Ayla discusses the works of Black American theologian and activist Dr Christena Cleveland.
A few months ago, I was introduced to the research and wisdom of Dr Christena Cleveland, who is a Black American theologian and activist. Her most recent book is Not Today Coloniser: A Practical Resource for Dethroning Whitemalegod and Healing from White Patriarchal Religious Conditioning. The title alone will tell you that her perspectives are bold, clear, and prophetic. I’ve been reading her book God is a Black Woman, which weaves her life story within a series of encounters with Black Madonnas during a pilgrimage in France.
As our own parish has the pilgrim story of St James at its heart, experiences of pilgrimage are particularly resonant for me as I begin my time at St James’s Piccadilly. Additionally, with Lucy’s encouragement, I’ve been participating in a course Cleveland offers online, Liberating the Mind-Body-Spirit from White Supremacy. You can find out more here: Liberating the Mind-Body-Spirit from White Supremacy – Christena Cleveland
In God is a Black Woman, Cleveland introduces the concept of ‘whitemalegod’ as a damaging construct that has caused harm not only to people of colour, but to each person who has encountered religious patriarchy in any context. She says,
‘The patron of white patriarchy, whitemalegod is designed to dwell among, identify with, and protect the power of white people and cisgender men. However, people of course, women, trans, and non-binary people who have been conditioned to believe in whitemalegod find ourselves wondering where God is as we face ongoing humiliation, dehumanization, oppression, and disillusionment. Whitemalegod is nowhere to be found because he was never designed to be with us, among us, or on our side. Rather than ‘God with Us’, he is ‘God NOT with Us’.’
In Cleveland’s description of her pilgrimage, she began to rename, claim, and embrace the Black Madonna images she found. For her, they are encounters with the courageous power of the Sacred Black Feminine. She describes this as, ‘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…She is the God who cherishes our humanity and welcomes our fears, vulnerabilities and imperfections.’
Among the beautiful and ancient Black Madonnas that Christena Cleveland encountered, there are two that really stood out for me. Our Lady of the Sick, a fourteenth-century Madonna in Vichy, has been renamed by Cleveland as She Who Cherishes Our Hot Mess. ‘Immanence is her jam,’ Cleveland explains. ‘She loves to get down into the thick of human experience.’ Her monumental presence connects strongly with the 15th-century prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary: ‘never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided.’
In Thuret, a tiny village, Cleveland visited the Black Madonna locally known as the Virgin-Warrior. Cleveland renamed her ‘She Who Loves By Letting Go’. When she arrived, she noticed that there were four carved lotus flowers at the Madonna’s feet. Cleveland was intrigued by the relationship between the strong Christian feminist presence of the Madonna and the Buddhist image of lotus flowers rising from the mud, demonstrating the capacity for beauty to flourish out of the reality of life’s hardships. Cleveland describes her experience this way:
As I stood before Her statue, I realised that if the lotus flowers that surrounded Her rose from the mud, then She too rose from the mud. Her defiant stance in the middle of a pit of mud declared an entirely new truth to me about what it means to be pure. Whitemalegod terrorizes us by maintaining full control of what it means to be ‘pure’…But by standing firmly in the mud Herself, the Source-without-Source offers a new way.
I wonder what Christena Cleveland would make of St James’s own icon of Mary and her Son, and what kinds of experiences people have had with this image in church. Every day at Morning Prayer and the Eucharist I contemplate this image and am grateful for the holy woman who held the Son of God in her womb, feeding him so that we could all draw closer to God’s abundant love.
When we imagine the Mother of God, Jesus, or God the Creator, what images fill our minds, and why might that be? Whatever your images of God are, for God’s sake and for the sake of God’s beautiful sacred people, they deserve to be questioned and interrogated. Where did these images and beliefs come from? Are they comforting, confusing, painful, joyful, or a mixture of all these things?
Whatever your experience with God in body, mind, spirit, and image, we can be assured that God is not whitemalegod, but the One who embraces and emboldens each of us with tender compassion and fierce love. I’m grateful to Christena Cleveland and her work for teaching me about how to journey deeper into anti-racism and liberation, and this journey is certainly transforming my images of God too.
Revd Natasha Beckles, who preached at our St James’s Day Eucharist, has recently been in conversation with Cleveland on a podcast called Tent Talks, which you can listen to here: