A Progressive Christian Conference With an All-White Lineup: What Could Go Wrong?

Preaching Peace, a progressive Christian organization that aims to achieve peace through the application of mimetic theory, recently released the lineup for its inaugural Peace of the Gospel conference.

The keynote schedule, which included some heavy hitters of the progressive Christian world like Diana Butler-Bass and Brian McLaren, was completely devoid of any persons of color and the breakout speakers were virtually all white.

“The lack of diversity in the original slate of speakers is no different from most evangelical conferences, including the ‘progressive’ ones, ” says RD’s Deborah Jian Lee. “When conference organizers are mostly white, and they draw from their circles, which tend to be mostly white, then they end up with a mostly white lineup of speakers.”

Given the theme of the conference, promoting peace and nonviolence through a gospel lens, this would appear to be a glaring oversight. How did the planning reach the final stages with no one pointing out that the lineup was all white?

If peace is the goal, we have to ask if this might be a particular kind of “peace,” one that maintains the status quo but doesn’t actually try to change the structural barriers that make it so difficult for true, lasting peace to be achieved for everyone. It’s a complacent, Omelas-like type of peace that doesn’t meaningfully engage with whiteness or privilege.

This omission didn’t go unnoticed by Christian activists and clergy of color, and the dragging on social media commenced soon thereafter. Kathy Khang, a Christian writer/speaker and co-author of More Than Serving Tea, was the first to draw attention to conference’s lineup, tweeting:

Khang later said to RD that the incident was an example of progressive spaces assuming they “had a better handle on the conversation” around diversity:

“Things like this happen because [inclusion] isn’t a priority. Systems are designed to deliver on the goals that were set at the beginning of planning. If they could [make changes] after the issue was raised publicly, why didn’t it happen sooner?”

This was soon picked up by other thought leaders on Twitter, leading to a onslaught of tweets, comments and emails directed at the organizers of the conference. Preaching Peace responded swiftly, releasing a carefully crafted diversity statement within 24 hours of the social media dust-up, apologizing for the lack of inclusion and promising to add more speakers of color:

We know that this exclusion of voices—however unintentional—is painful and frustrating for so many of us. Please know that our staff and our current speakers are sharing a plethora of recommendations of absolutely awesome potential contributors…We have, indeed, committed sins of omission against our sisters, brothers, and nonbinary siblings of color. We ask for your forgiveness as we seek to do better.

However, the apology was hedged with them also stating they had originally reached out to several people of color to be speakers but their schedules didn’t allow them to attend, an explanation that rang a little hollow to some.

Nyasha Junior, a Hebrew Bible professor at Temple University, said to RD: “The organizers claim that they took seriously the concerns raised about the lineup, but if racial and ethnic diversity were important to them, it would not be an afterthought. The so-called ‘diversity statement’ is a lack-of-diversity excuse.”

In addition, some of the white speakers who had been scheduled to give keynotes at the conference ceded their time onstage for POC speakers. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, the author of Accidental Saints, was one of the speakers who gave up their time. This prompted an exchange between her and Khang where Khang asked whether she typically agrees to appear at all-white conferences without questioning the roster. Bolz-Weber admitted she typically doesn’t pay attention to conference lineups but frequently recommends women of color as speakers.

Khang said to RD: “It shows overall privilege that someone of her platform and influence doesn’t think to ask who else has been invited or has agreed to speak. I don’t know any women of color who are invited to speak at that level who don’t ask those questions.”

This planning oversight might seem myopic though easily corrected to some, but it speaks to larger issues within progressive Christianity. It’s laudable that the Peace of the Gospel organizers recognized their mistake and reacted with humility, but the entire incident underscores the distrust Christians of color have in white spaces.

The controversy ties into the big picture of what many Christians of color, evangelicals of color in particular, are facing right now post-election. As Lee wrote here in RD, many are deciding whether to “divest or dive in,” whether to abandon institutions that hurt and exclude or keep fighting to change them from within.

Austin Channing Brown, a Christian writer and social justice activist, expressed the former in an email: “I am trying to think beyond these conferences, and don’t pay much attention to conference lineups anymore. If it’s all white, I probably won’t go, but that’s it.”

The Peace of the Gospel conference doesn’t take place until November, and the conference organizers have yet to give any indication what POC speakers and presenters they’ll be adding to the roster. But the new people they choose to invite will say much about the conference’s goals and its definition of diversity. The issue isn’t just getting a few nonwhite speakers, it’s having people of color involved in every step of the decision-making, to prevent things like this from happening.

“What happened with this conference is no different than what happens in evangelical spaces,” Khang says:

They have the same blind spots and the language they use to excuse it is the same. I find that in Christian spaces, whether evangelical or progressive, we do not always critically examine how certain perspectives create spaces and experts that are white over and over and over.