#WildGoose13: What should emergent Christianity do about its whiteness?

When people want to take potshots at emergent Christianity, an easy bullseye to tag is its alleged lack of racial diversity. There’s nothing that progressive white Christians agonize over more and bust more radical Jesus jukes about than the lack of racial diversity in our movements. What’s obnoxious is when racial diversity is pursued for contrived, self-legitimating purposes rather than as a genuinely pragmatic collaboration between communities like the kind taking place in North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement. So what should progressive white evangelicals do about their racial homogeny when there isn’t an organic catalyst for cross-racial community building?

When I was a freshman at the University of Virginia, I decided that I was going to personally bridge the gap between black and white in the Christian fellowship community. I was naive, arrogant, but more or less well-intentioned. I organized a big evangelism rally called the Lovefest and invited the black gospel choir to be the main worship/entertainment and for the keynote speaker, I invited Bruce Beard, the pastor of the black First Baptist in Charlottesville, Virginia (there was also a white First Baptist).

Though I didn’t disclose this to anyone, my cynical hunch that I remember having was that white liberals would listen to a black man talk about Jesus and a black choir sing about Jesus whereas they would be offended if white people did that. So I was in effect putting on a minstrel show as an evangelism tactic. Maybe that’s too brutal a way to put it. I did have what I thought was a genuine vision of black and white people coming together and so forth. But it was all very contrived and naive.

I actually attended Pastor Beard’s church for several months and took great pride in being the only white guy there. I remember a letter I wrote that never got a response from Pastor Beard. I don’t remember the actual contents except that it was very presumptuous and paternalistic and talked about my great white plans to save the black kids in the church from the ghetto or something equally despicable. To this day, I shudder with shame when I remember that letter.

There was a black guy named Christopher Brown who was the head of a campus fellowship group whose name I can’t remember. We were meeting regularly for lunch that spring of my freshman year to “bridge the gap between black and white” or some generic feel-good racial project like that. I don’t think there was any real substance to what we were doing other than giving me the ego trip of being the important white hero who could talk to the black people.

It’s those cringeworthy memories of a somewhat well-intentioned but very privilege-oblivious and racially ignorant 19 year Morgan that come to mind when I hear people getting worked up about not having enough black speakers at an emergent Christian conference or things of that nature. (I haven’t yet looked closely at the demographics of faces at Wild Goose this year though it is the reason this question comes to mind.)

Malcolm X told white people the best thing they could do to support black people was to go back into their own communities and educate other white people while letting black people do their own thing in their community. We definitely have very different contexts in which we fight our spiritual battles. So is it okay for emergent Christianity to be a mostly white movement that exists to help white evangelicals deprogram from some of the more toxic aspects of our theology which in some cases are actually a source of our racism? Don’t our counterparts in churches of other cultures and races have a completely different set of issues to work through? How do we compare notes and collaborate in meaningful ways rather than feel like we’re supposed to have a healthy color balance on our conference speakers page for our self-legitimation?

These are questions I don’t know exactly how to answer. Some of the most formative theology I’ve read has been black and Latino liberation theology: James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, Elsa Tamez, and my seminary theology professor J Kameron Carter. This is an ignorant thing to say aloud, but I do wonder sometimes if white progressive Christians are the ones who keep black and Latino liberation theology in business, like suburban white kids do with hip-hop, because the black and Latino pastors I know personally just don’t seem interested in the books I read that are written by others who look like them but seem worlds away theologically.

The pastors of other races with whom I have personal relationships at this point seem like they would consider liberation theology to be some form of communism. I’m too timid to bring it up with them. This doesn’t mean that I am unwilling to sit at their feet and learn from them, which I do, but there are places I don’t feel safe going (LGBT issues, my own ambivalence about consigning the Muslims and Buddhists to hell, etc). I usually just amen whatever I can in good conscience and we have good spirit-rich fellowship, but it’s not a space where I can really open up and explore full-throttle theologically.

It’s of course ridiculous to speculate about cross-cultural discourse in general based on my personal relationships. I just don’t feel like beating myself up anymore over the fact that, with a few important exceptions, I’m mostly talking to other white people when I really open up about my theology. I don’t want
that to be the case, but I feel funny about going out looking for more black people to talk theology with if there isn’t a more authentic purpose than to feel more racially legit.

Anyhow I’m not sure it needs to be a cause for anxious handwringing if emergent Christianity is in fact a mostly white response to a mostly white problem. The problem is when white progressive evangelicals falsely universalize our white people problems and imagine ourselves to be the center of Christianity (thank God the global church is getting browner every day!). But just because white ex-fundamentalist kids who stop going to church don’t speak for “all millennials” doesn’t mean that the only discourse which should exist is whatever lowest common denominator issue with which people of every race on the planet are equally concerned.

It will be awesome if there are lots of not-white people at Wild Goose this year. But if it’s mostly white people and we address some white people problems that make the world suck for other people, then that’s not a failure. I’m going to be mad if I see snobby blog posts trying to score radical Jesus juke points off the whiteness of Wild Goose if that ends up being the case. What does deserve critical
attentiveness is the ability of white dudes like me to set aside the messianic self-importance with which we have been socialized and be safe, hospitable conversation partners so that the table where we sit will be God’s table and not ours and all will be equally welcome.


16 thoughts on “#WildGoose13: What should emergent Christianity do about its whiteness?

  1. Pingback: #WildGoose13: What should emergent Christianity do about its whiteness? | LoneTomato808's Blog

  2. Great questions but might I suggest one edit:

    “Don’t our counterparts in churches of other cultures and races have a completely different set of issues to work through?”
    “Don’t our counterparts in churches of other cultures and races have different sets of issues to work through?”

    Yes, churches of other cultures have questions, but they aren’t completely different, just different. IMHO, the “completely” adjective perpetuates othering. And they’re also asking some of the same questions.

  3. When I was young and idealistic (as opposed to old and idealistic, today) I joined the Young Socialist Alliance because the leader in Los Angeles was a Black woman. I am a white male. There were lots of other reasons I joined, but the fact that Blacks and Latinos were centrally involved in leading that group said to me that they found something I saw was missing from Christianity. They were able to win adherents across racial lines. Analyzing that capacity some 30 years later, I think they were able to do that because they never refused to name the truth and they were social activists.
    Us ’emergers’ must remain committed to those two things. Name the truth and act on love. Naming the truth is where we are heading, for sure, but it’s tough. Who wants to be branded as a heretic? Only those who follow Him will be so named. Tell me honestly that when Jesus says we will be persecuted for telling the truth you don’t try to ignore it. I try to. I don’t want to be persecuted. But I have to plan for it if I am going to swim in the deep end.
    And acting love means going to scary places; slums, ghettos, prisons, hospices, mosques even. Figure it this way, “if it isn’t scary, you are in the wrong place”, and then you will end up where you are supposed to be most of the time.
    And I think this is true on every level. Sunday worship has to be made scary in the best possible way. If actually experiencing God with dozens or hundreds of other God-seekers isn’t scary good then you are missing out on the good stuff. If you aren’t close to tears in the presence of the Lord try harder.
    And then just remember how irresistible Jesus’ love for you is. You just can’t beat it. So go forward into the darkness whistling.
    This is what I tell myself.


    Who are those who are included in salvation? All men who believe and obey what the apostle Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost are saved. It does not make any difference what denominational name is written on the church building where you worship, if you obey the gospel preached by Peter, then, you are saved, you are a member of the Lord’s church, you are part of the church of Christ, you a member of the body of Christ, you are a Christian.

    What did Peter preach?
    1. Peter preached that Jesus was a miracle worker. (Acts 2:22)
    2. Peter preached that Jesus was resurrected from the dead by God the Father.(Acts 2:24-35)
    3. Peter preached that Jesus was both Lord and Christ.(Acts 2:36)
    When the three thousand believe Peter, they asked “What shall we do?”(Acts 2:37)
    4. Peter told them to repent and be baptized in order to have their sins forgiven.(Acts 2:38)

    This is the same message Jesus preached. (Mark 16:16 “He who believes and is baptized will be saved….)

    THE TERMS FOR PARDON ARE: Faith-John 3:16, Repentance-Acts 2:38, Confession-Romans 10:9-10, Baptism (immersion in water) 1 Peter 3:21

    All who meet the terms for pardon are saved regardless of the denominational name on the church building.

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. Google search>>>>steve finnell a christian view

    • It doesn’t seem like you’re interacting with my blog so much as link-spamming me. How do you feel like what you just commented is a response to my post?

  5. I appreciate your reflection on Malcolm X’s words, race, and Emergence Christianity. I think Malcolm’s advice can only be used situationally. If there is a history of conflict between two people groups, space ought to be given first, but only for the sake of reconciliation. Separation is not permanent (at least not in my vision, if its ever the choice to take). Ultimately, all Christians, black and white, need to work for reconciliation and intercultural worship.

    • Separation should definitely not be permanent. I think we have to get based surface level guilt based thinking to seeking genuine solidarity. My hope is that if we see our vocation as disciples as solidarity then we will end up with a diverse movement but not for shallow tokenistic reasons.

  6. Your thoughts near the middle about progressive black/latino theologians being ignored by black/latino churches touched upon a concern I’ve had about Christianity’s expansion into the Third World. I worry if evangelism in these areas is merely imposing Americanized evangelical theology without allowing for robust, authentically native expressions of theology to grow on their own. (Documentaries like “God Loves Uganda” come to mind.) I don’t want to sound paternalistic, but I wish there was a way to expand the perspective of many black/latino churches beyond American evangelicalism.

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