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.

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4 thoughts on “Becoming an anti-racist/pro-reconciling emerging church?

  1. [This is a topic that has been weighing heavily on my heart and mind. Below is something I’ve been working with along these lines. It is about my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It is flawed with my biases as a white liberal male Christian.]

    The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is officially committed to standing in opposition to racism and white privilege. This is a noble goal. Yet, where is the evidence that this is taking place at the grassroots level? On Dmergent and The Intersection I see very little racial diversity. Rather, I see what I believe to be mostly white middle-class libs chatting amongst ourselves. I have no beef with white middle-class libs, as I am one. That said, I feel there is a disconnect between what we state to believe and our behavior

    When I attended Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) in the early part of the last decade I observed the uneasiness with which we tried to be racially just. It is hard work. From my perspective, it was not uncommon for the African American students to be quite progressive on issues of race and economic justice, but quite conservative in matters of homosexuality, gender-inclusive language, and Christology. This caused quite a bit of friction between the white liberals and the African American students.

    One example involves worship style. At CTS, the chapel services were based on the teachings of Keith Watkins. . I regularly heard African American students state that they felt unwelcome in such a style of worship. In fact, the Black Student Caucus had an unofficial boycott of chapel services because of this. (I’m not insulting Keith Watkins or calling him racist. I’m stating what I observed. If I’m in error, please correct me.)

    Another example: I’ve read and heard stories of new Hispanic Disciples congregations that are thriving. Often times these congregations will have a Pentecostal flavor. Unfortunately, I often hear white liberals complain that these congregations are not “being Disciple”. Based on our nation’s history of white supremacy, it is not hard to read between the lines of such a statement.

    I would like to see more African Americans and Hispanics take leadership positions at the general and regional levels. Yet, I recognize that this will likely mean a turn toward a more conservative theology. In other words, I could become the outcast. Maybe, just maybe, that is OK. As I continue to benefit from white privilege, maybe I need to make a point to advocate for leaders who I disagree with, provided they are not white.

    Frankly, I am uncomfortable talking about race. Indeed, even with the best of intentions, racism will inevitably occur when I, or any white person, discusses race. Yet, if I am faithful to decency and justice, I must deal with my discomfort. So must our beloved movement.

  2. Who Is Being Served?

    When you attend a church is the focus upon yourself or the Lord? Some churches are deceptive and instead of teaching truth as it has been taught they tell churchgoers what they want to hear.

    An example would be a gay person attends a church and instead of being told the activities they do are sinful they are told “Jesus loves you, God made you this way it is all right”. This type of church will also join in gay parades and even marry homosexual couples. I have even seen a church website list links for gay men to meet other gay men.

    What a church should do is show God’s word that these activities, like other sins, are an abomination to the Lord and teach how to overcome sin. God wants repentance, which means turning away from the sin and walking in obedience to Him. The church should be able to help churchgoers overcome their temptations and sin by using God’s word. Having church members pray the Lord’s Prayer is a good start.

    Matthew 6:9-13 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

    Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread.

    And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
    And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:

    For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

    Titus 1:9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

    2 Timothy 4:3-4 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

    Isaiah 5:20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

    1 John 3:7-9 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.

    Romans 1:21-32 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

    Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

    Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

    Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

  3. Unsound Teaching

    Some people think that since Jesus gave His life for us we can live our lives in a worldly way. Such people are mistaken. Jesus does nothing except the will of His Father and God does not change. Those in a teaching position should carefully teach the word as it has been taught lest people be misled and turned from the truth.

    James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

    Matthew 5:17-19 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

    John 14:10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.

    John 5:19 Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.

    John 8:28-29 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”

    Titus 1:6-9 An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

    1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? (those who have not yet repented) Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

    2 Timothy 4:1-5 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

  4. Like Father, Like Son

    This may help clear up some confusion about the Father/Son relationship:

    Some people perceive God as being angry, full of wrath and His Son they see as being love. Some people just focus on the ‘love’ and ignore everything else in the Bible. It’s as if God and Jesus are at odds with each other. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always in agreement.

    John 5:19 Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.

    John 8:28-29 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”

    1 John 5:6-8 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

    This shows the Son is obedient to the Father:

    1 Corinthians 15:24-28 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

    For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

    1 Corinthians 11:3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

    John 14:28 “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

    The Father is the Word:

    John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    Deuteronomy 8:3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

    Psalm 1

    Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
    or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
    but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.

    That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
    and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

    Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

    For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

    Looking For a Church to Attend?

    Here are some characteristics of a good church: strong preaching against sin; teaching repentance; an emphasis on the world to come as opposed to this world; and an emphasis on both old and new testament. It is recommend you compare everything to the Bible—preferably the King James Version.

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