Excerpt from the Preface
... Using historical and contemporary situations and narratives, Refiner’s Fire analyzes religions’ involvement in violence. Building on a Womanist theology and ethic, Refiner’s Fire addresses issues concerning women, religion, and violence in language, the Bible, slave spirituality, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the protest ministry of Martin Luther King Jr., and female social groups—sororities and gangs. After the section that presents a preliminary or exploratory study for a constructive theology and ethics of violence toward transformation, the book concludes with a liturgical treatment of death that transcends ultimate violence.
Chapter 1, Eyes on the Prize: Womanist Reflections, introduces a hermeneutics, or methodology, focusing on ways of seeing and exorcising that facilitate consciousness-raising, analyze complex realities, and ultimately, help transform injustice.
Chapter 2, Take No Prisoners: Biblical Women Engaged in Violence, began as a presentation, "What’s Violence Got to Do With It?: Inflamers, and the Lizzie Bordens of Ancient Israel: Women Who Slay and/or Cause Wrongful Deaths" for the 1996 Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) Symposium. This chapter analyzes pairs of women in the Bible who work together for divine or human purposes and who Refine the Fires of leadership, seduction, and rage to do violence; they instigate and/or commit murder within a framework of mimetic desire, from ethical, Womanist, psychosocial, theological, and legal perspectives, to achieve their goals. These women represent a stunning reality: these stories of prominent women are saturated with violence. Tragically and regrettably, nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible or New Testament does a positive story of a mother/daughter relationship exist.
Chapter 3, Lay My Burden Down: Spirituality Transcends Antebellum Violence, is a discourse on the inherent spirituality that emerges from those powerful psalms of slaves, selected African American spirituals. Those songs, emerging from the African diaspora in the United States during the antebellum period, when the enslavement of African Americans was a legal and accepted practice, and during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Refined the Fires of protest, assurance, dignity, justice, and equality. This essay on spirituality signified was prompted by conversations with my friend and associate, Professor Dwight Hopkins, University of Chicago.
Chapter 4, Sojourner’s Sisters: 1960s Women Freedom Fighters Right Civil Wrongs, celebrates the outstanding contribution of the women who were rarely feted in the media but who defied violence and kept the 1960s Civil Rights Movement going by working behind the scenes. They Refined the Fires of justice by challenging systemic and personal violence, and their actions helped strengthen the community as they handled communications, brainstormed, marched, were beaten, or died early as a result of the process.
Chapter 5, Ballads, Not Bullets: The Nonviolent Protest Ministry of Martin Luther King Jr., was part of a presentation for the 1996 American Academy of Religion session of the Peace and War Group. This chapter explores the powerful function of music in King’s nonviolent, direct protest action ministry and the interpersonal dynamics of this Nobel Prize winner’s activity as a "Drum Major for Justice." Both the music and King’s ministry are Fires Refined to affect social justice in the midst of blatant oppression.
Chapter 6, Soul Sisters: Girls in Gangs and Sororities, was first presented to the 1995 Annual Meeting of COV&R in the session, "Violence, Mimesis, and the Subject of Responsibility." This chapter explores the many interrelated complexities of soror and sistah imitative or mimetic societies and the levels of internal and external apathy and responsibility, fires left unrefined by society or family in loving, meaningful ways. Interest in this material began during my days as a doctoral student at Baylor University, in conversation with fellow student of ethics Sharon Moore. Reading a Washington Post Sunday magazine article pressed me to begin researching the topic of girl gangs.
Chapter 7, Build Up, Break Down: Language of Empowerment and Annihilation, analyzes the implications of the power of language as a Refining Fire of communication on a continuum from violence to virtue. These interests first came together in a presentation to the Ernest Becker Society in Seattle, Washington. There I used the work of cultural anthropologists, in dialogue, to note how we daily use words either to empower or to denigrate ourselves and others. The impact and power of language to enhance or destroy, in daily parlance, the academy and the pulpit has become a burning passion. I see how we are usually adamant about the mounting violence from guns and drugs but are nonchalant, cavalier, and dismissive when it comes to our careless use of our most accessible tool for creating violence—language.
Chapter 8, Daughters of Zelophehad: A Constructive Analysis of Violence, uses the metaphor of the Daughters of Zelophehad to engage a Womanist constructive theological and ethical analysis of violence, towards Refining the Fires of transformation. This work developed from a conversation with the editor for this project, Michael West. We agreed that in a work delving into the intersection of violence and religion, it is important to engage the analytical, the descriptive, and the prescriptive, since we question the necessity of human violence and work towards a therapeutic answer. We must ask: What are our options?
Chapter 9, Death as Worship: Celebrating Dying as Part of Life, explores death as a part of life. Using liturgical expressions, seasons, and the experience of certain liturgical moments during the worship service proper, the chapter illumines these sensory experiences as moments of Refining divine Fires of praise and inspiration, as the locus of death as worship. This chapter was written as a celebration, a response, and reaction to the spring 1991 death of a most brave, courageous woman, Mary Helen Bell. I had the privilege of giving her last rites; I stood and ministered at her bedside, witnessing her final breath; I told her mother, "She’s gone."
Excerpt from Chapter 1
To know who and what you are and to whom you belong is to embody the divine good, is to be clear about what is at stake, and is the cost and benefit of the prize of total, salvific grace and freedom. The wounds of oppression were created by slavery, abscessed by Jim Crow, and festered by internalizing the hurt; venting the injury on others oozes the poisons of pain, self-hatred, self-defeatism, insatiable desire, and rage. The wannabe-like-white-folks syndrome and the failed project of integration have exacted a tremendous cost. Although the "For Colored Only" and "For Whites Only" signs have been painted over or dismantled, the poisons and prisons of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and heterosexism now wear different masks. "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize; Hold On!" affirms and avows the attitude of Womanist scholars as they study, teach, preach, and write about the tridimensional race/sex/class oppressive experience of Black women, tempered with the life-giving power that ruminates in the beingness and doingness of women of the African diaspora. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize is an invitation to confront systemic and personal evil.
This chapter introduces a hermeneutic, a way to see and hear and exorcise the evil and violence that exist in various pockets of society in these United States and the world. This methodology and embodied way of living facilitates consciousness-raising, analyzes complex realities, and ultimately helps transform injustice. Womanist theory, the language of Womanist thought, is itself the anvil and the kiln for Refining the Fires of analysis towards the reformation and transformation of individual, communal, and systemic violence. After indicating the origins of the term and the theoretical basis of exploration, I express my own rubric of doing Womanist analysis.
What is a "Womanist"?
Alice Walker coined the term "Womanist" and claims that a Womanist is courageous and in charge; a Womanist loves and commits to the wholeness and survival of all people. Many strong Black women have not heard the term Womanist and have not identified themselves as such. Womanist is a confessional term; thus some strong Black women do not make this claim nor support all the components of the Womanist definition. Nevertheless, many strong Black women are Womanist by virtue of the experience of oppression and the desire for liberation, which serves as a catalyst for empowerment, exhaling, and excelling. A Womanist, sometimes denigrated as "domineering castrating matriarch," is a strong Black woman who has developed survival strategies in spite of the oppression of herself in order to save her family and her people. She takes charge; she acts; she is; she Refines the Fire of justice as she keeps her eyes on her prize.