Race and Emergent Part II


I have never had this many comments before. I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the discussion. Many of the thoughts presented here have given me cause for further reflection on this very important issue. One of the fruits of this discussion, for me, was signing up with the Embracing Church site. It is a site maintained by Jay Vorhees.

Here is a re-cap of some of the comments that stood out in my mind and ruminated on.

Jose : “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.”

I have thought about my own experiences with this issue. I have been in church situations where it was proclaimed that this church was said to be “multi-cultural” or “ethnically diverse”. My first question and I admit it is a difficult one was this: is the leadership diverse? Then we started to deal with the culture of the church itself. What was the dialogue like? Had the leaders researched and discussed the particular histories and cultures of its diverse congregations? Did the leaders understand the particular issues that confronted its “ethnic” members when they were outside of the four walls of the church, in the world? Had the leaders read more than just dead white theologians, pastors and thinkers? So I feel you bru…and this is something I have to be totally honest about. I can’t tell you the frustration I feel sometimes when I am discussing particulars issues like “Reformation history” or the theology and thought of the Patristic heritage of Western/Eastern Christianity…and when I bring up people like John Perkins, David Walker, Martin Luther King Jr., J. Deotis Roberts, and a whole host of black theologians, pastors, and thinkers and I hear crickets chirping. That’s why I am encouraged with some of the people in the emergent conversation…there seems to be a critical dialogue with the church in all its forms…as what my man described as “deep ecclesiology”. But I am looking forward to the organic and natural emergence of people of color in this dialogue in regards the theology and praxis of Emergent. And like you said…there are many already who are trying. And many in other countries. That’s why I have to give it up to Brian McLaren when he discusses post-colonial theology and praxis and the growing relationships globally in this emergent conversation.

djchuang: 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.

dj. I think you are on to something here. I was reading some stuff by Cornel West and there is a passage in his book Race Matters that I can’t recall the exact page. But he talks about how “race” is a modern invention borne out of the Enlightenment. So your thought here got me to thinking how foundationalist theologies, philosophies, and absolutist politics fed into the rise to racism. Such as how the notion of universal reason became the mantra of the Modernist project…and in conjunction with that how “whiteness” became the norm by which Western culture judged other particular cultures. The tyranny of the “perceived” universal over the particular. Or rather the reign of a particular over the particulars.
And part of the reason Catholic/Orthodox churches seem somewhat unscathed by the seeds of racial division may have to do with the fact that they learned and did ecclesiology out of a tradition that proceeded the notion of a universal “white-culture-as-norm” for centuries. That isn’t to say that Catholicism and Orthodox bodies were immune to these issues…which I don’t think they were inasmuch as they adapted to some of the cultural products of the Enlightenment. Something to further reflect on there. Why has Evangelical/Protestant culture become victim to the racial divides in a more pronounced way than say some of our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters?

david: 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.

There is some truth to what you are saying but I think Emergent is something bigger than that. I see in Emergent a shift away from theologies, philosophies, and practices that privilege a particular culture over others. So while there may be many black churches that may not be participating in this specific discussion some of the issues being addressed in this conversation are relevant to the black Church. And trust me there are many black Christian leaders that are having similar discussions we are having in the Emergent conversation.

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.

I believe there is much in Emergent that resonates with particular forms of black Christianity. I don’t want you to get a idealistic picture of the black Church. Some would argue that the post-Civil Rights black Church is being taken over with theologies deeply influenced by some of the negative effects of capitalism. That’s what partly brought me to this conversation. I saw theologians and pastors attempting to grapple with stuff I see taking a strangle hold on the black Church. Such as theologies of crass materialism, hyper-individualism, and in some cases American exceptionalism (which is another issue altogether). There is a growing conservative shift within black Christianity that is literally scaring the hell out of me. The black Church has not been totally immune to a theology of empire as some would have us believe. Although the black Church has historically been a site of resistance and cross-bearing in our culture it is becoming more and more less so. That’s part of the reason I am here.

Another issue as well and I will acually end my comments here with a thought about something. I think those that have been nurtured and fed and discipled by the black Church can find a hospitable dialogue partner with Emergent. In reading Hauerwas, one of the theologians that has deeply influenced many in this conversation, I have gained a deeper appreciation for St. Augustine. St. Augustine, an African (ok…North African) by the way, serves as a cautionary tale for young conscious black leaders in the body of Christ. Augustine got me thinking about the issue of freedom. I think part of the reason why we have many of the pathologies we have in the black community is because we have gone passed freedom situated within a theological narrative and ended up with a notion of freedom that looks more like Kant than the Exodus or Jesus. Freedom during slavery up until the Civil Rights meant freedom from tyranny…in a very real way. But this understanding of freedom was deeply situated within a very nuanced understanding of the Exodus story and Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. Not so today. Freedom becomes an end in and of itself. Which I think is dangerous. Which I think serves as a cautionary tale for young black Christian leaders like myself who want to see the end of political and economic oppression. I believe that many black Christian leaders have allowed an American-styled ideal of freedom to overdetermine their ecclesiology and theologizing. Don’t get me wrong here. I think the history tells us why “freedom” looms large in black culture and language. But what has happenend, in my little estimation, is that we have grabbed hold of a notion and practice of freedom in many of our communities that is no longer situated in a theological narrative that sustained and gave us hope during and after slavery…up until the Civil Rights movement. It would have been extremely difficult for a black Christian to discuss “freedom” without mentioning “God”. It seems now that we have allowed freedom, a particular appropriation of the term, to overdetermine our theological discourse and practice….thus allowing some of the negative effects of living in a society that doesn’t situate freedom within a theological narrative and a society that is feeling the negative effects of capitalism…such as the deformation of desire. In many cases, but obviously not all, freedom went from tasting the goodness of the Lord to tasting whatever the hell I want.

My comments here are just one small piece of the puzzle. I could be wrong as two left shoes here. But this is what I am seeing. And why I think Emergent is an excellent ecclesial space to talk about these issues.

Enough..this post is entirely too long.

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14 thoughts on “Race and Emergent Part II

  1. Great thoughts (and by the way, I’m going to upgrade your status so that you can start posting some thoughts on the Embracing Church site as well).

    I’m wondering if Emergent is in fact a reasoned outgrowth the contextual (Black, feminist, liberationist) theologies of the past thirty years. By identifying the way theology fits within culture (or culture influences theology) these theologies called into question many of the assumptions of Calvinism that were so prevalent in the evangelical church. Emergent may represent an attempt to synthesize elements of those theologies into a new form that speaks in our current culture.

    But then again, it all may be crap.

  2. Anthony,

    Have you seen Albert Raboteau’s work that brings Eastern Orthodoxy into conversation with black Christianity? I think it resonates with and in an Emergent type of setting.

    _A Sorrowful Joy_, _Fire in the Bones_, his recent article titled “American Salvation” from the on-line journal _Boston Review_, and his 2002 Alexander Schmemann Lecture at St. Vladimir Seminary in NY.

    Also, see the web site for St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church in Kansas City.

  3. jay,

    i appreciate your hospitality.

    on the issue of contexual theology. I agree with you. of course i would say, and this is the charismatic in me, that this is where the Spirit is blowin. its like what Hauerwas said in an interview a read some time ago…God is killing the church in America. what i think he meant was that God is tearing down our pretensiousness. Christians want to rule the world…but Christianity is at its best when its not trying to rule the world…and that’s what I think contextual theologies are trying to tell us…that we worship a God that became a Peasant. Very difficult to swallow. i guess that’s part of the reason why the greeks thought the gospel was foolishness…idle chatter or babble. How can a Peasant “rule” the world?

  4. phil,

    thanks for the info on Raboteau. I was reading some of his article, “American Salvation”. Many of the points he makes deeply resonate with me. His journey into Orthodoxy deeply resembles my own move into a “deep ecclesiology”.

    Rabotaeu sounds emergenesque.

  5. Thanks for summarizing the ongoing post + comments.

    I’m not as familiar with the specifics of Emergent, but I resonated with the 1st 2 quotes you pulled out – about unity and shared leadership, etc, not just diversity.

    And dj’s comment about Protestant/ Evangelicalism. I’m not sure that the Catholic church isn’t any better, per se, since parish communities can just match the racial divisions of a city or neighborhood. But Catholics don’t just split off a new church when something isn’t working. That would be ‘uncatholic’ in the most basic sense. That seems unique to Protestant/ Evangelicalism, at least here in the US.

    Finally, while it sounded like the final quote was more based in “white guilt,” – which I understand but don’t affirm or ascribe to – I did appreciate your comments on freedom. Do you think the freedom issue as you described it (post-civil rights, post-exodus image) is connected to the idea of entitlement? That came to mind as I was reading.

  6. “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.”

    I’m not so sure that race is any less of a problem in Catholic and Orthodox churches, at least with Catholic congregations which I am a little more familiar with. Catholic churches tend to be just as homogenous and racially divided, at least in the U.S. You have your white, black, and Latino Catholic churches. And interestingly enough, the most diverse churches tend to be your Charismatic, non-denominational evangelical mega-churches.

    I am very interested in participating in the Emergent Conversation and consider it to be an integral part of a much wider move of God’s spirit at this particular moment in history. Although, I think Emergent will become incrementally more diverse, I believe it will remain a predominantly white, middle-class, male phenomenon for one primary reason; It’s a little too high brow in terms of it’s vocabulary and theological articulation.

    Though I respect the efforts of Emergent’s leaders to make the dialogue as people friendly as possible, most Christians, both black, white, and other, college educated or not, would be alienated by the way in which this very dialogue is being confronted. It is good for those who are having it, but it is limited in scope.

    The best practice that Emergent folk can engage, in my opinion is to simply be in dialogue with as many Christians as possible, particularly those who are asking critical questions. Emergent is not and can not be a movement in and of itself, but it can be a part of the movement of God in this time and place.

  7. “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.”

    I’m not so sure that race is any less of a problem in Catholic and Orthodox churches, at least with Catholic congregations which I am a little more familiar with. Catholic churches tend to be just as homogenous and racially divided, at least in the U.S. You have your white, black, and Latino Catholic churches. And interestingly enough, the most diverse churches tend to be your Charismatic, non-denominational evangelical mega-churches.

    I am very interested in participating in the Emergent Conversation and consider it to be an integral part of a much wider move of God’s spirit at this particular moment in history. Although, I think Emergent will become incrementally more diverse, I believe it will remain a predominantly white, middle-class, male phenomenon for one primary reason; It’s a little too high brow in terms of it’s vocabulary and theological articulation.

    Though I respect the efforts of Emergent’s leaders to make the dialogue as people friendly as possible, most Christians, both black, white, and other, college educated or not, would be alienated by the way in which this very dialogue is being confronted. It is good for those who are having it, but it is limited in scope.

    The best practice that Emergent folk can engage, in my opinion is to simply be in dialogue with as many Christians as possible, particularly those who are asking critical questions. Emergent is not and can not be a movement in and of itself, but it can be a part of the movement of God in this time and place.

  8. Hey Roderick,

    we had an interesting conversation on another blog, about how many mega churches are multicultural, but most likely homogenous in class (middle). we can venture to say that there is a correlation between education and income levels, giving people in those circles some common footing. i also don’t find too many honest dialogues about race in those circles. middleclass thought tends can become capitalistic; and middle class people of color (i’m complicit) can get disconnected from struggle.

    you’re right about emergent’s conversations flying where the air is thin for those less educated. on the other hand emergent places some emphasis on the practitioner…so there is an opportunity for an embodied praxis that can prepare us to be more honest about race…

    back to the middleclass issue-we need to look within. i find liberation theology keeps me from becoming too high and lofty, because in many ways it communicates a bias toward the poor and voiceless. there are some poor emergent folks in Latin America right now who don’t have access to this very conversation.

    jose h.

  9. Jose,

    Excellent point in regards to socio-economics, race and class have always gone hand in hand. Though we are still plagued by racism, albeit in more subtle ways typically, I do see signs of a post-racialized (or at least a post-racist) society, which will make it easier to address socio-economic division. Racism is simply the mask the devil of classism wears.

    Rod

  10. Jose,

    Excellent point in regards to socio-economics, race and class have always gone hand in hand. Though we are still plagued by racism, albeit in more subtle ways typically, I do see signs of a post-racialized (or at least a post-racist) society, which will make it easier to address socio-economic division. Racism is simply the mask the devil of classism wears.

    Rod

  11. scott,

    You said: “Do you think the freedom issue as you described it (post-civil rights, post-exodus image) is connected to the idea of entitlement? That came to mind as I was reading.”

    I would be careful in joining what I have said with the language of entitlement. For one it is a language used by conservatives to cut the conversation short for those who may have legitimate issues of justice. When you say entitlement to me I hear two things. 1. that there are people who feel like they live in an unjust society in a number of ways and feel like their voices need to be heard. and 2. that there are people who feel like they are owed something simply because of their biology and possible history.

    I am hesitant in using that kind of language now at this stage of the game. 1. the deformation of desire that I mentioned caused by capitalism that is growing in its influence in the theologizing of the black Church…and the American Church at large doesn’t arise from a sense of entitlement, in my experience. I see much larger forces at work here primarily. When I see young black kids with the pants sagging off of their butts imitating prison culture I see a negative pathology but also see a prosperous prison industrial complex in cohoots with mega-media corporate system using popular culture to make “cool” prison culture. So issues like this get a little complex for me. That’s why I am hesitant in using language like entitlement in the conversation.

    But…it could very well be that there are dark forces out there that want young black folks to feel entitled simply because of pigmentation and a history that they know very little about. Which is to say that “all” black young little about history…but the stats don’t lie. Which raises an issue as to “why” black youth don’t know their history.

    I’ve ranted enough.

  12. scott,

    I need to correct a sentence…the last one.

    I meant to say:

    Which is to not say that “all” black youth know little about history…but the stats don’t lie. Which raises an issue as to “why” black youth, too many, don’t know their history.

  13. Thanks for the responses to the comments made earlier and as a part of the ongoing discussion. Maybe that is the very point of the emergent movement and the purpose of Christianity in general…to connect people one to another..engaging each other in dialogue, challenging each other in courteous and encouraging manners, developing ideas and even rhetoric with which to respond and interact with non-christians, and other christians in an effort to join the body of Christ.
    Could it be that the internet is fulfilling the once great promise it held to provide means to gather the world together? At any rate it does seem that the malaise of the 90s that hid us away in our cubicles and dorm rooms with our computers is drawing us back into community, in such a way that the community then seeks to connect on human and direct ways.
    Thanks for furthering the discussion.
    David Camphouse

  14. Thanks for the “entitlement” response. I realize that the word, as you pointed out, carries many different connotations. Let me try to clarify which connotation I meant to draw on. I meant to connect entitlement to what you were discussing about freedom in the over-emphasis on individualism. In this way, freedom becomes individually focused on “what I’m due,” or “what can I get for myself,” even in a spiritual paradigm.

    I realize, though, as you highlighted, that “entitlement” often gets used in relationship to skin pigmentation or history.

    Lastly, your example of the promotion of “a negative pathology but also see a prosperous prison industrial complex in cohoots with mega-media corporate system using popular culture to make “cool” prison culture” is excellent. In my ministry among black college students, this has pressed me to be serious about incorporating contemporary history and historical issues into our study of the Bible. Your comments on this level are helpful to continue to maintain a relevant discussion of context and culture, as it relates to ministry. Thanks for the ongoing discussion.

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