Responses to Postmodern Black Church Part 3


Kevin Rector offered what he believed to be a critical response to my post. I feel such issues need to be addressed and I feel Eric’s comments will help some of us find a place where we can discuss these issues as people on the Way.

His comments are in italics.

The comment I quoted used exclusionary language that separates one racial group from all others and castigates it for a particular behavior.

Actually the practice of normative gaze practiced by some forms of European American Christianity ‘separates’ racial groups or subtly suggests to them to forgo their culture and become ‘white’. The separation is already here. I am calling these things into question asking why. And part of it has to do with the construction of a particular form of whiteness that excludes and ‘defines as normative’ for everyone else. I am not speaking of all ‘whiteness’. I am talking of that ‘whiteness’ that speaks loud and clear to me when I enter into many churches ‘led’ by European American Christians that say to me, “forget you are a negro and worship like us as we supposedly are seeking diversity in our crowd.”

I believe that racism is this very act of separating one race group out for generalization.

I believe that is a very thin definition of racism given its concrete history. Race-ism is when a group dominates the discourse, defines definitions, sets up the hierarchy, controls the way we interpret reality, presents its view of the world as normative and also perpetuates it by creating its own social orders to protect its privileged position of being the ‘universal culture’. For instance, I’d be interested in knowing where you learned your definition of racism. Have you read other voices on racism besides European American Christian voices? or do you find their voices more ‘authoritative’ on the matter. Just curious.

It’s no more appropriate to say that “European-American Christians consider their expressions of faith normative” than it is to say that “African-Americans like watermelon and fried chicken” or “Mexican-Americans are lazy”. It’s simply not acceptable and it has little to nothing to do with reality.

According to your definition of racism…this would be true. But the problem resides in the concreteness of how some forms of European American Christianity in how it assumes its particular and contextualized understanding and practice of Christianity as normative for everyone else. That you would use cultural stereotypes as analogous to this reveals your ignorance of the history of racism in the North American church. Which is understandable seeing how many white churches don’t even deal with the subject. When you go to a black church they will tell you, “this is how we do it here.” In my experience, going to a white church, it is assumed that this is ‘worship’…the ‘worship’. You won’t hear this is how we do it. In such situations I am told to forget about your cultural/ethnic identity…and worship Jesus (read like us white folks). Such calls to worship are the assumption of the normativity of whitness. Have you ever been to a black church before? What was it like?

But it has everything to do with reconciliation. As long as we are willing to revert to these generalizations we build barriers to people being reconciled to each other through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These barriers are the heart and soul of racism.

But if you don’t want to deal with the barriers as they are understood by the cultural other…if you don’t want to take into account the interpretation of the barriers by the cultural other in the church then you won’t see ‘reconciliaton’. Sin has to be named before there is true reconciliation. Reconciliation requires the truth…and that can be hard sometimes.

It is extremely easy to fall into the trap of generalization. Even though I try not to, I do it on a regular basis as does probably everyone else. But generalization is lazy, imprecise, and often very offensive to people who don’t see the world through the same set of lenses that we do.

No doubt it is easy to fall into such traps. What is ironic is that I am here naming the Powers that influence the way North American Christians practice Christianity. I guess if I was to stay on topic and squabble about epistemology, consumerism, nationalism, constantinianism, and modernity without touching ‘race'(which strangely enough is a product of Modernity in many of its North American forms) then I’d be telling the whole truth? The fact of the matter is that this issue is rarely talked about…and it is a reality for non-European American Christians and non-Christians everyday. Such indifference to this issue simply perpetuates the way the Powers continue the hostility.

This is why I gave you the alternative which leaves off generalizations and challenges all Christians to re-examine whether they are oppressing the minority cultures in their context. This seems to me to be the more accurate, graceful, and challenging approach:

Racism, in the North American context, is embodied when Christians assume, oftentimes unknowingly, the normativity of their expression and practice of the Christian faith to the exclusion of other cultures in their midst.

I actually said that in the post. Did you even both reading the next sentence? I said, “This is exampled by European-American churches that think they are racially diverse but still have a white, middle-class aesthetic while having people of different cultures present in their worship. Such practices are racist and are examples of the church being handmaiden to the Principalities and Powers that continue to oppress and render hostile different cultures towards each other.”

I hope I did not offend you with my comment; that was never my intention. I just felt like your post needed and deserved a more critical reading than it was receiving. Perhaps I have misunderstood you to some degree and you can correct me?

Aside from the fact that I believe your understanding of racism is not true to alot of non-European American Christians experiences (quite thin actually) I commend your courage to step up and participate in this kind of discussion. I am committed to racial harmony, reconciliation, diversity, etc. But the powers have to be exposed if we are going to get to the truth as to why we remain divided..why the subtle hostility still exists…why the normative gaze? Just as many in the emerging church conversation have narrated modernity and its political and philosophical underpinnings and consequences I want to take it further and discuss how race is very much a part of the ‘modern’ church. It seems Christians in this post-conservative, post-liberal, and post-modern will only take their narration of modernity so far.

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20 thoughts on “Responses to Postmodern Black Church Part 3

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  1. Anthony,

    I think you responded well to the critique. Kevin stated:

    “It’s no more appropriate to say that “European-American Christians consider their expressions of faith normative” than it is to say that “African-Americans like watermelon and fried chicken” or “Mexican-Americans are lazy”. It’s simply not acceptable and it has little to nothing to do with reality.”

    In addition to your excellent answer, I would add that, even if this were true, the practical expression of these generalizations vary greatly in their impact on the larger society. For example, if the African American stereotype is true, it may have some impact on the grocery sales of America. But if the Euro-American Christian stereotype is even half true, it would work itself in such a way that would subjegate millions. And IMHO, it is FAR more than half true and FAR from a theoretical scenario.

    Great stuff.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  2. I appreciated reading your response, thanks for taking the time to write it. I think there are huge parralel’s between the situation of black Americans and exiled people in a foreign empire, like Israel in Egypt and Babylon. No one would dream of saying that Israel should have just adapted and become Egyptians or Babylonians. That will give me something to think about for a while.

  3. Anthony,

    Man, there are a lot of deleted comments. While I would like to think they were spam, it seems more likely it was not, given the topic. I know you are willing to listen to a lot, so can only imagine what they were like. Thanks for braving these waters.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  4. Anthony
    I appreciate you venturing here. So much to be said, so many different perspectives and so hard to do in writing where people often misread our opinions. I wrote a piece on Racism in America Prism back in 2001 with my boss Rev. Dr. Raymond Rivera and the first paragraph reads Webster’s definition of reconcilation is to “re-establish friendship,” implying that there was a time in the context of race relations within the United States when everybody was unified. Brothers and sisters, no such time ever existed. Although our coins, our Constitution, and our Declaration of Independence all mention the name of God, our country was also built on European expansionism in the New World for economic and political gain. In that process, white people influenced the introduction of the concept of “race” as a means by which people were identified and ultimately oppressed and exploited.”

    I’ll send you the entire piece. This discussion always rubs people wrong because many in the Kingdom just want to believe that in Christ we can erase culture or be color blind what they don’t see is that that’s an insult another form of saying we don’t exist. Yet having the conversations doesn’t mean we are mean, trying to divide people, etc. It’s just truth. Truth must be shared in love if we ever expect to get anywhere…together.

  5. liz,

    The irony of it is this…I was trying to be inclusive…I only referenced white Christian theologians (Ellul, Hauerwas, and Yoder) in my post on racism. That’s the strange thing. But I checked the blog of one brother who commented…he ain’t got one person of color on his book list…what’s up with this? I am practicing inclusiveness by injecting the discourse with the voices of white theologians who I have learned to highly regard and appreciate (I actually got a chance to sit down with Stanley Hauerwas in his office once…that was cool)…and I’m racist? And you ain’t gone ONE theologian of color on your reading list. You have got to be kiddin me.

    I’m goin out on a limb here with this. And this is the frustrating thing about this whole conversation/movement…with a few exceptions as always. Here I am…intentional about entering a discourse that has, up to this moment, been dominated by white males. I have been multi-lingual in my theological grammar. I have tried to talk post-liberal, post-conservative, emerging, etc.. I have tried to familiarize myself with some of the thinkers and writers esteemed in this particular discourse. I have a grip of youthspecialities books downstairs right now. I am engaging the texts suggested. I am intentional about being a witness to the kingdom of God. And my post about ‘whiteness’, using white theologians to bolster my position, gets described as ‘racist’. I find that terribly ironic. And its not just about this particular person but it seems to be a reality I have been dealing alot with of late. I want some of these guys to invest the same amount of time I spend reading white theologians reading theologians and thinkers that are people of color. That’s all I ask for. And there are brothers out there that I have encountered that are doing that…don’t get me wrong. They are there…but they are a unique cadre of white Christians that do this. I have much respect for them…for they have learned to resist the Powers that would have them remain in theological cul-de-sac of ecclesial whiteness.

  6. Thanks, Anthony, for wading into this. I, too, appreciate your voice.

    So much of whiteness is “invisible.” Sometimes people even think of it as non-ethnic. Even when folks mean well, and they speak of being “colorblind,” they still hold fast to the idea of whiteness by its absence. I’ve heard people blinded by whiteness even refer to black and brown minorities as “ethnic groups” – as if they somehow were not part of an ethnic group because they were white!

    Part of the strength of the Power of whiteness is that it is so easily hidden. Of course there is the overtly racist glorification of “white culture.” But there is also the well-meaning but more insidious way that whiteness thinks of itself as a non-culture, a non-ethnicity. As if “I treat all people the same” were enough. As if “I don’t generalize or stereotype” were even the issue.

    I think it may be important to separate – or maybe not separate, but bracket – an understanding of whiteness from an understanding of race. Does that make sense? I think it might be possible to recognize, even appreciate aspects of whiteness, without turning to social constructions of blood and half-blood, European heritage, and the like. I think Bill Cosby, for example, may be blinded by whiteness – his race has nothing to do with his whiteness. By naming whiteness we begin to divest it of some of its destructive power. I think by recognizing race as a social construction – even a mistaken one – we can begin to take it more seriously.

    -Dave (davebarnhart.net)

  7. First let me make it clear that I did not call you a racist, I said it was hard for me to see how your definition of racism isn’t racist. It could very well be a lacking of intelligence, understanding, or imagination on my part.

    I believe that racism is this very act of separating one race group out for generalization.
    I believe that is a very thin definition of racism given its concrete history.

    Ok. However, I assert that every concrete expression of racism (and sexism and classism and most every other -ism) can be traced to the root disease of separating out groups based on generalizations (this could also be expressed as de-humanization through aggregation).

    In regards to you question of where I learned this understanding, I did not “learn” it from anywhere, it is my own thesis.

    But the problem resides in the concreteness of how some forms of European American Christianity in how it assumes its particular and contextualized understanding and practice of Christianity as normative for everyone else.

    I believe that progress has already begun to happen because you have ceased saying that “European American Christianity…” and have now said, “Some forms of European American Christianity….” This little distinction, which might seem so minor is actually huge, because your words no longer lump a generalized group together which creates space for reconciliation and embrace.

    When you go to a black church they will tell you, “this is how we do it here.” In my experience, going to a white church, it is assumed that this is ‘worship’…the ‘worship’. You won’t hear this is how we do it.

    Now you are again making some assumptions and generalizations and primarily unfounded ones at that. I have been to predominately black churches, no one said to me, “this is how we do it here” or anything like it, they just worshipped, and I worshipped along with them. But just as I can not pretend to know what the worshippers at the predominately black church were thinking or not thinking about the normitivity of their expression of faith, I can not fathom how you can claim to know what the folks in the predominately white church were thinking or not thinking about the normitivity of their expression of faith. You are merely guessing.

    But if you don’t want to deal with the barriers as they are understood by the cultural other…

    I agree whole heartedly. This is why it’s important for me to hear the issues that you face and your interpretation of them. This however can not be an excuse nor can it excuse your creating of other barriers which is what you do when you assume that “European American Christians” consider their expressions of faith normative for everyone else.

    Racism, in the North American context, is embodied when Christians assume, oftentimes unknowingly, the normativity of their expression and practice of the Christian faith to the exclusion of other cultures in their midst.

    I actually said that in the post.

    I don’t think you did. I do not think you saw the difference between the version you wrote and the version I offered. Your version said, “…embodied when European American Christians assume…” my version said, “…embodied when Christians assume…” which are not the same thing. One put the onus on all Christians to ensure they are taking the concerns of other cultures and excluded peoples into consideration and the other one points a finger of blame and judgment at an undifferentiated generality.

    Thanks for the dialog. I hope it continues.

  8. I have a hunch that the disconnect between Ant and Kevin is mostly semantic and not so much content driven. Ant is certainly not calling all European Americans racists. He is speaking to structures, not about people. I think that Kevin is hearing “groups of people” and not about the structural racism that Ant is is trying to get at. They key here is Ant’s basic thesis about the PRINCIPALITY of white Amercian/European Christianity being normative. In this, Ant is dead on, and generalization is appropriate. And Ant should not water it down by saying “some forms”. It is the air that we all breathe. It is the water we all swim in.

    Here is the thing, even the Moravians got bit in the butt by mixing Western thought with Biblical truth when they were evangelizing the Indians. They were stripping them of their culture through giving them their own. I believe that they were not doing this intentionally, something else was at work here and that is what Ant is trying to get at and Kevin is missing. The sad thing is that most Black Christians don’t even ‘get it’. It is not an issue of color, it is an issue of awareness, and most of us are not aware of how the Gospel has been pimped out by the West. We just don’t. This is why we need the pomo church imho. We need to get back to what authentic Christianity is really about. Frankly, I am still trying to figure it out myself. Let me know when you find it.

  9. I think most people are probably not aware of how their culture affects how they do things. The “normative gaze” is invisible to the people doing the gazing. As a white American male, I admit it is easy to (without really thinking) think of my own experiences and culture as “normal” and other cultures as a variation on that “normalcy”. But I suspect that’s not a white phenomenon, but a human one. Just so happens the “white normative gaze” is currently the most harmful. But I agree with Marc that the American church in general is not aware how much it’s understanding of the Gospel has been affected by our culture. Hopefully we can learn where Gospel and culture intersect, not so we can somehow have a Church devoid of culture (which would be hideous, even if it was possible) but so we can recognize what truly matters and what depends on context.

  10. Marc,

    Ant is certainly not calling all European Americans racists. He is speaking to structures, not about people.

    All social structures are made up of people. So he actually is speaking about people. The failure to comprehend this reality and its ramifications is something that seems to me to be fairly prevalent in the “pomo” or “emergent” world (A world by the way in which I am quite comfortable but which needs critique like all other things).

    Also, you should not assume that I am “missing” anything. In fact, it might be you all who are missing what I am saying. I understand what Anthony is getting at, my point was simply that there has to be a better way to say it and that the words he has chosen as his avenue are more divisive than uniting.

  11. Kevin,

    There are two things that you are missing brother, first, you fail to recognize how past sinfulness has set up sinful structures that we currently inhabit, often times without even knowing it. Even black people can be unaware of it. Further, people are not the only ones who inhabit these structures, there are principalities and powers in the air that inhabit them too.

    Finally, we cannot truly be united until we accurately describe the problem. This may ‘seem’ divisive, but in actuality, it is the truth. And sometimes the truth hurts, that is why the prophets were stoned to death and cut in two because they did not say things in a ‘nice’ way.

  12. Marc,

    You are dead on it brother. I am thinking I didn’t articulate my point well enough.

    Kevin,

    I am not sure if you are aware of this but there has been a ton of literature produced by black people to discover how their identity, more specifically their ‘blackness’, has been shaped by racism in our North American context. That’s why you see laundry list of names used to describe black people in our 400 year sojourn here in America. But what is interesting is that little literature has been produced for white identity. Just like blackness has been shaped by racism so has whiteness. White Christians need to do similar work in that they need to discover how wedded their identities are to a particular white identity that perpetuated racism. Just as Marc said there are blacks who don’t realize how their identities are over-determined by racism. You still have black folks who feel inferior to white people. You still have black folks who are indifferent to the past and their African heritage…pretty much comfortable with being a ‘thing’ with no past or present.

    Of course the difference being is that black have wrestled with this more than whites. At least in theological literature. It’s just recently that we have seen white theologians become more critically engaged in how white identity has been shaped by a particular European American identity. David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin talk about this in some of their works. Especially David Bosch in his magisterial book “Transforming Mission”. He talks about the deep racism latent in Western Christianity with its exclusion of other voices in the conversation…oftentimes unknowingly…because of a deep assumption of the normativity of European American Christianity.

    One more thing. If I were to re-word what I said for it to be more palatable I would say European American Christianity…instead of European American Christians.

    Normative gazed is practiced in many ways Kevin. One way is when European American Christians are indifferent to investigating how their whiteness is complicity with the Powers of Racism. To assume off the bat that it isn’t is an indication of indifference.

    Anthony

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