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How can we be silent?

1.9. 2017 Written By: Carlos Romero 4,595 Times read

Carlos Romero is Executive Director of Mennonite Education Agency. This piece originally ran in the January issue of The Mennonite magazine, focused on education. 

I can’t remember living in a more polarized time than today. No matter how you view the results of the presidential election, its aftermath has underscored those disagreements. Fear and hatred of “the other” and acts of oppression, cruelty and violence that grow from this seem to have become normal.

I wish I could say the people and institutions of the church are immune from these forces. We like to think we are separate, but in fact we are greatly influenced by negativity in our culture.

I have experienced this negativity. It’s happened to me in the past and recently as well.

Last October, I received a call from an alum of Mennonite educational institutions. A hate call. The caller told me I needed to go back to Mexico where I belong (I am from Puerto Rico). I was told that my kind of people are rapists, thieves and criminals. The caller said the Mennonite church is corrupt because it made the mistake of welcoming me and that our educational institutions are corrupt because a person like me serves as executive director of Mennonite Education Agency.

I wish I could say such an engagement is rare. While the outright hostility and forthrightness of the caller is rare to experience, which I am grateful for, at times the spirit behind it is all too alive and active within our church. While it may be couched in more sophisticated and nuanced language, the same spirit of racism and bullying still finds ways to express itself in our church.

I struggled mightily to view the caller as someone created in God’s image. Sometimes it seems we lose the ability to look into the eyes of another and see Jesus, and this was real to me as I thought about that call. I continue to face this, with God’s help. I know that at times we become so consumed by our own sense of self-righteousness that we can’t see the gap between our words and our actions.

What can we do at a time such as this? The Mennonite church and our institutions can no longer be silent. Being “the quiet in the land” is an inadequate response to God’s call today.

Each time we sing these words in worship, from the hymn “How Can We Be Silent?” (Sing the Journey, No. 61), we ask ourselves: How can we be silent when we know our God is near, bringing light to those in darkness, to the worthless, endless worth? We need to share openly the gospel message of love, peace and reconciliation.

And we cannot be effective in spreading this message to the world without it beginning with us. One of the simplest commandments we have been given also is one of the most profound: to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. As church people and church institutions, we need to say clearly and unapologetically that we cannot engage in racism, sexism, abuse and bullying.

I’ve been asked many times, as a person of color, why I remain in the church. My answer always is this: I have hope and faith in God’s call and God’s kingdom.

In times of disagreement, church institutions can be an easy target for criticism. No institution or each person connected with it is perfect; my caller’s action is evidence of that.

But I would argue with great conviction that if there was ever a time the church and our world needed Mennonite education, it is today. Mennonite education is about transformation and inviting all to be full participants in the educational endeavor. Mennonite education is about developing critical thinking skills and learning in a rigorous environment. It’s about understanding that peace is a real way to live our lives and that we are called to be part of community. It’s about knowing the blessing of giving and serving, and remembering that we are all children of God.

How can we be silent when we are the voice of Christ, speaking justice to the nations, breathing love to all the earth?

My brothers and sisters, let’s move forward with the commitment that we will not be silent, with the realization that the work of healing a broken country and world must begin with us.

Let’s open our hearts and minds, willing, as the prophet Isaiah said, to go up to the mountain of the Lord, so that the God of Jacob may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his path.

Let’s work hard to maintain our ability to see God in the eyes of others and the assurance that others will see God in ours, to keep faith and hope. Education is about transformation, and transformation starts with us.

None can stop the Spirit burning now inside us. We will shape the future. We will not be silent. TM

Excerpt from “How Can We Be Silent?” by Michael Mahler Copyright ©2003 by GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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2 Responses to “How can we be silent?”

  1. Dan Schrock says:

    Carlos, I’m sorry this happened to you. As an alum of three Mennonite schools, I find it hard to believe this occurred. We whites have much work to do.

  2. David B. Miller says:

    Carlos, I am sorry this happened to you. What was said to you was both evil and ignorant; you were wronged and sinned against. I am grateful you have named this in public, for all too often such actions and attitudes remain hidden, and those who receive such treatment end up carrying the harm within.
    I admire your naming the struggle you experienced in trying to “view the caller as someone created in God’s image,” for certainly the caller’s words effectively concealed any trace of the “imago Dei.” It may well be that the hostility expressed is rooted some deep hurt and fear (real or imagined) that was unleashed on you. However, the words and the act remain wrong.
    You noted the risk of being “consumed with self-righteousness.” This is possible. I know this within myself. However, it is also important to say you have been sinned against; you have been the target of another’s hostility and hatred. This is not self-righteousness but right naming of a violent speech act that was targeted directly at you. You should expect that we, your brothers and sisters, will stand with you, and so name the action.
    Your call for us not to be silent is urgent and critical if the church is to have any credible witness in our culture. It is not insignificant that the phrase your caller used–“rapists, thieves and criminals”–was a phrase often repeated by candidate Donald Trump to stir up anger and unite those attending his rallies in fear and rage. The strong showing that now President Trump made among white evangelicals who easily dismissed such language as troubling but a trivial matter is not lost on people who have rejected and are rejecting Christian faith as a sham. It is precisely our silence in the face of such wrong that is helping undermine the plausibility of faith in Christ in our culture.
    Yet it is too easy to make this caller problem the racist, who in relative terms consoles me, for by any comparison my own more hidden racism seems so minor. When I do this, I am able to rail against the caller while I remain unrepentant. But you, dear brother, have called us to something more. You have called us to transformation, to be converted by the very gospel we claim to believe. To permit the walls of hostility to be genuinely broken will require that we first acknowledge they exist. Your caller simply reveals for us what happens if such attitudes are not transformed, if this root is permitted to grow in the soil of fear and justification until it becomes full grown. (While Donald Trump may have exploited this racism of our culture, he was not the source of it. So I can’t even leave myself off the hook by blaming him.)
    Sadly, I have had enough conversations with other brothers and sisters of color to know that you are not the only recipient of such venom. We must let our first speaking be not the loud shouts of demonstrations but those honest, risky and transforming conversations where we search our hearts and attitudes and both confess and listen deeply and make space for the Spirit of Truth to heal and renew us.
    In this you have been both a pastor and a prophet. Thank you.

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