Because I like to go against the grain, I wanted to try to stick up for Tony Jones (or sympathetically deconstruct him?) since he’s taken a lot of heat (here, here, here, here) in the progressive Christian blogosphere lately for his exhibition of white male privilege, most recently a rant about “being called a racist.” I’m less interested in arguing with anyone else’s criticisms or reflections which have generally been useful and thoughtful than I am in looking more deeply at the specific context that got Tony into trouble for better diagnostic and learning purposes. Basically, the “emergent” theology that appeals to post-evangelicals who grow up in a privileged context is very different than the theology that attracts the poor in the Global South, with whom emergent post-evangelicals desperately want to be in solidarity and whose theological dissonance is a huge source of anxiety. This is what I would call the white emergentsia’s “Pentecostal problem.”
I’ve been engaged in solidarity work with Latin America since I graduated college in 2000 through various positions in NGO’s, labor unions, campus anti-sweatshop campaigns, etc. Through this work in conjunction with its social justice-oriented faith-based supporters, I was introduced to the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, Jose Miguez Bonino, Elsa Tamez, and others. It was huge for me to hear a different side of Jesus’ cross as solidarity with what liberation theologians call the “pueblo crucificado,” the idea that Jesus died not only to pay for individual peoples’ sins but also to show the victims of the world’s structural sin that He absorbed the full weight of their oppression into His flesh and He was standing with them.
Though I’m not as familiar with emergent theology as I am with liberation theology, it seems from what I’ve encountered that emergent theology has been heavily influenced by liberation theology though of course it’s been appropriated for a different purpose given the particular white Christian theological battle into which emergent theology is deployed.
I don’t have time to do justice to the history of liberation theology, but it basically rose up in the context of the Roman Catholics’ second Vatican Council in the late Sixties. There was a movement early on to establish kingdom-oriented Christian Base Communities on the local level where people would live in conformity with the model of Acts 2 where the disciples shared their possessions and made sure that everyone in their community was cared for. But the Christian Base Community movement never really seemed to catch on too well.
Then in the 1980’s, two things happened at the same time. First, the US government got heavily involved in fighting communism in Central America, which involved supporting military dictatorships that massacred their people in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador and supporting a rebel group called the Contras that engaged in acts of terrorism and sabotage to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. At the same time, a massive influx of right-wing Pentecostal missionaries from the US flooded Latin America. There were confirmed meetings between the Reagan administration and Pentecostal church officials and a lot of rumors about the level of coordination between them, though it’s an overly cynical error to lump the Reagan Contra regime and the Pentecostal missionary movement too closely together.
In any case, today Latino liberation theology seems to have become a theology that purports to be derived in the experience of the poor in Latin America when it really comes from those members of the Latin American privileged class who want to support the poor, while Pentecostalism has exploded as the form of Christianity that dominates the street of the pueblo. The relationship between liberation theology and the white emergentsia is like the relationship between hip-hop and suburban white kids. The crisis that Pentecostalism poses to the white emergentsia’s sense of legitimacy is analogous to the crisis white suburban teenagers would have if black people stopped listening to hip-hop and took up disco or something.
The Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios-Montt is probably the most famous example of Latin American Pentecostalism that makes white emergentsia cringe. He took over Guatemala in a coup in 1982, basing his policy on his apocalyptic interpretations of the book of Revelation. He would hold national prayer meetings in the soccer stadiums in Guatemala City while his troops were slaughtering indigenous rebels in the mountains. He’s finally under house arrest but has never had to really pay for the crimes against humanity that he committed which were all endorsed by the elders of his Pentecostal megachurch.
There’s a tendency for white emergentsia like me and Tony to assume that patriarchal, egomaniacal autocrats like Rios-Montt are quintessential representatives of Latin American Pentecostalism. That, I suspect, is the basis for Tony’s cringe-worthy paternalistic statement that he “think[s] the nascent Pentecostalism practiced in much of the Global South would benefit from being in dialogue with the older, more developed theologies of the West.” It doesn’t make his statement right, but I think it’s helpful to acknowledge the probable back-story.
It’s very easy for white post-evangelicals who organize the world into a Cold War between us and the fundamentalists (e.g. Tony’s statement that “conservative, Reformed, penal substitutionary, anti-gay, anti-women evangelicals have been consistently kicking our asses in the public square”) to appropriate a surface-level assessment of Latin American Pentecostalism in which it’s entirely a conspiracy of the most egregious Reagan era far-right culture warriors in Pentecostal-land like Pat Robertson to keep the brown people poor by hypnotizing them with cheap, shiny magic tricks.
Basically we superimpose our intra-racial white religious battles on the entirety of the rest of the world assuming that they have to be on our side or the other side and they have to share the existential concerns of white Christianity. It doesn’t occur to us that Latin American Pentecostalism may have been kindled by white right-wing (or perhaps not even political at all) Pentecostal missionaries but it doesn’t necessarily have to share their political perspective because of the entirely different context in which it has been planted.
White rich people are going to appropriate an apocalyptic theology that feasts on signs and wonders in a completely different way with completely different motives than poor brown people. It also doesn’t occur to us that this may be a legitimate movement of the Holy Spirit and not just a Ralph Reed-orchestrated conspiracy to turn Latin America into a giant oil field and coffee plantation for the Koch Brothers to own.
One of the reasons I can’t buy into the oversimplified suspicion of Pentecostalism any more is because God decided to make me start speaking in tongues last fall, which I still haven’t figured out what to do with. It’s completely out of sync with who I always thought I was. Plus, I’ve been introduced to Pentecostals in the US like Jonathan Martin and Brian Zahnd who are preaching a purer gospel than I’ve found anywhere else. I’m definitely very ignorant of what’s really going on with Pentecostals in Latin America, but God has made it impossible for me to see them as “the other side.”
So all this is just to say there’s a lot more to learn and a lot more context to Tony Jones’s comments than just “privileged white guy acting ignorant.” Did he make some boneheaded statements? Yes. Did he handle things with the right posture and tone? No, and I haven’t either on many occasions. So instead of using this controversy as an opportunity to showcase how much more progressive and enlightened you are in your anti-oppression training than Tony Jones is, let’s dig into the underlying issues and try to find what God has to teach us.