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African Women Christology

We need a geographical specification of African women’s Christology. I do not mean the Christology of all African women theologians (AWT) on the African continent and its islands. The women I include in this work are mostly pioneers in women’s theology from certain parts of West, Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa. The ideas gathered here echo the Circle of concerned African women theologians, known as “Circle” that was first launched in Ghana in 1989.

AWT share several essential common features. First, they want to unmask the root causes of oppression, discrimination, and violence against women,[1] which are grounded in “patriarchy, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, capitalism, globalization and sexism.”[2] Teresia Hinga, who asserts that, sexism, rooted in religion and culture is “the primary concern of African women’s theology” against which they protest,[3] and Mercy Amba Oduyoye[4] includes patriarchization and other oppressive cultures among the root causes blemishing women.

Second, they stress cultural hermeneutics to further a liberating theology of inculturation. Bernadette Mbuy-Beya argues that despite all efforts and advancements of inculturation theology, it will not get the hope of Jesus Christ to transform cultures without considering women’s gifts.[5]    Third, AWT share the premise that what harms women does harm to the nation-state.[6] The harms are physical, psychological, cultural, and structural, culminating in moral harms that Bernadette Mbuy-Beya names “a deterioration of morality.”[7] These structural harms include bad leadership, non-distribution of resources by leaders, tribalism, dictatorship, and deterioration of infrastructures such as schools and health facilities.[8]  AWT assess how women and society are demoralized because of these many harms.

Finally, AWT agree on an experience of a liberating Christ for African women. As the “Circle” acknowledges, there are “elements of a Christology based in women’s experience that may announce a new point of departure in African theological reflection.”[9] This paper turns to a liberating “praxiological and experiential”[10] Christology as the well from which AWT drink to resist violence on the continent in general, and against women and children, in particular. African women’s Christology seeks to “formulate responses to the actual historical realities of each age and place”[11] of suffering on the continent. For this, it is broader than the approach of male-centered Christomonism; it is all-inclusive of women, both their gifts and their hardships.

Which Christ for African Women?[12]

AWT engage a contextual Christological question[13] to which Jean-Marc Ela has tried to respond in his African Cry: Who is Jesus for the people who encounter him? Is the encounter with Jesus bringing about liberation and healing or “pain and tears?”  How does the encounter with Jesus truly become Good News?[14]

Considering Ela’s questions, AWT address several other Christological questions, including (1) What do African women say about Christ—who is Christ for them? (2) Do the formal titles of High Priest, the Messiah, the Lord, the Son of God, the Prophet, and the Servant[15] consider women’s experiences of encounter with Jesus? (3) What does this encounter have to say about the hope of resurrection for women suffering the harms and challenges mentioned above? Although all these questions cannot be answered in the scope of this piece, I include a few thoughts shared by AWT that consider the challenges raised by these questions.

Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Elizabeth Amoah reflect on the Christological claim that “Jesus is the Lord.”  They argue that the Christ hoped for by African Christian communities is the one whose lordship is expressed “in terms of a benevolent ruler;”[16] the opposite of the temporal rulers who maintain oppressive structures for their own benefits. The Christ African women hope for is longing with them in the harms they undergo, bringing them into a new beginning that will come “on the end of the age” but also actualized in and through their faith that is self-giving.

AWT include the African charismatic, independent churches in their approach to the lordship of Christ. These churches respond to a need or lack in eschatology that claims “a Christus Victor” through whom evil is overcome.  They see Christ the Healer as the center of Christology.  He is the one who heals the wounds of women and turns the deaths of daily life into a life of hope.[17] Christ heals now and today; he comes to comfort the people today. This consolation takes both the material and the spiritual dimensions into consideration, in life and death.  The many women involved in these churches embrace a Christ who affects their whole life.  Nothing is outside the business of this Christ.[18]

AWT also engage in dialogue with the Christology that draws on the African philosopher John Mbiti, who claims that, in African religious activities and beliefs, “No line is drawn between the spiritual and the physical….”[19] African Christology affirms that Christ “stands for spiritual-physical welfare.”[20] The people need a “Christ-Victor Christology” because they face evils of all kinds, evils perpetuated by cultural, political, and economic systems that deny them the sacredness of their humanity and abundant life.  This vision of “Christ-Victor Christology” is one of the reasons why the prosperity gospel has grown on the African continent like mushrooms. Just as AWT call on the need for transformative churches, they address prosperity gospel as well, for becoming “true disciples of Christ in the battle for women’s liberation, rights, and justice”[21] is a task that is incumbent on all.

African women theologians affirm the salvific Christological function of the cross established by male theologians and seek to understand what Christ means for the realities of the lives of women.[22] The African woman’s Christ is indeed the one who saves from the forces of death and gives a widow her child back when she is oppressed by any cultural or religious norms that silence her and bend her over. It is the Christ that “transcends and transforms culture and has liberated [her] to do the same,”[23] becoming healers and caregivers despite hardships.[24]

The “Circle” makes the theological claim of “The Imperative of Christ,” setting over the authority of Christ against any “interpretative framework of male hierarchies of knowledge.”[25] The imperative of Christ in African women’s Christology again echoes Mbiti who argues that the “final test for the validity and usefulness of any theological contribution is Jesus Christ.”[26] For Mbiti, since Jesus’ Incarnation, “Christian theology ought properly to be Christology.”[27] The imperative of Christ provides a rationale that “helps [women] bear their griefs, loneliness and suffering.”[28] AWT also draw on Jesus’ mission to free the oppressed (Luke 4: 19), and on the way he treats women to affirm Christ as “Healer, Friend and Confidante.”[29] For both Margaret Wanjiru and Anne Nasimiyu, the Christ for African women is “the anointed one who liberates from all oppression, the companion, friend, teacher, and caring compassionate nurturer of all.”[30] He is the true and only hope in the face of the many harms they suffer.

Christ is the Lord servant, teaching that true sacrifice is freely and consciously made.  He breaks down barriers of any sort.  In him, the integrity of a woman caught up in a particularly oppressive culture is affirmed.  By holding body and soul together, he saves any woman from the rituals and norms enslaving the body.

To conclude: before 1989, African women’s theologies were centered on retrieving the stories of the moral agency of women in history to confront the Christian message of liberation with the experiences of abuses and relegation of women to the subaltern in church and society. Today, AWT continue to face dualistic anthropology when it comes to the views of women in cultural and socio-religious settings.  In response to the Christian dualistic tendency, AWT believe Jesus is the perfect example of “theo-ethical challenges of gender binaries and disdain for the body”[31] as testified by the gospels. In this perspective of standing against such gender binaries and disdain of the body, African women Christology continually affirms discipleship of Christ as a call to rise, affirm the will to arise,[32] the need for healing, and equal consideration of what endangers women’s bodies and souls. They call all theologians and the church to the same discipleship, to coherent responses that allow both men and women’s empowerment and liberation through communication with God.

The hope of resurrection is then already lived in faith and gratuitous grace; though not fully completed, it is a resource for African women’s resilience. As Mbuy-Beya concludes, the hope of the resurrection is not to be delayed, it “should give us the courage to improve” the world in which we live[33] in such a way that the world can see that we, too, love God. As the One who empowers us reminds: “the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me.” (John 14: 31).

Short bio, Léocadie Lushombo, it., Ph. D. 

 

Léocadie Lushombo, is a Teresian (Institución Teresiana, it.), Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology/Santa Clara University and visiting professor at the Catholic University of the Congo. She obtained her Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Boston College (US) and has completed her Masters in Theological Ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Sustainable Development at the Universidad Pontificio Comillas in Spain, and Economics & Development at the Catholic University of Central Africa in Cameroon. In addition, she has extensively worked as a researcher and Consultant-Trainer on justice, peace, and gender issues in the Great Lakes Region in Central Africa. 

[1] Carrie Pemberton, Circle Thinking: African Women Theologians in Dialogue with the West, Studies of Religion in Africa 25 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2003), 105.

[2] Isabel Apawo Phiri, “Southern Africa,” in An Introduction to Third World Theologies, ed. John Parratt (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 156.

[3] Teresia M. Hinga, “Between Colonialism and Inculturation: Feminist Theologies in Africa,” in Feminist Theology in Different Contexts, ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and M. Shawn Copeland, Concilium 1996/1 (London: Maryknoll, NY: SCM Press ; Orbis Books, 1996), 31.

[4] Born in Ghana, founded the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians in 1989.

[5] Pemberton, Circle Thinking, 100.

[6] Musa W. Dube Shomanah, “Batswakwa: Which Traveller Are You?,” in The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends, ed. Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube Shomanah (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2000).

[7] Bernadette Mbuy-Beya, “African Spirituality: A Cry of Life,” in Spirituality of the Third World: A Cry for Life : Papers and Reflections from the Third General Assembly of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, January, 1992, Nairobi, Kenya, ed. Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, Abraham General Assembly K. C, and Bernadette Mbuy-Beya (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005), 186–87.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Pemberton, Circle Thinking, 171.

[10] Ibid., 99.

[11] Teresa Okure, “Women in the Bible,” in With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology : Reflections from the Women’s Commission of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, ed. Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians et al. (Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 45.

[12] Elizabeth Amoah and Mercy Amba Oduyoye, “The Christ for African Women,” in With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology : Reflections from the Women’s Commission of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, ed. Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians et al. (Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2006).

[13] Loreen Maseno, “Gender and Christology in Africa for Social and Political Involvement,” STJ | Stellenbosch Theological Journal 6, no. 1 (August 28, 2020): 58, https://doi.org/10.17570/stj.2020.v6n1.a04.

[14] Jean-Marc Ela, African Cry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986).

[15] Jon Sobrino, Christ The Liberator: A View From The Victims (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 122–23.

[16] Okure, “Women in the Bible,” 37.

[17] Okure, 39.

[18] Okure, 37.

[19] John S. Mbiti, African Religions & Philosophy, 2nd rev. and enl. ed (Oxford ; Portsmouth, N.H: Heinemann, 1990).

[20] Okure, “Women in the Bible,” 40.

[21] Bernadette Mbuy-Beya, “Stand Up and Walk, Daughter of y People: Consecrated Sisters of the Circle,” in African Women, Religion, and Health: Essays in Honor of Mercy Amba Ewudziwa Oduyoye, ed. Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Isabel Apawo Phiri, and Sarojini Nadar, Women from the Margins Series (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2006), 219.

[22] Okure, 43.

[23] Okure, 43.

[24] Mercy Amba Oduyoye, African Women’s Theologies, Spirituality, and Healing: Theological Perspectives from the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, 2018 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2019), 95.

[25] Pemberton, Circle Thinking, 171.

[26] John S. Mbiti, New Testament Eschatology in an African Background: A Study of the Encounter between New Testament Theology and African Traditional Concepts (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 190.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Teresia M. Hinga, “Jesus Christ and the Liberation of Women in Africa,” in The Will to Arise: Women, Tradition, and the Church in Africa, ed. Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Rachel Angogo Kanyoro (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 191.

[29] Ibid., 190.

[30] Maseno, “Gender and Christology in Africa for Social and Political Involvement,” 67.

[31] Teresia M. Hinga, African, Christian, Feminist: The Enduring Search for What Matters (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017), xx.

[32] Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Rachel Angogo Kanyoro, eds., The Will to Arise: Women, Tradition, and the Church in Africa (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992).

[33] Mbuy-Beya, “Stand Up and Walk, Daughter of y People: Consecrated Sisters of the Circle,” 219.