I remember sitting in Cannon Chapel (Emory University) and listening to Dr. Tamura Lomax preach a sermon from the perspective of The Canaanite Woman found in the Gospel of Matthew 15: 21-28. We were both matriculating through seminary as MDiv students and I was just in awe of her scholarship and the ease at which she boldly articulated an interpretation of the passage in a way that I had never witnessed. Utilizing womanist thought, she did not preach the sermon in the usual patriarchal nor speciesist way of celebrating that eventually dogs receive handouts from Christ therefore, the lowliest human should expect the same. Instead, she posited that we not settle for the easy way out while reading this passage. We should not be happy with the idea that we are to settle for what is left. We read that God prepares a table for us (Psalms 23) and not that we are the delight in the crumbs from the table. If we continue to adopt this very western theological prose in interpreting texts, we are doing no more than passing on the simple cliché of “Get what you get and don’t have a fit.” This keeps the margins full, grateful and satisfied with the little they have as a result of systemic pressures that keep the margin in existence. Of course, today, I take issue with the degradation of an animals’ worth as litmus test to granting access to every human being, but I digress. The point is that Dr. Lomax preached from the intentionally overlooked voice of the Canaanite woman. Doesn’t she represent women in theology today? At their expense, women are still expected to endure pain, trauma, oppression, even death so society can learn what is considered right or wrong.
Dr. Lomax went further to remind us that Jesus referred to the woman as a dog. This metaphor is akin to history’s usage of animals to describe the oppressed and the enemies. In 1492: The Year the World Began, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto explores the language Christopher Colombus used to describe Natives. He described them as black brutes, beasts, and animals. Moving further through history and we are fully aware of the usage of animals – i.e. monkeys, gorillas and any other sort of animalization – to describe African-Americans. In her sermon, Dr. Lomax challenged us to accept the notion that Jesus’ dismissal of the Canaanite woman is akin to calling her a “bitch” – a female dog. Of course, as a Pentecostal I was taken aback. In fact, for a moment I was more caught up in her accurate usage of the word, in the pulpit, than the context and helpful methodology used to challenge intentional patriarchy still used to keep women in line at the margins of society.
Fast-forward almost 20 years and I find myself asking the question that perhaps the Canaanite Woman can explain to me – What is it like being a woman in theology? Surely, the Canaanite woman within this passage isn’t the only one to find her life’s experience mishandled to benefit the rest of society. How do we challenge readers to try read the text from the life of the woman in the text?
For many of these women, they are not even referenced by their name. This is erasure and is common in societies around the world. There’s Naaman’s servant girl (2 Kings 5:1-27) who has been referenced to as the insignificant one with the Good News. There is also Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43; Matthew 9:18-26; Luke 8:40-56) mentioned alongside the infamous story of the woman with the issue of blood. There are countless examples of the erasure of a woman’s identity throughout Scripture. Sure, there are some unnamed men, but we are clear that the restriction of identifying a woman beyond her place in society is the norm within Scripture.
I am one who believe the Scriptures have a myriad of meanings for us when we read them at different places in our lives, but authentic context and critique of Scripture should be thorough as it remains applicable to us today.
The past 10 months have been such a whirl-wind, yet I can say that things spiraled downhill much earlier. Today, I am a woman in theology who has chosen to locate myself beyond the status of being oppressed, overworked, undervalued and expected to give more than I have to obtain less than my value in life as a mother, minister and doctoral student. It is required of me to forgive, yet I am thankful for my pastor’s words that forgiveness does not always lead to reconciliation. I find myself in the stories of these women who are often at a stalemate and easily ridiculed for their responses to life that happened to them. But this is what I choose to do – RESPOND and not react. I tell my daughters that even when a person tried to destroy, hurt or even just ignore them, they are not to react. A reaction is just that – a duplication of the persons actions towards you. A response requires integrity and knowing the other person has no power or control over them.
So, how should women respond when society, authority figures, friends, even a spouse intentionally requires you to give more while receiving less? How do we prevent ourselves from digressing to a lesser version of ourselves?
Just as Dr. Lomax gave the celebration of Jesus’ recognizing the perseverance of the Canaanite woman and my earlier blog posting of Martha boldness in confronting Jesus, I notice that Jesus not only listens to these women, he dialogues with them and gives a response. But the wonderful celebrated response from Christ is only after these women have chosen tenants of Womanist Thought – particularly, radical subjectivity – a redefining of themselves with perseverance despite what societal norms suggest they should accept. I see that Christ’s response came after these women came to their full selves, despite what societal norms said they should accept.
As an African-American woman, I turn to prophetic scholars and clergy who help me to analyze this experiential perspective, that can seem like a dead end. In Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, Dr. Chanequa Walker Barnes discusses the myth of the strong black woman. In quoting Dr. Karen Baker Fletcher’s book, My Sister, My Brother she notes the following:
“Perhaps the superwoman syndrome is the flip side of our will to survive when taken to an unhealthy extreme. We are so accustomed to toughing it out, being self-reliant, being dependable for others, concerned with the salvation and wholeness of family, friends, community, and strangers that we become ill from lack of self-nurture and sometimes die early deaths as a result. The same will for survival that enable us to persevere through pain and oppression can also numb us to the realities of pain and illness if we are not grounded in God as Spirit who loves us, body and soul, as well as our loved ones. There is a thin line between survival and denial.”
Dr. Walker-Barnes and Dr. Baker Fletcher remind us of the unspoken needs of black women are not met when we refuse to say “no” or ask for “help”. During this season in my life, I have had to ask for help – privately – from my mother and she has been there 100%. And when I begin to miss my grandmother, I’ll receive reminders that she is with me via my own dreams or her former personal banker who text me and said my grandmother came to him in a dream telling him to call me. What I like most about the work of fellow Womanists is that there is always a return to being grounded in God as Spirit. As a Pentecostal, I am fully aware of the performance of the SpiritJ but to come to learn the Spirit as dwelling within me – even non-human animals – it brings me to a place of peace in knowing that since I cannot do everything, I shall rely on the Spirit within to guide me and be my strength when I can no longer.
Everyone reading this will not be
a woman nor African-American. But how can re-reading these stories from women
within theology cultivate a deeper faith today? Keeping in mind that a deeper
faith does not mean there are sure answers that follow any and all of our
questions. In what ways are we seeing women persevere and not accept the
traditional roles, labels and restrictions within families, churches, temples,
synagogues, government and even within relationships?
 Dr. Tamura Lomax is co-founder of The Feminist Wire – www.thefeministwire.com – and writer of her recent book: Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture. (Durham, NC: Duke Press, 2018).
 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. 1492: The Year the World Began, (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).
 Chanequa Walker-Barnes. Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014).
 Karen and Garth Baker-Fletcher. My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-Talk. (New York: Orbis, 1997).