“Freedom Faith” is the belief that God wants all people to be free, and that God equips and empowers those who work for freedom.
“It is possible for us to be both oppressed and oppressor.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Courtney Pace. Pace is an Associate Professor of Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary. Her book is Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Courtney Pace: Freedom Faith explores Prathia Hall’s justice activism in the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly against racism, sexism, and classism. According to Hall, “Freedom Faith” is the belief that God wants all people to be free, and that God equips and empowers those who work for freedom. The same oppressive dynamics Hall and others worked against in the Civil Rights Movement, and also faced in educational, business, and religious institutions, continues today, often masked and disguised in ways that make them even more deadly.
Though many people claim to have always been supportive of the civil rights movement, SNCC faced intense skepticism and pushback from Black communities, much like Black Lives Matter faces today. Hall’s story exposes those internal tensions and elucidates the complexity of justice activism amid intersectional oppression, particularly how activism can manifest in different ways depending on the context. She simultaneously offers compassionate understanding for those in fear and boldly challenges them to press on in spite of their fears, living by Freedom Faith.
Much of Hall’s ministry occurred within a Republican presidential administration, supported by the white, fundamentalist hijacking of conservative evangelicalism, the foundation upon which Reaganomics, Bush Doctrine, and Trumpian oppression emerged. Hall’s womanist ministry not only exposed such evil, but she also organized collaborative solutions between churches, government agencies, educators, community organizations, and people of faith broadly. She understood intersectional oppression and actively worked to dismantle it through the very institutions it sought to utilize to undermine her.
“Hall understood intersectional oppression and actively worked to dismantle it.”
A true prophet, Hall’s preaching brought the latest socioeconomic data to congregations across the country in dialogue with theology and ethics, applied to combat what she labeled “pathologized oppression,” or the internalizing of the oppressor’s prejudice against oneself. Hall rightly made explicit the way modern oppression tends to disguise itself as religion and blame its bigotry on God. For example, Black men (and women) who perpetuated sexism against Black women had internalized white patriarchy, and Hall insisted that those who acknowledged the evil of racism had no excuse for not also recognizing the evil of sexism. Similarly, throughout her activism, Hall highlighted that gaining access to public restaurants would not make a difference if Black people were not earning living wages from which to afford their meals. She also spoke against the increased responsibilities left to Black women due to police brutality and over-incarceration of Black men, as well as the dependence of a capitalist economy on a permanent underclass of women of color. Addressing these lived realities of her congregation using a womanist hermeneutic, Hall offered womanist invitation to Freedom Faith and challenged Black churches to return to their spiritual heritage of working for the liberation of all people.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
1) Prathia Hall was a saint among us. If she were male, we would know her name like we know Martin Luther King, Jr,’s and John Lewis’s. She would have been president of a Baptist denomination, held a distinguished pulpit, and perhaps have even inspired the founding of a seminary to carry forward her legacy through theological education. Her story needs to be part of our historical narratives. Her voice needs to shape our historical and theological imagination for justice work in the 21st century and beyond.
2) Hall’s story exposes systemic prejudice within churches and institutions of higher education. Even among churches expressing support for women in ministry, women do not have equal representation in committee structures, financial priorities, pastoral searches, pastoral placement, and denominational leadership. Token achievements by a handful of women, or the placement of the highest caliber women in the lowest caliber pulpits, do not exempt The Church from its racism, sexism, classism, and ageism. Even among schools expressing commitment to equality, the system itself – admissions, curriculum, disciplinary research priorities, academic positions, promotion, and tenure – reflects and perpetuates white patriarchal hierarchy. Token achievements by people of color do not exempt The Academy from its complicity with racism, sexism, classism, and ageism. In the last 1-2 years, there have been several Black women appointed to key leadership roles in theological schools, which I hope will continue exponentially, for the sake of The Church and The Academy. When Black women have power and influence, with access to resources, the entire system functions more equitably.
“The system itself reflects and perpetuates white patriarchal hierarchy.”
3) We have a responsibility, as informed citizens, to examine ourselves and ask who we might be excluding. It is possible for us to be both oppressed and oppressor, and we must open ourselves to the questions. Who are we systemically disadvantaging? Who are we excluding from the table? Whose voice are we ignoring or leaving out of the stories we tell/write? On whose backs are we standing?
Then as people of faith, we must hear and understand that the Gospel is good news to them. The Gospel is not good news for the powerful, but for the oppressed, and Christian orthopraxy must involve our continual, kenotic devotion to justice and liberation for all people.
4) Though Hall did later work within organizations with resources, most of her activism and strategic visioning took place in underresourced contexts. No matter where we find ourselves, there are ways we can work for the justice and liberation of ourselves and others. We can share our pulpits. We can make sure there are extra seats at the table, and space for those who brought folding chairs just in case. We can make sure our budgets reflect justice and liberation for all, even if the budget is tiny. We can use language that affirms that we are all made in the image of God. Those of us shaping curriculum can ensure it reflects our diverse reality and raises uncomfortable questions. We can invest – encouragement, support, prayer, time, energy, and money if we have it – in people and groups who are living by Freedom Faith. We can recognize the ways our systems are set up to perpetuate those who benefit from the systems and work intentionally to dismantle patriarchal dominance in the way we practice Freedom Faith ourselves.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Prathia Hall understood that racism, sexism, classism, and all other –isms are interrelated manifestations of patriarchal dominance. They cannot be separated piecemeal, but must be opposed collectively. Hall’s preaching not only dissected these dynamics, but she seamlessly translated her analysis between the pew and the ivory tower. Freedom Faith should disavow us of any notions of working on one aspect of justice at a time. We cannot promote gender equity without also undoing racism, classism, and ageism. Patriarchal dominance has built a full agenda of oppression, and, as Ella Baker said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Most fields are turning toward bottom-up histories rather than top-down (“Great Men and the Institutions They Built”), which has led to the discovery of hundreds, even thousands, of activists upon whom progress depended, the unsung heroes who worked behind the scenes and out of sight of newspaper headlines, but who absolutely did the work. Even as we are learning to think in new ways about historical agency, our institutions are modeled according to old patterns. We need to work in circles, not triangles. I hope readers will un-learn the habit of perpetuating the oppressions which those before us have perpetrated and, instead, use our prophetic imagination to work for justice in our time in line with our values. The same values that led us to the work will guide us as we do it.
“We cannot promote gender equity without also undoing racism, classism, and ageism.”
An overwhelming majority of my work on this project was met with encouragement and support. There were some, however, who did not believe a white scholar should research any Black topic. White people have perpetuated such terror upon Black people and communities, and white women have perpetrated such betrayal against women of color generally and Black women specifically, and not just in the past, that it was completely rational to vet narrators. I hope that my work has done justice to Prathia Hall, and that it is her voice, not mine, which shines.
I hope white scholars will be challenged by my work to see how they may perpetuate what they profess to oppose. Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper says that the anger of a Black woman is a gift; if she is sharing her anger with you, she believes you can hear it and that you can change. Often white people respond to such sharing with defensiveness, centering themselves. To white readers, when someone tells you that they are experiencing oppression, it does not matter whether you meant to do it or not or perceive it to be happening or not; you still did it, and it’s real to them. The most important thing in that moment is to listen, understand, and change. Also, celebrating the historical civil rights movement should challenge us to examine our own times for systemic injustice. Our commitment to contemporary justice movements should be as deep as our appreciation for historical activism.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
There are many sheroes whose work has inspired me, challenged me, and encouraged me. I hope readers will mine the Preface for names of activists, scholars, pastors, and intellectual leaders for an expanded cloud of witnesses.
Prathia Hall has been the most formative voice in my theological, pastoral, and personal identity. As I rebuilt my life from my own ashes, she has been my preacher and my pastor. She has shaped me as a person of faith, a professor, a writer, a historian, an activist, a pastor, a preacher, a mother, and a woman.
I can’t teach a class without assigning readings by Katie Geneva Cannon. Whatever the discipline, her work is relevant.
I find myself reading and re-reading Judith Butler as she has put to words the gut-wrenching dilemmas I have felt but not known how to express. I often read novels by Alice Walker for the same reason. This is also true of bell hooks, whose dissection of patriarchal domination has forever changed the way I see the world, the way I teach, and the way I understand human relationships.
Tamura Lomax’s work is brilliant. Her engagement between theory and the particular and between pop culture and history models the kind of intersectional, interdisciplinary inquiry rooted in justice we need, the way our thinking should change if we are organized in circles instead of triangles.
“bell hooks’ dissection of patriarchal domination has forever changed the way I see the world.”
Martha Simmons offers theological training and pastoral formation freely, engaging seasoned clergy, seminarians, and those craving education but unable to afford or access it. Her Women of Color in Ministry essentially offers free practical and continuing education, which is crucial for the shifting nature of churches and pastoral ministry. It also practices justice by making theological formation available to women called to ministry but situated in invalidating traditions.
Melva Sampson has created something similar with her Pink Robe Chronicles. Her authenticity, candor, and wisdom about preaching, self-care, and women’s leadership have facilitated women preachers holding space together on Sunday morning before their ministry tasks begin. She seamlessly weaves her homiletical scholarship with Black heritage, translated into what Teresa Fry Brown called “Mother Wit and Sister Sense.”
There are many more, too many to name. I named as many as I could in the introduction to the book. My work is indebted to dozens of scholars, activists, preachers, and friends who encouraged and challenged me along the way, and I hope that the work can be a part of our collective larger project of justice and liberation for all people.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Prathia Hall was a brilliant strategist. She knew how to connect people, energy, and resources, even when one or more of those were in short supply. She understood the larger mission of Black churches, and she could see where resources could be reoriented around the mission, how people and organizations could partner for greater effect, and how love could both tear down and build up according to Freedom Faith. Hall’s womanist vision of Freedom Faith is a map for us all, if we dare to follow her.
There is a very practical sense in which my book helps us imagine new worlds. It tells a true story about our actual world, which was kept from many of us. Some of us opted not to know, and others were shielded from the truth of white terrorism. The events in the book happened. They are still happening. It wasn’t that long ago. Many of the people mentioned in the book are still alive, and still fighting. So we are left with the responsibility to understand the truth, why some of us had never heard it before, and what stories we will pass down to new generations. Let us see our world as it truly is, and let us live in it according to Freedom Faith.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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