On Being Called a (Borderline) Racist

On Being Called a (Borderline) Racist June 20, 2011
Lauren Winner, Phyllis Tickle, and Your Humble Correspondent

While at Fuller Seminary earlier this month, Lauren Winner, Phyllis Tickle, and I spoke at a public event in Fuller’s Travis Auditorium, put on by Fuller’s The Burner Blog. The topic was, “Emerging Spiritualities in the American Church,” and it began with each of us giving a few minutes of monologue. Then I was charged with hosting a bit of a panel discussion.

In her response to my question, Phyllis played to the crowd, mentioning the late Fuller theologian Ray Anderson’s book, An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches.  Therein, Anderson compares what’s happening between today’s conventional and emergent churches to the differences between the church in Jerusalem and Antioch in the first century.  Phyllis likes that comparison, and so do I.

As a follow-up, I asked Lauren, whose PhD is in history, a question.  I confessed that I am skeptical, bordering on worried, about the burgeoning Pentecostal movement in the Global South; I admitted that I find it theologically “thin” and that my tendency is to want to “save” them with my “better” theology.  My question for Lauren: Am I simply a Jerusalem Christian, worried about the innovations in Antioch?

About an hour later, at the tail-end of the Q and A time, an African-American woman took to the mic in the aisle; she identified herself as a former United Methodist who, for the past three years, has found great life within Pentecostalism.  She said that my comment [sic] was ill-informed.  She spoke for several minutes, gaining steam as she went and, it seemed to me, feeling the support of the crowd as she went.  After a bit, it became clear that hers wasn’t a question, it was a comment.

She concluded her comment by reminding me that I’m a “Caucasian male,” and ended by calling me a “borderline racist.”

Two thoughts were going through my head as her comment got increasingly heated: 1) I wonder if anyone can see how much I am sweating? and 2) What would Brian McLaren do?  To the first, the answer was yes — someone told me the next day that I turned “three shades of red.”  And to the second, I am sure that Brian would have been more gracious in his response than I was.  But I did my best, opening with the line, “No matter how I respond to your comment, I will sound defensive.”

This post isn’t about Pentecostalism.  I’ve written lots about that, and my feelings are clear.

This post isn’t even about the precariousness of being a white male trying to do constructive theology in this era, a precariousness that I readily admit is well-deserved.

This post is about the assumption, implicit in her comment, that a criticism of a theology is necessarily racism against the race of people who hold that theology.  Pentecostalism in the Global South is, of course, followed by Latin and South Americans and Africans who have darker skin than I.  Does that mean that it’s off-limits for me to criticize that theology?  If so, then I submit that there is very little hope for the church.

Finally, by way of postscript, I wonder if there’s really any difference between being a “borderline racist” and being a “racist.”

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  • Darren King

    I agree with your take on this, Tony. “Borderline”… Is that supposed to be more polite? Or is it a threat? Is it a way of saying – “take back what you said and we’ll let it slide. But stick to your guns and we’ll remove the “borderline” qualifier altogether”?

    Secondly, I’d point out that any person who’s identifies with those who’ve suffered discrimination like African Americans have should be *very careful* in tossing out the race card. You do your own history and your own dignity a disservice when you minimize what was real discrimination by lumping it in with anyone who happens to disagree with you – and just happens to have a different skin color. In fact, one could call that a form of reverse racism.

  • I am wondering if she is responding to racism or a bias against the culture of Pentecostalism. The theology and culture of Pentecostalism track side by side – one has created the other to a great degree – both in its excesses, and its graces. That same culture most definitely connects to cultures outside the mainstream of much of traditional protestant and post-protestant culture, yet identifies with the struggles of the much of the “third-world” (what a problematic moniker that is!)

    Is this where the real struggle lies? Is her assumption really based in mistaking Pentecostal culture for African American and/or third world culture, and is your challenge to Pentecostal theology therefore viewed as an attack on the culture itself? specifically on the culture of the oppressed? and therefore racism?

  • Well, Tony, if you can only criticize those with paler skin than yours, you won’t be able to criticize hardly anyone (maybe you need to move to a sunnier climate).

    In this case, though, responding to a theological criticism with a charge of racism is uncalled for. For one thing there are North American Pentecostals whose theology is every bit as thin as anything in South America or Africa or Asia. They may not be as dominant here, but they certainly exist. It’s an easy thing to call someone a racist, but its not so easy to defend against the charge, the accused is left in the position of proving a negative. In this case I think your accuser knew what you were saying was true, but couldn’t think of anything to say in rebuttal.

    As far as being gracious goes, there is a difference between being gracious and allowing yourself to be abused and slandered.

  • Jason

    1. She was angry and people say all sorts of stupid things when they’re angry.
    2. She should be more careful about throwing the word racist around. That word has been watered down to mean bias and prejudice which everyone carries. You are not saying the people who hold those views are inferior in a fundamental sense or that they should have less rights because of it. That would be racism. Throwing out that comment to win an “argument” is completely uncalled for and quite possibly, “racist.”
    3. This is the problem of Theology and the Christian Church: people over-identify with their “belief” systems which doesn’t allow for disagreement because that disagreement is taken as attack on self. Beliefs are decisions we make about the world outside of us, they have nothing to do with who or what we are.
    4. I think you should have been defensive. What, any time an African American person accuses a white person of racism you should just take it? That’s unfair and only flipping the power dynamic instead of leveling it. I think you should have expressed that your feelings were hurt that you would be accused of such things and that it is grossly unfair to assume that your “beliefs” about other’s “beliefs” could ever mean your a racist.

    • Robert S


      You comment (4) “to assume that your “beliefs” about other’s “beliefs” could ever mean your a racist.”, your statement is a little naive isn’t it? As someone who lived through the horror of WW2, Hitler certainly was one that took his “belief” to the nth degree and thus was a racist supreme.

  • Britt Hester

    Tony, I believe this is a woman who was clearly upset with your comments and responded out of frustration and fear. We all know how defensive we get when we’re angry. I would argue she probably did not mean what she said, but in an attempt to protect her investment in Pentecostal theology she resorted to the safety net of calling you a “borderline racist.”

    Obviously, as some have pointed out already, this is problematic in a number of ways. My biggest issue with her comment is what you pointed out: If we can’t criticize a particular theology because its prescribers are of a darker skin origin, then there is little hope for the church. In my opinion, this defensive mode is prevalent in the church. Many people, including myself at times, become defensive when someone seeks to criticize our particular denomination, theology, and/or way of operating in the world. This defense mode will have to cease if the church has any hope of engaging the world, who clearly has criticism for the church.

  • This falls in the same arena of people criticizing President Obama, is it racism or legitimate criticism? (And full disclosure: I do a lot of freelance work for the Democratic party.) It depends a lot on the background of the person involved and the relationship you have with them. When someone approaches me on the street with a Confederate flag, and yells hateful rhetoric about what Obama, I think it might be racism (rightly or wrongly). When David Frum writes a column criticizing Obama, I take it at a face value because Frum seems to be a pretty smart guy who I never agree with. It’s a tricky question–especially for people who live where racism is still very open, and very prevalent; where criticizing a worldview is sometimes used as code for to criticize the race.

    When spending time in Atlanta, a friend and I were casually discussing where to grab dinner and someone else casually threw out, “oh, that’s a very Democratic area.” To me, it was a non sequitur in a very serious conversation about dinner (I was really hungry, and refused to eat at Applebees). My friend explained to me that “Democratic area” was actually code for black, and to her it wasn’t a non sequitur but just another element of racism in her town.

    I see similar conversations in churches in my home state, Michigan. Where mission trips are discussed with very dominant and colonial language. Where there is a clear difference in attitude towards churches in Pontiac, Flint, and Detroit versus churches in Oakland County or Grand Rapids. From how churches treat each other, to how churches our viewed by people outside the community. I had a conversation with one white, 50+ male who regarded churches in Pontiac, Flin, and Detroit as no more than a “novelty.”

    I think you framed your concerns well–acknowledging the fear of sounding “colonial”–but those of us who are white males will always have to enter the debate humbly. We can criticize a specific theological view, but it needs to be approached with the understanding that as white, middle class, males we have a zero sum identity. We’re pretty much have it made when it comes to first impressions (and beyond, as long as we dress nice and work hard). Even if we think we have no power in the world, that will never be the case. So, when we specifically criticize something that is so intertwined with the culture of a group it is always going to be an awkward moment. Especially if the listener has grown up with a constant barrage of white men in a position of power. We have to approach it a little more deftly, acknowledging the cultural impact, and the role the view plays in the community. As white men we can criticize, but we have to be very aware of what it looks like when we do. You have to earn the trust of the listener, something which is a back-and-forth that develops over time.

  • bob c

    At least where I am coming from, your admission of another tradition being “theologically “thin” and that (your) tendency is to want to “save” them with (your) “better” theology” can too easily be seen as privileged. – particularly in the context of the Global South, where is predominately non-Anglo. Being right is rarely the point, is it ? Instead, what is most life-giving, what embodies the Spirit of God, what brings us closer in relationship with the Lover, the Beloved and the Love ?

    It is striking all of us commenters are men, who rarely experience institutional barriers based on our race or gender. Darren, I find that mainly privileged folks like us use terms like “playing the race card” – people who have suffered from injustice based on some traits rarely reduce it to a catch phrase. Drew, I so appreciate your counsel in the last paragraph – it is a posture I wish I lived in more often.

    Tony, as always, I am grateful for you living your life out loud and asking others to be in community and provide perspective.

  • I don’t think it is racist but here is, my guess, to her line of thought:

    Calling the ideology/beliefs of a people group “theologically thin” and then stating that you wish to “save” them with something better can come off as white superiority. It is up to the white, western-educated, male to “save” these unenlightened peoples.

    Though I think that is an unfortunate interpretation of what you said, and asked, it is important to consider how our words might sound to people who have historically been oppressed. I think her estimation was wrong, but it is worth considering her perspective if only for the sake of sharpening our own communication.

  • Holly Stauffer

    I agree with the guys above and their comments. I am even scared to write that I thought your initial comment and then question: Am I simply a Jerusalem Christian, worried about the innovations in Antioch? more gets to the point of looking at oneself, being self-critical and asking an honest question about where one is in the conversation. The woman took your comment and question personally. What you also said, and correct me if I am wrong, when she was done making her comment was that you were trying to be honest and vulnerable with where you were going and no one, not even Phyllis or Lauren picked that up. And the question above was never answered. I thought you handled the whole thing very well!

  • Charles

    It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for a white European male (I am one) to fully understand the extreme privilege we take for granted. We live without thought or concept of what it means to be oppressed. Any marginalized group has every right to feel oppressed and view those with happenstance privilege as racist, or classist, or clueless, or just plain a$$holes. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Rage on sister!

  • Hi Tony,

    I agree with Jason, especially with his first point. Angry people say stupid things. It sounds like her final one-two punch was a desperate attempt to strengthen her position.

    I’m curious – you didn’t mention anything about her other points. Did she have any valid questions or concerns?

    Just wondering if everything else she said was lost because of her growing disposition and her final ill-informed comment.

  • I posted the audio of the presentation and the Q/A here:


    For my part, I think you handled it well, Tony. I also thought the wording of the question/comment was awkwardly subversive to the point she raised. You critiqued the lack of theology often exposed in Pentacostal groups. She (and several students here at Fuller who opined on this later) equated “theology” with “white theology.” I understand she was probably just reading a bias into your comment and making a leap, but to make that significant jump and assume theology=white was far more dubious than anything you said.

  • Kathy Smith

    Dear Tony:

    I’m sorry that you were the recipient of this unfortunate comment. Racism is ugly. To be called out as racist or “borderline” racist, or as representing a racist theology with all the inherent cultural power that has, seems purposefully humiliating. The only thing I can think of in the racist vs. borderline racist comment is that she really understood her task to be instructive, not corrective. However, I would make a clear distinction: ideas or actions which promote or uphold racist institutions are not the same as being a racist theologian or personally representing a “borderline” racist theological perspective. How do we speak to one another, identifying problems and inconsistencies, without resorting to labels? These are deep and unsettling waters we are traversing.

    More voices and experience in the theological conversation broadens and deepens it, but culture’s regular approach to a broader, deeper conversation in politics, media, education, and religion values identifying and labeling an enemy and vanquishing such. I think contextually and theologically different ways of being church cause us anxiety and a need to go on the offensive in order to defend ourselves and our way of being, (a la Girard).

    When we feel threatened we lash out. I think it very telling that you described the situation as increasingly emotional. Therein lies the difficulty of having theological discussions about the manner of church we love. What has challenged me to be a more faithful person and helps me get through the tough times shouldn’t be beyond curious, finely tuned and loving, critical dialogue, but it often is because we are so emotionally connected and invested. Acknowledging that the manner of church I love is also highly contextual (for any of us!) is not something we have done well. And, lets be honest, you are a white, male, well-educated, articulate theologian. We want you on our side not against us, whoever “us” may be.

    Please don’t misinterpret me here. I’m not suggesting that you are the enemy of the world wide Pentecostal family (or any other group that sees itself as minority to the majority you represent in their minds). It is interesting to me that somehow in conversations related to church we feel the need to prescribe a Jerusalem-Antioch antagonism. Jerusalem and Antioch? Maybe…but what can we do (wherever we come from!) to set aside our own emotional agendas and work toward better understanding of one another’s genuine theological interest, concern and religious expression without using labeling as our cultural default?


  • Doug Pagitt

    As a taller religious practitioner I know I have felt the borderline sizeism from you about my theology, so well yeah, that’s all.

    • bob c

      that issue looms over all of us

  • JOHN

    It’s nice to be holding the trump card while sitting to the right of the lead. It is my choice, however, for that card in my hand to be “reason” instead of “race”. Playing the race card is, at best, intellectual laziness, and, at worst, self-righteous ignorance. Reason knows no gender, race, or creed. It is the only legitimate place from which to pursue truth.

  • Racism is a scary word, especially if you are white. We are scared of being racist, we are worried that we are racist, we are defensive of being accused of racism. As a people, we have good reason to be worried – our culture trains us to be racist.

    I guess I would ask a couple things.

    First, did you position yourself before making a statement that described your theology as “better” and your desire to “save” the people who did not ascribe to your theology from themselves? That is, did you acknowledge that you were making this statement from a position of benefit from more than one kind of unearned privilege in comparison with many of those who claim this theology that you are not comfortable with as their own, the most visible being racial? White people (and I am a white person, so not excluding myself here) tend to move through the world as if we are not positioned by privilege. Or, worse, we are afraid to acknowledge this position when interacting with those who do not share it because we are afraid it de-legitimizes us.

    I wasn’t there, so only have what you’ve written here. And I don’t know you, a friend linked to this from FB, so I’m admittedly not familiar with your theology. But I can definitely see how your comment, regardless of intention, might come across as a paternalistic concern from a position of whiteness and educatedness that has no real-world knowledge of the Global South or what this other theology might hold for them that yours does not.

    I’d also just mention my own bias which is that in situations like this impact is more important than intention. That is your race combined with your comments impacted this person of color in such a way that she was willing to confront you in order to defend her beliefs. I would take that impact seriously were I to be in your shoes, knowing that as an African-American she has knowledge about and experience of whiteness and white people that our privilege prevents us from having of ourselves. If one black person told me that something I said or did bordered on racism I would take that much more seriously than the several white folk telling me it didn’t.

    Thanks for posting about this. I believe it is incredibly important to note and converse about these issues.

    • Tony Jones

      Alissa, the funny thing is, my question was actually couched in the admission that I was most probably thinking in paternalistic patterns.

      • I guess I’m just wondering if your admission to paternalism was as obvious to others as it felt to you. I mean, she was there, so obviously she was invested in the discussion and she spoke up which makes me think she was engaged intellecutally and emotionally. But unless you said explicitly something like “I am speaking here as a white male who is potentially blinded by the unearned gender/racial privilege I wield, and so please know that this is something I am aware of and open to working on but I find this movement theologically thin…” then I can understand her assumption that you didn’t know those things. Because most white folk either deny that reality or are unaware of it.

        Black people in this country (still)have to go out of their way, be overly clear and obvious, in order for dominant culture and others to read them as educated, financially stable, competent, normal, human, etc.

        White people need to go out of our way to be read by people of color as aware of our privilege and actively working toward anti-racist engagements with each other and the world.

        thanks for replying!

        • “Black people in this country (still)have to go out of their way, be overly clear and obvious, in order for dominant culture and others to read them as educated, financially stable, competent, normal, human, etc.”

          Very true, one of the most striking stories I’ve heard regarding this division was from an extremely smart and well-regarded African-American female who once said, “Coming across the room to introduce myself to you is like dragging myself across a floor of broken glass. That’s the difference between me approaching someone of my race versus someone of yours.” If he took one step outside of being very clear and obvious, several would’ve dismissed her out of hand. It’s something I know I’ll never quite grasp, or understand how to counter effectively.

      • And I think that’s what bothered me. I think it’s okay to be critical of other folks, including persons of color. My problem is when you use language like wanting to “save” people. That does sound incredibly paternalistic and it might be what made that woman so angry.

        I think when white folks are talking about something that might affect persons of color it is okay to be critical, but try not to use terms that make adhere to an old framework that is paternalistic.

  • I find it pretty telling that a lot of the early commenters here seem more concerned with criticizing the accusation of racism rather than addressing the possibility of racist behavior itself. I think, generally, us white people are so alarmed at any mention of “the r word” that our defensiveness blows it out of proportion. Most Americans, in their lives, are going to be guilty of racist thought, speech, or action. Not deliberately, bur carelessly, because of the pervading cultural attitudes in our country.

    I don’t think theological criticism of Pentecostalism is inherently racist, and I would bet that you have a very strong and valid basis for that criticism, Tony. But by your own account, your choice of words seems unfortunate, and it’s easy to understand why a Pentecostal Christian might feel your tone was condescending, and attribute that condescension to racism.

    Generally, I think the best way to avoid escalation in such an incident is to begin by apologizing. Even if you do not believe yourself to be in the wrong, clearly, if you are subject to an accusation, the other person feels wronged and attacked. “I’m sorry that I came off as racist, that was certainly not my intention,” is a good start, followed by a clarification of what you meant and why — a clarification and NOT a defense as to why you weren’t being racist; finishing with a statement that you will consider what they said and examine your own words and behavior so that you can attempt to avoid hurting someone in that way again.

    Think of an accusation of racism not as an attack against you, but a statement like “you stepped on my foot.” Whether you meant to step on a foot or not, the damage was done, and must be addressed. And you should watch your step and try not to do it again.

  • Jason

    Someone please define racism.

  • bob c

    Jason, Sociologists Noël A. Cazenave and Darlene Alvarez Maddern define racism as “…a highly organized system of ‘race’-based group privilege that operates at every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/’race’ supremacy.”

    That said, this just seems perfect:


  • jeff e.

    having not been there, to “hear” the non-verbals going on in the room, it is difficult to judge exactly how you said it and how it was received. also, i’m wondering if she misunderstood/or didn’t hear your reference to the global south.

    based on what i’ve read here, what would have had me raging wasn’t what some have called racism, but more the prideful, arrogant spirit behind your statement.

    i could imagine pharisees and sadducees having a similar panel — and they might have made a similar comment about being skeptical, bordering on worried, about the burgeoning movement in the gallilean region led by the young rabbi jesus. we might admit his teachings to be legalistically “thin” and that we might want to reel them in w/our better understanding of the law.

    were the pharisees racist in their dealings w/jesus? or were they more concerned about the power structures and the toppling effect that “one bad apple” could make in the eyes of the romans?

    i think the fear in this case is the fact that less educated, more spirit led believers are seeing more power and movement of the holy spirit than we more educated, liberated, theological folk may ever see in our mainline churches.

    racist? no. arrogant & prideful? i think yes. worthy of redemption & further conversation? absolutely.

  • Pingback: Racist Video()

  • Hannah

    Perhaps what’s revealed here isn’t so much Tony’s individual racism but some of the underlying race/class judgments between different theological groups, which Tony, as a public figure in the emerging church movement, has given voice to.

    Pentecostalism has been seen as “low class” for decades in this country – think “backwoods holy rollers” or the shock with which which the Azusa Street revival was greeted – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azusa_Street_Revival – just look at the race/class terms used to describe that meeting when “Men and women, white and blacks, knelt together or fell across one another”…

    So, Tony, I think that yes your critique of Pentecostal theology absolutely has to be couched in racial/cultural context. We all do theology within our cultural context, and maybe you’re in a place where you needs to pay more attention to that. For instance, I notice that your post on “What emergents can learn from pentecostals” doesn’t address the pentecostal movement’s ability to cross racial and class boundaries at all (not that it always does that, of course) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2010/03/08/society-for-pentecostal-studies-paper-what-emergents-have-to-learn-from-pentecostals/

    So I guess, as “thin” as you may find Pentecostal theology, maybe there’s something there that you’re missing. Jesus meets us in the places and things that make us uncomfortable, and if the pentecostal movement in the global south makes you uncomfortable, maybe you need to go there — to learn, not to teach. Maybe they can save you from your imperfect theology?

    I guess this is as much for me as for you. I’m just about the least Pentecostal person out there–speaking in tongues…get me outta there. Still, I try to remain open to the possibility that God’s at work in ways that don’t make sense to me.

  • Michael J. Teston

    Interesting. I’m a United Methodist and have watched the decline of the Churches in my Annual Conference for almost 25 years. I have been fortunate to serve four communities that have all seen growth in spiritual depth and breath. At an Annual Conference a couple years ago I decided to get into the serious task of assisting other communities of faith in my denom and not just sit on the sidelines. After a whole lot of talk a number of failing churches and their pastors gathered to plot a course, some pilot ministries began to show fruitfulness as the suburban church I am presently serving began reaching into the City in an attempt to assist and revitalize churches whose entire capacity to reach their neighborhoods had long since stopped. As I sat in a meeting among clergy of all ethnicities a direct comment was thrown at me, “your just a white colonialist.” Up to that point I had said next to nothing, listening, listening, and listening. Wow, I had to shake myself when I heard that because it was said in the most condescending attitude I have personally ever experienced. Was it a shock? I’d like to say it was but not really. This kind of shot across the bow has been aimed in the ways of gender, ethnicity, and the list goes on and on. In a probationary group of clergy the first year of ministry, my wife joined me at a Christmas dinner only to be told that the women clergy felt sorry that she was married to me. I think it may have been the last clergy function my wife would attend. This kind of behavior cannot be excused within the confines of the Body and it has destroyed so much of my denoms ability to work together. Whats disappointing is that such “racial remarks” paralyze so many who could really help the cause of the Kingdom. It’s hard to respond to the world around us when a heartfelt response of a community that desires to do ministry “with” those who dwell in our cities are told in subtle ways, take a hike. We/I have not given up, the vision for the broken is there, even if it comes through the “white colonialists” that we are. A new paradigm to do ministry is emerging in our neck of God’s Kingdom. Thank God! And it is occurring cross culturally, cross genders, cross of course being the key. We need to surrender this stuff at the Cross.

  • I think the right response to a comment like that is, “Yes, what I said probably bordered on racism. That’s why I raised the issue. How do we shift this way of thinking?” Because honestly, you were admitting your paternalist tendencies–which are pretty clear from what you said–and paternalism and racism go hand in hand when we’re talking about the Global South, with its history of European colonization. There’s still a strong tendency toward those modes of thinking in the present among white North American theologians, which is exactly what you articulated in your original comment.

    Do I think this makes you A Racist? Not at all and that’s not what anybody said. The whole point of your comment seemed to be admitting that your thinking was problematic, which is why I say agree with her! If you agree with you, you don’t sound defensive. The more readily we admit our internalized racism, the more honest our conversations will be.

    I’m with Charles. Rage on, sister.

    • Charles

      Annie, much more eloquent and cogent than my mumbling above. Nevertheless, the problem is systemic within white culture and will only be neutralized with the passing of time – when the white patriarchal system is, literally, in the grave – especially my generation, the 60 somethings.

      Tony, an eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart conversation with a feminist woman of color is a great place to start your enlightenment/understanding.

  • if you agree with HER you won’t sound defensive is what I meant to type.

  • Jason

    interesting blog and post bob c. read through a lot of the comments. it seems as though racism and power are not easily defined. but the woman’s comment to Tony I believe is still off base. I believe she heard it that way but that doesn’t mean that’s the case. there is a psychology of victims that gets missed in racism arguments because everyone’s afraid to talk about it.

    really enjoyed that blog though, thanks.

  • bob c

    Jason, careful being so quick to accuse another creature of God with a psychology of victim. As a white male who grew up in America, I know I am priviledged beyond any comprehension. – for me to call out someone as a victim is not just insensitive, it can easily be a coded message of me saying SHUT UP.

    • jason

      do you understand the psychology of the victim? we can all be there and it is always at play in relationships. it’s not an “accusation” but an understanding of human beings. it’s not about calling someone a victim like it’s a bad word, but it’s understanding the psychology of that place. yes, you are privileged, but always seeing you as privileged is not going to eventually empower the one who sees you as privileged. if you see yourself as a victim, you will always be a victim. there are institutional realities of racism and oppression, and then there is the internalizing of that oppression. read some Freire. your constant admittance of your privilege is never going to be the thing that empowers the one you’ve had privilege over. it is a part of the reconciliation but it is not the whole thing. as Freire describes, the oppressor can never free the oppressed.

  • Chuck

    There really is only one effective way to deal with sort of thing. You look the person square in the eye, sneer and say, “You say that as though it somehow matters.” It is a mistake to fall into the trap of defending yourself. All you do is make yourself look weak. A simple dismissal with contempt is an infinitely more effective a rhetorical tool.

    It won’t make the other person happy. It will shut her up.

    • Charles

      You present yourself as a neanderthal, jus sayin….

    • Dan Hauge

      You make this comment as though it somehow contributes to the conversation.

      • Dan Hauge

        (that was to Chuck, not Charles)

    • bob c

      chuck, we have had generations of white people, guys particularly, offering simple dismissals with contempt. enough.

  • Jordan

    I spent last summer living in rural Ecuador with an indigenous family who are pentecostal. We went to church a few times during those three months, in the town/city (30, 000 +/-), which was a little building, small restaurant size, which they packed full of mostly traditional women in their forties and up. Of course there were families and a number of men, but at least half were indigenous women. Though, probably everyone except maybe some of the pastors were indigenous…
    I know my host mom could not read or write, and many other women in the community could not either, so it is likely many others cannot either. Many of the younger persons can, the line seems to be somewhere around 45-50 (above-less literacy, below-more literacy). My host father could read, and is a member of the church as well, but, because of his work (which is the case for many men) is often away for large amounts of time in other parts of the country making money for the household.
    What was interesting about this church, in part, was that they met for 4 hours every Sunday morning. Which had I known beforehand, I may have decided not to go, haha. But, we spent the first hour praying- out loud, or not, some into microphones, reading scripture out loud, etc. As someone who’s grown up Baptist (Canadian fellowship baptist, but baptist nonetheless 😉 ) this was…way different. But really quite beautiful “in” it. There were then four sermons (depending on the week). One by a female leader, then one by Young Male Pastor (along with songs on guitar), then one by More Senior Female Leader, then Older Male Pastor. It was pretty great to see that women were leading and teaching.
    A lot of the content passed in one ear and out the other, because it was impassioned Spanish, but, there seemed to be equal talk of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, overall connecting to the theme of the church, which is its name, Dios es amor.
    It was also interesting that my host niece that lived with us, who is Catholic, went with us and participated fully in the service. There was no Eucharist, though, which may have presented a problem, as her first communion was still to come while I was there. I got to go to the that as well, and was her honoured guest. As such, the priest, who was obviously not local, and I chatted. It was important to him that I could read.
    This was all a lead up to say that, yeah, pentecostalism is a bit freaky or frightening to me as well. And I wonder if its the best thing. But I think I understand the appeal (and its value). Transformation happens there. One of the sons of my host parents was an alcoholic for 5 or 6 years until my host dad carried (the literal word that was used in the recounting of the story to me) his son to the church. There he was baptized and freed. He then went to the amazon to wait and listen for God to speak to him. And heard the call to be a pastor, which he is now, in Guayaquil (which is generally one of the more dangerous cities in Ecuador).
    From what I understand, he didn’t have much of a formal theological education after that (that is, seminary), which would likely mean his theology is “thin”. It does feel paternalistic/church in Jerusalem to say “This needs strengthening.” But at the same time, it is probably a weakness, despite the other strengths they have. And we all have weaknesses somewhere in what we are doing (I mean as church, theology, etc. but, of course, everywhere else). But its such a tricky thing to talk about without sometimes coming across in the way you evidently did to this woman. I bet pentecostals in the global south would be open to receiving resources to thicken their theology, though. What would you recommend them? And is it in Spanish, haha?

  • Luke

    Maybe it would have been best to just say “Thank you for your thoughts. I’ll take that into consideration.”

    Chuck, your suggestion would have been such an unfathomably unwise thing to say. I hope you’re joking. “Be a dick and people will respect you” is basically what I’m hearing from that response.

  • I don’t know, specifically, what you said. I don’t know, specifically, what she said. But I’m guessing that you both could have learned important things if you could have cooled down and taken the time to really listen to each other.

  • You might have been saying importand and helpful things. But one needs to be careful how one says and frames such comments. European Americans do need to be careful when saying things like what you said so you don’t sound paternalistic or neo-colonial. She might have been saying important and helpful things, too. Again, I’m willing to bet that there are things you both could have learned from one another.

  • nathan

    now there’s a category called “borderline racist”?


    The reality of racism being what it is, it seems to me that certain communities need to be careful HOW they articulate their questions/views.

    It also doesn’t mean that other communities are exempted from careful listening.

    and as fellow Christians, ALL are expected to believe the best.

    Seems to me that regardless of culture, the sins of history and our personal experience ALL are called to be quick to hear and slow to speak.

  • Dale Friesen

    I was mostly offended by your crocs.

  • I was at this event, so I would like to give my perspective. BTW – I haven’t read any of the previous posts so I apologize if I repeat something already said.

    Before Tony made his comment which galvanized this Woman’s emotions (and many others in the crowd – some of us has a conversation about it afterwards), the panelist were on the track of considering comparisons of first-century Jewish Christians and their hesitancy to except Gentlie Christian and their expression of faith to the traditional Evangelical churches embrace of emerging spiritualities (specifically the emergent church).

    Tony’s comment was re-engaging this analogy in the context of his own perspective of the rise of the global south and newest Pentecostal movement. He, vulnerably, admitted his fear and dislike of the Pentecostal movement, in his comments he said, “I don’t understand it, I don’t like it, it isn’t my version of Christianity”. But his comments represented him humbly asking whether he was being like being the first-century Jewish Church.

    It was not this comment that I found worrisome, rather, I found it refreshingly honest. The problem ensued when it seemed Phyllis and Laruen skirted around his question. Although Lauren said, “your not really asking about your emotions about Pentecostalism in Latin-American”, I believe you were asking about just that; Asking your peers to examine your reaction to this new (although really revival) expression of faith.

    I do want to affirm the ability to critique another culture and other expressions of Christianity, I believe there is accountability needed, but that critique must be able to travel both ways. And every critic should realize that they may not fully understand that which they critique (as people do with the Emergent church). Again, I thank you for your vulnerability – we all need more of that – and I am sorry the conversation didn’t really engage in your question (in my mind). Tony, I believe you are wrong in your critique of the Pentecostal movement in the Global South. I think the conversation could be lengthy, but let me point out a couple things:

    – I agree with the need to good theology, there is great depth and richness when theology actually impacts one’s life. Tony, where I differ is with your perception that the Pentecostal movement is the lack of a clear theology or that it is not intellectual enough. That is inherently and issue and I believe ironically revealing of a dependence on the enlightenment/modernistic value of a western perspective of logic/intellect. The Pentecostal expression of faith is more rooted in the emotional/affective part of humanity, but why is that wrong? Relying on the intellectual does not necessarily mean progress or holiness; in fact the modern mind has been the cause of much tragedy (i.e. Intellectuals who supported slavery, dehumanization of non-Northern Europeans, Nazi Germany – which was extremely educated). I don’t believe intellect is bad – my career is in Higher Education – but I don’t believe we can nullify non-Western ways of knowing and believing and suggesting that they need to mature or haven’t matured yet. Incidentally, Brian McLaren made a comment about the African-American church/Christians not embracing the emergent movement because they were not “there” theologically. In similar fashion I believe this is a deep misunderstanding of the understanding, formation and practice of theology in different cultures. Tony, I think you would agree that God does not act only in the mental/intellectual aspect of our lives, but rather as whole people, I believe God is transforming us as human “beings” not human “doings” or human “thinkings” we are more complex than our minds. Also, I would argue that most of us actually make decisions out of an visceral response, for some the intellect may be the entree to the emotions, but the heart – perhaps better the holistic concept of soul, which is connected to our bodily selves – not the head seem to be what drives us (a good presentation of the Pentecostal faith, through more “intellectual” philosophy is James K.A. Smith’s “Thinking in Tongues”).

    – I don’t believe you intended to, but I believe there is some inherent hypocrisy in your fear of the Pentecostal Movement. The “Emergent” movement has also experienced the same xenophobia from “traditional” Evangelicals. I actually see a similar marginality from the traditional evangelical, though the “Emergent” movement has gotten more circulation because it is based in the U.S. and is a movement originating within traditional Evangelicalism rather than alongside.

    – Our Western euro-centric expression of Christianity is not the primary expression of the Christian faith in the world. I think we (me included) often deceive ourselves in thinking that our expression is the primary and central expression of faith, thus the “highest” or most developed, but if we are making up the rules by which we evaluate it is too easy to set up a rubric that fits our ways of understanding. I think we have to be very aware and careful about what we normalize.

    Those are just a couple of initial thoughts; I would love to know feedback/response.

    I feel compelled to address the issue of language. Tony I disagree with your perspective that she called you a borderline racist. Rather, I believe she suggested that your perspective was borderline racist. I partially agree with her, but think ethnocentric would be a better way of phrasing it because I think the xenophobia is bias is against both a non-White (racial) and non Euro-centric (cultural) expression of faith (ethno-centrism can and often includes racism). But in saying this I don’t think that qualifies you as a racist person, we all have the propensity to act in racist ways. There difference between being consistently prejudice and acts of prejudice may seem arbitrary in daily life, but I believe they are quite important (http://recoveringevangelical.com/2011/07/racist/). I think she said borderline because she was tentative to be honest about stating that she thought your ideas were racist – because when many folks do so we get lambasted, thus there is a deep lack of honesty in conversations about race/ethnicity because total honesty feels unsafe. So is there a difference? I don’t believe using the condition “borderline” changes the heart of what she is saying, the usage is more reflective of her discomfort in saying what she said in that context. Also in defense of the woman, I think she was pointing an a obvious (your White, Maleness) that isn’t always obvious for White males. Race and gender and the elements of power embedded in perspectives of such are not always understood by those in the majority or in power (in this country and generation White Males). You may be away of what privilege that gives you (I am not saying that you aren’t), but that woman did not know that. She was responding to your words and what – to her – felt like it was coming from a privileged position which didn’t fully consider the other.

    Not to harp on things already said to (and within) the Emergent movement, but there is a lack of engagement or understanding of the influence of immigrant groups, the African-American traditions, etc. I was excited to attend the event, but honestly, felt discourage (again), that a conversation about America’s Emerging Spiritualities was led by three White Christians. The conversation was supposedly about the American church as a whole, but where were the voices of non-White folks in the panel?

    Again, Tony I appreciate you and your openness and hope to hear more from you either on the blog of via email.

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  • I am a student at Fuller and friend of the woman who asked the question at the end of the Q/A time. I made some inflammatory comments about it on Facebook and was reminded that I was not there that night. (And rightly so!) After the video wast posted on Vimeo I watched it and posted my thoughts on my own blog.


    In short, I really identify with your desire to be honest, vulnerable and the use of a personal story or belief, even an unpopular but provocative one, to engage people in a conversation about a wider issue. I applaud you for this. I do much the same and as I really push the limits on this in my life and on my blog. For this I’ve been called both an agitator and an advocate.

    For what it’s worth, From what you intended to communicate alone, I do not think your words warranted her question/accusation/comment. However, how you said what you said, may have opened you up to her words. Maybe not. At the end of the day this is all in hindsight and it did spark conversation about Global Pentecostalism, theological colonialism and racism, but maybe not a conversation about a fear of change in the church as we go through titanic shifts in Christianity.

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  • Daryl

    We are finite beings swimming in the fishbowl of our culture. I see philosophy, science and religion change through the ages. At first there was oracles/prophets with name recognition as their authority. Next was modernity with math/geometry (logic) as its authority. You could call it the mechanical view of the universe. Currently its the Quantum (physics) view with the authority of observational statistical analysis coupled with the uncertainty principle. All are somehow part of the fabric of our soul. I am struck by Paul’s (Apostle/Oracle?) statement to Peter that they, the Jews, have the best culture not being sinners from among those Gentiles (wait that’s me!). But even the best culture of the age, informed by the law and prophets, is somehow insufficient. Their is the age old struggle in I Cor of being aligned with the right apostle or theological position. I wonder if this is the example of the perfect church where conflicts like this arise to test and strengthen us. Peace to us, in the midst who have been enriched in all speech and understanding b/c we are wrestling with stuff like this. You’re in my thoughts and prayers.

  • SavedsanctifiedfilledwiththeHolyGhsot

    Here’s how I see it. I was not at the talk on the night in question. I’ve read through this blog, and as an African-American woman, I feel a need to post my thoughts.

    I get what the speaker was attempting to convey through a rhetorical question? Does theological integrity (scholarly and intellectual) get tossed aside in the move of Pentecostalism. I’ve often wondered that when I visit mainline denominational Churches where the emotion of a message is often measure as a “Word from the Lord” versus the exegetical word spoken by the Spirit of the Living God. In the Black Church Experience, we often have ill-prepared preachers and pastors who do not study the Word in a way where the Spirit moves while utilizing a classical format to relay what God Is speaking. Yes, we must contextualize. When exogesis, however, becomes isogesis, there is a problem. Yes, the African-American Church has theologically-prepared leaders (lots and lots of them). The cross section of where both meet is why this conversation is being discussed on this thread. That withstanding, I can fully understand where this topic can become a racially-sensitive topic. I also agree that if the “race card” (kills me when ya’ll say that as if my community doesn’t experience racism) was tossed for consideration, perhaps there is some level of truth??? When one lives in a dominant culture where entitlement and privilege is the soup de jour, it is hard to hear, because truth bears accountability. J/S

    What I would like to say is that this may be a fine moment in time for Fuller to pull up its boot straps and get busy on racial reconciliation in the Church.

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