Longtime Presbyterian “mujerista” theologian Dolores Williams of Union Seminary recently he died. (“Womanist” is a black feminist theologian.) She lived a full and fascinating life in which she followed her convictions. Rest in peace.
His name is linked to the highly controversial 1993 ecumenical “Re-Imagining Conference” in which Williams mocked the Christian doctrine of Christ’s atonement for the sins of the world through His sacrifice on the cross:
“I don’t think we need an atonement theory at all… I don’t think we need people hanging from crosses and dripping with blood and weird stuff.”
Many in the crowd of more than two thousand church women applauded. Williams’ comment was just one of many by radical feminist theologians at this event organized by the official women’s agencies of the mainline Protestant denominations, notably the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church, as part of the “ Decade of Solidarity with Women”. Her purpose was to replace traditional supposedly patriarchal Christianity with a new, liberating faith of pantheistic female deities. There were many controversies quotes:
- Social justice activist Melanie Morrison: “I am pleased and honored to lead you in prayer and to speak with the creator of the land Mauna, our creator.”
- Episcopal Divinity School professor Kwok Pui Lan: “We cannot have a savior, just like the Big Mac at McDonalds, pre-packaged, shipped all over the world. He won’t do. He is imperialist ”. He offered China’s 722 gods and goddesses as an example of “radical inclusiveness.”
- South Korean Presbyterian theologian Chung Hyun Kyung, extolling indigenous Asian spirituality and cosmic energy: “This life-giving energy came from God [sic] and it is everywhere. It is in the sun and in the ocean; it is from the earth and it is from the trees.”
- Virginia Mollenkott of William Patterson University: “We would understand Jesus as our big brother, the pioneer, and the constant companion to us here in time and space, but ultimately one among many brothers and sisters in an everlasting brotherhood.” and equally dignified.”
- Aruna Gnanadason of the World Council of Churches: [The church] “He centered his faith in the cruel and violent death of Christ on the cross, sanctioning violence against the underprivileged in society.”
- Lutheran Minister Barbara Lundblad bragged amid laughter and cheers: “Last night we didn’t say the name of Jesus. Nor have we done anything in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Worshipers at Re-Imagining sang and prayed to “Sophia” as the divine feminine personification of wisdom: “Our creator Sophia, we are women in your image; with the warm blood of our bellies we give shape to a new life. With nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, with our warm body fluids we remind the world of her pleasures and sensations.”
The Re-Imagining conference was recorded, and as the audio became widely available, the controversy spread. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other major outlets, including Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” on ABC, reported on its more incendiary aspects. Denominational and ecumenical officials who funded, organized and attended the event distanced themselves from him without expressing regret. Subsequent Re-Imagining meetings, which ended after a decade, unable to generate the controversy and excitement of the early days, were not endorsed by most official church agencies.
Re-Imagining’s withdrawal was accompanied by a general decline in interest in radical feminist theology, even in liberal Protestant communities. Redefining God as feminine became less important than the church’s affirmation of non-traditional sexuality and gender transcendence. Re-Imagining included a strong spiritual affirmation of lesbianism, but radical feminist theology emphasized the deconstruction of patriarchy over sexual liberation.
Even as Re-Imagining faded, Williams remained true to her favorite female themes, especially her rejection of Christ’s atonement. In 1993, the same year as Re-Imagining, she published Sisters in the desert: the challenge of the feminine discourse about Godsuch as christian century describes, “compares the plight of black women in the United States to that of Hagar in the Bible: forced surrogate mothers, alone in the desert, able to trust only in God.” From this comparison, Williams deduced that “a God who saves through suffering cannot be a true savior for black women.” She minimized Jesus on the cross and preferred to highlight his work for justice.
Recalling this emphasis, one of Williams’ seminary colleagues, Episcopalian priest Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of episcopal studies at Union Seminary, praised its:
Dolores Williams was a pioneer of womanizing thinking that changed the paradigm of how we think about the cross. Boldly and courageously, she claimed her voice even as many in the church rejected her claim that there is “no power in the blood.”
williams explained his rejection of the blood of Christ when asked in Re-Imagining in 1993: “What should our theory of atonement be? What did Jesus come for? She answered:
I don’t think we need a theory of the atonement at all. I think Jesus came for life and (to show us) how to live together, what life is all about.” Recalling a visit with a Catholic, he disapprovingly noted: “There are no images of the ministry, of the mustard seed, the fishes and the loaves. I don’t think we need people hanging from crosses, dripping blood and weird stuff. We need the sustenance, the faith, the candles to light. Jesus’ mandate is that we transmit tough love, the love that is whipping the thieves out of the temple. I don’t see the cross doing that. I think the cross should be interpreted for what it was, a symbol of evil, the murder of an innocent man and the victim of it. When we confront the status quo as Jesus did, when we ask questions about the poor and empower people who have never had power before, we will most likely die for it.
Williams on Re-Imagining reclaimed the incarnation was not God becoming man in Jesus but in the visit of the Spirit to Mary. “We have a completely different notion of the incarnation,” she said. “The spirit [rather than Jesus] tells us who God is.” Feminist theology portrayed the atonement through Jesus on the cross as divine child abuse, failing to accept that Jesus himself was fully divine and willingly submitting to the sacrifice. Williams, who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, wanted to overthrow generations of oppression of black women. As Presbyterian News Service indicated In her obituary, “Williams rejected the centrality that the cross played in black liberation theology and the impact that the justification of violence had on the lives of black women.”
Christianity historically understands the sufferings of Christ as atonement for the sins of humanity and as solidarity with our suffering. Images of Christ on the cross have been especially important to generations of American black Christianity, since the earliest days of slavery. Sadly, Williams did not fully understand the power and comfort of a suffering Christ, who shed his blood so that all might live.
Williams thought that the atonement of Christ was distracting “weird stuff.” But millions of Christians in all cultures and times, freed from the burden of an education at New York’s Union Seminary, intuitively understand that there is great power in his blood.