Friday, December 30, 2005

Why It All Matters: Race and the Emergent Church

So, whiteness and white privilege; let’s review previous posts very quickly:

Labor historian David Roediger points out that many white people have never once thought that African Americans are expert observers of whiteness, and therefore know it and can identify it while many white people rarely think about why they think of themselves as white, let along investigate the ways in which they live life based on the assumption of white privilege.

Ralph Ellison’s 1970 article reminds readers that woven throughout America’s “heritage” are African and African American culture(s), and without them, America would not live up to its so-called “ideals” of freedom, etc.

Writing in the early 1990s, bell hooks, in her customarily engaging and critical way, comments on the ways in which white people never “see” black people in a white supremacist culture since a white “rhetoric…supplies a fantasy of whiteness.” She then references post-colonial theory that seeks to dismantle hegemonic discourses of oppression that perpetuate and encase societal expectations and “ideals” – in this case “white” customs and traditions.

James Baldwin insightfully enters a place that white people know, live in/with, yet rarely discuss but repeatedly enact – white guilt – and identifies dialogue as one way to begin a process of change.

Journalism scholar Robert Jensen offers his own definition of white privilege, as does feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh, musician Derek Webb, and finally, Robert Paul Wolff in his important Autobiography of an Ex-White Man (2005).

Finally, I narrate my own recent moment during which white privilege dominated the conversation, and importantly, resulted in a productive and positive exchange; it was a consciousness-raising moment.

I bring these threads of conversation up because I want to suggest that in Emergent conversations about diversity and multiculturalism, if they are to proceed forward with rigor and meaningful depth, a clear witness to whiteness and white privilege must be part of the discussion.

This is important, I believe, for at least five reasons:

1. Like it or not, the face of the Emergent church is largely white, and largely male. To be fair, this is partly a function of how the media present and discuss the movement/church, but it also reflects the reality of the movement’s leadership at this point in time.

2. Though global in orientation and global in scope, to more cogently and faithfully enact the gospel and participate in the Kingdom, the Emergent church in the U.S. must deal with the issue of race. This issue is part of the missional landscape of which the Emergent church is a part (more on this point below). As the Emergent church shares various interwoven threads of the larger evangelical quilt (to adopt a metaphor from Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory [1989]), larger, structural realities of evangelicalism matter for the Emergent church.

3. Recent research provides data that attest to the importance of the issues I raise. Based on sound scientific research, in Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2000), Michael Emerson and Christian Smith find that despite paying lip service (sometimes) to interethnic initiatives, the political, social, and economics structures of evangelicalism and U.S. society result in white evangelicals perpetuating and supporting racial division. This manifests itself very often, the authors demonstrate, with white evangelicals (when they admit it) claiming that racial tensions are the result of individual conflicts, and shy away from acknowledging larger structural parameters of racism.

Consider this quote from Divided By Faith: “Like their forbears during Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present-day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not see or acknowledge the structures of racialization, they inadvertently contribute to them. And, insofar as they continue to give solutions that do not challenge racialization, they allow racial inequality and division to continue unabated” (132).

4. In a provocative article titled “The Economics of the Emerging Church,” James K.A. Smith baldly asks, “What’s the median income of a ‘new kind of Christian’”? “How bourgeois is the emerging church?” “What can we do to prevent the emerging church from being simply another bourgeois institution?” [Smith refers to the “emerging” church in the U.S.] In essence Smith points out that to “be” postmodern and to ask the sorts of cultural questions raised by the Emergent church implies a sort of privilege. “But how will the postmodern church reach those who’ve been on the underside of modernity?,” Smith asks. Smith positively notes the missional nature of the Emergent church and suggests that it has the potential to address “socio-economic structures that systematically disempower” places and peoples. A concern for these things in the North American context, Smith suggests, is not enough; the Emergent church must powerfully speak to exploitative socio-economic structures globally as well.

I deeply, deeply appreciate and embrace (what appear to be) Smith’s socialist analysis of the Emergent church; his comments resonate in important ways, and provide an opportunity to suggest that discussions of class come with conversations about race. If theology is praxis, as Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone show, then both race and class deserve equal attention. The North American context (to say nothing of the global situations) demands it.

6. The missional character of the Emergent (Emerging) church suggests an orientation that is conscious of the embedded character of the Christian gospel and the importance of the particularities and situatedness of issues related to life in North America. And the most important issue at hand, I suggest, is race. Because the Emergent church is missional, and because of this (by definition) attuned to the particularities of the North American context, then the Emergent church must grapple with the issue of race in profound and radical ways if it is to faithfully carry out its missional tasks.

So, if my assessments in this series are accurate and if my suggestions are worthy of reflection, then what is to be done? What kind of educational/pedagogical (or ecclesial) initiatives must we undertake to begin the task(s) I propose? Any ideas or suggestions?

Here’s one, and I’m sure there are more.


tony said...

Phil, these are really good thoughts. We've been having conference calls on this topic for 4 months now, on how we can diversify the emerging church movement. I'd be happy to get you involved, if you so desire.

Tony Jones, Emergent-US

R.G. said...


These are profound insights on the question of race and the emerging church. I credit you and Anthony (Postmodern Negro) on really focusing on this issue and elevating its importance within the emerging church discourse.

The idea of "racial solidaritization" has been raised as a potential solution for both reconciling racial groups and diversifying this particular initiative. In theory it is an excellent idea. Afte rall this is what Christ requires of his church as a whole, not just the emerging one. The question is how do we form such a solidarity or mutual identification?

As an educator in a history museum, I recognize the absolute necessity of revisiting the past in order to understand the present, and prepare for the future. Looking at the United States specifically, most American Christians of all ethnicities know about the pilgrims who first came to this country to obtain religious freedom. We know (and oftentimes overstate) the influence of Christian ideals in the formation of the U.S. and its constitution.

How well do we collectively understand the unique role Christ played in the liberation of African-Americans in a racist nation that claimed to be de facto Christian? How well do we understand the history of the millions of South American immigrants who like Africans and Americans in America had to reinterpret the Christian faith that was introduced to them by their colonizers and enslavers?
These can not be viewed as black stories or brown stories, these stories must be understood as the common history of the people of Christ in this society, hemisphere and world. Only then can we begin any attempt at racial solidarity.

rs said...


(Pardon me in advance -- I'm really bad at mincing words -- but I'm not trying to be overly glib either.) I never figured out how to use all the academic language like you guys can, but I do have a few gut reactions about why these places are so lily-white:

In the same way that the quasi-mythical Deep-South-Southern-Baptist-Church subconciously remakes Jesus in their own idealized image -- perhaps some mixture of Billy Graham, Ross Perot, and John Wayne -- the emerging church set seems to do the same.

This Emerging set tends to distort Jesus into an altar on which all their upper-white liberal guilt is placed -- perhaps a mixture of Gandhi, the T-Shirt concept of Che Guevara, and some Patagonia-clad white dude who plays acoustic guitar and drinks fair trade Lattes, and is going to vote for Obama.

(That last paragraph was pointed at "those people", but it's pointed twice as much back at me, BTW.) So, basically, I think the real problem is the same problem that there is anytime humans are involved: imperfect devotion to God.

So, what to do about it? As long as there have been churches, people have been trying to formulate church policies that will get people focussed on God (and off of the things that divide us). While I won't try to tackle this for now, I would like to state unequivocally that I've never heard a black person listen to jangly guitar Indie Rock, so maybe laying off that aesthetic so heavily would help.

Then again, maybe that would do more harm than good since then people who drive Volvo Station Wagons and overuse the word "amazing" wouldn't ever poke their heads in the door.

So, in conclusion, I don't know a blasted thing except that I'm a miserable sinner. Sorry.

rs the upper-middle-class hipster