Theologians Re-Imaging Redemption

by June Christine Goudey

June Christine Goudey is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and a candidate for the doctor of theology degree at Boston University School of Theology.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 11-18, 1990 pp.673-675, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Rather than using Jesus as an escape hatch for fear, we need an understanding of redemption that will allow us to engage our fears in their most terrifying dimensions.

The desire to re-image redemption may seem the height of folly or, worse, arrogance -- folly when one considers the extent to which we have been shaped by patriarchal Christianity and arrogance when one considers the profound healing that both women and men have experienced by embracing Christian truths. Yet a recent symposium was dedicated to addressing just this issue. "Re-Imaging Redemption: a Symposium on Feminist and Womanist Theologies," sponsored by the Anna Howard Shaw Center at Boston University School of Theology, sought to redress injustices by suggesting alternative ways of understanding the power that saves and heals us. Just as men have been criticized for excluding women’s experience from theology, feminists justifiably have been called to account for failing to recognize that white women’s experiences are not the same as that of blacks and other minorities. The net effect is to see the need to re-image redemption not only from a feminist viewpoint but also from one that recognizes all dimensions of oppression.

By appealing to imagination and art, the symposium fostered a variety of perspectives. The six theologians who led the event -- Carter Heyward, Barbara Gerlach, Rita Nakashima Brock, Gail Paterson Corrington, Jacquelyn Grant and Delores Williams -- challenged age-old assumptions about human life, divine power and Jesus Christ as the only true redeemer.

Artist and United Church of Christ pastor Barbara Gerlach, whose work was featured at the conference, began by describing her art as her "wit’s end experience" and connecting her courage to the inspiring words of poet Muriel Rukeyser, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open." Working from her own painful experiences of childhood abuse, she explained how self-disclosure is the vehicle of her own liberation. "Only when we see what is," said Gerlach, "can we imagine what will bind us up or set us free, and move toward deeper healing and wholeness, greater freedom and fulfillment." For Gerlach, the process of image-making takes precedence over any claim for the uniqueness or universality of any one image of redemption. Gerlach encouraged us to acknowledge and Utilize our own painful memories and experiences and then to "work out our own salvation in fear and trembling."

For example, Gerlach noted four images of redemption which have emerged and recurred in her art: "survivors" who refuse to die or give up; the "friends" who make it possible to go on; those "older and wiser" on whom she leans; and images of the need to "comfort and care for ourselves." Gerlach reminded us that as we confront our own pain -- and, as Carter Heyward argued, our fears -- we can build on the particularities of our individual lives to create images of wholeness and well-being.

Like Gerlach, Heyward, who is professor of theology at Episcopal Divinity School and one of the first women to become an Episcopal priest, emphasized and modeled the importance of profound honesty in the redemption process. She began by redefining the scope of redemption beyond the confines of Christian faith. Redemption is not just "God’s way of tidying up messy places in history or covering up ugly moments of our life together or our lives as individuals redemption is not about saving situations or justifying oppression or abuse." Rather, said Heyward, redemption is in part our mutual responsibility. "It is about saving people, other creatures and the Earth."

All Christologies past and present, Heyward claimed, have reflected a disempowering experience of fear. As our redeemer and our Christ, Jesus of Nazareth has all too often functioned theologically to help us master fear by way of denial. Rather than using Jesus as an "escape hatch" from fear, Heyward argued, we need an understanding of redemption that will allow us to engage our fears in their most terrifying dimensions. Instead of fearing life, ourselves or one another, as we do all too often, we should be afraid of that which alienates us from ourselves and one another. Indeed, we should accept our lives in all their ambiguity and struggle together for justice "in and through our conflict, confusion, anger and pain." Heyward spoke forcefully out of her own journey of recovery from alcoholism. She called for our mutual engagement in the redemptive process "not of escape, but of transformation; not of control or management, but of letting go" of our fears. She challenged the doctrinal claim that the christic power of Jesus is his alone. Through right relations with one another, we can and must lay claim to the christic power inherent in our humanity. At the heart of Heyward’s argument is her tenacious hold on the truths of living in right-relation wherein each of us, regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation, may live faithfully and respectfully in nonabusive ways.

Rita Nakashima Brock, professor at Pacific Lutheran University and a woman blessed by a Japanese-American and Puerto Rican heritage, gleaned her re-imaging clues from familiar stories of biblical women who "defy patriarchal sexual codes to keep life going." Joining with other feminist biblical scholars such as Phyllis Trible and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Brock reinterprets the Bible in light of women’s experiences. Throughout her presentation she appealed to Trible’s translation of the famous Jeremiah text about Rachel weeping for her children and the phrase in Jeremiah 31:22, "the female surrounds the warrior" (Brock’s adaptation) , which witnesses to the powerful new thing that Yahweh promises for the restoration of her children. Brock’s decision to translate the Hebrew word Gebar as warrior is itself a further step in re-imaging. While Trible renders the final phrase "female surrounds man," the Jerusalem Bible gives us, "The Woman sets out to find her Husband again," and the New English Bible would have us believe that God’s new thing is "a woman turned into a man " -- hardly the stuff out of which women experience redemption. The sexism of these last two translations reminds us of the importance of scriptural translation in the task of re-imaging.

Brock also described the "eraser theory" of male theologizing which rubs women out of the picture -- though the Gospels themselves herald women who are models of faithful action. Brock noted that Luke describes the women who remained at Jesus’ cross, burial and tomb -- Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others who accompanied Jesus from Galilee -- despite the Twelve who desert him. Brock’s analysis suggests that it is the perseverance of love such as theirs, not the "lone heroism" of Jesus (advanced by patriarchy), which offers us true redemption. "We cannot rely on one past event to save our future," Brock argued. "No almighty power will deliver us. With each minute we wait for such rescue, more are slain. Like all these women at the tomb, it takes all of us, each and every one and more. Each of us is that important." Brock echoed the insights of Heyward and Gerlach: it is our actions in the "fragile, resilient interconnections we share with others" that bring us into the realm of sacred mystery, bind us together in love and empower us in face of suffering and pain.

While Brock found images of redemption in Scripture, New Testament scholar Gail Paterson Corrington found hers in pre-Christian figures such as Isis and Sophia, ancient female divinities whose legacy lives on in apocryphal literature in the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus. "Struggle as they might, the patriarchs could not make Mary Immaculate into Mary Manipulate," she writes. Unfortunately, Corrington noted, patriarchal Christianity identifies Jesus with God exclusively. It is not so much the gender of Jesus by itself to which feminists object, but rather the fact that by making Jesus the sole model of salvation, all other mediators of salvation must then be male. Anyone who doubts this logic need only be reminded of the Roman Catholic theologians -- including, most notably, John Paul II -- who insist that priests must be male because mediating salvation requires "male characteristics." Moreover, the pope maintains that "in calling only men as his apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner" (see "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women")

Corrington documented the way the female has been excluded from the personae of the deity in Christianity, detailing the numerous arguments that present the female nature as flawed and limited. At the same time, she took issue with the well-known Martha and Mary story wherein Mary presents the model of an ideal disciple by sitting at the feet of a famous rabbi. While many interpretations of this story are possible, Corrington raised the issue of gender. Mary takes on the role of the male student sitting at the feet of the male rabbi, she pointed out. "Far from indicating the equality of men and women in the discipleship of the Kingdom of God, . . . the use of Mary as the model disciple suggests that women must become men in order to receive the ‘better portion."’ This "ironic choice" for Mary and for all women-that the better choice is not to see oneself as female -- is reinforced by the words of Jesus in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: "For every female (element) that makes itself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." (Note again the New English Bible’s translation of Jeremiah 31:22 that suggests that Yahweh sanctions transforming the woman into a man.) To "be a real woman," as we are admonished by so many of our patriarchal admirers, seals our self-destruction. Only men can enter the kingdom and be saved. In the face of this Mary, a distorted model of redemption, Corrington’s treatment of Mary the mother of Jesus is a model of wholeness and liberation.

Carrying the re-imaging process a step further, womanist theologians Jacquelyn Grant and Delores Williams reminded white women especially that their anti-sexist critiques frequently disregard the injustices borne by women and men of color (this is one of the reasons that some black women have elected to appropriate Alice Walker’s term "womanist" to name their theological stance) Speaking of her own family’s effort to keep her from the pitfalls of domestic service, Grant, associate professor of systematic theology at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, took the notion of servanthood to task: black people know all too well that "some are more servants than others." As "servants of the servants" they often suffered overwhelmingly demeaning moments at the hands of white women and their sexually abusive husbands. Despite legal emancipation, freedom was an empty word for most domestic workers. Health cards, not report cards, determined their status, as the ‘Three D’s" -- dirty, diseased and dishonest -- took precedence over the ‘Three R’s" of educated and privileged whites. All of this presents Grant with a theological dilemma:

How do you justify teaching a people that they are called to a life of service when they have been imprisoned by the most exploitative forms of service? Furthermore, how do you propose that we are called to service to Jesus, the one who has been sent by God to redeem us, when both God and Jesus have been principle weapons in the oppressive [white patriarchal] arsenal to keep blacks and black women in their appropriate place?

that we can construct a redemptive present." To re-image redemption, Williams explores the painful ambiguity of coerced and voluntary surrogacy which functioned uniquely as a "structure of domination in black women’s lives" -- most notably in the role of "mammy." Standing in the place of the slave owner’s wife, the mammy became the "premier house servant who, though given considerable authority by her owners and admired for her expertise in domestic matters.

Grant resolved the dilemma first by enlarging on the insights of W. E. B. DuBois and his reference to the double consciousness of black men, who understood themselves through their "twoness" -- being black and American. Grant speaks of the "triple consciousness" of black women: Americans discriminated against on the basis of sex as well as race. Yet black women such as Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune and Fannie Lou Hammer were constantly "liberating Jesus as Jesus was liberating them," through their own theology. The birth of the black church, says Grant, was an important public declaration that black self-understanding took precedence over the definition of the white world. The black church gave black women the "possibility of experiencing a liberating Jesus even as they were given a racist and sexist one." Reminding us that womanist theology is committed to bringing holism to black women’s lives, Grant concluded:

Being a servant of the Redeemer means joining the struggle of the Redeemer against oppression wherever it is found. Where is redemption? Redemption happens where the struggle for liberation is. Who is the Redeemer? The Redeemer comes to us through whomever engages in the redeeming struggle of liberation.

Delores Williams, assistant professor of theology and culture at Drew University Divinity School, offered a sociohistorical approach to womanist theology, "to shade in a context, to find a usable past so that we can construct a redemptive present." To re-image redemption, Williams explores the painful ambiguity of coerced and voluntary surrogacy which functioned uniquely as a "structure of domination in black women’s lives" -- most notably in the role of "mammy." Standing in the place of the slave owner’s wife, the mammy became the "premier house servant who, though given considerable authority by her owners and admired for her expertise in domestic matters, remained captive. Despite its limitations and the significant abuse women suffered as a result of it, Williams argued that the mammy role was "the most powerful and authoritative one slave women could fill."

Why have black women through the ages clung so tenaciously to Jesus of Nazareth as a redemptive symbol? This question haunts Williams’s research and she answered it forcefully: "This is the rub: Jesus is the ultimate surrogate figure for our redemption." Questioning the logic of the substitution theory of atonement, Williams asked, "In his life, then, was [Jesus] a divine mammy, nurturing other people’s children, giving them the sustenance they needed to stand between themselves and the cold, cold world?" From the perspective of Afro-American experience, "Jesus became human to be made mammy."

This insight moved Williams to advance the possibility that in black women’s identification with Jesus as surrogate Lord they risk being "passive to the oppressive operation of surrogacy in our lives" and "oblivious to forces at work influencing us to stand in somebody else’s place, to be at the beckon of somebody else’s call and to forever service the needs and goals and tasks and responsibilities of somebody else. What about our unwed mother?" Arguing that black women must be suspicious of the divine status of "mammying," as exemplified by Jesus, Williams offered no conclusive answers to her hard christological questions. She did, however, offer a ruling principle from her vantage point as a womanist: "To re-image redemption is to re-image creation and to re-image creation is to re-image relation."

More than a few questions linger in the wake of these six attempts to reimage redemption: How, one may ask, can we experience the process of letting-go without falling victim to the surrender imagery that has done such harm to women and children, particularly in abusive situations? Can we enlarge on the insights of artists such as Gerlach, whose creative gifts depend on the process of letting-go or opening, to receive imaginative insights from a Spirit greater than ourselves? Can we accept Brock’s radical thesis that each of us is important for the redemption of all life, by virtue of what Heyward calls the christic power in each of us? Can we expand our experience of redeemer figures to allow female images to shine through and bless our lives in relation? Can we construct a new order of ministry based on love as care without falling back into tradition, which demands that women be caretakers, or falling into the subtleties of surrogacy? Can feminists learn from their womanist sisters that Jesus’ iconoclastic ministry offers strength for the redemptive journey? Can womanists take more seriously the interrelationship of sexism and racism even as feminists strive to deal with their own culpability?

The construction of a new humanity, a new way of being in relation, and the radical transformation of culture inform much of the christological critiques exemplified by these scholars. A significant lack of clarity about the nature of sin and radical evil in the context of a new humanity looms in this project. It is at least clear that there is more than one perspective for understanding how Jesus sets us free. The word of God remains important for many women even if the authority of the Christian canon does not. So, too, do insights regarding resurrection and the cross as a symbol of nonredemptive suffering. The interpretation of these theological realities now requires reflection and commitment in ways not always appreciated or even allowed. Orthodoxy has always had its challengers and its heretics, but heresy (to use patriarchy’s term) now has more room to breathe. Together, in the midst of our differences, we can dare to think anew about the liberating character of Christian faith.