Commentary: Tony Jones being “Borderline Racist”

A couple weeks ago I went to a very interesting session at Fuller Seminary on “Emerging Spiritualities in the American Church.” The key speakers were Tony JonesLauren Winner, and Phyllis Tickle. During the session there was some commentary about Tony’s perspective of the growth of Pentecostalism in the Global South. By his own admission, Tony, is pretty skeptical of the movement and has a number of critiques, but his comment at this session was actually asking if he was being unfair with his perception. Unfortunately his concern was never really directly addressed and near the end of the time a woman came to the mic and expressed disagreement and concern over his caricature and fear of pentecostalism (herself being one who moved from a “traditional” United Methodist Church to a more pentecostal tradition and has found incredible growth and spiritual enrichment) she also considered his perspective “borderline racist”. Her comments were not really addressed well, but a couple weeks later Tony added a post to his blog entitled “On Being Called a (Borderline) Racist.” Below is the question he asked and my response to the entire incident (which I just posted on his blog).

Tony’s Post

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.”

My Response – I respond to more than Tony’s direct question.

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 Gentile 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 Lauren 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 entrée 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. The 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 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.