Monday, 14 March 2011

God of Colour: The Liberation of Love

by Alice Walker

I do not believe I ever pictured a face for God the Father. I did have a sense of the Father, and He did not have the closeness of a face-to-face encounter. He was more distant, without image, but with a kind of feeling. I suppose that feeling was dread. What He felt most like came from a scenario from my childhood. I remember when my dad used to come home for his afternoon siesta, we were asked not to play too noisily as this would wake up my father, and my mother warned that he would be very angry indeed. However, my father never came out, thumping down the stairs, shouting in berserk, even when we were noisy; he was much more fearsome in my imagination than in reality. God the Father was that person to me as well, a bearded snoring man, sleeping upstairs who could possibly swoop down on us in a whirling rage if we were ever too noisy or naughty.

Celie's God was a bit like mine. While most famous for its shocking portrayals of black life and the injustices against black women, Alice Walker describes her famed Pulitzer Prize-winning book as a novel about "theology". The Color Purple is all about concepts of God, explained through a series of letters and diary entries written by a young black woman called Celie. Most notorious is the beginning of the book when she bears two children by a man she calls "Pa" before being sold off into marriage to Albert, whom for most of the novel we know as "Mr." Albert's blues-singing, long-term mistress Shug Avery eventually comes into town, and the two women develop a friendship. It is this relationship with Shug, that eventually is the means by which Celie is freed from her confined life, and it relates particularly to her image of God.

God, for Celie, is a big white man on a cloud, constantly punishing her for something that she cannot really understand. She eventually loses faith with this kind of God but is introduced to a much better image of God by Shug, a God who is much more loving and giving than Celie ever believed. “Listen, God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration….Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Shug shows Celie the beauty of her life and in herself, and Celie's self-confidence grows until she feels able to confront Albert and stand up for herself and live according to her own desires, the yearnings of her heart that she had long suppressed.

Celie's story is a most vivid and touching chronicle of how the way we envision God can affect the way we live and love. Celie's image of a harsh and punishing God comes from her relationships with men, especially the man she called "Pa", and her own attitude to this kind of God (her resignation and self-loathing) reinforces the men's treatment of her. Her loving relationship with Shug, on the other hand , though admittedly controversial because of its sexual nature, shows Celie who God really is, the one who loves us first and sustains us in love. Because Celie becomes able to love herself by understanding the depth to which God loves her, she changes her relationships with those around her, breaking the fetters through which she has been imprisoned. She realises she is stronger than the chains that bind her.

While I disagree with the hedonistic way Walker portrays the medium of God’s love, love does liberate even the most trampled on like Celie. God's love is freeing, which was a feeling that has taken me years to seep into my heart, despite the constant drip of such words from the many people who loved me, especially from my chaplains and spiritual directors. God has been much more like my real father than the father I imagined. I certainly did not get the whole meaning of the novel when I first read it, but as I continued to live and pray, the scenes of the novel grew in depth and dimension, and my affection for it has grown. It has showed me the way that love can paint colour into the blackness and the whiteness of my life.

Read it if: you want to challenge your images of God, or are interested in theologies of liberation.

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