Black Theology vs. Feminist Theology

by Rosemary Ruether

Rosemary Radford Ruether, a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis, is Georgia Harkness Professor of Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. One of the foremost feminist theologians of the time, she was trained in church history arid historical theology and has published widely on feminism, the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, and the situation of the Palestinians.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis April 15, 1974. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The tension between black churchmen and the women’s movement, seems to represent the defensive perspective of the black, middle-class, patriarchal church. It concentrates on confronting the racism of its counterparts in the white church. But it has not yet opened itself up to the disturbing countertrends in the lower-class black community that not only conflict with bourgeois male and female stereotypes but also are alienated from middle-class values and the Christian identity as well.

The two most important expressions of liberation theology to emerge from the American experience in the late 1960s are black theology and feminist theology. Unfortunately, an undeclared war is brewing between them. First white male-dominated seminaries across the country adjusted their self-absolutizing perspective slightly to find a few crumbs for black studies More recently they divided these crumbs even further to create a parallel corner for women’s studies. Thereby these two expressions of criticism of the dominant social context of theological education have been set up to compete with each other.

The black caucuses, appearing a year or two earlier than the women’s groups, have generally denied reciprocal solidarity with the women’s movement. The second women’s movement, like the first, arose as women working for black liberation began to address the issues of their own liberation. Initially women analyzed their own oppression h comparing it to racism. Then, finding their own concern scorned by blacks, they withdrew in hurt alienation.

Are blacks correct in deriving solidarity with the women’s movement, and are feminists specious in comparing sexism to racism? I would argue that historically racism and sexism have been interrelated hut not exactly ‘parallel." Rather, they have been interstructural elements of oppression within the overarching system of domination by white males.

Moreover, this interstructuring has the effect of alienating white women, black women, and black men from each other. Each group tends to suppress the experience of its racial and/or sexual counterpart. The black movement constantly talks as though "blacks" means black males. The women’s movement fails to integrate the experience of poor and nonwhite women. Much of what it means by the "female experience" is in fact class-bound, restricted to the experience of a fairly atypical group of white, usually childless, women who are blocked in their efforts to break into the bastions of white, male. upper-class privilege.

We must understand these oppositions in order to understand the complexity of the interpenetration of racism and sexism in a class society.

Black Theology: Sexist?

James Cone is the most notable of the younger, militant black theologians. He appears to reject any coordination between black. theology and women. Cone has declared that women are not a ‘ "people" and do not have "church," implying that they cannot be a liberation movement. Recently he has indicated to this author that he does not negate the women’s movement as a legitimate liberation struggle. Nevertheless, he has come to symbolize for the women’s movement the pervasive rebuff by black caucuses. Why this tension?

The tension arise, not because sexism is irrelevant to black "manhood" but because it is all too uncomfortably relevant. However, this does not make black men male chauvinists in the same way as white men. Rather, the hostility springs from the humiliation of the black male at the hands of white males.

A white southern churchwomen recently sketched for me a model of the racist-sexist system of classical southern society. In this system the white, upper-class male ruled supreme. He dominated a society divided by sex, class, and race. White females and black females were made the opposite sides of each other. The white woman was the dependent ornament in the parlor; the black woman was exploited for sex and work in the kitchen.

The black male was at the bottom, reduced to an asexual beast of burden, denied any self-affirmation through sexual identity. It is this unnameable humiliation that rankles behind the inability of the black (male) movement in America to deal with sexism.

This situation has meant that the black church generally has played a different role in the sexual identity of the black minister than in that of the white minister. The white minister is often thrown into a confused posture toward his maleness. This is because white society considers religion and morality "feminine."

The black church has functioned in the opposite way. It was the one institution run and owned by the black community. It was their one place of public, corporate self-affirmation, the seedbed of whatever training was available for black politics and organizational development. In a society where black maleness was marginalized and placed under constant threat of "castration" (literally as well as figuratively) by the dominant sexist-racist society, the black minister became the one true "man" of the black community, the surrogate patriarch for a scorned manliness.

Functioning as a compensatory patriarchal figure for the whole community, the minister often became superpatriarchal, a symbol of pride for his people to whom they could transfer the privileges denied to them.

Black women have recently tried to challenge the tendency to make them the victims of this development of black manliness. They have tried to suggest that the strength of the black woman under oppression should be regarded with pride, not humiliation, as a part of the black experience. They have suggested that this strength makes possible an alternate paradigm for black male-female relations: They need not be patterned after white male dominance but can be truly reciprocal and mutually enhancing.

In the writings of black women one glimpses their fundamental experience of functioning as the "reality principle" for the entire race. They not only upheld the economic viability of the family unit, giving strength to the new generation, hut also bore the ego frustration of the black man. This experience grows the more bitter when the black woman finds herself rejected precisely at the moment when she feels compelled to reject the "feminine" role in order to assert her truthful character as the reality principle."

The black man, in turn, is constantly pulled after the white woman, who represents the illusionary "feminine" and the forbidden fruits of sexual dominance. No wonder these groups are constantly tempted to turn on each other -- the black man blaming the black woman, the black woman blaming the white woman, the white woman reacting in a hurt alienation that could change into a racist reaction -- instead of recognizing that despite the outwardly different conditions they share a common victimization under the superstructure of white patriarchy.

Black Theology: Middle Class?

In addition to representing the aspiration of the black community for "manliness," the black church has also been the traditional path toward the embourgeoisernent of the black community. Consequently, it also has had the tendency to lose contact with the actual condition of the masses and become an enclave of "respectability," alienated and threatened by the chaotic conditions of the impoverished blacks, especially in the northern city. The black masses, therefore, have often turned toward cultic, and even anti-Christian, movements to express their own experience of oppression. They have vilified the black minister -- respected as the "proper" spokesman for the black community by whites -- as a "crook" and an Uncle Tom.

The lower class has developed its own ways of affirming its different experience of sexuality. It is more comfortable with the non-bourgeois family patterns so deplored by Patrick Moynihan. This pattern is incorrectly described as "matriarchy," since the woman is hardly "dominant" in the usual sense of that word. But there is an autonomy and reciprocity quite different from the standard bourgeois model. Ultimately it is the woman who stands firm. She is the "ground of being" of the people in a way that finds its ambivalent celebration. Even as she is decried for her "lip," it is this toughness and realism that is the foundation of black survival. "Motherfucker" is a constant taunt, because it is also the most serious insult possible.

The tension between black churchmen and the women’s movement, then, seems to represent the defensive perspective of the black, middle-class, patriarchal church. It concentrates on confronting the racism of its counterparts in the white church. But it has not yet opened itself up to the disturbing countertrends in the lower-class black community that not only conflict with bourgeois male and female stereotypes but also are alienated from middle-class values and the Christian identity as well.

The Limits of "Black Caucus Theology"

These remarks do not discredit the validity of the theology being done by Cone in a particular context. His theology is an effective and appropriate instrument for its primary task. I would call this "black caucus theology." By this I mean that it is shaped to function in a confrontational fashion within a white power base. It places demands of conscience on white power and seeks to appropriate its advantages for the training of black leadership. But contrary to what Cone himself often declares, I think his kind of theology primarily addresses white people. Its content originally was little penetrated by the spirit of the black experience as an alternate source of theological themes. Its substance was taken from German dialectical theology, something Cone has continually defended as appropriate. He has essentially turned white theology upside down in order to reveal its hidden racist ideology.

Cone’s prophetic reversal of white theology remains too vaguely "universalist" for the concrete tasks of a radical black church. It may be inadequate for the integral self-development of the black community itself, i.e., as black theology for black people.

The black community needs the transfer of power and skills from white institutions. What is still not evident is whether this power and these skills will really be transferred. One wonders whether black caucuses are not being led in the centrifugal path of the black middle class in militant disguise. The new willingness of white society to promote the skilled black person to full citizenship creates the possibility of disenfranchising this leadership group from the poor black community. We are beguiled into thinking that racism is overcome because a small elite gains new visibility and honor. We are prevented from seeing that the black masses in the ghettos are experiencing a worsening condition that they can no longer tolerate.

A relevant black church must perhaps become far more integrally black if it is to address itself to this situation. It must transform itself to overcome the split between the bourgeois black church and the unchurched black masses. It must become more like the Black Muslims or the Garveyite movements in the sense of focusing on building communal structures of social cooperation by and for blacks within the black community itself. It must take the initiative, in a vast movement of new morale, in transferring resources from white society and building resources from within the black community to transform the "ghetto" from a place of deprivation to a place of positive black communal expression and development.

The symbols that the black church inherited from evangelical Christianity may be too limited for this task. It may have to reach much more toward "soul," toward symbols developed by blacks alienated from the church, and also toward the Caribbean and Africa to find a "blackness" that is not simply antiwhite but can rejoice in itself. Perhaps only Mother Africa can provide some symbols that the uprooted, stolen people cannot derive from the goodness of slavery: symbols for the soul-self, for the goodness of the body-self, for the integration of humankind in nature, the rootedness of peoplehood in the land.

Feminist Theology: Elitist?

The development of women’s caucuses in seminaries and feminist theology, parallel to that of the black movement, is a phenomenon of the last few years. However, already there is evidence that women’s caucuses may be creating a social encapsulation similar to that of black caucuses. This encapsulation, moreover, has social roots in the history of white feminism in America.

The women’s movement in America arose in the 1830s among southern elite and New England Brahmin women turned abolitionists. Its concept of the oppression of women was fueled by its sympathy with the antislavery cause. When the Fourteenth Amendment enfranchised the black male and excluded women, the more militant thought the amendment should he rejected until it included both race and sex. Thereafter they acquiesced in the increasing drift of the women’s movement away from equalitarian views toward a racist and class bias.

As the women’s movement became a mass movement in the 1880s, it was influenced by the general abandonment of romantic heroic reformism for a racist social Darwinism. Increasingly the movement drifted toward a view that women should he enfranchised in order to double the vote of the white, Protestant middle class and thereby assure the supremacy of this ruling class over the rising tide of blacks and immigrant Catholics and Jews. It thereby also took for granted the de facto reversal of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Jim Crow laws.

At the same time the women’s movement hacked away from its earlier radical confrontation with the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and the place of the woman in the home. Instead it accepted the stereotype of the feminine "lady," whose beneficent role in the home should now shine forth into the public arena.

The new women’s movement of the 1960s also arose out of an alliance with and, then, a traumatic experience of rejection by the black civil rights and white male radical movements. It has typically sought to go beyond the limits of the old women’s movement and to challenge the stereotypes of the feminine and the sexual relations of male and female in home and society. It seems little disposed, therefore, to fall for a new version of the "white lady" myth. Yet its alienation from other radical movements, especially black liberation, and its recourse to a kind of "separatist" ideology -- that talks about the oppression of women as more basic than any other form of oppression in a way that makes women a separate cause unrelated to other kinds of oppression -- may be working its own kind of subtle social encapsulation.

This separatist concept helps to obscure the way in which the oppression of women is structurally integrated with that of class and race. Sociologically, women are a sexual caste within every class and race. They share a common condition of women: dependency, secondary existence, domestic labor, sexual exploitation, and the projection of their role in procreation into a total definition of their existence.

But this common condition takes profoundly different forms as women are divided against each other by class and race. No woman of an oppressed class and race, therefore, can separate her female struggle from its context in the liberation of her own community.

Women of the elite class and race easily fall into an abstract analysis of women’s oppressed status that they believe will unite all women. They ignore their own context of class and race privilege. Their movement fails to connect with women of oppressed groups, and it becomes defiled by a demand for "rights" commensurate with the males of their group, oblivious to the unjust racist and class context of these privileges. It may not be wrong to seek such "equality," but it is dangerous to allow the ideology of the women’s movement to remain confined to this perspective.

Feminist Theology: Antifemale?

Theology done in the context of women’s caucuses in elite universities tends also to be alienated from the experience of most women. Motherhood is a negative trip. The elite woman, who competes with the career pattern of the elite male, is subverted at the point of her capacity to have children. She is usually forced to choose between the two. Absolutized, however, this perspective on motherhood really accepts the "phallic morality" (to use Mary Daly’s phrase) that women have decried. It accepts a feminist antifemaleness that loathes women at the point of the specificity of female difference.

Maternity has been the root of female oppression because it represents the one power that men do not have and upon which all men depend for their existence. Not to be able to rescue maternity as a positive symbol for women in a way that can be liberating is really a capitulation to the male false consciousness that tries to convert female potency into the female weakness through which women are subjugated. Sexism cannot he understood, historically or psychologically, unless it is recognized that it rests not on female weakness but on the suppression of female power. Sexism is an elaborate system of handicaps that males erect around women to make female potency appear to be the point of their weakness and dependency, thereby suppressing from cultural consciousness the truth of male dependency. Women who strive for an equality by accepting this male negation of the female remain encapsulated in male false consciousness.

Women’s liberation will gain general support from women only when it can be revealed as a necessity that also expresses the mandate of the woman as the foundation of the survival of the race, Male false consciousness has created an antagonistic concept of self and social and ecological relations that is rapidly destroying humankind and the earth. Not only have the personhood and cultural gifts of women been suppressed by this, but males themselves have been allowed to remain in an adolescent form of vainglorious psychology that is no longer compatible with human survival.

Women must reject male chauvinism at the point of the oppression of their own personhood and autonomy. But they must also reject it at the point of motherhood for the sake of the survival of their children. It is at this point that the dialogue between white feminism and black feminism is vital. Black women inevitably ground a militant feminism not only in their liberation as persons but also in the validation of woman as mother, fighting for the survival of her children.

The history of white male chauvinism, with its interstructuring of sexism and racism, is bent on alienating black women and white women and making their contrary experiences incommunicable to each other. When black and white women can penetrate each other’s experience and recognize each other as common victims of a total structure of white male domination, this will be the moral victory that will cut the gordian knot of white male dominance. An independent black feminism that can articulate the distinctive character of the black female experience in a way that can reveal this total structure of oppression, then, is the essential element that is needed to cut through the mystifications of white male power that set the three subordinate groups against each other.

Perhaps only black feminism can give us a strong image of womanhood before patriarchy reduced it to shattered fragments. The white patriarchal God has alienated us from our bodies, each other, and the earth. The black patriarchal God is prophetic on the side of the oppressed. He represents the transcendent Almighty who assures the weak that there is a power in heaven stronger than the mighty on earth. But absolutized, he promises more apocalyptic warfare in re

verse. The white lady of Mariology always lands woman on her knees before her "divine Son" as the sublimated, and the sexually alienated, servant of the male ego.

One needs to glimpse again the primordial power of the mother-symbol as Ground of Being to restore an ontological foundation to the "wholly other" God of patriarchy. The Christian effort to overcome gnosticism and apocalypticism and to integrate the God of the messianic future with the divine Ground of Being failed because it continued to be based on the patriarchal denigration of the female. Only a regrounding of the power of the future within the power of the primordial matrix can refound the lost covenant with nature and give us a theology for the redemption of the earth.