Colaboración as an Antiracist Methodology in the Feminist Study of Religion (@theTable: “Racism and the Feminist Study of Religion”)
By Darryl W. Stephens and Elizabeth Soto Albrecht.
Scholarship conceived as the lone academic expert seated behind an isolated oak desk continues to limit our ability to address systemic, social oppressions. We argue that antiracist scholarship cannot be achieved by reproducing the structures that brought us here. Liberatory methods are required to achieve liberatory ends. To effectively address racism, we advocate an antiracist methodology of colaboración (collaboration) arising from and transcending our past and rooted in a broad-based community extending beyond the academy.
Is solitary scholarship a necessary requirement to be heard within a racist discourse? White feminist scholarship has been critiqued for being elitist. This characterization is perhaps a necessary collateral to the need to be heard within in a male-dominated discourse. Would Valerie Saiving’s keen insights about human agency and sin have found traction if she had not chosen a man of high stature, Reinhold Niebuhr, as her academic sparring partner? The feminist study of religion has come a long way since Saiving’s salvo of 1960. As women of color still struggle to find our voices within a discourse dominated by whiteness, we resist by creating a methodology that uses the texts of our bodies and souls as valid discourse for change.
A method of colaboración builds on paths blazed by women theologians of many cultures and hues—feminist, womanist, Asian, and mujerista, to name a few. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Bev Harrison, and others asserted women’s embodied experience as a primary source of wisdom. Our embodied realities matter. Womanists responded to white feminism, in part, by elevating a rich variety of additional source material as worthy of study and scholarly engagement. For example, Katie Cannon leveraged the Black woman’s literary tradition for ethical insight into contemporary social issues. Scholars of religion and theology came to consider oral tradition, fiction, and many other genres of literature and lore as legitimate conversation partners, opening up new, creative opportunities for many women scholars of color. Kwok Pui-Lan and other Asian feminist theologians attuned us further to cultural and religious diversity as context for our embodied experiences. Differences in gender, race, age, culture, ethnicity, language, and citizenship status enrich our relationships and our understanding of religion. Traci West and Ada María Isasi-Díaz expanded our horizons even further through ethnographic study in theology and ethics. West’s Black feminism sought to understand the experiences of contemporary Black women through their own stories of violence and resistance. Isasi-Díaz’s mujerista theology explored lo cotidiando (the everyday experiences) of Latinas, discovering rich theological and ethical practices emerging from la lucha (the struggle) to survive. And, as exemplified in the bountifulness of Latinx cultures, one does not survive alone.
In the middle of our lucha and resistance, the recognition of what we have to offer flourishes in the religious world today. We agree with Emilie Townes that “dismantling the cultural production of evil . . . must be a group project” (2006, 160). We must work together to address intersectional oppressions of racism, sexism, classism, and other isms. We cannot afford the privilege of attempting to dismantle one oppression at the time when they are all present in our bodies. Yet, we want to push the feminist study of religion to expand the “group.” Faith seeking understanding must not be confined to scholars seeking an audience. If we desire to transcend the “fantastic hegemonic imagination” of racism (Townes 2006, passim), we cannot proceed alone, either as scholars or as a group of scholars. We must expand the conversation of the feminist study of religion beyond the academy.
Nurtured by our mothers in the feminist study of religion, we have learned the richness of an antiracist theological method of colaboración done in community that recognizes every person as a theologian and scholarly partner. Every Latina, every Black woman, every person of color, every child and adult, no matter their gender, race, age, culture, ethnicity, language, or citizenship—everyone has something to contribute to our mutual understanding of God in our midst. Each person is a potential collaboration partner to an antiracist, feminist study of religion.
As scholars and church leaders, we have practiced colaboración in diverse contexts. Elizabeth served as moderator of Mennonite Church USA, leading this denomination’s biennial convention to develop and embrace a powerful statement addressing sexual abuse in the church. Darryl served in a national position of leadership in The United Methodist Church, strengthening this denomination’s response to clergy sexual abuse. Both of us have been strong advocates for gender justice in the church. As scholars, each of us has engaged in qualitative research, spending hours listening and walking with women sharing their faith and hope for change en el camino (on the journey). We know that women struggling for justice in la comunidad de fe (the community of faith) have deep insight into the reality and nature of God.
We commend a theological method of colaboración because we have experienced its liberative potential for addressing sexism, racism, and heterosexism. In a recent collaboration, we convened eighteen women writers from various walks of life—academics, pastors, and laypersons—on a three-day journey for the purpose of elaborating and writing together Liberating the Politics of Jesus: Renewing Peace Theology through the Wisdom of Women (T&T Clark 2020). Participants spanned North and South America (another participant, from Africa, was unable to make the trip); some spoke Spanish and others English. Each woman was invited to contribute fresh, new writings on the topic. Each arrived ready to listen to others, beyond simply offering feedback, to shape this project en conjunto (together).
Our colaboración included marginalized voices far beyond the walls of the academy. Elizabeth cast the vision and guided the consultation; Darryl served as development editor. Several women and men took on roles as facilitators, interpreters, and listeners, whose role was to reflect back to us what they were hearing. Jamie Pitts, Director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies, served as host. We committed to getting acquainted with each other, learning from each other’s lives, and allowing ourselves to be shaped by community, each voice honored. We worshiped, sang, and prayed together in the Anabaptist tradition. Led by Elizabeth, from the praxis of her life, our colaboración centered on weaving together how we had been living the politics of Jesus in our distinct ministries. Not only the voices of those present mattered; the people who gave us their stories to share mattered equally. Interconnected by the spirit of CristoSofia that brough us together, we birthed the realization of a new theological construction, which started as Elizabeth’s vision and then emerged from our collective consciousness toward change.
Colaboración is a way to work toward an antiracist world. Our understanding of this task is gender-focused and justice-informed, reflecting an embodied, liberatory approach to antiracism.
Darryl W. Stephens holds a PhD in Christian ethics from Emory University and teaches at Lancaster Theological Seminary. His research focuses on the church and social change, particularly relating to issues of gender and sexual justice. In addition to Liberating the Politics of Jesus, he is the author and editor of eight books, including Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness and Teaching Sexuality and Religion in Higher Education: Embodied Learning, Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy, and Perspective Transformation (co-edited with Kate Ott). His current projects include a trauma-informed Christian ethics textbook and research on bivocational ministry. You can read more about his work at http://www.ethicsconsidered.com/.
Elizabeth Soto Albrecht received her D.Min. in International Feminism from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 2005. After serving as Associate Chaplain and Interpreter at Lancaster General Hospital, she served ten years at Lancaster Theological Seminary as Professor of Practice coordinating field education. In addition to Liberating the Politics of Jesus, she is the author of Family Violence: Reclaiming a Theology of Nonviolence and multiple Bible studies and curricula in Spanish and English. Elizabeth served as Moderator of Mennonite Church USA from 2013-2015, being the first Latina to serve in that position.