Today, I’m taking a brief break from my coverage of the Christian homeschool movement in order to weigh in on another controversy plaguing the Christian blogosphere. Yesterday, Emergent theologian and pastor Tony Jones defended himself against recent accusations of racism by noted African American pastor and psychologist Dr. Christena Cleveland. On her personal blog, Cleveland addressed Jones’ public assertion that he, and other Emergents, had identified the most accurate interpretation of the Gospel. Cleveland’s critique of this remark is based on certain incontrovertible truths: that the Emergent movement is dominated by white men, and that Jones, as a member of this class, possesses the highest possible degree of social privilege. In a theological context, this cultural hierarchy is informed by centuries of Christian collusion with political imperialism, domestically and in the developing world. Historically, white men (particularly straight white men) have enforced interpretations of Christianity that deliberately marginalize the Other in the name of doctrinal purity. This tendency is evident from the beginnings of Christianity onwards; it is particularly evident in the missions movement.
It is to this marginalization that Dr. Cleveland reacts, and rightfully so. Her criticisms of Jones are historically grounded, and reveal the privilege inherent in Jones’ claim that he, and by extension his movement, provide the most accurate interpretation of Christianity. There is a presumption of superiority embedded in this claim, and in Jones’ defensive response to Cleveland’s critique. Jones asserts that he is ‘tired’ of being called a racist, and as blogger Sarah Moon reports, he turns up in the comment section of his piece to provide the following suggestions for anti-racist work: “Let’s work on dismantling those systems. We can do so by 1)stop calling each other racists and 2) stop lecturing people who are just like us.”
Moon provides an excellent take down of Jones’ arrogant reaction to Cleveland’s critique; she rightly points out that Jones is wrong to believe that he, a person of privilege, has the authority to correct people of color on the appropriate direction of anti-racist work. In his response to Cleveland, Jones complains that progressive Christians “pussyfoot” about their convictions; the implication is that Cleveland, and Christians who agree with her, are willing to sacrifice sound doctrine to the conservative bogeyman, political correctness. By extension, this also implies there is nothing doctrinally valid about Cleveland’s critique, which further marginalizes an already repressed perspective. Tony Jones hasn’t simply refused to acknowledge his privilege: he is actively strengthening it at the expense of people of color.
This is also evident in his assertion that Pentecostal theology is ‘weak’, made two years ago at Fuller Seminary. Jones claims this is merely an honest representation of an intellectual disagreement, but his language is telling. Rather than specifically state that intellectual disagreement, he issued a blanket condemnation that implied the intellectual superiority of his own theological beliefs. He even repeats this perspective in yesterday’s post: “I made a statement of preference, that I think the nascent Pentecostalism practiced in much of the Global South would benefit from being in dialogue with the older, more developed theologies of the West.”
Our preferences aren’t formed in an intellectual void. The Pentecostalism of the global South has a distinct history, greatly influenced by the legacy of Western colonialism. The relationship between the South and the West hasn’t been shaped by dialogue, but by imperialism, and if dialogue is the goal, the onus of compromise is on the West, not on the South. Additionally, dialogue is impossible as long as the West continues to assert its intellectual superiority to the South. The Pentecostalism of the Global South is correctly considered a syncretic belief system, and that syncretism ought to be viewed as a colonized culture’s attempt to retain agency in the face of Western Christianity’s theological colonialism.
In my master’s dissertation, I argued that Western missionary and aid efforts in the South constitute a theological colonialism, an imperialism ultimately shaped and directed by doctrinal beliefs rather than the political interests of the state. I believe that Jones should be considered an advocate of this theological colonialism, and that in response, Christians committed to anti-racist work ought to consider a postcolonial theology. This theology ought to be primarily shaped by marginalized voices, and should acknowledge the influence of social attitudes on this consuming emphasis on doctrinal purity. It’s time for the Tony Joneses of Western Christianity to take a step back and allow people of color to helm the discussion. His refusal to do so does, despite his protestations, make him a racist.
Jones closed his piece with the complaint that he is also tired of being called a misogynist. There’s no evidence yet that he’s willing to relinquish his position of power.