The Civil Rights Movement and Womanist Theology

 

217FA8EB-CEFC-4F9F-896B-D1FCD86FFD34
The civil rights movement and womanist theology? Not much in common between the two, it seems. Maybe, maybe not! The thing is: God’s people are guided by Spirit into an unjust world where people are oppressed, not just through a particular movement, whether it is for civil rights or equity for women. People are oppressed beyond any movement. People are oppressed in everyday life, today, as well as in past struggles for liberation.

God is all about liberation from oppression, now and in the future. The battle for liberation is ongoing and never-ending. And God’s people — you and I — cannot follow Christ in “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves” unless we stand alongside people who are oppressed, unless we pour our lives into building a just society where every person is treated according to the well worn and well loved declaration that “all people are created equal.”

If you believe there is nothing in common between the civil rights movement and womanist theology, then you do not know much about The Rev. Dr. Prathia LauraAnn Hall (1940 – 2002), who was an undersung leader for civil rights, a bulwark of the black church in the United States and an advocate of the womanist vision of equity and equality.

In the recently published book, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, Courtney Cox paints the portrait of Prathia Hall as a woman of deep conviction, courage and eloquence who literally embodied the longing for the rights of every person and the womanist vision of equality.

You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall electrified audiences through her speaking and preaching.

I say to you our daughters and sons, it is in you! Every time you behold the world as it is and dare to dream of what it must become that’s the fire of freedom’s faith. . . Every time you grab hold of the United States of America and like Israel dare to wrestle and declare to it — We will not let you go until you bless us — That is freedom faith’s fire. It is in you — It’s in us.     — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall was an inspiring leader in the Southwest Georgia Project in Albany, Georgia, in the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama, and in the multiorganization Atlanta, Georgia project.

Prathia Hall literally changed the course of the civil rights movement. As a “firebrand” in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hall labored tirelessly under the central guiding principle of her life, her activism and her ministry. Her life’s guiding principle was “Freedom Faith, the belief that God wants people to be free and equips and empowers those who work for freedom.”

In Hall’s work in door-to-door voter registration, in church-based educational programs, inspirational mass meetings, and through her scholarship and preaching, Freedom Faith found its ultimate expression in her womanist vision of the liberation of all people. For Hall, freedom was not only about the goals of the civil rights movement, it was about the many layered forms of oppression — racism, classism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, denominationalism — all formidable obstacles to human rights.

You may not know her name, but Prathia Hall was listed in Ebony Magazine’s 1997 “15 Greatest Black Women Preachers.” It is said of Prathia Hall that her call to ministry was both her glory and her burden. Yet her preaching electrified masses of people bowed low by oppression.

They called us: ‘nigger,’ ‘winch,’ ‘buck,’ ‘slave,’ but out there in the brush arbors, the wilderness, and the woods, the God of our ancestors, the God we had known on the other side of the waters met us and whispered words in our ears, and stirred a song in our souls . . .     — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but she was an indefatigable activist for human rights, a brilliant scholar, an engaging speaker, a compelling preacher, a distinguished theologian. Hall’s theology focused on liberation from all forms of oppression, and she did not shrink from the womanist theology that called out sexism and the duplicity of the Black Church in recognizing the call of women only in narrow and constricted ways. In an absolute articulation of her womanist vision of inclusion, Hall espoused a multidimensional structure of oppression. “Gender-based oppression,” she wrote, “isn’t a trivial inconvenuence. It’s human devastation.” As an insider, choosing to remain in ministry in the Baptist Church, Hall’s courage and conviction never ceased from criticizing a Church that opposed racism, but tolerated sexism.

It absolutely boggles my mind as well as grieves my spirit that brothers, with whom I have stood side by side in the struggle, brothers with whom I have bowed, knelt, prayed, worked, struggled, gone to jail, dodged bullets, and caught bullets, claim to be unable to make the transition from the critique of race-based oppression to the critique of gender and class-based oppression.    — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but her very soul was embroiled in the civil rights drama. In the summer of 1962, four black churches in Georgia’s Lee and Terrell Counties, all associated with the movement, were burned by white supremacists.

Hall and other SNCC workers wept together in the ashes of the Mount Olive Baptist Church. The next day the SNCC received a phone call that Martin Luther King, Jr. intended to visit Albany to attend a prayer vigil over the ashes of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Sasser. According to the New York Times, “As the sun sets across the cotton fields, some fifty Negroes and two whites met at Mount Olive for a prayer vigil. Joining hands, they sang softly, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

After the song, Prathia Hall led the group in prayer, her voice breaking in grief. According to oral tradition, Hall repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” each time followed by a specific vision of racial justice. After the service, King asked for her permission to use the “I have a dream” phrase, which she granted. From the oral evidence gathered from several witnesses, one can definitely make a case for Prathia Hall as the source of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.      — Courtney Cox, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but in the pages of Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, author Courtney Cox lays bare the world of this fascinating woman of God. She presents Prathia Hall through various lenses: Christian minister, liberation theologian, civil rights activist and leader, professor and scholar, preacher and speaker, mother, daughter, wife, agitator, womanist theologian.

Until now, you may not have known much about Prathia Hall, but many notables spoke of her abilities:

One in a million . . . A model that needs to be lifted up in every seminary of all races . . . so people can get a glimpse of what someone who has really said yes to ministry and who went to her grave living that ministry daily.     — Jeremiah Wright

The best preacher in the United States, possessing proven ability to exegete, illustrate, celebrate and apply the scriptures healingly to the problems, pains and perplexities of the people who sit ready to hear a word from Yahweh.     — Charles Adams, former president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention

. . . She was known for her commitment, her dedication, her stick-to-it-ness, for hanging in there, for never giving up or giving in.      — Rep. John Lewis

So what about the civil rights movement and womanist equality? Is there any commonality between them? Certainly there is commonality — both are never-ending struggles for justice, because we are a country where various groups of people are still denied their civil rights and woman are still suppressed and oppressed. Both movements — and many other struggles for justice — require our commitment, our resolve, our persistence, our courage, our compassion, our best efforts and our faithfulness to God.

At least for me, Prathia Hall’s life begs several questions:

What is it that I am passionate about, willing to follow God with courage to fulfill that passion?

Is there an injustice I must stand against?

Is there any oppression, any wrong, that I am compelled to confront?

Is there anything I care about deeply enough that I will dig deep into myself to find the courage to defend it?

Fair questions, I think, for those who are trying to follow God into places of need! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in offering compassionate  care to the oppressed and hurting people who need us! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in freeing people who live in various forms of bondage!

These are urgent questions for God followers!

I pray that I am able to sit with those questions and respond to them boldly as an act of my faith. I pray that for you, too.

Finally, do we dare we ask what will be our reward for seeking justice for the oppressed people around us? Probably not, yet this beloved passage of Scripture does speak of both our call from God and what we will receive for our commitment to our call.

. . . Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear . . .

Then my favor will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.

If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon. And I will always guide you and satisfy you with good things. I will keep you strong and well. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.

— Isaiah 58:6-11 Good News Translation (GNT)

So let us follow God into every place of need, every place of injustice, every place where oppression has raised its evil head. Let us follow God — as an embodiment of Christ’s love and compassion — until that day when “the darkness around us turns to the brightness of noon.”

May God make it so. May God find us faithful. Amen.

 


I offer you this music to listen to as you spend time in prayer and meditation

 

A Safe and Gentle Presence

D10C41D6-4875-479D-B4BC-40762C72FD3CIf you know me well, you will know that I have a love affair with trees. I always have, ever since I was a little girl playing among the protruding, gnarly roots of the enormous, beautiful magnolia tree in our yard. I would stay there for hours sometimes, finding under the tree’s canopy my own personal and private hiding place. Though it was ill advised, the tree endured carvings in its trunk without complaining even once. That tree had multiple carved hearts, each with an arrow and the names of boyfriends that came and went.

Today I was reminded how much I love trees when I received a mailing from the Arbor Day Foundation asking me to complete a survey, which I promptly did. As a token of appreciation for completing the survey, the Arbor Day Foundation will send me a calendar, a tree book and ten free trees.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, dreaming of having ten new trees in my yard, but of course, knowing that the free trees they send me will be five inches tall. No matter. I’ll plant them and nurse them and hope for the best.

I was also prompted by the Arbor Day Foundation to wonder about state trees. Fred and I tried to guess a few, but eventually resorted to Wikipedia for a list. Interesting list, ranging from common trees like the ubiquitous pine all the way to more exotic-sounding trees like Utah’s Quaking Aspen, Pennsylvania’s Eastern Hemlock and Arizona’s Blue Palo Verde.

23E0BDA9-6047-4A1B-AE2A-131CC85D8385Now that you’ve had a lesson on state trees that you did not ask for, I will tell you what’s up with me and trees. The lifelong connection happened when I was just a little girl. I lived with an abusive father who made my home a very unsafe place. Other forms of violence were prevalent as well: shouting and abusive language, threats of physical harm and a violent uncle that came with a gun and broke into our house by smashing the glass in our front door.

I was a child of fear, constant fear, and so I found hiding places under our trees, two huge magnolias, an even taller pecan tree, and even under the branches of Miss Martha Tebshereny’s plum tree. An occasional plum was a bonus!

Here’s the best truth: that it is incredibly powerful that out of a troubled childhood, I brought happy memories. I brought with me into my adult years images of safety; moments of playfulness; an appreciation of nature’s beauty; the taste of fresh figs, plums and pecans; a lovely collection of magnolia cones; the treasure of memories and an abiding love of trees.

80B6B271-36DF-445D-B9B3-147572ED24FE

She wept a river of tears
holy water, sent to soften the sharp edges of sorrow
a gentle hollowing out, carving new chambers in her heart
a hallowed vessel . . . 
Kate Mullane Robertson

There was healing under the weeping branches of those trees. There was hope. I think it was Holy Ground.

That’s something for which I am very grateful. I am grateful to a loving and compassionate God, who, I am quite sure, met me a few times under one of those childhood trees. God, who knows how important it is to protect children,  and graced me with a safe and gentle presence. Because of that, I made it out of a home filled with violence to a better, safer world.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

In the Light We Will Stand

 

1A6BB78E-B362-4076-8D9A-0F7A98F8B40A“I have perfect attendance pins for Sunday School going back thirty years, and until last week, I never knew that the Bible told the story of someone who had been raped.”

I have heard similar comments many times when preaching from my book about Biblical women, “Voices of Our Sisters.” The truth is that Scriptural passages like those described by Phillis Trible in “Texts of Terror” are not your Mama’s Bible stories. We don’t teach them in our classes and we definitely do not preach on them in church. The stories of violence against women in the Bible are as hushed as the stories of abused women today. Shame on us.

It was one year ago that The New York Times published an investigative article about how Harvey Weinstein had for decades paid off acusers of sexual harassment. 

“Culturally, the article hit like a meteor,” writes Maya Salam in The New York Times Gender Letter, “drastically altering the landscape around how sexual misconduct is perceived, sending the #MeToo hashtag viral and, in turn, triggering an avalanche of accusations against powerful men. It wasn’t long before #MeToo wasn’t just a turn of phrase — it was a movement.”

RAINN*, the country’s largest anti-sexual assault network, experienced a 30 percent increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline since the current #MeToo resurgence, and last Friday — the day after Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee — was the busiest day in the hotline’s 24-year history.

The women of this nation will not forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Women who have been harmed by sexual violence will revere her for her courage. Because our courage, survivors all, has often been small and our fear very large. We know that people will not believe our stories of abuse, and that instead they will blame us for bringing our terrible stories to light.

We will not forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and we will remember Tarana Burke who first spoke #MeToo in 2007 to let young women of color who survive sexual assault know that they are not alone.

We will remember Alyssa Milano and her Tweet that reached dozens of countries and millions of people — over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag “#MeToo,” and 85 countries had at least 1,000 #MeToo tweets.

So we join hands with those who understand us, hold on tightly, and speak our truth, because we need to move from darkness to light.

And in the light we will stand, hearts and spirits lighter because we have spoken our terror aloud. C47C1264-7179-455D-AA1A-6DF17B4673F8

In the light we will stand, even though staying in silence’s darkness would be easier. 

In the light we will stand, even as the people around us cling stubbornly to their darkness that screams out to us, “We will not hear you!”

In the light we will stand because that’s the only way to survive.

 

* RAINN — Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network