Sisters in the Wilderness (By Delores Williams)

Sister’s in the Wilderness (By Delores Williams)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)

Delores Williams is a first generation womanist theologian, and her book Sisters in the Wilderness is a major contribution to the canon of womanist theological ethics. In Sisters, Williams uses the story of Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Sarah and Abraham, as a metaphorical narrative to describe the lives of black women and their shared history in America under oppressive forces. The Hagar narrative represents a tradition of African American resistance derived from the same history as the African American liberationist tradition with two differences; first, the Hagar tradition is a black women’s tradition (the liberationist tradition focuses primarily on the Exodus narrative and “the black man”); second, the Hagar tradition is not concerned with liberating the oppressed. Consequently, one may ask, does the religion of the Hagar narrative “set black women up to be de-humanized and exploited?” (41) Did religion confuse black women’s understanding of suffering and caused her to accept “untenable explanations for it”, even causing her to usurp expressions of black manhood, thus “oppressing both black men and women?” (47-48). Indeed, these are some of the questions, leveled in an accusatory tone, against this black female religious tradition. But Williams argues that the tradition is assuredly not a sedative for oppression, but a source of survival intelligence, providing skills for survival and a better quality of life in the wilderness of racist, sexist, and classist oppression (50). Thus, survival/quality of life is the description of agency in black womanist theoethics that Williams explores in Sisters.

What does this lifestyle of survival intelligence consist of? To begin with, there are at least two major themes that Williams is working with in Hagar’s story; surrogacy, and wilderness. Hagar’s story includes a litany of historical and contemporary black women’s experiences, including also radical encounters with God (4). At the outset of Williams’ account Hagar the African slave, owned by Sarah and Abraham, attempts liberation by fleeing into the wilderness after being coerced into biological surrogacy and abused by her mistress. Hagar was property. Her body, with its reproductive capacities, was at the command of her mistress. There in the wilderness, the pregnant, abused Hagar was visited by God who demonstrated seemingly no concern for her liberation. God told her to go back to her mistress and submit to her (Gen. 16:9). But God also foretold her survival and hinted at an eventual quality of life for her by forecasting her future life with her son Ishmael. In this encounter, Hagar named God “El-Roi.” Thus, God was not only the God of her owners, but hers as well, albeit with a description and name that connects with her own experience of the divine, not her masters. Hagar found herself in the wilderness once more, but this second time she was free. But she was also a poor, African, homeless, single mother. God met her once more in that condition, and provided for the survival of she and her son, and a particular quality of life for them there in the wilderness.
These two wilderness moments coincide with black women’s experience of Christ in the face of race, class, and gender oppression during antebellum and post-bellum America. Hagar’s surrogacy role was biological.  African American women also knew surrogacy, as social role exploitation in two kinds of surrogacy that correspond with Hagar’s two wilderness experiences: coerced surrogacy and voluntary surrogacy. Coerced surrogacy occurred during the antebellum period when black female slaves, as mammies and breeders, suffered the plight of Hagar as women forced to reproduce at another’s command. Additionly, black women slaves faced their own unique form of coerced surrogacy by filling roles ordinarily filled by someone else; i.e. white mother, white landowner/property controller governing the slave-owners’ household(63). Voluntary surrogacy has been a post-bellum experience of poor black women in a white racist, sexist, classist world. For example, black women domestics hired by white families fulfill the role of mammy again, in addition to stepping into roles as head of household in place of absent males. What can black women expect from Jesus in a cold cruel world? That depends on your view of the atonement. If Jesus suffered for us in obedience to the Father, we may understand this to be coerced surrogacy. If his suffering was voluntary we may see this as voluntary surrogacy. Both views make suffering a divine experience, and Christianity a holy sedative for a segment of society who have no choice in suffering. Williams offers instead, another view. There is no redemptive suffering; the encounter with suffering is always an encounter with sin, not holiness, or God’s will. Jesus can be best understood as promoting a “ministerial vision” that placed people in right relationship to one another and to God. Righting relationships is the work of Christ on earth that we are to emulate, not vicarious suffering. Christ’s resurrection demonstrates God’s approval of Christ’s ministerial vision, and the condemnation of those who fought against the ministerial vision. Thus, like James Cone, Williams argues that the oppressed community is the place where we are called “to hammer out the meaning of Jesus’ presence for Christian behavior.” We must do so by a process of revaluing from invisibility, the life-world of African-American women (174-175).

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