Can we really opt out? (Joe)

21 May
I just ordered a copy of Soong-Chan Rah’s new book, “The New Evangelicalism” and am eager to take a look at his take on the Western world’s racial/ethnic struggles and their consequences for the Church.  Before I delve into the book though, I was struck by a conversation going on about the book in response to a blog post review of it.  The reviewer, Julie Clawson, is a thoughtful blogger and author involved with the emerging Church conversation.  A few quotes from the discussion in the comboxes of her post intrigued me.
I think emergent raises important theological issues. My main criticism is evangelicalism’s (and the Christian media’s) rush to declare the emerging church as the next new thing — without considering that there is a significant move of God outside of the white, Anglo community.
-Soong-Chan Rah
One other question I have that has be gnawing at me in this discussion. Should race trump theology? Should submitting to the spiritual leadership of other races be more important than the theology one believes?
-Julie Clawson
…being emergent definitely includes a concern for racial diversity in the church, but it’s not limited to that, and I’m not willing to sacrifice all those other issues for the sake of only one.
-Mike Clawson
What I think comments like these reflect is the tension that occurs when trying to address multiple “good things.”  Race/Ethnicity is a good and necessary issue for the Church to deal with.  So are economic, environmental, and gender issues.  So what happens when you only have 24 hours in a day and have to make decisions about where to focus?  What happens when you only have certain kinds of skills, and a particular exposure to knowledge, can you really tackle all these good and necessary things?  I understand the dilemma, but I believe it starts prematurely when we start thinking about cultural issues by circumscribing our schedule, our gifts, our talents and opportunities.  By doing so, its very easy to get locked in the same either/or thinking that emerging folks oppose in mainstream Protestantism (whether its mainline, evangelical, pentecostal or anabaptist forms).  It’s hard to hear our neighbor or trust that God has provided some means at our disposal to be in relationship with them if we have already called out our limits.  I find it most distressing when we fall back on the niche arguments of  “Well those issues just aren’t my call.” or “well this is really my passion”. 
I wonder if we realize the kind of theological statements we are in fact making when we decide to outsource cultural issues in this way, or decide that our engagement will be categorically conditional on theological agreements.  Is that the way we really live things out?  My hunch is that in the by and by of daily life we don’t.  Is that really the way Julie lives her life?  From her writings, I’d say no.  But if we make these kinds of statements they do open the door to misperception.  For instance, I’ve seen congregations that would welcome and affirm LGBT people without question, but the thought of worshipping with African Americans or Latinos makes them squeamish and they declare it verboten.  They like to reach out and serve, but are nervous about submitting when it comes to ethnic minorities.  Conversely, I’m also aware of the gender, LGBT and economic class issues that exist in many flora of ethnic Churches in the US and globally.  No one has all the right answers.  There is enough critique to go around and many other books are necessary to unpack the biases within ethnic churches as well.  But those critiques won’t register and the Gospel won’t get proclaimed if there is no one to speak.  And how can you speak without relationship?  To paraprase Proverbs, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so too does one critic sharpen another.   This is an argument for sticking it out, not taking a pass on issues of culture, or the relationships within which those issues must be addressed.    
If we are truly emerging why should we give in to what comes across as an “opt-out” mentality, closely approximating the old either/or dichotomy many emerging types are running away from?  Asking whether its race or theology is like asking whether its spirtuality or activism, whether its worship or mission, whether its pastoral or prophetic.  Haven’t we been here before?  Don’t we always give the same both/and answer?   What I think Soong-Chan is reaching for, not just in this book, but in his ministry is this idea that what we most seek theologically, we will find in the illumination that comes from struggling along with the global, cross-cultural Church that God has wrought.  So the real question is not whether we deal with one cultural issue or the other, but how to become more aware of all the issues God has put in front of us.  I understand we all have passions and distinct calls and the diversity of the emerging movement and churches in general is something to be preserved.  But without relationships that force us to stay in sometimes uncomfortable or inconvenient conversations which bind, shape and sharpen us, how powerful or faithful is that which we are so busy preserving going to be?

One Response to “Can we really opt out? (Joe)”

  1. Drew Tatusko May 27, 2009 at 3:35 am #

    I tend to enjoy worshiping with those at the margins of what is more or less normative (meaning, and true still, white WASP culture that is more or less financially secure). I sat with the Korean students at seminary and worshiped more with a choir playing black gospel music in the COGIC than in the PCUSA.

    Christ preached on the margins of society. There is something important there. The problem with our post-industrial culture is that all of the social spheres you mention overlap and often conflict. Sociologist David Martin calls them frames. Until you step outside of what is normative and find God there, looking very different, and often more powerful and closer to the people who worship, something is missing. The beauty of worshiping with people who even speak a different language is that you find God is there too and that your own cultural frame is sooo insignificant compared to the whole. I find that both humbling, and wonderful.

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