Racial Primitivism and Christian Emergence By Andy Smith

Randy Woodley recently critiqued the Emergence movement for hosting an upcoming conference that features only white speakers.  He calls on white Christians to boycott “whites only” conferences.   His call is important because he is asking evangelicals to finally take the project of dismantling white supremacy seriously.

However, a question arises, why would a movement that claims to critique the oppressive structures of Christian evangelicalism continue to support the logics of white supremacy?  While Emergence Christianity’s refusal to address racism is regrettable, this refusal is not particular to the Emergence movement.  Rather it demonstrates how deeply engrained white supremacy is.  Addressing racism goes beyond simply challenging racial “prejudices.”  Rather, it is about dismantling the way ideologies of white supremacy structure the very way we see the world in myriad ways.

In this particular case, the Emergence movement’s complicity goes beyond simply an inability to be “inclusive,” but in fact this movement is founded upon a logic of racial primitivism.  As Alexander Weheliye notes in his upcoming book, Habeas Viscus, [white] postmodern theory [upon which the emergent movement relies heavily] is completely indebted to the work emerging out of anti-colonial struggle.  Yet these anti-colonial thinkers are never discussed postmodern theorists.  Without the work of anti-colonialist and anti-racist thinkers who challenged the meta-narrative of manifest destiny, there would be no postmodern theory.  However, people of color are reduced to the add-on to the intellectual trends emerging out of Europe despite the fact that these European trends are actually the product of anti-racist work often centered in colonized and racialized communities.    After white postmodern thinkers incorporate the work of people of color, they then claim ownership of these ideas, disavow the contributions of people of color, and then feel entitled to ignore the continuing critiques of people of color because white theorists are the ones who can do the “real” analysis.

Similarly, the Emergence Christianity seems to forget that it is the work of people of color who challenged the meta-narrative of [white] evangelicalism that enabled Christian Emergence to develop in the first place.   Rather, people of color can only talk about their “identities” and “experiences.”  We need white evangelicals to talk about  Christianity or evangelicalism in general.  As a result, the analysis that then emerges from this movement is superficial because it fails to fundamentally address how white supremacy and colonialism are continuing to inform our Christian practice – even when we think we think we are being counter-cultural.

Even within evangelical strands that claim to support justice and social change, people of color are relegated to the task of “Native informant” or “ethnographic object” that white evangelicals can “learn from.”   White evangelicals are those who are capable of analysis and self-reflection; people of color are just there to enable the self-reflection of white evangelicals.   As long as we reduce the problem of race to one in which white evangelicals just need to get to know more people of color, we will fail to see how the logics of white supremacy actually inform the very way we define Christianity itself (including our critiques of it).    As Soong-Chan Rah’s germinal text, The Next Evangelicalism, notes: Christian evangelicalism, including Emergence Christianity, has become a disavowed white evangelicalism.

Thus, inviting people of color to evangelical conferences is the very minimum required of Christians.  Rather we must challenge the racial primitivism that is endemic within Christian evangelicalism in which the intellectual work of people of color is always viewed as the primitive precursor to the more “evolved” white evangelical analyses.   As Matthew 7:3 states “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your eye?”  While Emergence Christianity makes many important interventions in Christian evangelicalism, it is ignoring the plank of white supremacy that is clouding its vision.

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14 Responses to Racial Primitivism and Christian Emergence By Andy Smith

  1. somepcguy says:

    I find it interesting that you write about the failure of the Emergent Church movement to address its own racist presumptions while claiming that it rose up to confront the racism of traditional evangelical Christianity. What I find most interesting about that is the fact that the traditional evangelical Christians I know are excited about the critiques that Church leaders from developing nations have for the Church in the U.S.. Not only that, but they express anticipation of the day when those developing nations will be sending missionaries in large numbers to developed nations to build and/or strengthen the Church there. The most interesting part of this is that those traditional evangelicals almost never even notice that these Church leaders and missionaries from developing nations are “people of color” because they DO NOT CARE.

    • ethnicspace says:

      So, it sounds like you are saying this is not a problem?

      • somepcguy says:

        I am saying that if we focus on following the Gospel, then racism will not be a problem. Racism is merely a subset of a class of sins. If we focus on following Christ and his teachings, racism goes away. Racism is no more of a problem than other ways that we judge people on externals. Those who judge people on the basis of their ethnic background, rather than on the basis of their behavior, judge people of the same ethnic background as themselves on the basis of appearance as well. If we as Christians focus on following Christ and being led by the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves no longer noticing superficial things which divide us.

    • Some clarification as I do not want to assume too much. Do you believe that if we stop talking about racism then racism will stop being a problem? And secondly, is the “DO NOT CARE” that you reference a nod to being what many call being “color-blind?”

      • somepcguy says:

        I would say that we should address actual racism, that is areas where people negatively judge those who look differently than themselves. Too many times we talk about “racism” in contexts where what we really mean is that people from one culture reject behaviors of people from another culture. Discrimination based on behavior is not racism. It may or may not be wrong depending on what behavior we are basing our discrimination on. I do not believe it is generally useful to talk about “racism”. It is useful to talk about specific behaviors that may be a product of racism.

  2. ethnicspace says:

    We could be saying similar things or perhaps I see things very differently. Let me explain. I think we follow Christ in a world that has many problems, like racism and the structures that support it. Racism is ubiquitous, and it is especially unseen by those in the dominant culture (in America that means White folks). I think Christ takes us to those realities and we confront them in and through Christ and we work through them together. How does this happen?

    Educating ourselves past our cultural and personal blinders is one way the Spirit works. God also works through confronting these issues directly, especially among believers (i.e., the issue of the Greek speaking widows, the issue of Paul confronting Peter for his racism, the issue of Jews and Gentiles in the letter to the Romans, etc.). This is my (inadequate but) brief explanation of what it means for me to follow Jesus through this issue.

    • somepcguy says:

      Paul did NOT confront Peter about racism. Paul confronted Peter about an issue involving a clash of cultures. Your comment actually represents one of the biggest problems in addressing the issue of racism, too many people confuse conflicts which derive from people being from different cultures as being a conflict derived from racism.

  3. Bo Sanders says:

    Some PC guy, there are 3 problems in your thinking.
    1) You read the article wrong ;( The article doesn’t say “that it rose up to confront the racism of traditional evangelical Christianity” it says “that claims to critique the oppressive structures of Christian evangelicalism”. Those are not exactly the same thing. It is that kind of initial error that sets your argument on a bad trajectory.

    2) Your example of evangelical pastors is actually self referential. Pastors in a ‘sending’ system would be happy if those who they colonized bought in all the way and become ‘senders’. Of course that would make them happy and of course they don’t care about their color – that is the advantage of privilege. You get not to care about something you think doesn’t affect you.

    3) For you to call race a “superficial things which divide us” is shocking. Race-color has historically been a major defining issue and continues to carry of legacy of discrimination and alienation for so many in the midst of rich worth and pride. Race is a part of a person’s identity and a community’s collective soul. That is not superficial. That is deep – the opposite of superficial.

    Race & color are two things which are hugely influential, delighted in by God, and potentially has the power to propel us into the future that God has waiting for us! That is no small thing.


    • somepcguy says:

      Race is a modern construct. You appear to think that race is an inherent aspect of culture. Yet the evidence suggests that at the time of the New Testament, race, as we understand it today played little if any role in society. As late as the 13th and 14th Century there is no evidence that race played a role in human interactions.

  4. Symoighet Wii Namooth Gybau (Ivan D. Wells) says:

    Symoighet Wii Namooth Gybau,
    Ivan D. Wells

    August 26, 2012
    A thought occurred to me as I was reading this, is the scripture that reads:

    “7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a] and to still another the interpretation of tongues.[b] 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

    and, “4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.”, I wonder if its not the dismantling of ideologies of white supremacy structures, but to see if they have simply gone beyond what their “message” or “gifting” is? To say “dismantle” my car, I would not be able to drive anywhere, it would be a mistake to “dismantle” the “message” or “gifting” that our Lord has given our White brothers and sisters; they still have a working to do.

    As far as racism goes, I remember a time when Victoria and I were driving and listening to a Christian program on radio and the host spoke about the Jewish people wondering in the desert for 40 years and the fact that they were never going to enter the promise land until the last of the “fighting men” died. I believe this is the same case amongst ideologies, whether that is racism or exclusion, which strike up against minorities around the world. It certainly struck a cord in our hearts as we quickly looked at each other and understood, “the time is coming!” Perhaps this is when we will be working along side each other like the wolf and the lamb.

    • ethnicspace says:

      Thanks Ivan, I’m looking forward to that day, and I hope to be instrumental in working with the Spirit and the body to make it happen. Hope you all are well up north!

  5. Esther says:

    I am coming to recognize that the church has its own affirmative action program that I am now recognizing is a solution to finding ethnic voices in theology. It offers us (natives in my case) a foot in the door but unless you have made theology your life’s work morning, noon and night like those in power in theological circles, you simply don’t have a credible voice.

  6. Pingback: Theology Around the Blogosphere — August 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology

  7. Morgan Guyton says:

    So how do we do better than tokenism? That’s the thing that frustrates me about identity politics. It always ends up resulting in token gestures. We’ve got to invite this speaker to satisfy this group and that speaker to satisfy this other group, etc. I used to be a part of an “intentionally multiracial” congregation that ended up dying. It was all good when white and black were together but then the brown people showed up and the black folk resented how the white folk shifted their attention to the brown folk. It just seemed like we were overly self-conscious about working on race and we forget to be a church family. The Pentecostal movement is organically multicultural. They don’t seem to be engaged in a whole lot of overt identity politics but they sure do have a healthy-looking mix of people in their sanctuaries.

    For what it’s worth, I would love to be at a conference where James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez both spoke. They’ve taught more than any white people writing today about Christianity.

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