Tony Jones, Privilege, and Avoiding Digging a Deep Hole
I admit that I've been running hot and cold with Emergent figurehead Tony Jones the past few years. I've enjoyed a few of his books and have found some of his blog writing to be thought-provoking and informative. But then there are those other times, such as when he rips on mainline denominations or when he seems to pretend that the progressive strand of the emerging church came up with Biblical criticism and social justice on its own (but I've written about that at length before).
Last week, Jones made quite a bit of waves with a blog post entitled I'm Tired of Being Called a Racist, in which he shares several instances of being called out on things he has said during a couple public lectures.
In brief, the first instance mentioned was when an African-American woman addressed his suggestion that Pentecostalism in Latin America and South America could benefit from "being in dialogue with the older, more developed theologies of the West." The woman took that to mean that white Euro-American theology was being deemed superior to the theology of the Global South, saying "it's offensive, it's borderline racist, and it's very close-minded."
The second instance comes from another blog by Christena Cleveland. The "prominent leader" mentioned is Jones:
Last month I heard a prominent leader of a national movement of mostly white Christians give a talk in which he compared his group’s beliefs to various other Christian groups (including more ethnically-diverse groups). While extolling the virtues of his group’s beliefs he proudly proclaimed, “We have a better version of the Gospel.” Now I’m not interested in busting any one person’s (or group’s) chops, and in fact, I give him a lot of credit for saying publicly what many of us say behind closed doors and in our hearts. But as a minority group member sitting in the audience, I found his statement to be unfriendly to diverse voices.Jones did not react well to these two incidents, as you might imagine. And you can read his defense of himself in the referenced post. What's perhaps more educational is the comment section. 99% of the time I make it a general rule to avoid comments sections, but this is where the real dialogue happened as one person after another tried to get Jones to understand why these two women had the reactions that they did. He doesn't react well to what they say either, insisting that he was sharing an academic perspective and meant nothing racial by his remarks.
The latter, I think, is probably the problem for First World white guys like us. We have certain blind spots that non-whites, American or no, need to point out to us.
Why would an African-American woman react the way she did to Jones' suggestion that the Pentecostalism of the Global South is inferior to Western thought? Jones would likely make his case on theological grounds, but would be less likely to see the cultural issues that are also bound up in such assertions; the ethnic, economic, and racial differences that are also factors at play. His assertion does not seem to make much room for dialogue, even if that is the word he uses. Instead, it is a suggestion that "we" Westerners have something to teach "them."
The second instance is a little more tricky for me, as in context I see that Jones was trying to say that a progressive and inclusive version of the gospel is "better" than a more rigid one. However, Cleveland heard it in a particular way that made note of the diversity (or lack thereof) of the emergent movement vs. some of the movements he was critiquing. Can one truly extol a "better" version of the gospel from a point of view and grouping that is culturally homogenous?
When presented with questions and issues like these, we have at least two options. The first option is the one that Jones took, which is to insist that we didn't say anything wrong, that we were taken out of context, that we're tired of having the race conversation.
The second option is to ask for more information and to begin a dialogue, asking questions such as, "What about what I said did you find 'borderline racist?'" "How did you find my statement 'unfriendly to diverse voices?'" We could further explain ourselves without becoming defensive. And we could take time to check how our own points of view might be unconsciously influenced by our places of privilege in the First World.
In full disclosure, I've been where Jones is. I can recall several instances in seminary in particular. I recall one of the first class meetings of my Ethics course, taught by an African-American professor whose hire back in the day was ground-breaking for the seminary, during which I tried to make the case that people of non-white races could also be racist. This ended up being a lesson in knowing when to stop talking and listen instead. In another class during another semester, I recall helping give a book presentation, during which someone said, "I couldn't help but notice that all the presenters right now are white men," which started what was from my perspective a "teeing off" session on us by the rest of the class.
So I've seen it. On the one hand, I know some of the frustration that Jones felt when he wrote his post. But on the other hand, I know that there come times when asking for clarification or stopping to listen could get me a lot further and keep me from digging myself into a hole.
For instance, I look at Cleveland's post and am particularly interested in how she might suggest improving on what Jones said. I had a similar reaction as Jones did when I first read it, thinking, "That's not so bad in context. What's the problem?" But it becomes my responsibility to ask Cleveland and others what the problem is; to ask it from a non-defensive position.
Honestly, it seems to me that the main problem with what Jones wrote was simply how he wrote it. If it were me, I'd still want to explain myself and what I was trying to get it. Framing it with the title "I'm Tired of Being Called a Racist" probably wasn't a good start. I do think he has some legitimate objections, but if he'd come at it from more of a standpoint of "this is what happened, this is what I meant, please help me understand why it would be construed the way that it was," it would have led to a much different discussion than what ended up happening in the comments.