Emergent and the issue of Race


My man Charlie Wear over at Next-Wave offered an interesting observation about a report by Van S of missionthink who attended the recent Emergent convention in Nashville. Charlie asked the question, “Emergent, mostly white males?

Great question Charlie. I have participated in the discussion. And have thought about why Emergent is mostly white…for now. And I should say that Emergent US and UK are mostly white. I am not sure about the Emergent conversation that is taking place in other parts of the globe. The most obvious one is that the conversation started in white evangelical churches. So there is the historical fact that the conversation was started by white evangelicals that were concerned about particular issues relating to the church’s mission in the world of our time. So I don’t buy into the conspiracy theory that those really involved in Emergent…those that initiated the conversation were purposely trying to keep the “others” out of it. I think that would be a more charitable rendering of the pervasiveness of whiteness of the Emergent conversation to suggest that the conversation just simply started this way.

Secondly, another reason why Emergent is mostly white has to do with the history of race and Christianity in America. I have said this before in another thread and am looking forward to the response but it is this: the reason why there is a white church and a black church is because of racist white Christians. White Christian racism created the dichotomy between black and white churches. As a matter of fact there is no such social designation named “white” or “black” church prior to the peculiar way race played out here in America. White racism created the black church. The black church was a reaction to white idolatry of race. There would have not been a black church had many of our white Christian brothers and sisters had not been blinded by the false belief in white superiority. And this historical matter has continued to play itself out in American Christianity. The white/black church distinction was created because Christians violated the unity that is to be embodied in the Eucharist. The reason why Emergent is mostly white is because Christians failed to embody the Eucharist. We simply failed to be the body of Christ. And I cannot see any serious discussion of race in the Emergent conversation without calling for a serious discussion as to how and why our Christian forefathers and foremothers broke the Eucharist by idolizing their whiteness. I can’t see how we can deal with the race issue without dealing with the specifics of how this whole thing came about. It very much needs to be a part of the catechism of the Emergent conversation. Assuming of course Emergent wants to deal seriously with embodying a “deep ecclesiology”. We’ll see.

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28 thoughts on “Emergent and the issue of Race

  1. a couple of things that i’d like to add to this..

    where was ‘van s?’ we so made fun of the ‘whiteness’ of emergent in our own fun circle. just checkout jonathon’s ’emo’rgent.. that went rampant through the blogosphere. that was totally old news. plus, people who write stuff like that forget that it’s a conversation that is about rethinking church (simply put), however, they want to look at it as a new church or the new worship style.

    a great conversation i had with an eastern orthodox minister friend when i tried to explain ’emergent.’ he put it as, this is the latin west trying to reconnect with the holy spirit. going on he mapped that, after the schism the orthodox church kept it’s spiritual elements but the latin west took words from logical thinkers like aquinas or augustine. thus, once they took in the logical (this is my deduction) we almost voided the holy spirit.. luckily it finds it way into our lives despite ourselves, but we did our best.

    anyhow, a view that this might bring into play with the emergent and the ‘black’ church. the ame (african methodist church) as i know it, still holds many spirituals in their hymn songs and prayers. which help them to hold to & connect with the spirit.

    as for the ‘black’ & ‘white’ church. i see your point with the ‘white’ racism. it’s a complicated issue and is going to take some historical unbuilding. i am encouraged by an illustration like this, a year ago my sunday school class (a white suburban group of 9th graders) said, ‘why are all the pictures of Christ white?’ i said, ‘what do you think they should be?’ (i have my opinions and could have answered that question quickly, but i like them to think) they came back with a ‘he’d definitly be black, maybe with middle eastern or egyptian features.’ i was smiling inside.

    check out:
    http://www.embracingchurch.com

  2. gavin,

    Thanks for the link bro. I’ve signed up. The Embracing church looks promising. Plus your thoughts here are great. We just had this same experience with one of my sons on the white jesus piece in a church we have been attending.

  3. Anthony,
    Well put, and all true. I maintain hope that the moves in some of our denominations (including my United Methodist one) to engage in acts of repentance for our “lack of embrace of the eucharist” (what a great insight) represents a willingness to come clean, but it’s a slow process. In a sense I wonder if the reason Emergent has been slower in addressing these issues comes less from the evangelical identity and more from the fact that many come from independent congregations — the community and Bible church movement. As such, they basically created their own theological and practical ghettos of practice that really have no outside sources of accountability.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. I hope that you will post over at the EmbracingChurch site (which I maintain) for we need your voice.

  4. Before leaving my full time ministry position, I worked in a multi-ethnic church and campus that housed 4 congregations of different ethnicities and languages (I am/was a Pentecostal). I can’t agree with this statement more,

    The reason why Emergent is mostly white is because Christians failed to embody the Eucharist. We simply failed to be the body of Christ. And I cannot see any serious discussion of race in the Emergent conversation without calling for a serious discussion as to how and why our Christian forefather and mothers broke the Eucharist by idolizing their whiteness.

    In my experience, this kind of discussion is very, very hard and few communities get there. It’s tragic.

    I am pretty pessimistic about the emerging church having this kind of discussion–it can barely handle discussing gender issues and women in ministry let alone race.


    Tim

  5. good stuff Ant,

    i think the challenges emerging is facing with race and gender need to be addressed sooner than later…and i know some folks are truly trying…

    the fear would be an organic movement losing it’s elasticity as it evolves-making it more difficult to address the issues later on. when things mature, they become a culture unto themselves…we’ll see if the culture remains permeable.

    i also think we need to think of diversity beyond the # of blacks, latinos, etc. attending some event. the issue is whether the above mentioned folks will be included into the think tanks, praxis, and theological expression of the movement itself.

    jose h.

  6. Ant,

    I think you’d really enjoy reading a book called “Divided By Faith” by two sociologists (Christian Smith and Michael Emerson). They conclude that the deep racialization of American religion is reinforced, despite all the best intentions, by deeply ingrained American thought-patterns.

    In other words, church swaps and hugging at Promise keeper rallies aren’t enough, if we still see the world and reconciliation solely in terms of indivdualistic theology.

    I’m very glad to learn about you and I enjoy reading your thoughts.

    I just plugged you on my start-up blog. I’d love to hear what you think of it if you have a chance to check it out.

    -andy

  7. andy,

    You said: “In other words, church swaps and hugging at Promise keeper rallies aren’t enough, if we still see the world and reconciliation solely in terms of indivdualistic theology.”

    Man! This is so true brutha. I think the reason so many Christians, in American in particular, have a difficulty dealing with the race issue is because of the thought patterns you mentioned. I believe it will be difficult to deal with race, racism, and its effects in history in the body politic of Christ with language and practices borrowed by liberal social formations that priviledge the “individual” over the community. Hence, we Christians really lack the language and practices to deal with the history of racism in this country. Simply invoking the language of freedom, inclusion, and forgiveness will not work. Americans, Christians included, are taught to have short memories. The language peculiar to American thought patterns will not suffice in dealing with the issue of race. I believe the language of embrace and memory…and most definitely remembering that we are brought into a New World by our baptism and continual eating and drinking of the Eucharist will remind us and bring to our respective consciences the idols of race that have done violence to Christ’s precious body. I believe we trample the Son of God underfoot again when we fail to remember our idolatries and attempt to deal seriously with them in a way that will make it hard to repeat those idolatries in the future.

    That’s why I am really encourage by Emergent. For I see in Emergent an attempt to deal with the body of Christ with language and practices peculiar to the long heritage and argument called Christianity.

    I look forward to future discussion, debate, argument, hugs, kisses, embraces, and most importantly I cannot wait to have Eucharist with some of my Emergent bruthas and sistas.

  8. Actually, I’ve been tossing this issue about ethnic diversity and emergent around in my mind for a while now. I am half black and half Korean (how’s that for diversity?). I grew up in a suburb of Sacramento with Mexican, Japanese, white, and black friends.

    I’m somewhat relieved that someone has brought this issue of “white middle class people = emergent” to bear. How did come to an initial awareness of this trend? 1) By looking at emergent blogger profile pictures, and 2) noticing that so many emergent bloggers idolize U2 (ha ha!).

    I’m interested in the emergent discussion and it’s relation to ethnic diversity. Personally, I too am a part of a predominantly middle class white strain of Christianity (i.e., I minister in a fundamental Baptist church). But frankly speaking, I perceive more ethnic diversity among fundamental Baptists and Evangelicals (esp. on the West Coast–Filipinos, Latinos, Koreans; and African-Americans [in the South and East Coast], etc.) than I’ve sensed involved in the emergent conversation.

    As to the conclusion of why emergent is predominantly white middle class I probably have to disagree with your assertion Anthony. I don’t believe that “the reason there is a white church and a black church is because of racist white Christians” (there are quite a few racist black Christians, too); I believe that (primarily) there is a white church and a black church and a Latino church and a Korean church and a Chinese church because of differences in culture: different styles of music, different takes on respect/honor, different processes of worldviews shaped by native ideologies, upbringing, and training.

    I think emergent just more naturally fits in with white middle class Westernized culture; hence, a constituency that basically attests to that.

  9. glenn,

    I actually agree with your assertion that it is mostly cultural differences that explains the differences we see in the body of Christ in America today. But historically, the institution called “white” church and “black” church has a beginning that was much more profound than different worship and cultural forms. I think there is a distinction to be made in saying that the different cultural forms of the church are due to differnt cultural forms and practices and saying that the reason we have a “black” and a “white” church is due to racism. The designations ‘white’ church and ‘black’ church do not capture the cultural diversity that exists in the body of Christ here in America.

    And I probably need to flesh out my statement that basically said that the white racism caused the creation of the “black” church. I over-simplified what I was trying to convey. What I was trying to convey was that because of the broken Eucharist table early on in American Christianity Africans that were introduced to Christianity were placed within a form of Christianity that initially denied them rightful place at the table as full brothers and sisters. That the social institution called the “black” church came into being because blacks were denied access to the table. They were not embraced, as we emergent-type folks would say, in their African-ness.

    And because of that (check out the history of the first black Christian denomination…AME church) black Christians were forced in a way to start their own communities where they could celebrate God through their paritcular culture…as humans created in the image of God.

    So I think we have to be careful when dealing with the past. Black folks didn’t just start black churches because they wanted a more Africanesque style of worship and expression. The black church provided the only space, for a while and in some cases still, where black folks could be human beings…the imago dei. And their white Christian brothers and sisters had a church and a society that denied them both a place at Eucharist (which makes you wonder who had true Eucharist) and their full American citizenship.

    Your comments also have me going down another stream of thought. Maybe it was more an issue of white Christians cutting themselves off from the Eucharist than it was them denying their African brothers and sisters a place at the table. Interesting…I’ll have to ponder that more.

    Thanks for bringing a different perspective to the table.

  10. this is a terrific discussion that causes me to pause, think and ponder, re-think, and then listen..again. i wish you were all at the embracing church CCC because this is the stuff we nee to be talking about. the multiple dimensions and complexities involved in exclusion. need to go think some more, and repent alot for my part & complicity in this arena…

  11. susie,

    I really wanted to go to the convention but my mother-in-law was very ill. Me and a friend had talked about making that haul from Charlotte.

    I plan on making one of the “Worship in the Spirit of Justice” meetups in D.C. hosted by McLaren’s church CRCC in late June.

    Thanks for commenting and being authentic. I don’t want to come off as the angry black man. I just believe in bearing witness with where I’m at. I’m always open to correction.

  12. I know many who make the argument that divisions in the Church are cultural, and I certainly do not discount cultural factors. But there is sadly much truth to the statement that the reason why there is a white church and a black church is because of racist white Christians. I think the problem lies in a lingering sense of superiority with a rather specific fear—intermarriage. Young men and women who worship together, receive the Eucharist together, go to youth group together, and pray together may well grow to love one another (imagine that!). They may get the idea that our common Christian faith transcends our differences. They may read the Bible and discover that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” They may actually believe it. Just a thought: Do I really count you an equal if I cannot conceive of my son marrying your daughter, or vice versa?

    A recent read: Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson, the son of a United Methodist in NC. A powerful book for me, exposing latent patterns of racism in southern culture and challenging me to examine how such attitudes have influenced me.

  13. Another way to look at the problem of racism at the root of the church in America is: it’s a Protestant/Evangelical problem. Where the church parish or congregation is formed geographically, like in the Catholic and Orthodox church, there is no white or black or yellow or red church. So maybe its endemic to how we do theology that we have racially segregated churches.

  14. Regarding the issue of race and “Emergent” trend and the difference in white and black church being related to the racism of America I think we have missed an intrinsic tie to the whiteness of the “Emergent” movement.
    I will offer this caveat: I am white, and have participated in mostly white churches, with a few trips to black churches over time.
    The question of why the movement is mostly white is a question of who has interest. The “Emergent” movement seems to be another movement in the white church to catch up to society and reach the people where they are. The white church has continually faced the problem of being outmoded and unable to keep pace with the times and issues of the people. The black church, in my limited experience, and observation, has been more able to adapt to the moment, reaching people with the context of today more readily. Thus, the need for an “Emergent” movement within the black church is redundant. The black church is already current, dealing with the problems, issues and advances of society on a daily basis more often and more specifically than the white church.
    With all that said I look forward to hearing the thoughts of others on such a proposal.
    Blessings,
    David

  15. Ant, i’m here again…good string of dialogue

    I’ll remember your mother-in-law in my prayers; and your family.

    David,

    Thanks for your comment and opening it up for responses. I think you’re right, many Blacks-though not all-have been able to bring forth a relevant theology that helps them make sense of the world in-light of the bible (i.e. James Cone). However, emergent is about Christianity within a postmodern world-a world we’re all living in Black, White, Latino, or Asian, etc. So I think this conversation/movement may transcend (ideally) any one ethnic group. The great thing about emergent is it lends itself to being ecumenical. Some of the theological differences are set aside to be united. I don’t think you can set aside race that easy. I think people are itching to speak about racial differences, and how this affects our unity, but it can be very painful on both sides when done honestly. people need a safe space…

    i’ll go out on the limb and say that i’m not looking for simple politeness from folks of other cultures. i’m looking for an opportunity to hear and try to begin to understand, as well as being somewhat understood. you may not get every aspect of my experience, and vise-versa, but there’s an effort. and that’s where love starts.

    jose h.

  16. I do think there is one possible (dangerous) tendency of emerging church thinking that ties into White-American ways of thinking. It’s the assimilation of other cultures as exotic or new. We turn the Other into a style or a fashion accessory. I worry a bit that once an ancient spiritual practice or cultural import becomes mainstream that it will cease to be hip and we will be off looking for another practice or aesthetic to adopt, commodify, shrinkwrap, and sell in Christian bookstores.

    The appropriate response to that kind of paternalism might be resistance. I know that smaller churches often feel reluctant to join with larger churches in ministry for fear that they will lose their identity. It isn’t so much about turf or style as it is a desire to preserve one’s own distinctiveness. I would not be surprised if something similar happens on a larger scale between black and white perspectives on the emerging church.

    But I think you are right to point to the Eucharist as the point at which our identity as a single (broken and resurrected) body overcomes our fear of losing our personal or cultural identity. When I envision the banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven I see people of all different shapes, shades, and sizes eating, laughing, and singing.

  17. Ant, I agree with your thoughts about racism and white Christianity. I am of Asian background and while most of my dear White Christian brothers and sisters are very loving people, I’ve had experienced some subtle racism from others. Happily, in own experience, it’s a small minority.

    But, OTOH, part of the problem is Asians themselves. SOme tend to segregate themselves from the larger society.

  18. I agree with most of what has already been said on the divisions in the church today. However, I think in the case of the emergent church there is a large factor that is being missed.

    My experience with emergent is limited to reading a lot of emergent bloggers and two of McLaren’s books. From my limited experience it appears that the emergent conversation and postmodernism are deeply linked (see title of this blog). McLaren spoke about postmodernism over and over again, and its reality was a dominant theme in the lives of his characters. But this is simply not true in most of the world (as he does note at times). Even a huge sector of the American population is in no way postmodern. It is primarily an ideology of the liberal, college-educated, middle and upper-class. This population is a very White one, and therefore so are the emergent churches. If emergent is only approachable from a post-modern mindset, I simply don’t see it taking a hold in most of our Black communities (or at least not in mine).

  19. i don’t think emergent folks are setting out to be racist at all, but I sure would feel better if there was a more visible “conversation” about race, class and gender.

    my view of the scene in australia is that there things have developed from people moving out of existing youth and young adults ministries that were very mono-cultural. this creates a kind of implied racism where the church simply doesn’t reflect the cultural diversity of the community at large. it is no surpise then that the denom leaderships are far more mono-cultural than the boards of companies, or educational departments or hospitals.

  20. Hey man thanks for opening up the can of worms and adding your thoughts

    I agree with what you say and some of the comments here. I’ve been trying to have similar conversations for over a year not but continue to get frustrated with the limited desire of folks to look a the real reasons behind this division/disconnect.

    glad you have added your thoughts

  21. Excellent post and great follow-up threads. I really appreciated the insight of your historical treatment of the “white” & “black church”. As a white male, I have experienced the tension between pursuing diversity through inclusion and the tendancy to bring “balance” through silencing the majority- who DO need to shut up at times.

    Some of the richest depth in my faith has come through investing serious time, energy and relationship exploring multicultural expressions of Christianity. If we can move beyond condescending affirmations and novel curiousity to see that the faith of ALL believers is tied together, we recognize that we are ALL wounded by racism in all its forms, both past and present.

    I knew, however, that this would all remain theoretical for me. In order to “force” myself into this journey of racism and cultural diversity (as well as poverty and justice issues) on a deeper level, my wife & I choose to move to an urban community where we are very much in the minority as white people. It has broken me and humbled me and thrilled me like nothing else. I have a LONG way to go, but I am very hopeful.

    On this note, I would ask for your prayers. Recently, a group of skin-head, neo-Nazi’s moved onto our block. We need wisdom to respond to this new (hateful) dynamic. At any rate, thanks again for your post.

    Peace,
    Jamie Arpin-Ricci
    http://www.emergentvoyageurs.blog.com

  22. I’m late to the conversation and yet it allows me opportunity to consider what everyone has said so far. Anthony, I understand your assertion is based on a historical perspective. If the Emergent is to be more than another element of a white middle class strain of Christianity, some awareness and relationship building needs to happen. Individuals of varying backgrounds, races and cultures need to be included in the discussion. I think that it’ll be relationships that open the doors to greater understanding of one another. The fact that the country is becoming more and more bilingual and multi-racial due to interracial mingling and marriages makes it even more necessary to broaden the perspective and acknowledge the historical aspects that still affect us now.
    Personally, I am a black woman attending a predominantly middle class white protestant church. My husband is white. We have had to deal with racial issues of the past as well as current reactions to our being together. One misconception often made by others when viewing interracial couples is that one or both of the people in the relationship is denying some part of who they are to be together. In this case neither of us is, yet we have had to put in some work in order to understand where the other is coming from. I find myself often in the position of teaching others about the black experience in the process of simply living and moving among circles that are not traditionally made up of black people. Like Jose and Mayra said, it is more than just about counting the #’s of people of different races. We need to develop a sense of understanding that moves beyond political correctness, use of slang words to try to relate, or an expanded music collection. This is not to say that any of this is wrong in and of itself, only that we need to move beyond the novelty of an ethic friend and see the previously mentioned things as just one part of engaging in a bigger sense of understanding.
    For instance, I have a close relationship with a white woman (I’m pointing out her ethnicity for sake of making my point) and although we consider one another friends, she has a hard time discussing racial issues of the past as well as anything that eludes to the idea of racial inequality. This very discussion would cause her to withdraw. Yet by not acknowledging the past and the fact that there is racism in the world, that there is inequality and prejudice, she does not open the door to fully understand where I am coming from. She limits her view unwilling to see range of experiences that make shape my perception of life. Something as simple as seeing a movie which addresses racial tension causes her to step back, unwilling to feel uncomfortable on the road to understanding. Therefore she has never seen The Color Purple, Amistad, Malcolm X or even Do the Right Thing. While it may sound superficial to judge someone based on the movies they have seen, my point is that these are simple ways to open the doors for greater understanding.
    Does any of this make sense?

    kristine

    kmays.blogspot.com

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