Thursday, September 29, 2005

Accosting White Privilege, Interrogating Racism, and Practicing Pentecost, Part II

In my last post I only hinted at the encounter I had with racism couched as white privilege. Thinking further about the post, and having Anthony Bradley ask for details, I realized that by not being totally forthright, by not mentioning names, ethnicities, and gender, I subverted the initial aim of my post: to share experiences of white privilege parading as racism in order to encourage the repentance it takes for racial reconciliation in the church.

I hope this post becomes part of the discussion surrounding Scot’s current series of posts, Bryan’s observations, and Anthony’s reflections.

Let’s set the scene: It is September 15, 2005, the first night of the After Evangelicalism conference in Grand Rapids. In the Gainey Conference Center on the campus of Cornerstone University Anthony Smith and I make our way through the book display (Baker and Eerdmans had books for sale), grab our materials for registration, and chat eagerly about what is ahead. We then make our way over to the coffee and dessert table to grab a quick cup before Robert Webber’s opening plenary address.

Standing near the table about to pour cups of coffee, a conference attendee, who is a white, middle-aged female, has a quizzical look hoping to find some help; she asks Anthony: “Are you the server guy?” Then about 3 awkward seconds of silence.

This attendee did not even offer a personal introduction or extend a hand in greeting; the assumption was that an African American male at a theology conference about evangelicalism must be hired help for the event. Hence, as this attendee uttered “Are you the server guy?,” as I stated in my previous post, unconscious racism couched in white privilege reared its ugly head. Anthony graciously answered with something like, “No, I’m here to present a paper.” Befuddled, stammering, and clearly embarrassed, the conference attendee asked where Anthony was from, and the conversation trailed off as we eventually headed into the meeting room for Robert Webber’s presentation.

Anthony and I reflected on this encounter several times throughout the course of the conference and have talked about it a few times since. I also been giving it much thought personally as well.

I must say that, while I had seen previously encounters displaying white privilege like the one in Grand Rapids, for the first time my soul grieved deeply after this encounter; I grieved for the racism that still pervades the church.

Recognizing white privilege, much less uprooting the racism that lurks behind this posture and this practice, in my opinion, is not something white folks are wont to do. In my experiences the so-called Christian responses to this claim are things like, “racism doesn’t really exist,” or, “In truth, God is colorblind.” Generally the gesture is a genuine but ill-informed tokenism stemming from what has been called the white western guilt complex. (Yale historian Lamin Sanneh comments on the guilt complex in the context of western missions here.) In other words, to combat racism (again, in my experience) white folks, generally aware of the history of racism in the United States, start down the road to reconciliation with the mindset to right the wrongs of America’s white racist past. This seems to be another version of a socio-political response to racism; again, socio-political responses (e.g., congressional legislation, etc.) are necessary and important, but do not recognize racism as sin, as a subversion of the Eucharist we are invited to share.

When will Christ followers of Euro-American heritage, my white brothers and sisters, own up to the systemic racism in the church that shows up as white privilege? While I do not discount claims of “I’m not personally racist” by any means, as Scot demonstrates and as Anthony articulates, individual testimonials fail to uproot that which chokes community cultivation and fail to bridge that which prevents dining at the Eucharistic table together.

Through the grief I see a ray of hope. I’m hopeful because practicing Pentecost corporately (and individually) can combat the racism that remains among and between Christ followers. I’m hopeful because I was greatly and profoundly encouraged not only from Anthony’s written reflections, but from his enactment of Pentecost.

I’m also hopeful because of the work of Michael Emerson and company, because of the work of Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp (and other books of “Multiethnic Interest” published by InterVarsity Press), and because of the musical meditations of people Derek Webb and Lenny Kravitz, among others.

I close with a quote from Harris and Schaupp’s book, Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multiethnic World (2004):

“Unaware/covert racism can operate despite our commitment to racial reconciliation, because we cannot see it very well. We whites are not aware of our own paritality; we don’t know how to look for it, so it is hidden from us. People of color feel something is not right, but it’s hard to name and describe. We white people want to excuse ourselves from it when it’s pointed out to us. It makes us appropriately uncomfortable to think about racism operating in our hearts and around us….we create other explanations for the inequity.

If we are going to uncover racism, we cannot be satisfied with easy answers. Scripture says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:16). The word that is translated “wickedness” can also be translated “injustice.” If we continue to live in injustice or wickedness, what happens is that our thinking becomes cloudy….[w]hen we white people do not confront our own racism, we begin to put ourselves in God’s place. We don’t want to commit ourselves to learning to be simply human equals with people of color.

Underneath it all, we white people don’t want to do the hard work of uncovering the racism in our systems”

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Accosting White Privilege, Interrogating Racism, and Practicing Pentecost

In Grand Rapids this past weekend, I had a striking encounter with white privilege.

The moment I witnessed involved questions about the nature and location of desserts and coffee on a refreshment table; in other words, the moment about which I write took place in a particular social setting, at the nexus of culture(s) and place(s). This story features "person one" and "person two."

All of a sudden, the ambiance of the moment was ruptured when person one assumed person two to be hired help for the event. Without even a kind word of greeting or hand extended in friendship, person one revealed that, to use the words of the Apostle Paul, “principalities and powers” are everywhere evident. As words were uttered unconscious racism couched in white privilege reared its ugly head. Very often, the inadvertent display of the unconscious objectifies the conscious. The simple and direct response to these unfortunate and rancid comments roundly condemned the privilege they subtly displayed.

Some of what I’ve been reading lately provides the intellectual framework and some spiritual tools needed to understand and interpret this noxious encounter with white privilege.

As a historian I know that race is a particular construction of particular cultures in particular times and in particular places; I also know that race has a particularly complex past in Euro-American history. As a historian, and as one who is shaped by the life of faith, I believe that the pursuit of earthbound responses to racism (and its legacies) is necessary and commendable. I am also persuaded that given the religious dynamics that exist in Euro-American history and culture(s), a profoundly religious response to racism (and its legacies) provides a way to address – in sacramental and devotional ways – the principalities and powers that manifest as white privilege.

Suffice all of this to say that not only have I read about practicing Pentecost and overcoming the legacy of inequality, I witnessed the embodiment of practicing Pentecost. May I have the grace and peace, to use the words of a close friend, to practice Pentecost and embody racial penance.

Charting Evangelicalism’s Past, Forecasting Evangelicalism’s Future

I’ve been reflecting the last two or three days on the topics covered at the After Evangelicalism conference. The aim of the conference was to think collectively about evangelicalism’s future, and to reflect on the movement’s trajectories. While I was not present at every panel to hear every paper, I did have the good fortune to read several of the essays as I encouraged friends and colleagues to participate in this conference’s conversations. I hope to read other conference essays in the future. Please send them along if you happen to chance upon this blog.

Any observer of American public life in the last thirty years or so knows how visible (and in some ways invisible) evangelicalism is in the United States. From the year of the evangelical (1976 – actually the year prior to my birth), to the rise of the Religious Right, to Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments crusade, and to the public religious musings of the current President – expressions of evangelicalism, among many, many others, (cast in particularly white terms) – U.S. culture is seemingly saturated with varieties of religion, and to use James’s terms, “varieties of religious experience.” Thus evangelicalism’s recent history, and much of the historical reflection about evangelicalism, explores its political, economic, and social textures.

Yet, one may ask, what of evangelicalism’s future? What will evangelicalism look like in 50-100 years, and beyond? How will scholars write about evangelicalism? On what evangelical topics will scholars reflect? Why, at all, does it matter?

If the After Evangelicalism conference is any indication, then there will be some important and serious reflection on the nature of evangelicalism, and the contest over evangelicalism’s past will continue.

First, the topic of the conference itself: To propose a conference about “after” evangelicalism suggests that its current state and its (contested) past are open for discussion. Any brief survey of the books coming off evangelical (and secular) presses the last ten years or so indicates this is an important question. Just think about how many books about evangelicalism’s history have appeared even in the last decade. This interrogation of past and present is welcome and refreshing. As the conference itself suggests, evangelicalism is not the possession of the political right as some believe, nor is it inconsistent to be evangelical and on the Left. Nor, it seems, is evangelicalism a particularly "American" style of religion, though evangelicalism's global public image might lead one to believe otherwise - not to mention the social liabilities that come with evangelicalism's identity.

Second, the plenary addresses: The first plenary address suggested evangelicalism’s future would be shaped in large part by early Christianity and perhaps by the spiritual practices of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Another plenary addressed the question of evangelicalism and race within the nexus of history, while yet another (not delivered) suggested that, despite its “deconstruction,” confessional Protestantism has something to offer evangelicals inclined toward Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. A final plenary explored the importance of Christo-anthro-socio-logical thinking about how individuals embody Christianity. In sum, these plenary addresses suggest that the evangelicalism of the future will engage more thoughtfully with ecumenism, honestly grapple issues of race and ethnicity, and embrace more interdisciplinary thinking about its local and global presences. I am hopeful yet.

Third, the panels: One panel discussed evangelicals and higher education, another evangelicalism and blogging, yet another about evangelicalism and world Christianity, and a final panel discussed evangelicalism, worship, and art. The panel on evangelicals and higher education underscored the tension that some still hold between rigorous academic life and a pastoral/professorial posture in the classroom and beyond. About evangelicals and world Christianity, the panelists highlighted the diversity of expression in global evangelicalism and suggested that clearer global thinking is in order given the rise of Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality exploding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, The panel on evangelicals, art, and worship pointed to the flexibility that evangelical worship could have – a more conscious aesthetic expression in things like art and even diverse utterances of the Spirit. I did not attend the panel on evangelicals and blogging, so I would invite responses by anyone in attendance and recommend the fascinating work of Bryan Murley on the topic. Collectively these panels suggest that, like its past history, evangelicalism has deftly employed today’s new media, must concern itself with global issues (here I do not mean “missionary” work), and may be flexible and pliable enough to inject more of an aesthetic into worship spaces.

Fourth, the individual papers: Several sessions dealt with the Emergent/Emerging church, and offered a variety of ways – in interdisciplinary terms – to understand this important strain of evangelicalism (or post-evangelicalism). Importantly, these papers were not “how-to” suggestions written by insiders, nor did these papers slice the work of practitioners with a theological knife. Rather, essayists on the Emergent church attempted (and succeeded, I think, though others can judge the validity of my paper) to socially, culturally, and historically locate Emergent expressions of Christianity. Other papers offered gendered reflection on evangelicalism’s future; some explored the intricacies of evangelicals and political/social engagement; and another session (I wish I could have gone to) thoughtfully addressed the critical issue of evangelicals and race. Strung together, the individual papers suggest that the future of evangelicalism is richly complex, not easily summarized or generalized, yet genuinely open to the possibilities the future may bring.

In sum I thought the conference was a “success” insofar as these topics were honestly discussed and rigorously engaged. Also notable were the large number of undergraduates present. I propose a hearty round of applause for the conference organizers and all those who helped. (Finished clapping), next year’s conference theme is “After 9/11” and is bound to result in some critical reflection.

Monday, September 19, 2005

After the After Evangelicalism Conference

I arrived home yesterday from my fifth conference this year, the After Evangelicalism conference held at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I presented a paper on the Emergent church and global Christianity and some of my research on evangelical ecumenicity. I received some engaging questions and helpful feedback. Contact me if you wish to read a copy of either (or both) papers, though I will probably eventually post them at the thinktank.

While it is always nice to present research at conferences, it was especially nice at this conference to meet and hang with fellow blogger-scholars: Anthony, Steve, Bryan, and Keelan. Come to find out, we are all younger evangelicals with ancient-future perspectives of various kinds. The journey has only just begun.

I also shared a brief conversation with another blogger-scholar: Scot. Unfortunately, Lauran was not able to make it to the conference, but those interested should contact her about some fascinating research on gender and the Emergent church. Also unfortunate was the cancelled flights of D.G. Hart, who was to deliver one of the plenary address. At least copies of his paper were made available.

Another highlight was to hear and hang out with Robert Webber. Not only are his thoughts challenging, revolutionary, and worthy of wide attention, he's a delightful soul. In addition, it was a pleasure meeting and talking with Latina evangelical and scholar Arlene Sanchez Walsh. I appreciated her challenging words with respect to the Latino/a presence in evangelicalism's narrative, and her call for (younger) scholars tell the stories of Latino/a evangelicals. All should read her work and listen to her wit and wisdom.

I also read through the galley proofs of Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibb's book on Emerging churches, due out with Baker in December. It was a quick read, and helpful for further defining and articulating the movement.