THE RISKS OF REPEATING OURSELVES:
READING FEMINIST/WOMANIST FIGURES OF JESUS
by Karen Trimble Alliaume
What would it mean for white feminist theology to figure Jesus as a black woman?
KAREN TRIMBLE ALLIAUME is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke
University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is writing a dissertation on feminist
The most pleased of the lot was the other lion, who kept running about everywhere
pretending to be very busy but really in order to say to everyone he met, "Did you
hear what he said? 'Us lions.' That means him and me. 'Us lions.' "
-- C. S. Lewis
-- Eleanor McLaughlin
When I was twelve or thirteen, I went through a stage of intense interest in Holocaust
narratives, weeping over Anne Frank, searching out similar fiction and nonfiction accounts
of Jewish lives in hiding, exile and danger. I was horrified and outraged by inhumanity
and injustice, yet my personal fantasies surrounding these stories were never of emulating
Jewish bravery or acting out resistors' strategies. Rather, they centered on my sneaking
conviction that, while Euro-American and Roman Catholic, I would have passed for
"Aryan"; collaboration, real or pretended, was the starting point for any and
all imagined heroics on my part. Anachronistic though it was, I felt a certain relief,
reading these stories, that I was not, in fact, Jewish. I could sympathize, cry, rage,
denounce, but I was "safe."
This sense of (divine?) exemption lingers in other, more complicated ways in my own
work and in that of other white Christian feminist theologians. There are no innocent
pleasures; the pleasures that we take, that we have taken, in various
"experiences" that have shaped who we have become often stem from unquestioned
assumptions about the ways in which "our" experience is claimed as normative or
universal. My comfort in claiming both Christian/Roman Catholic and feminist identities
oscillates, perhaps because my primary emotional engagements with both feminism and
Christianity have been through reading and study.
My religious sensibility was fostered by Christian/Anglican apologist C. S.
Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series (in which English children are whisked away by
magic into another world where they depose an evil witch, become kings and queens, and
rule over the friendly talking beasts that populate Narnia), and by (Anglican) Madeleine
L'Engle's books, especially the A Wrinkle in Time trilogy and the Austin family
books, all of which portrayed Christian devotion as at once a fantastic adventure and as a
secure home among friends. These books -- or rather, my fervid response to them -- are
partially responsible for my choosing to study theology at all. Children's book writer
Beverly Cleary once said that the best stories are either about things that never happen
to children, or about things that happen to them all the time. Perhaps the appeal of these
books for me was that, even though they were "fantasy," they managed to combine
both of these requirements.
For instance, in the third volume of the Chronicles, Aslan the lion, Narnia's
creator, tells some of the children that they will never return to Narnia. When they
protest that they will never be able to see him again, he says that they will meet
him in their own world, "but there I have another name. You must learn to know me by
that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me
here for a little, you may know me better there."
This enticing hint of an overlap between the world of Narnia and the children's world,
"our" world, was enough to send me looking for other patterns. I know I thought
I was very clever in figuring out that Aslan -- who is put to death by the witch in lieu
of the child who has betrayed him, but rises again -- was really Jesus, though I could
never quite make the rest of the characters fit too neatly into a Christian family tree.
The pleasure I took in these books stemmed not only from their quality of escapist fantasy
but from the sense of puzzling out a mystery that seemed within, though just beyond, my
grasp. These patterns, and hints of patterns, assuaged my longing for symmetry and beauty.
But this pleasure is no longer as pure as it once was; not since, for instance, my
friend Iraj, an Iranian-American, told me about his own disappointment and distress in
reading the Narnia novels. He felt it impossible to identify completely with the fair,
northern Narnians, to vilify, as did most of the stories, Narnia's enemies, the dark,
southern Calormenes. To him, the religious and political conflicts in the stories --
between the Narnians, who followed Aslan, and the Calormenes, who worshiped Tash, a
bird-headed god -- reinscribed a Christian/infidel binary, a religious and racialized
binary reinforced by portraying the Calormenes as Turks. Before this, my only real
dissatisfaction with the Narnia books had been with what I thought of as their sexism,
evident in their outmoded chivalry: the girls never got to fight.
Until my conversation with Iraj, it had never occurred to me that there was anything
questionable about the creation by Aslan of a country in which humans -- "Sons of
Adam and daughters of Eve" -- were always to rule over beasts, wisely and kindly, but
rule nevertheless, and in which the Calormenes, whether thinly disguised as
"Turks" or "Arabs," were definitely meant to be of non-Western
extraction and were almost always treacherous foes. The alternative world of heroic
children and stirring nationalistic quests ("Narnia and the North!"), all fought
in the name of an allegorical Christ-figure, Aslan the lion, King of beasts and humans,
turns out to be precisely a reinscription of -- among other things -- a Christian family
tree, one in which non-Christians are at best poor relations, and thus not so alternative
I still reread these stories once in a while. I was reminded of my dimmed, but not
wholly diminished, pleasure in them when I read the epigraph to feminist theologian (and
Episcopal priest) Eleanor McLaughlin's "Feminist Christologies: Re-Dressing the
Tradition," part of which I have borrowed as epigraph to this article. The lion's
glee at Aslan's inclusion of him in a "we," along with McLaughlin's reading of
it, is analogous to the yearning of "women," indeed McLaughlin's own yearning,
for an answer to her question: "How can I a woman, find myself, see myself as made in
the image of a male God, a God whose human face is seen in the man Jesus?" (140). For
me, this disjunction between religious "reality" and "representation"
became concrete when, for a while, the parish church in which I grew up stopped allowing
girls to be altar servers. I'm not sure that I had ever questioned, till then, the
all-male priesthood; I had no particular desire to be an altar server, but being
defined out of contention for it before I had even thought about whether or not I had such
a desire rankled. Once again, the girls weren't getting to fight.
How to fight remains, of course, the question; how to fight when the terms of
battle are drawn to exclude you. McLaughlin's solution is literally to
"re-dress" the problem of Jesus' maleness by reading him as a transvestite, as
one who shatters the opposed duality of male/female. A transvestite, a man dressed as a
woman, suspends the moment of recognition and definition; "she" tricks our
senses and makes us question what it means to be a "man" or a "woman."
In a similar way, McLaughlin argues, Jesus' behavior is anxiety-provoking; he behaves in a
manner inconsistent with our expectations of him as a man. It is this behavior -- eating
with the poor and unclean, refusing the traditional boundaries of family, even rising from
the dead -- that confounds and reverses the dualities of male/female, rich/poor,
life/death. His practices challenge our attempts to categorize him. Like the
cross-dresser, who cannot be plainly designated male or female, Jesus does not fit an
either/or definition, but is a "Third Thing" (McLaughlin, 141-42).
This refiguration of Jesus allows McLaughlin to play most exuberantly with gender
dualities and their reversal: "Christians believe in a Jesus 'dressed' in flesh, that
most female of symbols, and they believe in a God in man-flesh who behaves like a
woman" (144). Jesus' "womanly" practices of love, forgiveness, and
sacrifice allow us to read him as divesting male privilege. McLaughlin's
"transvestite" Jesus is a trickster who transforms our notions of gender,
redrawing boundaries such that no one can be out of place.
While both men and women can be figured by this trickster Jesus, McLaughlin sees
St. Joan of Arc, other female saints who display "male" qualities, and
women priests as peculiarly apt embodiments of his transgressive,
"cross-dressing" figure. She sees particular promise in the figure of the woman
priest, the "woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman," who startles and
confounds the gaze of a congregation more accustomed to seeing Christ's office occupied by
a male figure.
McLaughlin's christological playfulness virtually cries out "Us lions!" Her
enthusiasm is infectious, and I found in reading her essay some of that spirit of
adventure, of path-breaking exhilaration, that I once knew in the Narnia stories
themselves. McLaughlin's yearning, and mine, to see ourselves as made in the image of a
male God is a yearning to be recognized, as women, as capable of representing divinity; a
recognition that is not made available to us in the conventional manner. Her proposal of a
cross-dressing Jesus is an attempt to startle her congregation, other congregations, and
other theologians into this recognition.
What we "recognize," however, is not women's inherent formation according to
the divine image, their essential reflection of Jesus that was simply masked by
patriarchal misinterpretation. Rather, I read this "recognition" as a claim made
by women, like McLaughlin's women priests, who cite Jesus. To "cite"
Jesus with one's own body refers to what appears to be a preexistent relationship of
congruity between Jesus and women, a relationship that is actually created in that
citation. McLaughlin's proposal resonates in this way with theorist Judith Butler's work,
in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, on drag as a parody of binary
Where McLaughlin sees liberating potential for women in Jesus' confusion of gender
boundaries, Butler sees liberating potential for gay men and lesbians in the process by
which, for instance, homosexual behavior "mimes" heterosexual behavior, or gay
men in drag "cite" femininity. This process of citation highlights, for Butler,
the fact that "gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but as copy is
to copy"(Gender Trouble, 31). I apply this insight to McLaughlin's proposal in
order to conclude that women's citations of Jesus, for instance as priests and ministers,
call attention not only to the heretofore illegitimate congruities of women's bodies and
practice with Jesus' body and practice, but to men's likewise illegitimate representation
of Christ. "Citation," in the way that Butler uses it, unmasks the
artificiality, the constructed character, of norms we inhabit as "natural:"
norms of gender, of sexuality, of race, of religious identity.
Merely describing a norm as "constructed," however, does not lessen its
power. We live by these constructions, we become recognizable to one another through them.
Butler is careful to note that, while drag presents the possibilities of subversion of
oppressive norms, there are no necessarily liberating consequences to drag. A man
"citing" femininity can be read as undermining the factual status of a norm, or
as reinstating the value of something called femininity.
Similarly, not every refiguration and re-citation of Jesus is good news for women.
McLaughlin's provocative suggestion that Jesus can be read analogously to a transvestite,
and that women who stand at the altar in persona Christi refigure him through the
apparent contrast between their office and their "woman-ways of bodied being"
(143) may be profoundly liberating and unsettling to some and for others may serve only to
reinscribe, re-cite, women as (sole) bearers of embodiment. This is surely not
McLaughlin's intent; but then it is not good intentions that matter, in the sense
of signifying, of materializing, of becoming real.
I choose to read christology, and the figures of Jesus that it promulgates, because it
is one of the places in Christian feminist theological discourse not only where feminist
feelings of exclusion manifest themselves most strongly, but where "solutions"
to McLaughlin's (and my) desire to see ourselves somehow figured in Christ often
inadvertently reinscribe the very patterns of domination they seek to dislodge. I wish to
talk about feminist figures of Jesus Christ in terms of "citation," and
"citational chains," because the theory undergirding these terms allows me to
talk about the promise and danger of figures of Jesus that I would not have seen without
1. (Re)Citing Feminist Christology
Some Christian feminist theologians, finding orthodox figurations of Jesus'
significance irredeemably harmful to women, determine that Christianity itself is
irredeemable for women; others seek to reinterpret this figure in order to uncover his
"real message" hidden underneath the accretions of patriarchal misunderstanding
and misuse. Both "solutions" point to and at the same time misconstrue the kind
of power these figures possess. I contend that it is a citational power, which is a
power of refiguration over time. "Oppressive" figures of Jesus exist in the repetitive
nature of certain "citations" of Jesus, which build up over time to present the
appearance of solidity, of "truth."
Let me explain what I mean, using the analogy of marriage. The "performative"
capacity of speech consists in the ability of speech acts to do what they say. For
instance, a marriage takes place when the couple says "I will" or "I
do." The true force of this utterance, however, resides not in the individual wills
of the couple but in the surrounding conventions by which such an utterance is understood
to create a marriage at all, in the ritual which prescribes these words. An utterance
"succeeds," works, is understood as meaningful, when it refers to a set of
conventions that the hearer recognizes, even if only unconsciously. The validity, the
"truth," of a marriage rests not only in the words to the formula uttered, but
also in the presence of witnesses and the physical consummation, to name only a few of the
surrounding circumstances necessary to create a marriage.
Aside from the strictly legal requirements, which include presumed heterosexuality, I
would argue that there are many more tangible and intangible things that go toward making
a true marriage: trust, forgiveness, certainly the absence of violence and abuse. The
Catholic church has mechanisms allowing it to dissolve a marriage under certain
circumstances, to say that it never existed, that while the forms were properly observed,
it was never a true marriage. Sometimes the formula does not "work," and we
recognize that the authority it invoked was false.
Similarly, feminists have often felt betrayed by the formulas telling us who Jesus is.
The figure of Jesus has not "worked" for us because the continual citations of
him as Lord, King, Son, have not figured a Jesus that we recognized as redemptive. We have
had trouble with Jesus' maleness because the Christian "convention" of Jesus'
becoming human in a male body has not seemed to "cover" women, has not seemed to
fulfill the Athanasian adage that "what is not taken up is not redeemed." We
have wanted to "annul" the marriage of Jesus and these attributes, to transform
the conventions which say that we can understand Jesus only in these terms.
Thinking of Jesus in terms of "citationality" allows me to read feminist
theologians as standing in the place of the judge, and doctrine about Jesus in the place
of the "law":
As one who efficaciously speaks in the name of the law, the judge does not originate
the law or its authority; rather, he 'cites' the law, consults and reinvokes the law,
and. . . . in that reinvocation, reconstitutes the law. The judge is thus
installed in the midst of a signifying chain, receiving and reciting the law and,
in the reciting, echoing forth the authority of the law. (Butler, Bodies That Matter,
107) [my emphasis]
Therefore I am able to reread McLaughlin's transvestite Jesus as a citation of the
"feminist" Jesus I will describe in the next section of this article, a citation
that refers to feminist conventions of Jesus' egalitarian treatment of women, but that
does not simply recapitulate these conventions. Rather, her refiguration of Jesus as a
link in a signifying or citational chain "cites" previous gender-bending actions
by female martyrs and saints, and looks forward to further reformulations and
inhabitations of a cross-dressing Christic body.
Let me return to the two most common feminist "solutions" to Jesus Christ's
maleness I discussed at the beginning of this section, and rephrase them in these new
terms. The "post-Christian" feminist abandons the citational chain of invoking
Jesus' name, invocation of which, at least minimally, identifies one as
"Christian"; she hops the tracks and runs on a new course. But what are the
options for me, and for those like me, who still see themselves as implicated in, somehow
accountable to, a Christian story?
I remain committed to the figure of Jesus, because I have yet to find a more promising
one, but I do not believe it is possible to "return" to an "original
Jesus" and get him right once and for all. The portrayals of Jesus that feminists
characterize as patriarchal misunderstanding and misuse have long histories of citation.
Their authority lies in -- as I have implied, is created by -- their continual
re-citation, their re-invocation; therein lies both their force and the possibility of
their rearticulation to different, more liberating, effects.
That there is no anchor, finally, to which to link my citational chain of Jesus figures
does not distress me. The "reality" of Jesus lies in the extent to which
figurations and stories of Jesus constitute us and our lives. That is the promise of the
figure of Jesus; its danger is that in constructing our lives and bodies, certain
figurations have the power to harm and disappear other bodies. (How could the world that
Aslan created have so little room for the Calormenes, and then, to paraphrase Roman
Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, only as "anonymous Narnians"?) It is hard to
pin Jesus down, to say once and for all that "this figure is oppressive, this one
liberating," and thus it is not perhaps surprising that Jesus should appear -- not
only in Eleanor McLaughlin's work, but in other recent feminist christological
refigurations, by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and feminist theorist Donna Haraway -- as
I want to continue to read these tricksterish figures and refigurations of Jesus, then,
as a signifying or "citational" chain, a chain which begins with the
perhaps-familiar "feminist Jesus" and moves outward to figure Jesus in a certain
kind of community. That community is itself figured by another familiar feminist figure,
that of the African-American preacher and former slave Sojourner Truth. This chain of
figures attempts not to return to an original figure of Jesus but to reform it; attempts
not so much to resemble him as to re(as)semble him.
2. "Can a Male Savior Save Women?" Figuring Jesus as Feminist
Rosemary Radford Ruether's seminal question, "Can a male savior save women?"
has set the terms of feminist christological debate for a long time now, as we have seen
in McLaughlin's answer to essentially this question. Since Ruether's work is well known, I
begin with her particular figuration of Jesus as feminist, though many other feminist
theologians make similar moves.
I see Ruether's method as somewhat analogous to McLaughlin's "re-dressing" of
Jesus; Ruether seeks to "strip" Jesus of accumulated doctrine, especially his
Greek philosophical garb, and re-dresses him, not as transvestite or trickster, but as
"representative of liberated humanity" (Sexism and God-Talk, 137). Jesus'
redemptive power lies ultimately in this ideal humanity, not in his maleness, nor in a
spurious identification of him with a transcendent Greek Logos. His maleness is
significant only insofar as he renounces the privileges that accompany it. This
"kenosis of patriarchy" performed by Jesus and the witness to it performed by
the marginalized women are two sides of the same coin. In fact, Ruether extends Jesus'
redeeming power of witness to the whole community, members of whom continue Christ's
identity through history; we can now encounter Christ even "in the form of our
sister" (137). If sisterhood is now emblematic of Jesus, then it would seem that
maleness as inherent to redemption has lost all force -- yet Ruether's continued reliance
on "humanity," redemptive though it may be, belies this conclusion.
"Humanity" has always been constructed in a patriarchal vein. Many feminist
theorists have demonstrated that the prototypical "human" is male, while the
female has always been seen as lesser than or other to full male humanity. Uncritical use
of this category, even the future-oriented sense in which Ruether uses it, is in danger of
reinscribing, at best, women's often-perilous status as "honorary" humans; this
humanity cannot be "redeemed" so easily. McLaughlin also figured Jesus' maleness
in terms of its absence, also described Jesus as "divesting" his male privilege,
yet I prefer her refiguration to Ruether's, because in it, his "humanity"
remains somewhat slippery. For McLaughlin, it is Jesus' status as a "Third
Thing," a category-warper, that signifies a possible redemption for women; for
Ruether, "the full humanity of women" remains her foremost critical principle.
Ruether's de-emphasis of Jesus' maleness serves paradoxically to re-instate it under the
banner of "humanity" in what are only seemingly more liberating terms; not only
does this move fail, but the portrayal of Jesus as paradigmatic human renders his Jewish
particularity irrelevant (Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus, 47).
Citational chains that continue to link Jesus to the "Judeo-Christian
tradition" confuse the fact that Judaism and Christianity are different religions,
though they share similar roots (Schüssler Fiorenza, 91). Despite her sincere efforts to
do otherwise, then, Ruether refigures Jesus as still linked to and extending a citational
chain that "breaks" with the prophets of Israel and supersedes them. Her
citational practice of emphasizing Jesus' egalitarian practices can only juxtapose them
against Judaism as "patriarchal," instead of finding continuity between Jesus'
practice and that of his Jewish community.
To break feminist christology out of the hierarchical framework in which man and woman
are always complementary yet unequal, and in which Judaism is always superseded by
Christianity, Schüssler Fiorenza argues for displacing the figure of Jesus altogether as
warrant for new christological articulations. Like Ruether, she locates Jesus' salvific
power and presence in her figure for community, the "ekklesia of wo/men" (191,
n. 1). This methodological move, I will argue, is given ambiguous flesh by invoking
Sojourner Truth as its "representative." Jesus "drops out" of the
citational chain Schüssler Fiorenza is forging, only to reappear in the guise of a black
woman; but it remains to be seen whether or not he, or Sojourner Truth, proves the greater
3. "Ain't I a Woman?" Sojourner Truth as Feminist Trickster
In both white feminist theology and white feminist theory, the figure of Sojourner
Truth holds a potent place. If feminist studies and theology have each undergone their own
"turns" -- to experience, to the subject, to language and to theory -- this move
to Sojourner Truth represents to me another sort of "turn," that of white women
to African-American women's discourses. Both Schüssler Fiorenza and Donna Haraway read
Truth's famous "Ain't I a woman" speech, made at a women's rights convention in
Akron, Ohio in 1851/52 (they differ on the year), as well as the figure of Truth herself,
as a blueprint, a model of some sort, for their projects. Both site/cite her at the point
of authority, the judge's seat: she is installed in the midst of my signifying chain.
Truth's question "ain't I a woman?" is read by Schüssler Fiorenza in Jesus,
Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet as a challenge to oppressive constructions of
"humanity" and "womanhood." She points out Truth's unmasking of the
white male clerical grasping of power which would deny authority to white women and the
status of humanity altogether to black women; white women, too, are implicated in this
power struggle. From her "unique" and nonreplicable experience of liberation
from the oppression of slavery, signaled in Jesus' hearing her cry when her children were
sold away from her, Truth questions the "ownership" of Jesus and of theological
language by men in power. According to Truth, Jesus was made by God and a woman; man had
nothing to do with him.
As Schüssler Fiorenza highlights Truth's position as a woman who reasserts her
"personhood" in the face of attempts to deny it, Truth becomes a paradigm of the
"least of the least," those at the bottom of the kyriarchal pyramid -- and thus
the specificity of her oppressions is lost. To me, Schüssler Fiorenza's reading of
Sojourner Truth implies that Truth, with her "unique and nonreplicable"
liberation experience, saves us -- not quite as Jesus is said to save us (after all, he
cried out on his cross and God did not answer). I do not like this flattened-out Sojourner
Truth -- ready to be made poster child for the "oppressed" writ large, to stand
in for Christ -- but she is not the final incarnation of Sojourner Truth in Schüssler
Fiorenza's pages. Sojourner Truth still has some shape-shifting to do, which I will
discuss in the final section of this article.
Donna Haraway, in "Ecce Homo, Ain't (Ar'n't) I a Woman, and Inappropriate/d
Others: The Human in a Post-Humanist Landscape," reads both Jesus and Sojourner Truth
as "Western trickster figures" in what at first seems a very different project
from Ruether's or Schüssler Fiorenza's. Haraway's essay addresses a "crisis" in
feminist theory, that of the "human." As we have seen, "humanity" as a
category has been, if not completely discredited by feminists, under suspicion for a long
time; Haraway yearns, however, to find a place for it in a revamped feminist theory. But
the spokesperson, the figure, for this "humanity" would have to take an
unfamiliar shape, cannot step too easily into the role, for fear of replicating its
oppressive contours. Haraway finds such a speaker, "who might figure the
self-contradictory and necessary condition of a nongeneric humanity," in Sojourner
She reads both Truth and Jesus Christ as "trickster figures" that are
"citations" of the suffering servant first encountered in Isaiah. The Johannine
gospel account of Jesus' trial and crucifixion is a Christian "restaging" of the
Jewish suffering servant as the broken and humiliated one, the one who in his despised
form shakes up the prevailing cultural norms. The hopes and dangers possible in this
figure are dramatized by John, argues Haraway, as the beginning of Christian
anti-Semitism, a drama in which the Jews are made killers of Christ. The suffering servant
is a shifty figure, one who can symbolize redemption (as in Christian, especially South
American, liberation theology), as well as the brutality exercised on "his"
behalf. "Jesus makes of man a most promising mockery," writes Haraway, "but
one that cannot evade the terrible story of the broken body" (90).
While Haraway auditions Jesus for the role of figuring an oxymoronic humanity, stand-in
for "in/appropriated others," she ultimately rejects him in favor of Sojourner
Truth; I am not so eager, however, to usher him off this particular stage. I find good
news in Haraway's reading of Jesus as trickster, because, if it shakes up our notions of
what humanity should look like, it also shakes up our notions of what divinity should look
like. If Jesus "mocks" Man as the autonomous subject, then his trickery and
shape-shifting also "mock" our pretensions to pin him down, to claim that he
"represents" us or we "represent" him. But for Haraway,
"citing" Jesus always recalls the brutal history behind the other Jesus figures,
the ones who were not broken and suffering, but triumphant. I think Haraway is right that
Jesus as incarnation of the "suffering servant" is too easily subsumed back into
the Christian patriarchal narrative of supersessionism, and, I would add, the valorization
of feminine sacrifice.
Haraway finds that Sojourner Truth, as an "oxymoronic singularity," is able
to figure the "nongeneric humanity" she is looking for, precisely in her ability
to keep shifting categories. She notes that her speech was made in a context where white
women were not understood to be fully human in a legal sense, and black women were not
considered human at all (94). Sojourner Truth's words at once invoke the categories of
"humanity" and "womanhood" and call attention to the inequalities of
power which prevent us from understanding these categories as unmarked -- that is,
unraced, ungendered, unclassed, unspecified. While both Haraway and Schüssler
Fiorenza draw a similar methodological conclusion from their readings of Sojourner Truth,
that different conditions of oppression must be analyzed specifically and conjointly
without conflating them, I prefer Haraway's reading of Truth to Schüssler Fiorenza's.
I prefer it because, for Haraway, it is precisely as the "oxymoron" of a
black woman -- marked by two categories, race and gender, that made her
"unrecognizable" as human -- that Truth has power as a paradigmatic figure. It
is Truth's refusal to be less than materially specific that drives Haraway's
interpretation of her as a paradoxical figure for "humanity." Schüssler
Fiorenza, I argue, answers too quickly "yes" to Sojourner Truth's question
"ain't I a woman?," while Haraway finds a fruitful tension in keeping the
question open. The point is not that Sojourner Truth is, obviously, a woman; it is
that this conclusion is not so obvious at all, and that this moment of uncertainty -- in
her Akron, Ohio, audience, in the readers of the various version of her speech -- is the
moment when both "womanhood" and "humanity" lie open to radical
I read this moment not only as an opportunity for theoretical intervention -- though it
is certainly that -- but more importantly, as a site for theological intervention.
I link my citational chain of Jesus figures with Haraway's version of Sojourner Truth
because she makes me think hard about what she's got that Jesus hasn't. Truth, in
Haraway's text, shakes up boundaries not only of gender, as does McLaughlin's transvestite
Jesus, but of race as well. Race matters in Sojourner Truth, materializes as that
which both constrains and enables Truth's inhabitation of "humanity." What would
it mean for white feminist theology to figure Jesus as a black woman? What does it mean
Reading Sojourner Truth as not only figure for a specified "humanity" but as
a figure of Jesus forces me, if only momentarily, into confrontation with the strangeness
of Jesus. I don't want to be too comfortable with Jesus, because I am all too liable to
comfort. It is too easy for me to identify "as a woman" with Schüssler
Fiorenza's Truth, despite Schüssler Fiorenza's best efforts; I'm not sure Sojourner
Truth, in her guise as spokesperson for the "oppressed of the oppressed," should
speak for me.
Both Haraway and Schüssler Fiorenza have attempted, through their readings of
Sojourner Truth as corrective to what I would call certain "Jesus stereotypes,"
to figure theoretical/theological subject positions for women that do not rehearse the
dangerously worn-out conventions of "humanity," but instead seek to honor
difference among men and women in different social locations. Sojourner Truth
re(as)sembles Jesus; I find immense appeal and promise in this refiguration. But if, for
Haraway and me, the promise of Sojourner Truth lies in this refusal to settle down, it
does not follow that this ambiguous Christic figure has no home.
I noted earlier that feminists use two strategies, abandonment and unmasking, in
resisting the effects of orthodox christological formulations. We have also seen that the
latter "solution," as employed by Ruether, reinscribes the terms in which the
original harm was wrought. Schüssler Fiorenza, too, rejects these poles and posits that
"Sojourner Truth suggests a third alternative."
Sojourner Truth is, after all, something of a trickster here; a "Third
Thing," a way out of no way. She emerges in Schüssler Fiorenza's text not only as a
reimagined Jesus figure, capable of paradoxically "representing" those
heretofore not represented by a male Christ, but as a figure for a reimagined feminist
theological practice. Sojourner Truth figures the academic feminist theologian as
trickster, whose unsettled and shifting critical practice is to expose hierarchical
interests in present christologies, and to repetitively reconstitute Christian identity
(Schüssler Fiorenza, 10, 61-63).
In other words, we must re-cite, re-site, our refigurations so that they do not reflect
ourselves back to us; ironically, this is precisely what I have argued Schüssler
Fiorenza's figure of Sojourner Truth does. As self-nominated spokesperson for the
"least of the least," the feminist academic liberation theologian -- like
nomadic Truth -- is not meant to get too comfortable, to feel at "home." But
what has happened to Truth's status as representative of -- as figure for -- the
"least of the least," the marginalized and despised, the in/appropriated others?
Since Jesus' incarnation as a man has not been understood as "covering"
women, when we "put him on," as McLaughlin suggests, we do so illegitimately.
Sojourner Truth, then, functions as a stand-in for Jesus because she is able, for
Schüssler Fiorenza and Haraway, to "cover" women. But this "covering"
is only one layer of Sojourner Truth's trickery, because her figure also provides cover
for academic white feminists to speak both for and as in/appropriated others. She
complements us by figuring all that is not white, not Western, not
privileged, even not womanly; together, she and we can speak as a fully integrated
"we" in the way that we cannot speak with Jesus. With Sojourner Truth, we can
finally say "Us lions." This brings me to a question for both Haraway and
If Schüssler Fiorenza moves too quickly to make Truth a paradigmatic woman, only to
unmask her as an academic theologian, does Haraway move too quickly to make her a
paradigmatic -- even if paradoxical and "nongeneric" -- "human,"
equally a preacher of unsettled theoretical practice, without first exploring in what ways
she is paradigmatic for black women? For white feminist theologians and theorists,
Sojourner Truth is a "way out of no way," a promising and disruptive figure, a
voice crying out from the wilderness, but perhaps she does have a home. Since it is
not a home familiar to white feminists, we read Truth as unsettled, but where does Truth
4. Re/Citing Sojourner Truth as Womanist Trickster
The very title of Jacquelyn Grant's book, White Women's Christ and Black Women's
Jesus, suggests divergence in the citational chains by which these different groups of
women do christology. Grant shares with white theologians such as Ruether the desire to
"liberat[e]. . . . Jesus from oppressive and distorted
interpretations," arguing, like Ruether, that the "significance of Christ is not
his maleness, but his humanity" (82, 120). I could criticize her on similar grounds,
but I find more to Grant's refiguration of Jesus than a simple reinstatement of
Grant differentiates herself from white feminist theologians, for whom "the
maleness of Jesus is superseded by the Christness of Jesus." In other words, what is
divine about Jesus is also found in the "new humanity" represented by those
around him, figured in Ruether's case as "sisterhood." Grant finds this emphasis
on sisterhood as paradigmatic of divinity premature, presuming solidarity with oppressed
women that does not yet exist (144, 200).
Grant's contentions, for me, trouble the figuration of Sojourner Truth as academic
feminist theologian; like my conversation with Iraj, they dim, though they do not
diminish, my pleasure in Haraway's reading. "Humanity," in Grant's critique of
these theologians, has a white face, and thus Grant's own formulations of the salvific
"humanity" she finds in Jesus must diverge from this particular chain.
She finds that Christian black women have historically understood Jesus as companion
and co-sufferer, whose suffering was not merely human but that of God incarnate. I
understand this as asserting a different kind of "Christness" to that of the
white feminist theologians. For Grant, black women's "affirmation of Jesus as God
meant that White people were not God" (212-13). This Jesus too identifies with the
"least of the least" -- those on the bottom of Schüssler Fiorenza's
hierarchical pyramid -- who are, for Grant, black women.
But Grant does not mean her claim to lead to a contest as to whose oppression is the
worst. Black women, in Grant's text, figure a particularized universality -- much as
Sojourner Truth figured, for Schüssler Fiorenza and Haraway, a similarly
"specific" universal -- through their connection to the oppressed of all
categories. As black, they suffer with black men; as women, with white and Third World
women; and, as disproportionately poor, with the poor of all races and ethnicities (Grant,
The community of black women figures Christ, who also identified with the oppressed,
but this community is not, in turn, figured by Sojourner Truth. Grant lists
Sojourner Truth in a catalogue of "womanists" including Jarena Lee, Ida B.
Wells, and Mary McLeod Bethune. She is cited as a theologian and as a preacher, but in the
guise of consultant, not exemplar; her witness is weighed no more strongly than that of
the other women in Grant's list. She is not used to bear the weight of an entire
methodology, or an entire class of people -- that is, not until the very end of
I found Sojourner Truth there in a familiar role, that of judge. Grant grants her the
(literally) last word, ending her final chapter with a long quote from the "Ain't I a
woman" speech. Truth comments on the anxiety she is provoking in her mostly white
audience, comments on black women's downtrodden history and prophesies their rising, and
finally asserts her place as observer and judge: "I am sittin' among you to watch;
and every once in a while I will come out and tell you what time of night it is"
(222). The Sojourner Truth I have been tracing through this citational chain is a
trickster after all. She figures here Grant herself, but not necessarily in any divine
guise; merely as womanist theologian, academic guardian of black women's interests,
timekeeper for the race.
Grant recognizes that, for Christians, "there is a direct relationship between our
perception of Jesus Christ and our perception of ourselves" (63). Therefore I don't
find it surprising that three academic theologians, McLaughlin, Schüssler Fiorenza, and
Grant, as well as one academic feminist theorist, Haraway, find in Jesus -- promisingly
mediated by the figure of Sojourner Truth -- avatars of themselves, whether woman priest,
academic trickster, guardian, or judge.
How much "disruption," then, can I really attribute to the potent figure of
Truth? Does her invocation in the citational chain of figures and refigurations of Jesus
that I have been forging deviate this chain in promising directions?
One possible answer is suggested by womanist theologian Delores Williams's work in Sisters
in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Williams's analyses of
antebellum and postbellum African-American women's experiences have been immensely
important and challenging in both womanist and feminist theological discourse, in
documenting the ways in which black women have historically been placed in roles of
surrogacy. Williams situates these analyses in the context and memory of "ordinary
spiritual black women" who accounted for their perseverance in struggle "on the
basis of their faith in God who helped them 'make a way out of no way' " (xi). The
"subjects" of Williams's theology are not meant to be academicians, or
necessarily the "least of the least." Williams wants to do theology for
"those black women who are not in the limelight like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth
and Mary McLeod Bethune," working women and church women whose everyday practices
have been those of perseverance and survival for themselves and for their children
(241, n. 1).
I think that the very iconicity, the extraordinariness, of a Sojourner Truth -- bearer
of qualities which arise less from her own incredible accomplishments than from her
continual citation and re-citation as extraordinary and iconic, qualities which
make her so useful a figure in white feminist discourse -- is what disqualifies her as a
model for Williams's "ordinary black women." Sojourner Truth belongs among the
catalogue of models invoked by "race men" and "race women" who, elite
and educated, perpetuated a model of white Victorian "true womanhood" for black
women, emphasizing women's place in the home rather than in the political arena. These
models speak for, but not to, "ordinary black women." While she does not
undervalue their contribution in making at least middle-class black women more politically
visible, Williams sees the race women, as Grant sees white feminist theologians, as
subscribing too uncritically to assertions that Christian sisterhood among women of all
races was forthcoming.
Williams needs a figure compatible with the kind of womanhood historically experienced
by working black women. This experience, not wholly congruent with black male experiences
of oppression, is specified by Williams as both "coerced" and
"voluntary" surrogacy. Coerced surrogacy encompasses the alienation of black
women's sexuality and labor in slavery, where they bore children to their white owners,
nurtured owners' children, and worked "men's jobs" in the fields. After the
abolition of slavery, social and economic pressures kept black women in such
substitutionary roles of "voluntary" surrogacy as domestics for white families,
or heads of their own single-parent families (Williams, 60-61).
Black women's resistance to oppression has also historically taken different forms from
that of black men, Williams argues (150). The God who speaks to Williams' ordinary black
women is not the Liberator God of the Exodus event, God of Abraham and Sarah, but the God
of Hagar, Abraham's and Sarah's slave. By reading black women's experiences of surrogacy
and survival through the story of Hagar's "wilderness experience," Williams
figures the experiences which have shaped many black women's lives without, I believe,
asserting that this experience is normative to or formative of all women.
Hagar is a single mother forced into sexual surrogacy because her owner's wife was
barren; she runs away from slavery with her son into the wilderness, is sent back into
bondage by God, and finally is cast out with no resources for survival. She, like
Sojourner Truth, has a long history of citation in African-American culture. Unlike Truth,
she is not inserted in a Christic citational chain. Her relationship with God, as read by
Williams, consists not in liberation but in God's granting her the vision to see resources
for survival where none were before (5). Hagar, figuring the God black women invoke in
Williams' introduction, "makes a way out of no way."
This figure of Hagar is powerful to me because it is both collective and specific,
because as Williams puts it, "today many black women like Hagar, raising families
alone, demonstrate courage and personal ingenuity as they struggle to find resources for
survival" (128), not because it figures a new methodology. I find Hagar a much more
troubling and unsettling figure than Sojourner Truth for white feminist theorists and
theologians; she is not so easily subsumed into a paradigmatic "humanity," or
"womanhood," or even "black womanhood." And for Williams, Hagar
performs a similar function in regard to womanist theology, embodying the fractures of
class across a solidarity that does not exist in "the black community."
Hagar's figure is also powerful to me because it performs theological and not simply
theoretical work. Hagar is a Jesus figure for the late twentieth century in that she
cannot be used to deny or negate suffering. She speaks to the impossibility of theodicy,
offering only a chastened hope that, while God neither prevents nor provokes suffering,
S/he does, compassionately, "make a way out of no way."
I succumb, however, to the temptation to figure Hagar for my own theoretical purposes
as well. If Sojourner Truth stands in for Jesus in white feminist reconstructions of
christology, then Williams's work leads us to ask in what ways the figure of Sojourner
Truth performs surrogate work for white feminist and/or black womanist theologians. I find
Hagar figured as reminder of this danger in Williams's chapter on "Womanist Feminist
Dialogue: Differences and Commonalities." Here Williams discusses Mary, a figure I
have not addressed, but whose chain of figurations also runs through feminist and womanist
theological discourse, often as a corrective to the maleness-of-Jesus problem.
In conversation with Asian women, Williams questions in what ways the Virgin Mary can
be seen as " 'a model of full womanhood and liberated humanity' for all Christian
Asian women irrespective of class position," noting that Hagar has served as such a
model to African-American women (181-82). Williams remains reluctant to designate either
Mary or Hagar as models of "full womanhood," because neither woman sets her own
agenda. They both perform surrogate roles.
Both Mary and Hagar, caught up in situations beyond their control, emerge as
paradigmatic figures only because they are so caught up. As such, they figure for
me (though not, perhaps, for Williams) my own paradoxical and oxymoronic version of
"humanity," in the way I have been trying to describe by speaking of
"citationality." If Sojourner Truth is the bearer, for the white feminist
theologians and theorists here, of promising ambiguity, then Hagar presents me with an
ambiguous promise: that it is in our own formation, whether by oppressive structures or
no, that agency paradoxically lies. If Hagar/Sojourner Truth/Jesus is a shapeshifter, and
we are to re(as)semble "him," then we are shapeshifters too. Hagar, as I have
read her in Williams, refigures resistance as a matter of everyday acts, as a repetitive
performance of re-citation that calls oppressive norms into question. Theology and theory
merge in the grace that attends these efforts, in their tenuous extensions and moments of
Because I have placed Hagar at the "end" of my citational chain, I understand
her as refiguring the other figures I have read -- Jesus, Sojourner Truth, the
"ekklesia of wo/men." I, too, have placed her in the judge's seat, the site from
which I can look both forward and back with new vision, "making a way out of no
way." In doing so I have not "replaced" Sojourner Truth but
"cited" her, as she cites Jesus. The danger here is that I have read myself into
Hagar, or perhaps read Hagar into myself, but her citationality promises that mine will
certainly not be the last word. Hagar will change shape again, as will Sojourner Truth, as
will, most decidedly, Jesus.
* * *
I cannot easily disavow the pleasure I took in the Narnia novels, nor the pleasure I
continue to find -- "dimmed, but not diminished" -- in the work of the white
feminist theologians and theorists I have read. I appreciate Haraway's figuration of
Sojourner Truth as unsettled theoretician because I feel the dangers in my own tendency to
settle. My pleasure has undergone its own shapeshifting; in my reading and rereading of
the Narnia books I knew that all would turn out right in the end. The kind of citation and
re-citation I have performed of feminist christology carries no such guarantee, promises
not salvation but the ongoing possibility of transformation. At the risk of repeating
myself, I continue to call myself Christian.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New
York: Routledge, 1990.
- Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex."
New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Grant, Jacquelyn. White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology
and Womanist Response. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989.
- Haraway, Donna. "Ecce Homo, Ain't (Ar'n't) I a Woman, and Inappropriate/d Others:
The Human in a Post-Humanist Landscape," in Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds., Feminists
Theorize the Political. New York: Routledge, 1992.
- McLaughlin, Eleanor. "Feminist Christologies: Re-Dressing the Tradition," in
Maryanne Stevens, ed., Reconstructing the Christ Symbol: Essays in Feminist
Christology. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1993, 118-149.
- Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.
- Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Jesus, Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet: Critical
Issues in Feminist Christology. New York: Continuum, 1994.
Williams, Delores. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.
Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993.
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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 2.