A few days ago Cleveland posted "We Have the Best Version of the Gospel," which began in this way:
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 the best 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.The unnamed prominent leader wound up being Tony Jones, who posted this comment to the blog:
Cleveland updated her blog, changing the word "best" to "better" (except in the URL), but, as far as I can tell, she changed nothing else. Jones later posted " I'm Tired of Being Called a Racist" to his own blog, which has fueled much heat on the intertubes. The whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of a previous brouhaha surrounding a post of his entitled "Where Are the Women?" in which he wondered aloud why his blog audience is overwhelmingly male.
Until the end of the conference in question in which he gave this talk, every online interaction I've ever had with Jones had been prickly. In those various interactions, he accused me of misrepresenting him. He ignored my most scathing Socratic questioning of his positions (obviously because he had no response; victory is mine!).
And I was part of the chorus of Twitter criticisms of the very talk of his mentioned by Cleveland. I don't have a photographic memory or anything (what's the aural equivalent of that?), so I don't know for certain that Jones said "better" rather than "best." But he posted his notes for that talk the day after he gave the talk. Those notes read, "We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today." This matches up with something he wrote earlier this year: ". . . I think that progressives have a better version of the gospel than conservatives. . . ."
That seems to me to be something entirely and categorically different from "We have the best version of the Gospel," and it doesn't seem at all to me that he "compared his group’s beliefs to various other Christian groups (including more ethnically-diverse groups)" as Cleveland claims.
It's been a few days, and I haven't read anyone actually engage what he said, so I tweeted that sentiment last night. I've had a few responses, some of which linked to posts that the respondent thought addressed what Jones actually said. None of them do so, though. Every one of them indicate that he said he has the best version of the Gospel or some paraphrase of that misquote. None of them quote him or characterize accurately what he actually said. Not one. Zero. I'm drawing this out intentionally. NONE of them accurately report what he said. Some people whom I read regularly and whom I respect are still perpetuating the inaccurate quote and are inexplicably (to me, anyway) pointing me to the posts with the inaccurate quote as if those posts are engaging what he actually said.
When I point this out, I get three kinds of responses:
1) "Better" is no better than "best." It's still the same.
2) Jones is a jerk in general and in his response to Cleveland in particular, which proves Cleveland's point.
3) Cleveland is a person of color and, if she says Jones's comment was racist or racially insensitive or antagonistic to diversity, then it was. She gets to decide.
Response type # 1: "Better" is no better than "best." It's still the same.
Cleveland herself says almost the same thing in her response to Jones's comment on her blog: "I think a key to welcoming diverse voices involves active, intentional and demonstrative 'interpretive humility' that would tend to shy away even from adjectives like 'better.'" Really? The Emergent movement isn't better than Pat Robertson? This is what Jones was saying, not that his version of the Gospel is better than that of "more ethnically-diverse groups."
I'm a mainliner. We have our own problems, including racism both personal and systemic. I don't self-identify as part of the Emergent movement, and I'm neither an evangelical nor a post-evangelical. There is a critique of Emergent that it is led by white males and that it excludes other voices. That's a related conversation and one that is worth having. That's not what I'm addressing, though.
Trying to overcome racism is better than perpetuating it. Becoming aware of one's implicit racism is better than remaining blind to it. Accurately quoting someone is better than misquoting them. Am I discouraging diversity by saying out loud these things I believe to be better than others? If so, so be it, but I tend to think not.
Response type # 2: Jones is a jerk in general and in his response to Cleveland in particular, which proves Cleveland's point.
It's hard to be on Jones's side in all this, and when he reads what I say here he might wish I hadn't taken up his cause. He really is, as I've characterized him above, prickly. He quite often sounds hostile, defensive, and overconfident in his own Ivy-League education (a 2-degree Ivy Leaguer). As a person of privilege, he has not listened well to Cleveland. But neither have others listened well to him. It's hard to listen well to someone who is pushing your buttons. I don't know whether he has pushed Cleveland's buttons, but it seems to me that he has done so for those who point to his jerkiness as proof of what Cleveland says about him.
As one respondent to my tweet said, "I’m just unclear about whether or not the comments were racist or not is the conversation," to which I replied, "Ah, I think that was my original point." The conversation has become about Jones being a jerk, which somehow proves he's a racist or that he discourages diversity. Is this actually true, though? I don't see how. His responses to Cleveland's post and his subsequent responses to others in the conversation cannot determine whether the initial charges are true. Regardless of whether Jones is a jerk, no one is talking about what he actually said in the talk. That is apparently, to some people, not the question, but it's my question.
Response type # 3: Cleveland is a person of color and, if she says Jones's comment was racist or racially insensitive or antagonistic to diversity, then it was. She gets to decide.
I was once privileged to attend a National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations. I think it was in 1990. My (mainline) seminary sent me, along with two other students. In the Q&A at the end of one of the sessions, someone in the audience, who I later learned was Cornel West, used the word "holocaust" to describe the experience of African-Americans. One of the Jewish attendees objected, saying that for West to use that word in reference to anything other than the Jewish holocaust was antisemitic, designed to diminish what the Jewish people have suffered. Was it? If so, was it antisemitic because of the inherent content of West's statement, or was it because a Jewish person in the audience said it was? If one of the African-American attendees had decided that the Jewish person's objection was racist, would that have made it so?
People of privilege certainly must learn to listen well, and I don't think Jones has done this at all. But the corollary to that cannot be that anything a person of color declares to be racist or antagonistic to diversity automatically and uncritically is so.
So is it "unfriendly to diverse voices" to say what he actually said, "We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today"? Or is it even a comparison with "more ethnically-diverse groups"? For the life of me, I can't see how.
I'm willing to listen, and I want to listen well.