Responding to Charges of Racism

Portrait of the Author as a Not-So-Young-Man

I appreciate all of the thoughtful responses to yesterday’s post, “Is Sojourners for Straights Only?”  While few commenters dealt with the actual question of the post (What about Sojo addressing GLBT rights as a justice issue?), many chimed in to agree that yes, indeed, the emerging church movement is not diverse enough for their tastes.  I use the phrase “their tastes” purposefully, because it does not seem like there would come a time when the EC — or any collection of people, for that matter — are diverse enough.  That’s both because the demographics of our society (and your community) are always in flux, and because there’s no one person who gets to judge when a group is diverse enough.  Diversity, you might say, is in the eye of the beholder.

The problem with defending oneself or one’s organization or group of friends from charges of racism (or lack of racial sensitivity or lack of racial diversity — whatever you want to call it, it’s basically shorthand for racism) is that when you defend yourself, you sound, well, defensive.  So if I were to write about how hard we’ve tried to recruit authors of color to our book lines, it will sound disingenuous.  But what if I write about the diversity in the by-lines of the books An Emergent Manifesto of Hope and The Justice Project? Or about the diversity in the present leadership of Emergent Village?

What if I were to write about how hard I’ve tried to get Desmond Tutu to be our dialog partner for the Emergent Village Theological Conversation?  Or about the diversity on the panel of theologians about to be announced for the 2010 Conversation?

What if I were to notice that the Board of Trustees at North Park University and Seminary, Soong-Chan Rah’s employer, is 85% white?  Or that the seminary administration is 85% white?  Or that the seminary faculty is 83% white?  Or that the student body of that school is 65-75% white?  Would that sound defensive, like I wasn’t addressing the problem in the EC?  Is North Park for whites only? Of course not!  It is a group of people trying to do it’s best to educate undergraduate students and attempting to be as sensitive to the increasing diversity in North America as they can be.

OK, let’s take Lisa Sharon Harper up on her suggestions for what the EC could to to combat the whiteness problem (thanks to Greg Gorham for pushing until someone actually answered the question, What, exactly, do you want us to do?).  Lisa makes three suggestions:

1. The leadership of the EC movement has to engage in it’s own “all cards on the table” assessment of their personal histories with issues of race, racism, and racial reconciliation. This assessment MUST be led by someone from outside of the movement who can listen well and offer an objective point of view. It may also be good to include gender relations in the assessment as well, since this is another critique of the movement and they are linked.

My response: Who is the “leadership of the EC movement?”  Lisa’s suggestion of a racial and gender relations assessment (as will be seen in suggestion #2) is for a formal process of investigation and critique by persons who are trained in this sort of thing and provide assessments in corporate and educational settings.  The problem is that there is no formal leadership group in the emerging church.  There’s no one to call such a meeting, and no one to attend.  There is no board, like you would find at a university or a hospital.  There’s no discrete group of leaders to send through an assessment (and woe to the person who suggests that the Emergent Village Council is the presumptive leadership group of the movement.

2. When that assessment is complete you will have a mirror document that reflects back to the movement’s leadership the strengths and weaknesses of the movement in this area. It should address two questions: 1) in what ways has God placed in the sovereign foundations of this movement the kind of experiences needed to move forward in its journey to becoming an anti-racist movement and 2) in what ways do the leadership’s past experiences around race serve to prevent movement forward (or even add bricks to the Ephesians 2:14 ethnic “wall of hostility”)?

My Response: Again, since there’s no discrete group of leaders to go through a formal assessment, there would be no such document to guide the movement.  Further, I suspect that if we could find this hypothetical group of leaders, they would recoil at the thought of a document of this kind, since the movement in general has an antipathy toward conclusive documents and statements.

3. Next a strategy and plan for movement forward can be devised. For real change to occur the leadership MUST fully engage the process on three levels: personal, a communal, and structural. I do not recommend focusing all the movement’s work on the issue of race and racism head-on for years at a time, as other may… It really isn’t about personal prejudice. Its about cultural and structural welcome and embrace.

My Response: It seems unlikely that a movement that lacks “strategies” and “plans” altogether would somehow band together for a strategy and plan for racial reconciliation.  The EC isn’t like Promise Keepers or North Park University — there are no strategic plans; hell, there’s no structure at all.  And to demand that an organization like Emergent Village — which is already operating on no budget and a threadbare group of volunteers — spend the next two years going through a three-stage process like Lisa has outlined is completely unreasonable.  If that demand were met, EV would cease to exist.

Gabriel Salguero added to Lisa’s suggestions:

1. Like Onleilove states there is much work out there on deconstructing privilege. Engage in some of the reading and perhaps join one of the conversations.

2. The leaders of EC should engage someone like Brenda Salter McNeil on these conversations; as a leadership group.

3. Engage a forum with some of the names mentioned here to plan a way forward.

My Response: 1) Every EC proponent I know has and does engage in just this type of reading — it could be argued that ECers read more and engage more in these conversations than most Christians; 2) There is no group of leaders nor a forum in which we could engage Brenda; 3) I think that EV is planning to do a theological conversation in 2010 along the lines of this suggestion — the only question that remains is, Will Anyone Attend?

And none of this even raises the fact that race is a cultural construct that, while resulting in real marginalization of voices, is becoming increasingly problematic as a rubric in our society (see Barack Obama and Halle Berry as Exhibits A and B).

So, now I’ve attempted to address the criticisms of the EC for a lack of diversity and the suggestions that some have given as to how to correct that.  And what will be the response?  Probably that I’ve sounded defensive and haven’t really addressed the issue.

Ay ay ay.

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