On the Subject of White Mennonites & Gun Violence & #marchforourlives

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Photos Courtesy of Google Photos via Washington Post and NBC News Archive


Has anyone else been feeling irritable and anxious lately? In the wake of the Parkland shooting, I found myself at one point quite literally curled up in a fetal position on my bed, sobbing.

Really?! Another shooting, God?!

As a black woman and a survivor of school violence, I (experientially) believe that it is easy to become re-traumatized with each publicized shooting and/or acts of school violence primarily because it often requires reconciling the idea of what bodies are characterized as victims.

(Side note: Let me clarify why I chose to include “experientially.” As a black woman whom was inter-racially adopted, my physical body and life-experiences have often been disavowed, devalued and demonized in white communities because my blackness doesn’t fit a particular stereotype. Let me be clear by articulating that these assumptions and often ensuing behaviors and/or expressions of racism are forms of oppression and violence. In this case, I use the term violence to include expressions and actions which ultimately deny, denigrate or demonize another’s body).

And, I lament the reality that people’s physical bodies are often barred from equity due to class/race or religious differences.

As I read and watched the Parkland survivors turn, almost overnight, into nationwide activists for gun control, I lamented and continue to lament the reality that the black and brown students, families and communities involved in #blacklivesmatter haven’t and didn’t receive any of the same accolades or positive press coverage. Let me be clear: this is not to condemn the #marchforourlives; however, I think it is important to note the ways in which media and politics regard both incidents. And, I also wondered about the disproportionate Mennonite representation evidenced in the #womensmarch, and #marchforourlives vs. attendance and participation in #blacklivesmatter. 

Granted, I’ve been reminded that times have changed. After all, this is the wake of #womensmarch #metoo #whataboutus and #nastywoman. TIME magazine celebrated 2017 as the year of the Female as Twitter responded in kind with #futureisfemale. To this, I offer a “yes and…”

While movements are historically focused on a specific oppression, (ie: the predominately white woman’s civil rights movement in the 1980’s), I wonder what it means to think about our movements as fundamentally intersectional. I was proud and encouraged when I saw the Parkland survivors share the DC and public media stage to give room and voice to black and brown students. To this I say… “yes and…”

Let’s widen our scope. Gun violence and violence as understood as through the definition provided earlier also disproportionately affects Muslim communities, LGBTQIA communities, Hispanic communities and communities in poverty. Gun violence has also historically disproportionately affected Asian-Americans particularly during World War II, as well as Irish Americans at the turn of the 20thCentury. And, these are only a brief list of communities within the United States which are adversely affected and all too often ignored in wider conversations regarding gun violence.
As Americans, we have also contributed to gun violence and genocide around the world, and I believe this acknowledgement is particularly hard to reconcile because Americans all too often operate from an innate assumption of innocence.  

I believe we as Mennonites often operate from the same place. When our locus of control relies on our ability to stay comfortable, we often miss out on opportunities to participate in other areas of God’s upside-down kingdom.

Recently, I read an article in The Mennonite entitled “Sermons I Never Heard” by Ben Goossen, an Professor in the Department of History at Harvard University. The article is linked to the title, so please peruse it. Although this article was primarily a response to Mennonite complacency and active participation with the Holocaust, I believe Goossen offers a wider argument which can also relate to Mennonite complacency with general oppression:

“…Why have a I never heard a sermon on Christian anti-Semitism? This is not an oversight. It is a fundamental theological failing. How can Mennonites possibly perform effective witness when our theology allowed far too many among us to contribute directly to the Holocaust and then enabled the rest to stay silent?

Mennonites are fallen, and we have no meaningful theology of sin…our model is usually the Jesus of Matthew 5:9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ and of verse 39: ‘Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ In these accounts, we are never the evil one. And our Jesus is mild, persecuted, submissive. But what good is a quiescent, politically neutral Jesus? That Jesus is the Jesus of the authorities. He is the Jesus of ‘In God we Trust,’ stamped firmly around the image of Caesar. He’s the white Jesus, the Jesus who died for the slaveholders and the segregationist. He’s the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem under palm branches and did nothing for the week besides eating and drinking with his friends and hanging glumly around Gethsemane.”  

 As, I think about how my belief in Christ and understanding of Jesus fundamentally guides my actions and behaviors, I find that I cannot choose to opt for comfortable discussions of gun violence which continue to protect white, Mennonite saviors. And yet, I am often confronted with the truth that as a community of faith, we are all faithfully committed to following Jesus. And, I am convinced that we each share the truth of Christ to the best of our understandings. And yet, I wonder  (shout-out to my pastor’s sermon this past Sunday), “what structures and institutions and practices do we follow that need to die on the cross, today?”

What if I rewrote Goossen’s first statement to the following?

            “…Why have I never heard a sermon on Mennonite and Christian racism (ie: the ways in which Mennonites and Christians participate, perpetuate and remain complicit with racism)? This is not an oversight. It is a fundamental theological failing. How can Mennonites possibly perform effective witness when our theology allows far too many among us to contribute directly to white supremacy and white power and then enables the rest to stay silent?”

I am convinced that the majority of the White Mennonite community is often comfortable with a belief that because they espouse nonviolence, Jesus, shalom, and community, they are unable to be culpable or participatory in or with systems of oppression and violence. And, I am convinced that this belief unknowingly but fundamentally shifts our collective ability to work effectively, sustainably and redemptively in communities, particular in POC communities.

In the wake of #marchforourlives, I couldn’t help but feel a little nauseated/curious/frustrated/disturbed to see how easy it was for Mennonites to carry signs and/or bumper-stickers that espoused things like: “Preferring ploughshares since 1525.” And, here is why I had a problem with it: sometimes, our need to claim or make known our inherent “ally status” stems from an innate desire to inherently deny culpability. And, I think this desire stems from an even deeper and, perhaps, uncomfortable truth: we desire to stay comfortable.

Let me be clear – I think that Jesus calls us to actively participate as a strong force of resisters against oppression in all of its forms; however, I wonder if we sometimes are too quick to notice “those bad people over there.”

Ellis Cose, a columnist and contributing editor for Newsweek as well as the author of notable books such as: The Rage of a Privileged Class, The End of Anger, Bone to Pick: On Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation and Revenge and an in-depth essay on the state of black men in America entitled The Envy of the World, also put it this way: “If we tell ourselves that the only problem here is hate, we avoid facing the reality that it is mostly nice non-hating people who perpetuate racial inequality.”

Goossen articulates that “we as a church have not wrestled satisfactorily with the deep history of Christian anti-Semitism.” I wonder what it means if we intentionally commit towards wrestling with the deep history of Christian racism? (If you need some contemporary examples, check out my blog post On the Subject of Tokenism and White Mennonite Spaces) 

In addition, Goossen notes that he is “dismayed at [his] inability to construct a radical Jesus without resorting to what [he] now recognize[s] as anti-Semitic tropes. Look at how easily we Christians and Mennonites slot “the Jews” in for the villains and boogeymen of our own age: politicians, capitalists, the gun lobby.”

I wonder if we also see how easy it is to fill in those anti-Semitic tropes with anti-POC ones. For example, what if I rewrote his statement to say: Look how easily we Christians and Mennonites slot ‘illegal aliens’; Mexicans; Blacks; Hispanics; Refugees, etc, in for the villains and boogeyman of our age.

In the spirit of Holy Week, I wonder what it means to actively die a death to racism? I wonder if we are open and able to commit to a new resurrection?

Jesus is calling us to commit to new things, for His is a radical, upside-down, revolutionary, shalom-filled love. And, we can do it.

I wonder what it would mean if we intentionally engaged inequities around gun control in our own Predominately White Mennonite Churches (PWMC’s)?

·        What does it mean if Mennonite churches decide to intentionally engage the uncomfortable?

·         What does it mean if Mennonite churches decide to recognize and hold space for transformation in the ways in which we have unconsciously and consciously perpetuated and/or participated in gun violence?

·         What does it mean if Mennonite churches decide to, wait for the buzzword, check their privilege? 

       And, what if this entails recognizing the unique privileges Mennonites are granted when it comes to recognizing the flag and/or national anthem?

I wonder what it means for POC’s to watch Mennonite friends march and participate in #marchforourlives and not #blacklivesmatter

I wonder what it would look like to be able to engage intersectionally rather than to operate under the assumption that each form of resistance relies on a zero-sum game?

As followers of Christ, I am convinced that Jesus empowers and enables us to speak boldly about our complacency and complicity in and with systems which perpetuate violence in all of its forms.

We are empowered to love radically and we are empowered to act graciously. We are empowered to take our failings to the cross and to let them die. Christ will resurrect us into new creations if we only let Him.

Shalom always, and as always I want to hear your thoughts/comments/responses

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