Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where things stand

Today was a busy day. I got to talk about Emergent Christianity and Race with some reporters from a pretty major magazine. Want to hear some of my answers?

I'm unwilling to make broad statements about what Emergents do and don't do when it comes to race. My pastor said once that our church would attract more non-white people when we became people with non-white friends. I use this example to say that the Emrgent movement is a decentralized movement. Different communities do different things. In the core group of 40 people at my own church, I was able to identify 14 non-white people, 4 of whom were immigrants. That's 35%. And yet the idea persists that the Emergent movement is predominantly white.

Some of that perception comes from the fact that it seems like the old guard is handing over the keys to the (material) kingdom to the Emergent darlings. This may or may not be true. Sure, a dying Presbyterian church in San Francisco gave their building to an Mission Bay, an emergent church in the area. But Mission Bay is pastored by Bruce Reyes-Chow. Yup. Sounds like a WASP. Did I mention that this Filipino/Chinese-American pastor later became the leader of the entire Presbyterian denomination?

But even if we accept that premise that Emergents are getting preferential treatment and it's proven because they get all the book deals, it's hard to blame them for that. Would turning down the book deals change the system or just let the status quo be the only voice heard? I think many of us are at least mindful of our privilege and are trying to leverage it even if we don't always succeed. When the journalists approached me, I asked them to speak also to the African-American emergent community in the south suburbs.

The problem is that Emergence is not a new denomination in the old model. It's a paradigm shift away from hierarchical church organizations that emphasize common beliefs in order to be consider a member of the community to flat organic networks that try to break down the walls between insider and outsider by respecting all experiences and their resultant beliefs. When a hierarchical system tries to pass on material goods to a decentralized system, the confusion that results can easily make folks resort to tribal instincts. When studying for my degree, I found that there are plenty of studies that show that at our deepest level, tribalism affects economic decisions. We do the best we can to receive it in good faith and to try to spread the wealth around but walking away from the chance to change the world is disrespectful to the people who still need the world changed (i.e. people without privilege). It simply allows the old systems to reproduce a new generation of oppression.

Like my pastor said, racial reconciliation is done by transforming individuals. I think folks in the Emergent movement are all at different points on the path to enlightenment about white privilege (remember, many members of the Emergent movement are non-white). We don't have an equivalent to the evangelical CCDA movement. I'm lucky enough to be involved in both but many Emergent folks aren't ready to be surrounded by a belief-based system in order to get the tools they need to do racial reconciliation (of course, no one in CCDA really knows for sure how to do it, either). Think how long Evangelicalism had to be around before those resources coalesced. We're only 15 years old and yet there is an expectation that we should be perfect in how we engage the world. We won't be. But we want to improve. So, I suppose if folks want to help the Emergent movement be better citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven when it comes to race, they will help create tools for how Emergent communities can help their people become the kind of people who have non-white friends. Not a lot of people want to help. Most want to feel threatened and so lash out. That's OK. They are on their own path, too.

On another note, I spend a lot of my time reminding people within the Emergent movement that we are not a small band of rebel fighters. This is not Star Wars lived large. Lots of people espouse similar ideas to lots of different demographic communities. I cited some examples when I spoke to the reporters today. I think very few people inside the movement would claim that we have any monopoly on the truth. That would be a new denomination in the old model. Instead, we are part of a societal shift and a few of us just happened to find each other and cluster together in the tumult.

Emergence is a label that some people need to help them on their spiritual journey. It allowed me to have a powerful sense of belonging, finally, in a spiritual community. It allows lots of people to signal who they are without going into long explanations: a shorthand almost. It functions like a handful of balloons on ribbons in a crowd and helps folks who have just read Brian McLaren or Shane Claiborne and felt a great sense of liberation look around and connected with like-minded folks.

There is some talk about how the Emergent movement is dying. It may be. All movements have life cycles and over centuries these life cycles seem to be getting shorter. If Catholicism begat Protestantism which begat Evangelicalism which begat Emergence, it makes sense that our life cycle might already be over. And that's OK. The ideas will live on. You can't go back to the cell once you have tasted liberation. I will continue calling myself Emergent for as long as it means something to the people to whom I am identifying myself. I said something like the following to the reporters today (although less thought-out and coherent) and later wrote this email:
It seems like if there were a seismic shift in the movement that people were responding to, I would have felt it. So, if the movement has not changed, then people [who are declaring their abandonment of the movement] must be responding to their own internal transformations and that's OK. But as it stands, the part of the movement that I resonate with is the part that puts the words "heresy" and "wrong thinking" up on the shelf since they are often tools a hegemony uses to force people to conform to subservient social positions. God gave us all the ability to engage with her and to reflect on that experience. Emergence acknowledges that all of those experiences are valid, even if they are different and lead to different theologies. I believe that God will transform heresy and wrong thinking through the grace of Jesus and the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This relieves me of the burden of saving other people from themselves, or even of judging them.
I like when I can write something like that.

It's been a big thinking day and I like that, too. I got a lot done at work and a lot done in my soul and that's a good place to be in life.

No comments: