In feminist theology, Mary is often sourced as a liberative figure for women on the receiving end of patriarchal power. Delores Williams, author of Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, at once troubles and affirms this appropriation of Mary in light of its implications for both incarnational theology and the template of redemption. She argues that the typological rendering of Mary as the Victorian ideal—docile, innocent, and virgin—dehumanizes the black female experience by virtue of lifting up ideals that a racialized and patriarchal society make nearly impossible for black women to attain. As such, she does not plead for the inclusion of black women into this framework of the Mariological, but offers theological alternatives to undermine this paradigm altogether. The purpose of this essay is to argue that in order to honor the lived experiences of those who do not fit the Victorian ideal, we must figure both incarnation and redemption beyond surrogacy and the logics of atonement. To do so, I will look to the critiques and revisions Williams and M. Shawn Copeland make of classical Mariology and use Sallie McFague’s panentheistic doctrine of creation to argue for a queering of incarnational theology.
Copeland argues that the way in which Mary has been typified by Victorian values of “true womanhood” is not only problematic, but harmful for African-American women. In the context of enslavement, the Victorian figure of Mary sanctions female passivity to practices of white exploitation. And, not only that, but because of what Copeland calls “the libidinous economics of the plantation,”black women have not been able to live into the traits of the archetypal woman. During the Victorian era of the mid-nineteenth century, special attention was given to Mary’s sexual propriety and humble submission to the Lord. Copeland explains that slavocracy was an attack on black women’s identity, and therefore the figure of Mary as the model of true womanhood is not a truly liberative figure for African-American women. Not only were black women dehumanized; they were degendered and desexed.” Black women were reduced to mere body parts for the (ab)use of white men. Their bodies were used as sexual objects, as a means of generating economic profit, and as surrogate wombs for the reproduction of human capital. As Copeland makes clear, Mary as the Victorian ideal is a harmful model for black women that justifies and glorifies their histories of suffering.
Williams shares many, if not all, of Copeland’s concerns over the Victorian appropriation of Mary, and, as such, argues for a move away from Mariological notions of glorified surrogacy. To understand Williams’ alternative framing of Mary, it is helpful to explore her critiques of atonement Christology. As she describes, the theology of much of mainline Protestantism teaches that “sinful humankind has been redeemed because Jesus died on the cross in the place of humans, thereby taking human sin upon himself.” Given African-American women’s long history with surrogacy, this raises serious questions about the way most Christians have been discipled into imaging redemption. Williams maintains that theories of atonement view Jesus as the quintessential surrogate figure (or mother). Jesus suffers on humanity’s behalf the effects of sin in order to birth, so to speak, human salvation. Williams takes umbrage with this notion for its potential divinization of black female surrogacy. In other words, she posits that Jesus as a surrogate figure assigns redemptive value to the surrogate exploitation of black women’s bodies.
Williams offers a womanist reimagining of salvation that repositions salvific worth away from Jesus’ death and onto Jesus’ life of resistance. This is most prominently concretized in Jesus’ resistance to temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). A parallel could be made here to Williams’ high view of Hagar’s wilderness experience (Gen 16:1-9, 21:1-9). This story “held [/holds] together black women’s positive struggle for autonomy, through resistance and rebellion.”She argues that black women’s salvation is assured not through Jesus’ death, but through Jesus’ “ministerial vision of life” that allows them to survive “the death of identity.” This Christology names the sheer brutality of Christ crucified, and in so doing, liberates black women to name their own oppression without an overweening pressure to view it as sacred. This, at the very least, weakens, if not problematizes, the argument Dr. Carter and others want to make that through the matriarchal conception of Jesus the patriarchy is definitively discontinued. Regardless of Joseph’s involvement or lack thereof, the very way Christ’s incarnation is imagined by the biblical authors is already gendered and patriarchal. What Williams wants to argue for instead is what we might call “queer incarnational Mariology.”
The very phrase “the Incarnation” points to the way in which divine incarnation has typically been framed as a singular phenomenon in the person of Jesus Christ. We could say this is a phallic incarnation in which God, as male, penetrates creation to reveal Godself. In this model, Mary is simply the womb through which “the Incarnation” occurs. Notice how this keeps Mary in a gendered place of submission. Williams wants to argue against gendered incarnational theology: “…[I]ncarnation also involves God’s self-disclosure in a woman: Mary. …The word was first made flesh in Mary’s body”—not through the body of Mary, but in the body. Williams refuses to embed Mary within patriarchal (read “Victorian”) gender normativity. She envisions Mary beyond gender categories of surrogate motherhood and places her in queered relationality to the Godhead. Donna Haraway says, “Humanity’s face has [long] been the face of man. Feminist humanity must have another shape, other gestures; … we must have feminist figures of humanity.” Williams does just this by reimagining Mary as the first sight of incarnation.
It is my contention that queer incarnational Mariology throws open a new horizon of Creator-creation non-duality. This gets to the heart of what is at stake for Sallie McFague’s understanding of creation as “God’s body.” She says, creation is “like” the incarnation. Jesus Christ [and I would argue Mary] is the lens, the model, through whom Christians interpret God, world, and themselves.” This is an incarnational understanding of the doctrine of creation where God is found in the “flesh of the world” (not identical to it, but present in it). It is a critique against radical dualisms between spirit and matter and places sacred worth on all people regardless of gender or race, every creature great and small. There is no room for notions of surrogacy or atonement when embodiment is the reality of God. Incarnation, therefore, becomes a cosmic reality in which Mary participates. She is the touchstone of queer incarnation.