“Refiner’s Fire: A Religious Engagement with Violence”* a Review

Reviewed by Jeffrey Gros

An African American Womanist Perspective on Violence

The African American “Womanist” perspective, developed in this volume, is an important explication from within a culture that has been the recipient of violence. It provides both a critique of society’s violent culture and of those whose advocacy of nonviolence emerges from a dominant experience of class, gender or race. The nonviolence to which Christians are committed by their faith in Jesus Christ finds itself expressed and developed in a variety of cultural contexts, including this one. As the author notes, “Here we will construct a Womanist theology that Refines the Fire of responsible life amid the reality of destructive violence by examining the elements of dialogue, identity, sacrality, spirituality, and power.” (146)

In the modern context, violence cannot be dealt with in the abstract, or nonviolence as a personal or even corporate virtue. The complexity of modern society and its ideologies demand critical analysis and correlation of Biblical and theological resources with the economic, cultural and sociological study of society. The volume is a masterful synthesis of social analysis, Biblical and liturgical resources, poetry and philosophical reflection. The theme of the Refiner’s Fire serves to show how all situations of oppression, violence, and the struggle for community can disclose the energy which can be made available for building community.

The book brings together a variety of publications of the author, edited into a coherent whole. The first chapter outlines the Womanist point of view of the author that will give perspective to the volume. Here the dialectic of theory and praxis of this particular strain of Liberation Theology is spelled out and richly documented for the reader. The treatment goes on to discuss Biblical women’s engagement in violence, spirituality and its role during slavery especially for women, African American women’s contributions to the 1960s civil rights struggles, and the music and ethical contribution of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ministry from a Womanist perspective.

A chapter on women’s roles, especially African American women, in gang violence and its amelioration is developed from sociological survey material, biographical sources as well as theological perspectives. One of the most challenging chapters is that on language as empowerment and annihilation. This chapter is developed in dialogue with philosophers Ernest Becker, René Girard and other modern and postmodern voices. The power of language and symbol are central in any analysis of social control and liberation.

A chapter on the Biblical daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27) is an analysis of the positive aspects of Scriptural accounts of violence, especially on the part of women. It is an important essay on the hermeneutical perspective to be brought to the instances of Biblical violence that provide such an embarrassment to the Christian committed to a nonviolent evangelical message. It is in this context that the author works out her theology and ethics of violence.

The final chapter is on worship in the context of celebrating death as an integral part of life’s project. In this chapter she survey’s the liturgical seasons as they hold out hope and challenge for building a more humane community. While an inclusive understanding of the Gospel seeks to hear all voices, this volume is an exciting window into a particular contribution. “Womanist thought gives voice to those silenced by the oppression of race/sex/class differences and gives voice with the tools and ideologies informed by history, economics, theology and Biblical witness.” (164) For this synthesis of voices we can be grateful.

*Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Refiner’s Fire: A Religious Engagement with Violence, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, pp. 206, $20.00.

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