Monday, June 22, 2020

Why Are There So Few Black Missiologists?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I have had several recent conversations, including among members of the American Society of Missiology and the United Methodist Professors of Mission, about the relationship between race, mission, and missiology. These conversations have left me pondering a question: Why are there so few black missiologists? There are, of course, many significant black African missiologists, but here I am thinking about black African American missiologists and their relative absence from white-dominant missiological conversations and organizations.

Before going further, I think it is important to state several caveats:

1.    This post focuses on the relationship between African Americans and white-dominant American missiology. It does not address the participation of other people of color in missiology or the racial systems in which that discourse is embedded, even though other people of color are a significant part of missiology, both domestically and abroad.

2.    This post draws from my general knowledge of the structure of American religion and American society, not extensive research into the subject.

3.    There are, of course, black and white exceptions to what I say below. My goal is to explain general patterns, not to account for every individual case.

4.    I write as a white man, and thus this analysis reflects my own, white-privileged perspective.

With those caveats in mind, I believe the reasons there are so few black missiologists lie in compounding levels of systemic racism and implicit bias. I will examine three.

Black Christians participate in mission, but in different ways than White Christians
This observation applies to both international and domestic mission, and black participation in international mission differs from white participation both in its extent and its focus.

Black missionaries have historically gone to different places than white mission practitioners. Africa and, to a lesser extent, the Caribbean have been the overwhelming focus of black missionary interest. African Americans’ sense of affinity to Africa, racial assumptions by white-dominant missionary agencies about appropriate placements, and the racism of Asian and Latin American societies towards Blacks have combined to reinforce this focus. Yet that focus has meant that black missionaries lack the same sorts of inter-continental networks that white missionaries have had, networks which often foster missiological reflection.

Moreover, white Americans have more often served as international missionaries than black Americans. Because of systemic racial inequalities, African Americans in general earn less and have less wealth than white Americans. These more limited financial resources limit black participation in international mission, both short-term and long-term, especially when that participation must be self-financed or financed through personal social networks.

Domestically, many black churches have been and are extensively involved in what should fairly be termed mission, but often goes by different names: social engagement, social justice, community development, etc. Thus, black and white churchgoers participating in mission may use different language to describe and analyze their domestic mission activities, leading to separate discourses and the exclusion, often unintentional, of black practitioners from white-dominant mission conversations.

Black mission practitioners are less likely to become academically trained than white mission practitioners
Again, systemic racial inequalities are at play here: in income, wealth, and education. First come the educational consequences of growing up in different, racially segregated zip codes, which negatively impact African Americans. Then there the well-documented challenges to black access to higher education, especially graduate education.

When African Americans do participate in higher education, they are more likely than other Americans to end up at a historically black college or university (HBCU). HBCUs are good institutions, and the role of the premier HBCUs such as Morehouse, Spellman, and Howard in developing a black intelligentsia is unquestionable. Yet, advanced graduate study of mission almost always requires attending a white-dominant institution such as Fuller, Asbury, Boston University, or Biola. The perceived challenge of doctoral study of missiology may be greater for black students who have not previously been part of white-dominant educational institutions, with their unspoken expectations geared toward white culture.

Intertwined with that educational system are racial denominational differences in the educational requirements for ministers. Most white-dominant denominations, especially mainline Protestants, require a master’s degree for ordination. Many predominantly black Baptist and Pentecostal denominations do not. That makes a difference when pastors involved in mission consider whether to further study that practice academically. For pastors who already have a master’s degree, it is a smaller jump to consider a D.Min. or Ph.D. Racial differences also exist in the breakdown of part-time vs. full-time clergy and congregational ability to support continuing education for their pastors.

Thus, to the significant extent that missiology is a scholarly conversation, it is one that African Americans are less likely to join for reasons both internal and extending beyond the field.

Black conversations about mission are segregated from white-dominant conversations about mission
Even when African Americans participate in mission and/or make it through the obstacle course of academic study of mission, there are still several reasons why they may not end up participating in white-dominant missiological conversations.

The first challenge is the question of terminology raised earlier. Black and white scholars/practitioners may describe similar things but use different, racially conditioned language. For instance, despite the similarities between the white-dominant missional church model and black patterns of community engagement, my impression is that much of the missional church conversation does not look to black models and has a presumed white-dominant audience in mind.

A second challenge is white implicit biases about the place of African Americans in mission. From an early focus on plantation mission to recent racial connections between African Americans and poverty, white Americans have often seen African Americans as “recipients” of mission, rather than practitioners of mission. While thinking of mission in terms of actors and recipients is inherently problematic, it is even more so when assumptions about those actors and recipients reinforce racial hierarchies. Because of these associations, when prompted to discuss race and mission, white Americans have an implicit bias towards framing the conversation as about predominantly white mission practitioners working with African Americans, rather than as about black mission practitioners doing their own work. Such a framing serves to exclude or mute the voices of black missiological thinkers.

A third challenge is white implicit bias towards seeing black Christianity as a contextual expression of Christianity with limited relevance to white-dominant Christianity. American religion is structurally segregated along racial lines. But for White Americans, seeing black Christianity as a distinct phenomenon from white Christianity often means seeing it as a tradition that is irrelevant for their own faith. Deep seated white assumptions about the normativity of white Christian practice and white theology make White Americans less interested in learning from black Christian practice or black theology. Moreover, when black voices are raised up, white Christians are often only interested in listening to those black voices speak about racial issues. Thus, white interest in other forms of black Christian practice and theology, including mission, is limited. Certainly, one hopes that missiologists, with their appreciation of context, would be less prone to such biases than others, but they still exist.

White Christians should be learning from black Christians, though, about mission and all other Christian beliefs and practices, just as black Christians have had to learn about white Christianity for a long time. That is why it is important to broaden the scope of missiological focus, to challenge the labels used to describe Christian practice, to support black students in studying missiology, to question white theological normativity, and to listen to black voices.

These are not easy or quick reforms, and they cannot be accomplished apart from larger societal changes that will benefit black economic and educational outcomes. Yet for a whole host of moral and theological reasons, missiology as a white-dominant field must engage these issues.

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