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Race and a traffic stop in Franconia

3.31. 2017 Written By: Jason Moyer 1,230 read

On our way to Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pennsylvania, for a normal day of middle school, my brother Jonathan and I sit in the back of my family’s tan ‘70s Chevrolet Chevette. We drive past the normal landmarks in our Mennonite-saturated community.

Salford Mennonite Church, Franconia Mennonite Church, Indian Creek Mennonite Church, the Mennonite-owned auto dealership, the poultry processing plant that my dad manages, two of my relatives’ houses (maybe Jon and I will reach over and honk the horn if we see them outside).

There are no bars on the route. Rumor has it that the Mennonite elders bought the available liquor licenses from the state so they can’t be used to sell alcohol. It is a typical day in Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite-dom.

Before arriving at our destination, a police officer pulls us over. Shortly after, two more police cars arrive on the scene. The officer tells us that our high beams are on illegally.

It is morning time (early morning), but the sun is up. We probably shouldn’t have been pulled over in the first place. The driver, Paul Rampogu, just earned his driver’s license. Before that he drove a motorcycle in rural India where he evangelized using the tools of a film telling the Christian story, a film reel and a portable generator. Paul certainly should be forgiven quickly for this infraction.

Paul lives as part of my family through Mennonite Central Committee’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP). He is the last of 15 IVEP people that my family hosted. He plays many roles in the household. Paul cooks, he enforces family rules, he nurtures me with joyful bear hugs and he works as a gym teacher at my Mennonite K-8 school.

I realize quickly that the intimidating police presence that morning in my rather placid Mennonite community isn’t a response to Paul’s infraction. Instead the police interpret Paul’s dark skin, which is given particularly illicit meaning adjacent to his two white passengers, as illegal.

That black and brown bodies are interpreted as illegal in our world is more easily recognizable to those who have them than it is to those who don’t.

It is easier to see how race works in our culture when either store clerks watch you closely when shopping or police pull you over frequently when driving. Children of black parents hear instructive talks from their parents about how to behave when detained by the police. If you’re unfamiliar with these dynamics, then I recommend that you read Professor Drew Hart’s book from Herald Press, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.

It is easy for me to imagine why white Mennonites of European decent have difficulties understanding these questions. Privilege is invisible when we can’t even see our own whiteness. And like me, many “cradle Mennonites” grow up in whitewashed communities.

I teach in a white evangelical Christian university. The sort of colorblind Christianity that I am learning about here attempts to ignore race for the sake of Christian unity. Cultural differences, however, are like a gift of the spirit and should be valued for the opportunities that they provide the church to better shine God’s light in the world.

When Christians attempt to look beyond cultural differences I think they have positive motivations. They want the church to evangelize as broadly as possible so as to bring the most people to Jesus. I commonly walk into community worship on campus and hear praise songs that sound like music from Coldplay or other popular bands. By ornamenting the Christian message in a sound that has popular appeal, a worship song might attract the broad U.S. American public to the gospel.

By attempting to empty itself of cultural particularity, however, the church blurs its distinctiveness from culture.

When the church looks like the dominant white culture it becomes an agent of cultural power rather than Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

In contrast to this, I grew up loving a cappela four-part hymns. I saw this, as well as prayer covering, cape dresses, and distaste for “flashy” cars as part of my “ethnic Mennonite” identity. Of course, I show no signs of this ethnic past as I shop or drive. Just because my family has a history of ethnic difference doesn’t prevent me from inheriting the corrupted legacy of white privilege.

However, fighting against racism in Mennonite Church USA might be best started with the recognition that Mennonites of European decent once stuck out in society. Those who grew up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, as did my grandparents, were not considered part of the white American establishment. Their difference was particularly dangerous in war times when the German language was seen as a threat to national security. Now their grandson fits the mold of the white American establishment and reaps its benefits.

Not only is it impossible for European-decent Mennonites to claim cultural marginalization, it is difficult for us to claim any sort distinctiveness in society at all.

This is the case despite the fact that our belief system calls us to speak to the world through our separateness from it. The cultural forms taken by Mennonite churches far exceed its European roots. This great blessing is an opportunity for the church to once again act in culturally nonconforming ways in society.

Mennonites must align themselves as Jesus did with those on the margins of society. The more we recognize marginalization and live with those who experience it, the more we can live out our call to discipleship. I’m an advocate for this in my classroom, but I do not live up to the transcendent witness of my sisters and brothers who live with the poor and who befriend the imprisoned. I pray that God guides me as I seek to better align myself with God’s work in the world.

I have pictures of white Jesus decorating my office that I use when I teach about the cultural dimensions of Christianity. I have, for example, a red-, blond-, and bobble-headed Jesus.

Images like these remind me of the way that religion always shows up in culturally specific forms. White Christians depict Jesus as a white guy to build connection to their white audiences.

If this fanciful white Jesus drove me to middle school and was my gym teacher, I may have missed this important lesson about my own white privilege. If, on the contrary, the actual Jesus drove me to middle school, we would have definitely been pulled over. Jesus would have needed the help of my white father to verify the legitimacy of driving two white kids to school.

We should do more to become like the real Jesus so that we learn again what it means to be nonconforming in society.

Jason Moyer is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at Malone University, Canton, Ohio. He also serves as a member of the board of directors for The Mennonite, Inc. 

For more features on Mennonites and race, check out the February edition of The Mennonite magazine. 

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