep River Flowing Home to God: Hearing the Womanist Thought of Dr. Diana L. Hayes

[I have watched in horror over the past couple weeks at the continued violence against the black community in the United States and in Canada. In the interest of amplifying black voices, over the next week I’ll be promoting black theology past and present, with as little commentary from me as possible. May we all hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church through these powerful voices of faith.]

In the last decades of the twentieth century, the iron grip of white men on the theological academy began to loosen (slightly). This enabled the emergence not only of black theology as an academic discipline, but also feminist theology. Yet, women of colour found it hard to be heard in the conversations within both of these disciplines: Black theology was not interested in gender; and feminist theology was not interested in race. And so, the 1980s saw the beginning of another philosophical and theological movement, which took the name ‘Womanist’ and centered the experiences of black women in its explorations of faith and theology. Today I’d like to hear the theology of the womanist theologian Dr. Diana L. Hayes, particularly in three areas: 1) the faith of black women; 2) intersectionality; and 3) the implications of this for Christian vocation.

Womanist thought’s approach to theology is reminiscent of Langston Hughes’ approach to his poetry: they draw on their own stories and the resources of their community to find God in what is really there, both the beautiful and ugly:

What is womanist spirituality? It is the low-voiced croon of a mother to her sleepy child; it is the anguished moan of a woman grieving the senseless loss of a loved one; it is the joy-filled cry of a woman in the pews as she hears the voice of God speaking to her; it is the myriad voices of African-descended women calling out in love, desperation, hope, fear, pain, grief, and joy to a God who knows them, loves them, understands them. (No Crystal Stair, xxvi).

And:

[F]orced to live lives seemingly bereft of all hope, [black women] still managed to reach down within themselves and bring forth not just hope but the courage to ‘keep on keepin’ on” despite all that they had to deal with. Shorn of their right to respect and dignity promised by God to all of God’s creation (Gen 1), black women, often at risk of their own lives, somehow made a path that those coming after them could walk. (“We too Are America,” No Crystal Stair, 87)

Because womanist theologians have experienced marginalization on at least two fronts — race and gender — their theology is inherently intersectional. Where someone like W. E. B. Du Bois saw race as the fundamental issue separating black Americans from freedom and the fullness of the life God would want for them, womanist theology understands that this is far too simple: “Black women,” writes Hayes, “have carried a double and oftentimes triple burden in this world, for they are black, female, and too often poor in a world that disparages all three” (“Were you there?,” No Crystal Stair, 62). She herself has embodied a fourth experience of marginalization in the form of physical disability, as chondromalacia and rheumatoid arthritis have left her with chronic pain and limitations in her mobility. And so, womanist spirituality is one which is “forged in the awareness and experience of the multiplicative forms of oppression that are used to limit and restrain black women” (No Crystal Stair, xxiii):

While womanist thought is inherently political — ideas such as freedom to make genuine choices, and the safety and stability of their community are never far from its heart — it approaches these issues from a different direction than the black theology of men like Martin Luther King, Jr and James Cone. Yes, Hayes writes about the experience of oppression and the longing for freedom, but she addresses these through the reality of the immense resources of strength, resilience, meaning, and sacredness black women have experienced within, through, and despite oppression:

To be free is desirable and important, but one has to be prepared for freedom by having the wherewithal to survive and help others to survive. Survival cannot be simply bare endurance. It must be a survival of grace and mercy, one that helps a people to grow and thrive so that when freedom does come, they are prepared to live (No Crystal Stair, xxvi).

What sets womanist theology apart from many other theologies of liberation is this focus on the internal resources of marginalized groups. Hayes understands her life experience as a deep well of compassion and empathy, and it is this — rather than the marginalization itself — that forms the basis of her theological worldview:

I believe I have learned, because of my own struggles, how to see, hear, and feel the struggles of others, voiced and unvoiced… I know what it is like to be poor, to be discriminated against because of my poverty, my race, my gender, and my disabilities. These many years of struggle and pain, which continue to this day, have forged me in the fiery furnace of God’s love. (“Trouble Don’t Last Always,” No Crystal Stair, 43)

More poetically, in a reflection on the Stations of the Cross, she writes:

How long, how long, O Lord, must we mothers watch in silent agony as our children die before their time, weighed down by so many needless crosses not of their own making? Crosses of skin color, of poverty, of language, of sexual orientation, of fear, of lost hopes and discarded dreams. How long, O Lord, how long? We cannot remain silent. These are our children. (“Were you there?,”No Crystal Stair, 58f)

This grounding in the intersectional experiences and communal resources of black women — story-telling, bearing witness, caregiving, self-sacrifice for the sake of others — shapes Hayes’ understanding of Christian vocation:

For the answer to [society’s] eternal questions of self and belonging … can only be in God in God’s self and as God is reflected in the faces of all our fellow human beings. For we have truly lost our own way in the world. We have turned against each other, refusing to acknowledge the Other’s humanity and godliness because today the Other is no longer just like us, if ever she or he was. The other has a different skin color, speaks a different language, and worship in a different style or manner …. We worship the same God, however that God may be named, but allow human difference to separate and alienate us rather than draw us together. Yet, how can we seek out God while ignoring God’s presence in our very midst? (“Who do you, God, say that we are?,” No Crystal Stair, 76)

Again, she writes:

Difference is not dangerous; it is of God. Difference has been divinely sanctioned in the act of creation. It is our responsibility, as sharers in that creation, to turn away from divisiveness and move toward community. For we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. God has placed upon all of us the responsibility of following in God’s own footsteps, of loving all people as God loves us, of seeking their greater good rather than our own individual success. We can only do this by letting go of the ‘isms’ that continue to plague humanity — negativisms based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and religious creed. We must begin to remove the blinders we have placed on ourselves that restrict our vision, blinding us to the light of God shining through the face of all God’s people (“Who do you, God, say that we are?,” No Crystal Stair, 78).

And finally:

We are not alone in this world … And it is in coming together — one by one, two by two, and on and on — that we form the converging tributaries that make up the mighty stream of just and righteous people flowing home to God. We are and can be that justice that ‘rolls down like water,’ and that righteousness that ‘flows like a mighty stream’ (Amos 5.24). (“Deep River,” No Crystal Stair, 35)

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

One thought on “Deep River Flowing Home to God: Hearing the Womanist Thought of Dr. Diana L. Hayes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s