Going Back before the Beginning

Selections from a Long-Running Interview of Dr. Mercy Oduyoye

by Katie G. Cannon

“Going back before the beginning,” is an idea coined by Professor Toni Morrison, who says, “There is always a ‘BEFORE’ that makes our beginnings possible.” This concept of “before beginnings” is a central theme in the theology of Dr. Mercy Amba Ewudziwa Oduyoye. In her article, “From Cover to Core: A Letter to my Ancestors,” Dr. Sister Mercy sums it up this way: “We must investigate the foreground of our existence prior to the social construction of sexism, racism, and injustices against the dignity that rightly belongs to being made in the image of God.” Therefore, the following is a long-running interview with Dr. Mercy Amba Oduoye by Dr. Katie G. Cannon, with question and answer sessions that go back before the beginning.

Katie’s Q: Sister Mercy, what is your working definition of Theology?

Mercy’s Answer: Theology is something we struggle to do—not something we receive.

Katie’s Q: Why do you say we need to de-dogmatize Christian beliefs?

Mercy’s Answer: Christian doctrines are not from heaven. Doctrines are crafted by struggling human beings in order to feed our spirituality. For instance, when African women believe in Christ as true friend, companion and liberator, we participate in healing society in three distinct ways: 1) listening 2) caring and 3) telling stories of hope.

Katie’s Q: Are your colleagues correct when they say you are committed to the significance of story in your teaching and throughout your ministry?

Mercy’s Answer: Yes, stories we inherited from our religious traditions become healing narratives for African women and to African women. For instance, in Daughters of Anowa (1995), the stories I tell serve as invitations to women theologians to move from the position as social critics to women theologians as healers of society. All in all, African stories, myths, and proverbs are legitimate sources for women’s theology.

Katie’s Q: In 1997, when the African Conference of Third World Theologians met in Ghana, you delivered a paper, African Religious Beliefs and Theological Practices. What do you understand as three major points of contact between African Traditional Religions and Christian Theology?

Mercy’s Answer: First, both religious traditions affirm God as Creator of the world. Secondly, both traditions believe God has appointed humans to be stewards of creation. In essence, the more we learn about our humanity, the better we are able to understand what God is telling us about divinity. And finally, both religious traditions uphold and defend African-centered wholeness over and against Western fragmentation and individualism.

Katie’s Q: In your book, Christianity in Africa you write, “In order to begin the experience of fully human living, whatever gender we are, we are called to refuse to be what others require us to be. We must resist becoming instruments against our own convictions.  As a people, we must never acquiesce to our own marginalization.” In light of this prophetic wisdom, what is the agenda for women theologians of African ancestry?

Mercy’s Answer:

  • Women must engage in intensive struggles against fundamentalist anti-women usages of the Bible;
  • Women must refine our cultural hermeneutics; that is, we must re-read Biblical and Historical texts with a focus towards understanding the masculinist biases embedded therein;
  • Theological Education and Ministerial Formation must be enhanced, encouraged, and supported for and by women;
  • Women must retrieve the stories of our foremothers and foresisters who were actively involved in religion and society;
  • Women must critique patriarchal culture and analyze patriarchal influences in and on women’s lives;
  • Women must claim our rightful place as partners in leadership in the life of the Church as well as throughout society.

Katie’s Question: In closing, please remind me of the time when African women took off their clothes, an embodied testimony about our ancestral mothers that continues to be shared from generation to generation.

Mercy’s Answer: There was a time in our history when African women grew desperate to overturn violence, so they decided to take off all of their clothes. The fire of condemnation against injustice flashed in their eyes. When the eyes are red, there is no need to light a fire, because the fire of condemnation against injustice is the light we will need. The fire from our eyes is indicative of all that destroys our humanity. So, all the women took off their clothes. Yes, they did.  The women got naked in anger and disappointment. The women took off their clothes when all admonitions against violence failed. Desperate to overcome injustice, the women took off their clothes. Even though, it is a taboo to see mothers’ nakedness, resisting injustice is our God-given right.

Ashe! Thank you Dr. Sister Mercy, thank you so very much.

Katie Geneva Cannon is Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.