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The Mennonite Church, Racism and Whiteness: Two Reflections

7.18. 2016 Written By: Tobin Miller Sherer and Brenda Zook Friesen, Roots of Justice 3,790 Times read

Two members of the Roots of Justice anti-oppression training organization respond to Regina Shands Stoltzfus’ recent piece, “I cannot speak of love to you today,” and offer suggestions for next steps for white people following the most recent police shootings. 

TobinAre we ready now?

Tobin Miller Shearer is the Director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Montana and an Associate Professor of History. His most recent book, due out this coming spring, is Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Cornell: 2017).

As we are confronted yet again with overwhelming evidence of this country’s callous disregard for and fear of the black body, I have been reflecting on what we could have done differently in the course of the last 20 years to educate and organize on anti-racism in the Mennonite church.

When Regina Shands Stoltzfus, who has just authored a moving and powerful new call for action in the face of systemic racism, and I organized the Restoring Our Sight gathering in Chicago in 1995, we did not anticipate that more than two decades later we would see a resurgence of overt racism spilling blood on the streets. At that point, we were just thrilled that more than 200 Anabaptists had gathered to talk about dismantling racism.

To be certain, the work done at the conference and the Damascus Road anti-racism trainings that it birthed have affected change. The language of anti-racism, knowledge about white privilege, and recognition of the legacies of internalized superiority and inferiority are, if not common, at least not foreign in church circles. The work and witness of leaders of color like Iris de Leon-Hartshorn, Carlos Romero, Stanley Green, and many others involved in the Hope for the Future gatherings continue to prod the church to faithful action and internal change.

But these are small steps in the face of the litany of police murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, and now Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castle in St. Paul, Minnesota. The full list is much longer.

Twenty years later, I realize that there were some things that we would have done differently. I could have shown more compassion to my white sisters and brothers as they struggled to break through their own shells of naiveté and withdrawal.

I look back and ponder at the resistance we encountered across the country among white Mennonite communities where workshop participants insisted time and time again that racism was a thing of the past, that we had already dealt with that, and that we were causing trouble by bringing up an issue that had long since gone away. I rack my brain trying to think of what training technique we could have developed, what analysis we could have presented, which biblical passage we could have drawn upon to convince our audience that we were part of a problem that needed desperately to be fixed.

I remember the history we shared of times when people of color in the church had tried to raise the alarm, attempted to do something different, made a plea for the church to act on its well-articulated principles of peacemaking and make a difference in the streets. The witness of figures like Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, John Powell, Joy Lovett, Lupe de Leon, Gracie Torres and so many others had long been dismissed.

I recall the times we pled with church leaders to stop sending our youth on short-term mission trips and start equipping them to deal with problems like police abuse in our home communities. I remember how officials in our church institutions censored articles, tried to fire key leaders in the anti-racism community, and wrote to each other about the damage we were doing to the church body by offering an analysis of white privilege and power.

I remember weeping in frustration and exhaustion that we could not seem to crack the veneer of white Mennonite defensiveness of the bedrock belief that we did missions, international development, and service better than any other white church. I came close to despair when I began to recognize that our most difficult audiences were those who most vigorously claimed the mantle of peacemakers and mission workers. They least wanted to talk about their white racial identities and so remained woefully ill-equipped to go where the true problem lay – to rural and suburban white communities.

I also wish that we would have found a way to better equip our church to name the realities of racism in our home communities, to be bold in taking action to reform the police, to call our elected officials to support proven measures like structuring civilian oversight, removing profit incentives, and fostering community-based policing.

Of course, we have that opportunity now. We can do those very things. But I wonder if it is already too late. I have long since rejected the saccharine fragility of friendship-based solutions, good intentions, and interracial hugs. It is time for stronger stuff.

I can only wonder whether we have the necessary, open-eyed, historically grounded hope to actually make a difference this time round. We as a church need to ask ourselves whether we have the fortitude, the strength, and the perseverance to step forward into violence that we have helped create.

BrendaZF What next? Go and do likewise

Brenda Zook Friesen is an anti-oppression trainer with the Roots of Justice organization.

Did you feel numb? Or when you heard the news that another Black man had been killed by cops, did you have the fleeting thought, “That’s awful!” and then move on with your day? As your social media feed filled with yet another Black man’s name hashtagged, did you feel despair for a moment and then continue scrolling to see your friends’ updates?

For my white brothers and sisters, if you felt any measure of indifference to the killing of Black people in recent weeks, months, or years, understand that is a clarion call. It should be jarring that indifference can exist in the face of injustice.

Many of us know the biblical story of the good Samaritan well. Remember that this parable begins with a lawyer trying to trap Jesus by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the good Samaritan and asks in return, “Which of these do you think was a neighbor to the man?” The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus instructs him (and us) to, “Go and do likewise.”

For those of us who are white, too often we are the travelers who pass by on the other side of the road. When we witness another police shooting of a Black person,we pass by, saying:

“He must have done something to provoke the attack.”
“He had a criminal history.”
“Cops have dangerous jobs, they have to make split-second decisions.”

And we leave our Black and Brown brothers and sisters in the ditch. We ignore the systemic pattern of Black people disproportionately being killed by cops. We go on our way, continue with our business.

For white people, we learn from the time we are young that the police are here to “protect and serve” us. We know we can call the cops in an emergency and we feel relief when they show up. A white friend recently shared that she was pulled over four times in one night for a broken headlight and never once felt afraid. Contrast this with Regina Shands Stoltzfus’ reminder last week that “a burned out light can be a death sentence for a Black man.”

It’s understandable that it’s hard to grasp the utterly different reality that Black and Brown communities rightly fear police based on generations of well-documented, horrific experiences. Just because these experiences are not part of white people’s reality, doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

It is important to understand that these different realities have always existed in this country. The change is that cameras are now ubiquitous and firsthand accounts can spread (sometimes) faster than officials can alter them. History reveals that this is not conspiracy talk. White people – including those in uniform – have been beating and killing people of color for centuries, then masterfully spinning stories that blame the victims.[1]

What does this mean for those of us who are white in the church?

The next time you hear of a Black or Brown person dying at the hands of the police – or at the hands of a neighborhood vigilante or a border patrol officer – note how quickly you move on to the next headline or your next to-do item. Observe what follows. Notice how easily the rationalizations flow and how effortlessly your mind supplies reasons why you don’t need to take action. Name what a privilege it is to decide you don’t have the energy or time to engage.

Do your best not to get stuck in guilt. Instead, genuinely ask Jesus to show you how to cross to the other side of your Jericho road. When a situation arises where you could intervene, pray you will allow your day to be disrupted. Pray for courage to get your neighbor to safety, to stay the night with him and to financially support any necessary healing care.

Pray that you can be like Jesus and dismantle the systems that create “us” and “them,” Jew and Samaritan. Remember, it was a purposeful, political act of resistance when Jesus chose the Samaritan, a member of an ethnoreligious group hated by many Jews, to be the “good guy” in this parable.

Former Mennonite, Vincent Harding, wrote the 1967 speech A Time to Break Silence[2] that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. In that speech, we are challenged to take this parable even further:

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

As part of our anti-war, pacifist strategy, the Mennonite Church coined the slogan, “Pray for peace. Act for peace.” Our prayers are also needed now for the war on people of color that has gripped this country since its founding. Our action to dismantle systemic racism is also desperately needed.

As Regina wrote and as Jesus demonstrates in this parable, love is a verb and love requires action. Jesus instructs us to, “Go and do likewise.”

So what can you do to dismantle systemic racism?

First, don’t fall prey to overwhelm – that’s an easy out we can no longer indulge. If you need a place to start, check out the free resources at RootsOfJusticeTraining.org. Find or organize a local anti-racism gathering; Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) keeps a database of events as well as resources on how to host. Learn what #BlackLivesMatter is about firsthand, beyond what mainstream media portrays. Talk with your children about what’s happening. If we’re not actively countering the ways our children are racially socialized, racism will fill our silent voids.

The list of what we can do to dismantle racism is long and plentiful – equal only to the excuses we have for why we do nothing. People of color are dying every day because of racism – from police shootings and the myriad of other violent, death-dealing manifestations.

Also, know this: dismantling racism will require you to swim upstream against the strongest current in our country. Most everything around you will encourage complacency. It takes intentional commitment, support, and accountability to work against the system that prioritizes white people so thoroughly and completely.

As we repeatedly witness attacks on our brothers and sisters of color, what will we do? What will you do to live out Jesus’s commandment? Will you be a good Samaritan or will you silently pass by on the other side of the road?

[1] Traditional school curriculums usually fail to include these historical accounts. For beginning texts that document this history, check out Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, or James Loewen’s, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_Vietnam:_A_Time_to_Break_Silence

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