Contextual theology is a category of theology that recognizes the contextual nature of theology and uses parts of that context to inform the theology in development. Context is everything that is happening alongside the theological process that could potentially inform it, including the sociopolitical, cultural, racial, economic, ecological, and historic climate. All theology takes place in a variety of contexts, but it is up to the theologian and defined within the theological method they use to decide what piece(s) of context are used to inform the development of their theology.
The contexts for the development of womanist theology include the civil rights movement in the United States, the development of Black liberation theology, and the ongoing oppression of Black women through multiple facets of their identities. The quotation includes multiple indications of context including phrases like “If Black liberation theology wants to include Black women…” and “Black liberation theology’s bias against Black women” suggesting that they were not included in the movement. Williams directs theologians to review what is missing in “Biblical aspects of the community’s faith-journey are revealed in sermons, songs…” specifically for the experiences of Black women due to socio-political bias.
The contexts for the development of liberation theology include Gutierrez’s experience in Latin America working with the poor and oppressed, seeing where the church was only working for the needs of the middle class and above, and finding language and similar issues being called out through Marxism including class struggle, capitalism, and minority ownership in the means of production. Lifting the oppressed from poverty and achieving social change through praxis is a necessary foundation in liberation theology.
The contexts for the development of eco-feminist theology included the development of nuclear technologies which were a huge concern for environmental activists. The impending ecological crises between a potential nuclear meltdown and the destruction of the environment launched a piece of the feminist movement that focused on a Mother Earth goddess and which McFague adopted into Christian theology with a metaphorical God as a mother aka earth.
Delores Williams is a womanist theologian. In her writing she references the lack of inclusion of Black women in black liberation theology, the focus on Israel’s liberation to the detriment of the “oppressed of the oppressed” and “the figures in the Bible whose experience is analogous to that of Black women”. Womanist theology focuses on the experiences of Black women as foundational to its theology with a goal of liberation for all by focusing on the most underrepresented and marginalized people, Black women. Womanist theology is also a liberation theology that came as a critique of Black Liberation theology due to the lack of inclusion of Black women.
Womanist theology applies the intersectional analysis of systemic oppression developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw to draw parallels between Black women and people in scripture who face systemic oppression due to multiple facets of their identities, including race, gender, and class. In this passage, Williams referenced “the oppressed of the oppressed”. Intersectional theology, Postcolonial feminist theology, and Black Liberation theology also look at systems of oppression, but only Womanist theology specifically uses the experience of Black women as a foundation for their theological method.
Womanist theology applies a hermeneutics of suspicion with scripture, and does not take scripture literally but does include it as a foundation. Williams directs theologians to find passages in scripture that they can relate to as individuals as well as the “biblical faith, events and biblical characters with whom the community has identified”. Theologians are also instructed to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion, looking at the sociopolitical context of scripture as it was written as well as the context and biases of the interpreters along the way.
Faith in tradition is also a piece of the womanist theology foundation. Theologians are directed to look at what has been “revealed in sermons, songs… liturgy, ritual” which are part of the tradition. It is not faith without reason though, as Williams is asking theologians to look at those pieces of tradition and apply socio-political analysis to them to find the biases that will come through in their scriptural interpretation. Finally, she asks for a thoughtful look at who is missing from the stories of biblical writers, as womanist theology is inclusive of all people by focusing on those who are most often left out.
Williams would likely interpret scripture from a place of questioning and focus on the most oppressed. She would look for stories of Black women specifically as well as stories of the “oppressed of the oppressed” whose situations are most able to be identified with by a Black woman. She would pay attention to systems of oppression including racism, sexism, and misogyny, and interpret the stories from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the oppressor.
Womanist theology connects to the stories of Mary and Jesus Christ from a perspective of shared pain. The story of a young pregnant woman with few resources giving birth with little support while temporarily unhoused due to outside circumstances can share key experiences with a contemporary person. A mother losing her son to government forces, forced to watch him suffer and die with only the hope of his salvation in the afterlife is an unfortunate but common circumstance for Black mothers. Williams would look for those stories that she can connect with and that tell the story of her community, to bring hope and connection to her community. She would not interpret the stories literally, but see characters as symbolic of the struggles of oppressor and oppressed.
To learn more about Delores Williams, visit: https://www.religion-online.org/author/delores-s-williams/
Gustavo Gutierrez is the originator of Liberation theologian. Liberation theology is a practical theology that focuses on the liberation of the oppressed through the practice (praxis) of social activism and taking action to help the poor. In this passage for example, he discusses Guaman Poma de Ayala taking action to “promote justice and help for the poor”. Liberation theologians see suffering and evil as due to human action, specifically the actions of the oppressor, not the oppressed. The oppressed suffer the “evil of misfortune”, which they can be liberated from by taking action against the oppressor.
Liberation theology includes the foundational belief that we are all “the daughters and sons of God” but that "God prefers the poor in a special sense…the whole Bible is written from the perspective of the poor: its promise, its promises, are for the poor". It is also a theology of hope in that even in asking the question “My God, where are you?” Gutierrez points out we are showing faith that there is a higher power.
Liberation theology includes scripture as a source of authority when interpreted as a source of faith and hope for liberation from oppression. Reason is used to reflect on injustice and to critically investigate the sources of oppression. The empowerment of the oppressed is found in the language of the Bible, with phrases like “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” in Matthew 5:5 and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” In Matthew 5:6.
Salvation comes in the form of earthly works. Freedom from sin would be achieved by stopping the oppression that a person is responsible for through their role in capitalism. Helping the poor and oppressed is the job both of the church and also of the individual who can take care of their neighbors.
In Liberation theology, experiences of oppression and liberation are foundational to the theology and necessary for salvation. Gutierrez will be looking for stories like we find in Exodus 2: 23-25, where the king of Egypt dies and God hears the cries of the enslaved Israelites. In this story, God remembers his covenant with the sons of Israel, and in Exodus 3: 7-12 he speaks to Moses about bringing his people out of Egypt. This is a story of oppression and salvation through God’s hand and his followers that is used as a standard example of liberation.
Gutierrez would also be looking for places where God calls upon a person or people to help the poor and in particular stories of Jesus using his power or influence to heal and empower. In Luke 10: 28 we are told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, setting us as the caretakers of those around us in need of help. He would also look at systems of oppression and those who are causing evil and oppression and their need to repent and change their ways in order to find salvation.
Solle, Dorothee. Thinking about God: An Introduction to Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. 1997. (39)
Hi, I'm Root a student at United Theological Seminary training to be an Interreligious Chaplain.