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Diverse voices: a defense of Tony Jones

29 May 2013

Any of my readers who inhabit churchland, particularly the nice new neighbourhood they call the Emergent Village, may perhaps be familiar with the mini-controversy circling around theologian, blogger, and self-described ‘incarnational Christian’ (for the record, the quotes are because the term is a neologism which Jones himself advocates, I’m actually rather fond of it in principle, though not especially enamoured of its phonoaesthetic qualities) over comments he made and/or how they were interpreted by others.

Regardless of context or intent, this is race-baiting.

Regardless of context or intent, this is race-baiting.

First, the back-story: perhaps a month ago Jones gave a talk at which he compared ‘his’ (re: the emerging church’s) ‘version of the gospel’ favourably with the conservative evangelical ‘version’ which dominates Christian public discourse in North America today. On 15 May, Christena Cleveland, an attendee at his talk, published an entry in her Diversity Repellent series, which condemned Jones’ words. Attached to her comments was the delightfully provocative image you see to the left. The image doesn’t really speak to my point, so let my caption be the sum of the comments on it for now. It’s relevant to note that Cleveland originally misquoted Jones severely, representing his as saying that he had the best version of the Gospel. When Jones protested this point Cleveland changed her quote, though not her url or her comments. The controversy has more or less died down in the intervening week and Jones has defended himself with a pair of short accounts which outline his understanding of the core of the gospel, under the headings of liberation and reconciliation. I think that Jones’ defenso sui was very good and I invite you to follow the links and read what he has to say. However, since I meet one Cleveland’s criteria of diversity I thought I might weigh in on her initial critique myself.

The essence of Cleveland’s point was that Jones’ words were ‘unfriendly to diverse voices,’ because he was saying that a movement dominated by educated white men had such a great version of the gospel that no other input was needed. Cleveland’s actual post mainly addresses racial diversity but she provides “women, people of colour, [and] people without advanced degrees” as examples of ‘diverse people.’ [1] I cannot help but notice that she at no point raises the issue of sexual and gender diversity beyond considering women ‘diverse’ in contrast to men. Though not wishing to impugn her integrity (and I mean that), I feel the need to point out that doing so would have undermined her point, as the emergent church in general, and Tony Jones in particular, has been consistently pro-queer in its positions and queer persons feature among its leadership considerably more than in most church or theological movements and institutions. The language with which she discusses women and men is more than a little cisnormative but I am willing to chalk that up to the the accidents and conventions of language rather than imputing any active (or even passive) cissexism to Cleveland personally. Still, I think her language, if not her understanding (I don’t know enough of Cleveland to speak to the latter), of ‘diversity’ is sorely lacking. She seems to use it in opposition to notions of ‘majority culture’ and ‘cultural group identity’ cannot but seem shortsighted when they are deployed through an exclusively racial prism (a Cleveland’s provocative choice of image to accompany her critique of Jones says very clearly that race is the matter at hand).

But, to the heart of the matter. Speaking as a person of colour, [2] if a well-educated male one, raised in a church (and broader) culture which was majority white, heteronormative, and dominated by cismen, I agree with Christena Cleveland’s fundamental point but take issue with how she makes it. To be clear, I think she is wrong about Tony Jones. Jones very clearly said that the emergent church has the better version of the gospel than the conservative evangelical church culture and I defy her to disagree, even in reference to her point. Her more fundamental point, that the voices of a more diverse group of Christians is needed by most, if not all (in fact, let’s just go with all), churches and church cultures. But that doesn’t mean that some church culture which are not typically diverse in some respects can’t be better ones. The most positive church experiences of my life came about from leaving the comparatively racially diverse High Church Anglican church culture in which I was raised to become part of a church plant by my diocese, whose theological culture was far more in the direction of emerging and evangelicalism than I was really comfortable with at first, to be perfectly honest. The culture was also open, socially progressive, and radically welcoming. It was more sexually and age diverse than any parish I had ever seen. It was also dominated by whites: for a while I was the only person of colour who called that parish my own. White-dominated or not, the gospel I encountered in that community was the most positive, life-affirming, and personally moving that I have ever known. It definitely stood to benefit from ‘diverse voices’ but its gospel was truer than any conservative Black Church or racially diverse mid-Western megachurch that preaches fire, brimstone, and particular redemption. Saying so does not imply that blacks need not apply.

Does the emerging church need more diverse leadership? Yes. The emerging church is a powerful and positive movement that stands to shape Christianity for the future and it can only do a better job of that if and when a multitude of perspectives contribute to its ideas, its discussions, and its goals. Does the emerging church recognise this? Yes but not enough. While there have been admissions by its putative leaders that the dominance of the movement by straight, white, cisgender men from the post-industrial world with fancy degrees from prominent American schools is less than ideal, more recognition needs to be make of the contributions that other voices stand to make to the movement and more needs to be done to invite those voices in. Does the emerging church have a better version of the gospel than the conservative protestantism that dominates theological discourse, especially in the Anglosphere? Yes. The retrograde, culture warring discourse of conservative evangelicalism promotes an exclusivistic, world-denying gospel that reinforces privilege and scuttles social progress. The emerging church’s focus on praxis, it’s world-affirming theologies, and embrace of human diversity represents the direction which Christianity needs to take. Is Tony Jones blind to his own privilege? Yes, we all are. Privilege is, by it’s nature, transparent. We can, as Jones does, strive to be aware of it and to overcome it but we can never do so, not completely. It Tony Jones a racist? No.

Notes

[1] The way Cleveland uses the adjective ‘diverse’ strikes me uncomfortably as though she is describing individual people, rather than describing a diverse group of people. The feeling is too inchoate to justify a proper critique, though.

[2] If my person of colour ‘credentials’ are relevant to you, I am mulatto (a person of mixed white and black ancestry). My father is a black West Indian immigrant to Canada and my mother a white (largely Northern Irish) Canadian. In some circles that makes me a ‘first generation’ mulatto, as opposed to a member of a mulatto ethnic community. While I identify as mulatto I still refer to myself as black since that is the racial community into which I am generally sorted and whose racialised concerns I share. It’s best not to get me started on how/why I am allowed to call myself black but not white.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 May 2013 3:44 pm

    Such a fine post, Matthew. I appreciate the challenges as well as the support.

    • 31 May 2013 4:12 pm

      I’m glad you liked it, Tony. Race is such an emotive issue and accusations, even implications, of racism so damning that serious, reflective discourse about it is frustratingly elusive. Hopefully my reflections can contribute a bit to that discussion.

      I’ve actually been thinking about it further and in particular about an idea I’ve had for a while about the moral authority of oppression and intersectionality. In brief, it is my observation that among the ‘oppressed’ and their/our allies there exists a tendency to ascribe moral authority to individuals according to how many vectors of oppression they experience. The opinions of a white, straight, cisgendered man lack the authority of those of a queer blogger of colour, for example, but both are trounced by a lesbian transwoman of colour. This seems to stem from the justified position that experiencing oppression qualifies you to speak to it in a way which an ally, no matter how intentioned, cannot. From experience comes a degree of moral authority on an issue which an outsider can’t possess. The problem is when we assume that any person speaking to a vector of oppression which they experience is right in virtue of that experience and the more vectors a person experiences, the more right he or she must be (because intersectionality trumps, though the reasoning behind this part of the idea escapes me).

      I observed this dynamic in a lot of the comments on your blog. People assumed that Cleveland was right about you and race because you’re white and she’s black, you don’t experience institutional racism and she does. She spoke, so it was your job to listen and learn. They seemed to think that in defending yourself you were invalidating her experience of diversity, or lack thereof, and therefore engaging in what we in certain circles call a discourse of privilege (though I’m probably imposing that category on most of the commenters).

      I’ll be honest: I don’t know exactly what that half-formed observation contributes to the discussion.

  2. 1 June 2013 12:36 am

    Thank you very much for this, especially the careful choices you’ve made with language, argument, and critique.

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