Rachel Bowman was a student at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, when she gave this speech at the 2016 conference, Leading into the common good: An Anabaptist Perspective.
I’ve been asked to respond to the question, “how can our Anabaptist identity empower us?”
I would argue that the key here is understanding privilege. Mennonites have a strange and contradictory history in terms of privilege. Maybe some of you grew up learning about the great Anabaptist martyrs in Sunday school. Maybe you had grandparents telling stories of their parents and grandparents being forced out of Europe because of their faith. Maybe you even heard stories about the discrimination your parents/grandparents faced as Concientious Objectors during the war.
But what about us now? What about American Mennonites of today? Because the truth is, many of us have acquired wealth and we’ve acquired power. And we’ve acquired privilege. I think we’ve forgotten what it feels like to be marginalized. Though I insert that I don’t meant to discount any individual’s experience of discrimination, in whatever capacity that may have been experienced. I mean to speak as a collective body of Anabaptists in America today.
We have a collective history of having been marginalized. How do we become empowered in our identity without letting our newfound privilege lead us to overpowering others? What does that balance look like?
I recall thinking about this balance when I was on my cross-cultural trip to the Middle East last spring. We were visiting the Holocaust museum in Israel and our tour guide, a Jewish Israeli, was very openly talking to us about some of the injustices the state of Israel has put Palestinians through, be it land grabbing, water shortages, or even highly policed borders. What he said has stuck with me ever since. He said, “Of all people, shouldn’t we as Jews be sensitive of the suffering of others?”
This is an example where that balance had been tipped. Many Israeli Jews live with a sense of needing to be in control. Dominating their Palestinians neighbors is a way of coping with the generationally transmitted trauma of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
When formerly marginalized people find themselves in positions of power, a new series of issues come to the surface. After having been dominated by other individuals and institutions, they now suddenly have the opportunity to be the ones dominating. As humans, we can understand the appeal of feeling powerful, of claiming control after having been oppressed.
But back in the states, a conversation I had with a friend of mine illustrated a different way of dealing with this newfound power. We were in the car driving down highway 42 and talking about white privilege. In the conversation, I was struggling with what to do about the privilege I have as a white, middle class individual who is deeply passionate about issues of racism and our criminal justice system. I wanted to do something about these issues, but I identified that I don’t have firsthand experience with these issues, they are not my reality.
For me it was about becoming aware of how my life has been shaped by my biological sex. There are fears and anxieties that I face everyday because of the realities of patriarchy. Some men may live their entire lives without ever having to think about many of the same issues that women face daily. That is privilege; privilege is the ability to not think. Privilege is the freedom to not see something as an issue.
A person of color is forced to be aware of race; a woman is constantly reminded that she is a woman, but Mennonitism? That you can hide. Our beliefs are not apparent on our physical bodies; in fact, our pacifistic beliefs can lay comfortably hidden as we reside in a country defended by one of the world’s largest militaries. But why do we hide it? Is it to avoid marginalization? Let us instead be empowered in our identity, empowered to see the suffering of others.
Now, that’s not to say that Mennonitism is a “get out of jail free card” from all forms of privilege. I have privilege as a white wealthy individual and I have to be honest about that. At the same time, I can hold onto my Anabaptist identity as a way to remember that suffering is a part of my religious and cultural narrative.
And since our ancestors suffered. That makes those who suffer today, our family.
Let us seek to live in the type of empowerment that invites everyone to share in that power because, to me, there is no better way to honor both our history and be relevant as Anabaptists in the modern world.
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