God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland (HarperOne, 2022)—what a book. It’s basically a mix of spot-on critiques of what Cleveland calls whitemalegod (you may know the one) and compelling explorations of what it can look like to ditch whitemalegod and seek the Sacred Black Feminine instead.
I was a fan of Cleveland’s work back when she was trying to help the white-dominated evangelical church do better in terms of racial justice; I’m still a fan of her work now that she’s jumped ship and is finding healthier, more honest, more life-giving forms of faith outside of white evangelical spaces.
I feel like I’m over here rooting Cleveland on in her journey. And I’m grateful for her being willing to share this journey with anyone who would benefit from reading about it. Which is lots and lots of us, I think.
A few thoughts and memorable quotes:
1) Cleveland’s book kind of strikes me as a race-conscious version of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (by Sue Monk Kidd) for a new generation. I really enjoyed The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and learned a ton from it—and I also felt its whiteness.
I’m grateful for Cleveland’s exploration not just of the Divine Feminine—who many of us might imagine, by default, to be just as white as whitemalegod—but specifically of the Divine Black Feminine. This brings so much richness and complexity into the picture.
As Cleveland writes, “She is the God who has a special love for the most marginalized because She too has known marginalization” (p. 17). That feels right to me. I’m not Black, but this is a God I could get on board with.
2) In a similar vein, I appreciate how Cleveland writes about the Sacred Black Feminine in a way that centers Black women but is not exclusive to them.
“She is the God who is with and for Black women because She is a Black woman. She is the God who definitively declares that Black women—who exist below Black men and white women at the bottom of the white male God’s social pecking order—not only matter but are sacred. And, in doing so, She declares that all living beings are sacred. She is the God who smashes the white patriarchy and empowers us all to join in Her liberating work” (p. 17).
Yup, all for that. It makes sense to me that we might have to imagine God as Black and female to really get it into our heads and hearts and souls that, as Cleveland puts it, “all living beings are sacred.”
The whitemalegod of the colonizers—and of those who do things today like incarcerate way too many Black men and deny women access to reproductive health care—doesn’t really affirm, or help his followers affirm, the sacredness of all humanity. But perhaps the Sacred Black Feminine can, and does.
It reminds me of what many activists have pointed out—that we should all be able to get behind the project of Black female liberation, not only because Black women matter, but also because it turns out that what is good for Black women is good for everybody. It isn’t a competition or a zero-sum game; it’s a matter of implementing systems, policies, and practices that promote the liberation of the most oppressed and the flourishing of the most marginalized—and that therefore promote liberation and flourishing for us all.
3) I appreciate Cleveland’s reflections on need and neediness. I’m reminded of an evangelical idea that resonated with me for a while back in the day, but which I now consider a load of baloney. The idea is that we as Christians have everything we need in Christ, so we come into relationships with other people not needing anything from them. The implication is that we can just give, and give, and give—and this is how Christians ought to be.
I’ve really moved away from this mindset over the last ten years or so. And I’ve moved toward the reality that I am a needy human, and my relationships are at their best and most beautiful when I’m both giving and receiving. Anything else is some combination of arrogance and denial of my own humanity—as well as denial of the other person’s humanity, to the extent that I’m tempted to think that “I don’t need anything from them” means “they have nothing to offer.”
Related to this, Cleveland writes, “in whitemalegod’s society…patriarchy and white supremacy partner to proclaim that to be human is to express no need. In whitemalegod’s society, toxic masculinity screeches ‘boys don’t cry,’ young girls struggle to get dates after being labeled ‘high maintenance,’ and women are demoted for being ‘too emotional.’ Further, our infinitely vast gender diversity is squeezed into two suffocating male/female boxes in which men are more valued when they express no need, women are devalued precisely because they are often unable to adequately hide their need, and all other genders are completely erased unless they cram themselves into one of the two ‘official’ gender boxes” (p. 85).
This strikes me as true, and important. To be human is to express no need is a lie that’s closely connected to a toxic form of masculinity. I’m all for building a world where people of all genders are free to feel what we feel and need what we need, without being shamed for it.
4) Relatedly, I resonated with this from my evangelical days:
“The only time people in whitemalegod’s world are allowed to talk openly about their need is when they are regaling themselves with tales of how they triumphed over it. We love to exchange stories about how we used to be homeless but now own a home with no mortgage on it, were once illiterate but now are a New York Times best-selling author, once struggled to manage our anger but now are a celebrated mindfulness teacher, previously had marital problems but now it’s all good. In other words, it’s okay to struggle, as long as you triumph in the long run. Just please don’t tell us about your need in real time. Need is only acceptable in the past tense” (p. 86).
I’m reminded of the way testimonies are often framed and shared in evangelical churches. In one of the more extreme versions, I knew of a college campus ministry that gave its students a particular outline for their testimonies to follow (and, in this case, to be filmed and posted on Facebook). Students were to talk about what their life was like before they met Christ, and how much better their life is now.
These students were to share about their needs in the past, not their needs in the present. But they were human. Surely they had present needs, too.
Why is it so hard to be honest about the fact that we are needy? Can we talk about how we’ve experienced God as real and good in some ways, while also being honest about the things that are still difficult and painful, and the ways we want to see God but haven’t yet?
I want to be part of faith communities that can voice present lament, as so many writers of the Bible did—not just victory over past difficulties.
5) I don’t know if I’d really thought about matriarchal cultures in this way:
“As scholar Heide Gottner-Abendroth is quick to point out, matriarchal societies aren’t simply the reversal of patriarchal societies, with women ruling over men. Rather, they are need-based societies that are centered around the values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In matriarchal cultures, everyone—regardless of your gender or whether you have any biological kids—is taught to practice the societal values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In such cultures, these values are the basis of what it means to be human” (pp. 113-4).
That’s cool. And very much in line with what I see as the goals of feminism. Feminism isn’t a scary and threatening thing where women are trying to grab and hold power over men in the same way men have often grabbed and held power over women.
Rather, we’re trying to build a different kind of world—one based on mutuality, equality, and healthy interdependence, where no one is trying to grab and hold power over anyone. A world where values for things like authority, hierarchy, individual success, and personal accumulation of wealth are replaced by values for things like “caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community.” Matriarchy for the win.
6) I appreciate the clarity and honesty of Cleveland’s reflections on her work for racial justice in white-dominated spaces:
“Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that in order to accomplish justice, I needed to convince white people that I am worthy of justice…Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that it was my work to convince white people to affirm my humanity…Though I had been heralded as a ‘trailblazer’ in the mostly white, male-dominated Christian world, my justice work had extracted me from the safe spaces that nurture and protect me as a Black woman and catapulted me into the unsafe and oppressive spaces of the powerful where I was exposed to the soul-crushing forces of its institutional racism, sexism, and poisonous theology. In those spaces, I gave much yet received little more than lip service and a steady stream of macroaggressions” (p. 149).
I hear and feel Cleveland’s (totally valid) anger about all this, and I stand with her in it. None of this was right. And I think that her testimony (you know, the honest kind, not the kind with only victories) is a crucial one for church folks to hear.
7) Cleveland writes:
“That’s how whitemalegod controls us, by convincing all of us…that we’re not enough. We must constantly strive for whitemalegod’s version of excellence and conquer our imperfections in order to prove to whitemalegod that we are worthy to sit at his table. But since we’re all desperately scrambling to get a seat at a table in whitemalegod’s exclusive club, we never stop to ask ourselves: Do I even want a spot in whitemalegod’s tiny circle of acceptability? No, we’re too busy scrambling and trampling others as we chase the acceptance we will never receive” (p. 169).
I’ve totally felt this vibe and this struggle. For me, it was a feeling of tension between wanting to be accepted—and, in my case, as someone who worked in Christian ministry, wanting to be accepted as a leader—in evangelical spaces, but knowing, or at least fearing, that if I expressed (or just existed as) my authentic self, I would not be. It’s a feeling of having to hide something to belong. Which means, of course, that you—the real you—does not actually belong.
I’ve felt this, for example, as an introvert, feeling like I needed to act like an extrovert to be accepted as a leader—or even just as a valuable and respected human. And I’ve felt it as someone who came around to LGBTQ+ affirmation, feeling like I didn’t know what would happen if I talked about these views openly.
Like Cleveland, at some point I started to think, Wait a minute, do I even want a spot here? Do I really want to chase the affirmation of people who fundamentally don’t accept me for who I actually am, or to chase power in their circles that are actually quite toxic?
That would be a “nope.” Hard pass. But, like Cleveland, it took me a minute to get there. The pull of acceptability is powerful—especially when it can seem like acceptance in a particular evangelical circle equals acceptance by God. Fortunately, in truth, these things couldn’t be farther apart. But that isn’t always easy to see when you’re in the midst of it.
I hope this gave some worthwhile food for thought! I’d love to know what you think about any or all of it.