Becoming an anti-racist/pro-reconciling emerging church?

The following is an excerpt from the book Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations. How does this relate to the Disciples vision of being an anti-racist/pro-reconciling church? Elephant in the emergent room The emergent interest in subverting rather than reflecting the status quo points to a major elephant in the emergent room that demands our attention. This elephant points to the ways that the emergent conversation has primarily, though not exclusively, emerged within relatively affluent Eurocentric white expressions of evangelical culture in North America, and more times than not male voices have dominated the conversation. “If the emerging church exists as a real and identifiable movement,” Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck write, “then its spirit is surely captured in authors like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Peter Rollins, Spencer Burke, David Tomlinson, Leonard Sweet, Rob Bell, and Tony Jones.”[1] In other words, Eurocentric white males.

While it might be said that representative voices within the emergent movement are diverse in thought, this is certainly not the case in terms of gender or race. However, as with progressives, this is one of the primary issues that emergents have found most dissatisfying in their own church backgrounds and something they would like to see the emergent church help remedy. Some theorists have argued that emergent communities embody the diversity that is glaringly lacking in emergent literature, though such arguments usually relate more to gender than to race. As Gibbs and Bolger (yet two more Eurocentric white males) observe:

Some may judge the movement to be deficient multiculturally. At this point in time, the detractors may be right. Part of the reason this particular culture predominates is that many of the pioneering emerging churches arose out of the evangelical charismatic subculture, which has these same characteristics. We must say, however, that in our interviews we were deeply impressed by what we found in regard to the social and cultural practices of emerging churches. Virtually all these communities support women at all levels of ministry, prioritize the urban over the suburban, speak out politically for justice, serve the poor, and practice fair trade.[2]

Peter Rollins is perhaps the most original thinker among emergent theorists, and he consistently draws on the work of Slavoj Zizek in order to call attention to the ways in which Christians remain captive to the very systems they seek to transform. He often talks about the way Christians can participate in weekly “outreach projects”—like building a house for Habitat for Humanity — and then fool themselves into thinking that their authentic selves are manifested in their particular behavior on that particular day of the week. But in reality, all they’ve done is taken part in a symbolic gesture one day of the week that—by making them feel good about themselves—hides the fact that their behavior is still the same the other six days of the week. Rollins highlights these tendencies because they are deeply connected to the kind of systemic violence/injustice in which the privileges of a few depend upon the oppression of the many. These systems are perpetuated by symbolic gestures made by privileged classes that in the end only serve to further solidify their own hold on power. Rollins illustrates this idea by examining the life of comic book hero Bruce Wayne. By day Wayne is a wealthy industrialist; by night he is Batman. Following in the footsteps of his father, Wayne is obsessed with eliminating crime on the streets of Gotham City. Though his father tried to do this by being a philanthropist, Wayne (as Batman) decided to use his wealth to start his own vigilante war on terror. What neither father nor son realize, however, is that the subjective crime they try to remedy on the streets is actually a direct manifestation of the objective crime that their industrial company perpetrates on a daily basis. One could even go so far as to say that

it is the very philanthropic work of [Wayne’s] Father and the crime-fighting of Wayne that actually provide the valve that allows them both to continue in their objective violence. What better way to feel good about yourself than volunteering at a local charity in the evenings (like his Father) or beating up on street criminals in the evenings (like Wayne). Such acts (like a prayer meeting, worship service or bible study) can recharge the batteries and make us feel like our true identity is pure and good, when in reality it simply takes away the guilt that would otherwise make it difficult for us to embrace our true (social) self who is expressed in the activities we engage in for the rest of the week. The philosophy here is exposed as “do something so that nothing really changes.”[3]

United Methodist scholar Justo Gonzales adds a different perspective on this subject by stating that the guilt felt by privileged classes does not change the oppressive systems of this world inasmuch as it further perpetuates them. This plays out by privileged classes regularly hearing about the ways in which God calls them to be part of the change God wishes to enact in this world, and the basic message is that such change can come about if they are willing to partner with God in making it happen. This can lead privileged people to feel quite guilty about themselves because they know that their so-called “quality of life” is far too dependent on the way the system is currently set up, and they aren’t sure they want to transform it. Therefore, as they continually hear about the dreams of God for this world, their guilt isn’t assuaged, but rather intensified. However, Gonzales says, it is precisely by continuing to feel guilty about such matters that those from privileged classes are able to maintain their hold on power, for such guilt subtly makes them believe that they are still the ones with the power to change things if they so desired. Therefore, in a quite tragic way, such guilt further solidifies the place of privileged people within the power structures of society because it implies that they are still the ones holding the power.[4]

Because emergent conversations — like many others in the history of Christendom — have been generated by a disproportionate number of participants from privileged classes, emergents and progressives alike must consider whether their rhetoric serves as a tool of transformation or merely as a symbolic gesture that only serves to strengthen the power structures that be. Does the emphasis that emergent and progressives place on mutuality and social justice become incarnated on the ground through embodied practice, or does it function only as a rhetorical means of making privileged Christians feel good about themselves so that oppressive systems remain fundamentally unchanged? Just how telling is the white elephant in the emergent room?

While questions such as these remain open, some of the good news here is that emergents at least appear sensitive to these critiques and wish to move in new directions. In 2009, for instance, some of the best-known European-American emergents promoted “Christianity 21,” a long overdue emergent conversation that featured twenty-one female voices addressing the future of Christianity. Representatives were young and old, gay and straight, African-American and European-American, evangelical and progressive, emergent and mainline. A few years earlier, European-American emergent leaders led by Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, and Doug Pagitt responded to these criticisms by highlighting the importance of Latin American, African, Asian, and First Nations voices within the emergent conversation. This is also the reason that McLaren is much more interested in postcolonial approaches to Christian faith than postmodern ones.[5]

Additionally, even though most emergent church literature has been written by (straight) white males, it should be noted that emergent movements on the ground and in the blogosphere are becoming much more diverse in scope. It should also be noted that three of the most influential emergent leaders (each with roots in mainline traditions) are women: Karen Ward (Church of the Apostles, Seattle), Stephanie Spellers (The Crossing, Boston), and Nadia Bolz-Weber (House for All Sinners and Saints, Denver). Ward and Spellers also represent two of the most prominent African-American voices in the emergent conversation.

The (white) elephants that continue to lurk in emergent and progressive rooms mustn’t be far from our minds. Is it possible for emergents and progressives to embody expressions of Christianity that aren’t just egalitarian in rhetoric, but also in practice? Such a question can’t be answered in a book, but can be answered only on the ground.

[1] DeYoung and Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent, 19. [2] Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 11. [3] Rollins, “Batman as the Ultimate Capitalist Superhero” (accessed June 18, 2009). [4] Gonzales, “A Hispanic Perspective: By the Rivers of Babylon,” 92–93. [5] This can also be found in Pagitt and Jones, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. For McLaren, see Garrison, Rising from the Ashes, 51.

Phil Snider is a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Springfield, Missouri and the coauthor of Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations. He is a graduate of Missouri State University (B.S.), Phillips Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Chicago Theological Seminary (D.Min.).

Phil blogs at www.philsnider.net.