The Common Good

Turning the Tables of White-European-Male-Privilege: 'Our' Tables, 'Their' Tables, and New Tables

[Read more of this blog conversation in response to the Sojourners article "Is the 'Emerging Church' for Whites Only?"]

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Lisa Sharon Harper gets it right in her recent open letter. She responds to important conversations being raised around Soong-Chan Rah's recent book and Sojo piece.

Some folks won't go there, but others of us, for conscience's sake, have to grapple with the issue of Christendom and colonialism -- and the inherent white-European-male-privilege with which Christendom has been historically and theologically complicit.

As Lisa explains, the Christians who have opened this discussion have been largely non-white and non-male. Sooner or later, white folks like me -- especially the white males like me who have held the vast majority of the power in the Christian religion in all its main forms -- have to decide if we are willing to become peers with our non-white, non-male sisters and brothers. We have to decide -- not just if we will give "them" a place at "our" table, but if we will go join "them" at "their" table -- perhaps someday together forming new tables where "us" and "them" disappear into a larger "us."

Are we who have had the majority of power willing to learn to see the world from the perspective of the sub-altern (or marginal, non-privileged)? Are we willing -- not simply to bring "the other" into our field of hegemony and homogeneity, enhancing our "diversity" (which can too easily simply be another form of colonization) -- but to enter into the space created by those who have suffered under our hegemony and homogeneity? Are we willing to see margins as horizons?

Here's how I expressed the issue in the last chapter of A New Kind of Christianity:

As we've seen, the term Christianity (like its cousin orthodoxy) has too often camouflaged something quite foreign to Christ and his message, something that is more the problem than the solution: a fusion of Greek philosophy and Roman power, alloyed or adorned with elements drawn from the Bible, which is interpreted and applied in ways that often betray Jesus' life and teaching. Its defenders have unofficially mandated that when people try to modify that Greco-Roman orthodoxy, they must wear an adjective that brands them as aberrant, like a scarlet "A" sewn on their soul. For example, when theologians read the Bible through the lens of the Exodus narrative, they are called "liberation theologians," but their counterparts who read it through the Greco-Roman narrative are never labeled "domination theologians" or "colonization theologians." Similarly, we have "black theology" and "feminist theology," but Greco-Roman orthodoxy is never called "white theology" or "male theology." Having become utterly normative for most of us, it's just "theology." (p. 256)

I then acknowledge that even my book's clumsy modifier "a new kind of" can simply be a way of letting those in power tolerate diversity without addressing the deeper issues of violence, racism, colonialism, sexism, and imperialism that lie unacknowledged or hide undetected within hallowed words like Christianity, Evangelical, Mainline, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on.

So, thank God for Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, Tony Jones, Gabriel Salguero, and others who have waded into this profoundly and painfully important subject. The process is awkward and messy at times, but as my friend Randy Woodley says in The Justice Project, the key issue is to stay at the table when you're hurt and offended and misunderstood and made uncomfortable.

May we all -- especially those of us who are white and/or male -- come and stay at the table, pause to listen before we react, take a deep breath to expand before we contract, and prayerfully remain open before we shut down. Because now, I'd say, is when the emergent conversation (whatever it's called) could get more interesting and important than ever.

On a happy note, just as I was reading through this important thread of conversation, I received the announcement of this November's emergent village theological conversation. The topic and speakers -- as well as the makeup of the emergent village council -- bring joy to my heart, and speak to a hopeful future. We all live in the creative tension of progress made and a long way yet to go.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is an author and speaker whose new book is A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. This post is excerpted from a longer entry on his blog.

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