An Interview with Womanist Ethicist Emilie M. Townes
When I entered graduate school to do women’s studies in religion, womanist theology and ethics were revelations. I entered the program somewhat familiar with feminist theology, but I was totally ignorant about womanism. Womanist theology and ethics were the most intellectually and spiritually invigorating approaches to religion and ethics that I came across.
I will never forget the first time I read ethicist Katie Cannon describing what agency looks like when living within a wider contexts that deny black people full agency. Likewise, I was blown away by the way theologian Dolores Williams’ found an archetype for black women in the Hebrew Bible figure of Hagar, who experienced oppression from both men and women, slavery, forced surrogacy, homelessness and more. In Hagar’s story, Williams saw spiritual truths that resonated with the experience of black women — namely, that God was a God of survival — one who didn’t always liberate, but who helped women make a way when there was no way.
Thus I am thrilled to share with Exponent readers excerpts of this interview that LDS writer Kurt Manwaring recently did with womanist Emilie M. Townes. Townes is a preeminent womanist ethicist who is now the Dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School. I love the way she articulates her faith, her commitment to justice, and the importance of claiming our social locations.
Kurt Manwaring: What is your personal relationship with faith? Is there a certain portion of the bible you have found yourself referring back to over the years during times of great personal need?
Emilie Townes: Faith is what helps me get up each day and try one more time to get the gift of life that God has given me right by reaching out in grace and love to those around me and to live and work to help build the new heaven and new earth.
I often turn to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in time of great personal need— particularly the psalms of lament such as Psalm 22 or 137 because they help remind me that one must speak the truth of what is going wrong or troubling (lament) in order to reach God’s salvation in the midst of the suffering.
Kurt Manwaring: As a prominent theologian, do you feel you have a duty to comment on issues of morality in the political sphere? Is there a line somewhere delineating ethics and theology?
Emilie Townes: As a citizen of this country and as a woman of active faith, it is my responsibility to comment on issues of morality in the political sphere.
Ethics and theology are intimate dance partners — theology helps me think through how I experience God; ethics helps me think through how I must respond to this experience and also act on it.
Kurt Manaring: As you become increasingly more prominent, are there dangers associated with others oversimplifying what you bring to the table by referring to you as a ‘Black woman theologian’ or a ‘Black womanist ethicist’? Or are those demographic descriptions essential to understanding who you are and what you have to say?
Emilie Townes: Well, since I am a Black woman who uses womanist methodology as a social ethicist, the descriptions are apt.
What gives me pause is why we all don’t claim the social locations we come from when describing what we do so that we stop claiming false universals and instead recognize that we all begin our reflections from a particular place with a history that helps form us and what we see, think, and feel.
Where we come from is important and if we were more aware and honest about this and respected where others hail from as well, I think we’d have a much more humane society.
Kurt Manwaring: Mormons do not have a formal system of theology, and yet there are calls by scholars such as Terryl and Fiona Givens to develop one. What are some advantages Mormonism might see if it pursued such a course — and what are some of the dangers that would be associated with trying to systematize theology in a church so reliant upon inspiration?
Emilie Townes: Having a formal theology provides an explanation [of] why one is a Mormon from a faith perspective.
For instance, in my own Baptist faith, the concept of “soul freedom” that states that each one of us is responsible before God; and with that responsibility each of us is free, is intrinsic to being a Baptist — regardless of the many ways that those within the Baptist [faith] express themselves.
For me, one can have a theology and also rely on inspiration as the former can describe form and the latter function in how one responds to the Divine in our lives.
Kurt Manwaring: If you could magically make three books appear on the shelves of everyone in America (who would then read them), which books would you choose and why?
Bryan Stevenson, Justice Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Stevenson, a lawyer who has dedicated his life to defending death row prisoners gives pull back the harsh inequities in the American criminal justice system while showing us the power of mercy, justice, and hope.
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
By turning to the powerful figures of the cross and lynching tree, Cone helps us understand the terror and hope that holds racism in place in our culture and our churches.
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God
Brown Douglas helps us understand the tragic consequences of the “stand-your-ground-culture” for not only black bodies, but all bodies in our culture.