Today we are gathering for the second month of our year-long, once a month series titled – “What then shall we do?” It is February – which is Black history month, so we thought it would be appropriate to consider Racial Justice for this month, and what we shall do about it.
For a refresher – when we gathered the first time, we spent that Sunday reflecting on the bible – and I was pretty hard on the bible. Well actually, I was pretty hard on us humans, and I encouraged us to take responsibility for how we interpret the Bible – the bible has been used by people, against people throughout history, and our topic today is a prime example.
Today we are asking the question – “what then shall we do about racism?” A structure that has been in the very fabric of American life since the creation of this nation. Racism is a very charged topic that is nearly universally agreed upon as being bad. However, it is hotly debated on how it exists and manifests today, and on how we should treat this American original infection. And you can tell where I have landed on this debate, probably even by me being interested in talking about “Racial Justice and the Church” – a simple but controversial sermon title.
In this series, we have asked those giving sermons to share about their experiences engaging with that month’s issues of social injustice – a testimonial of sorts. Sharing my journey feels very risky for several reasons. It is not a story of someone who has experienced racism directed towards them, but is the story of a white man in the process of learning how I am part of a system that marginalizes people of color, and how my faith calls me to ask – “what then shall we do about racism.”
Part of my hope from you all through hearing about my process, is that you will have greater understanding my approach to the pastoring, to the Bible, to theology, which over the last decade has been intentionally shaped by my desire to understand how racism has been a part of the church’s history, the importance working toward racial justice as a Christian, and a vision of the church that celebrates the diversity of races, and the gifts that they bring. As a part of these series, I hope to continue to discern as a congregation, “What then shall we do about racism?”
Journeying towards Racial Justice
In 2012, I was a Sophomore in college, studying mostly biology, but dabbling in philosophy and theology. In those philosophy and theology classes, I have a faint memory of hearing in the news about the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African American teenager armed with skittles, in Sanford, Florida. The topic came up in class and I remember a brief class conversation on whether or not George Zimmerman had the right to shoot and kill Trayvon or not. George Zimmerman walks away free because of Florida’s “Stand your ground” law. A couple weeks later, I had forgotten all about it.
Two years later in summer of 2014, Michael Brown was murdered by police officers in Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. I had just graduated from college and was in the last weeks of a summer at camp. I heard about the protests, and the awful murder, but felt disconnected from the situation while living out in the woods with a bunch of college students.
I spent the next year doing a year of service in Pittsburgh in the neighborhood of Garfield – a historically black neighborhood that was slowly starting to gentrify. I started asking the question – what do I, a young white rural Mennonite, have to offer this community. If anything at all, was I unintentionally contributing to the increase in housing costs, leading to the slow push of black families out of the neighborhood? Very quickly, service felt like a catch-22: By serving the black community through a local urban garden, would I accidently contribute to the neighborhood becoming more attractive for white people to slowly buy up the houses.
That next summer I went to the 2015 MCUSA convention in Kansas City. One afternoon I did not know which seminar to attend, so I decided to go to the restroom and decide after that. While in the bathroom, I ran into my cousin-in-law, and asked him where he was headed next, and he invited me to attend the seminar done by Drew Hart. Choosing to go to the bathroom became the most life changing bathroom experience I have had to date.
Hart’s seminar was titled “Don’t follow your gut with the racial divide: Following Jesus, post Ferguson.” Hart was arguing that Christians have been socialized to think about racism from the perspective of the majority. He argued that the church often looks back in shame because of how it accommodated racialized violence and oppression, and as a result is bound to repeat the cycle accommodating racialized violence.
One of those cycles is how our justice system fails to provide justice for the murder of black Americans. The seminar included a panel of several Black Mennonite and/or Mennonite adjacent scholars, where I had the chance to hear the painful experiences of Black Mennonites – stories that I never heard before.
One of the concepts that has continued to stick with me is when Hart talked about how white people have traditionally followed their “gut” in social issues. He problematize the “white gut” claiming that is has maintained slavery, passed the “Dred Scott Decision” in 1857 that stated that black people would not be citizens, and passed Plessy Vs Ferguson 1896 which maintained that segregation was lawful. He shared that in 1946 nearly 7 out of 10 white Americans thought black Americans were treated fairly – that is during the thick of Jim Crow Laws.
Hart claims that the white “gut” has failed, and what is needed is a switch from intuition, to solidarity with Black people. Solidarity – the choice to place the interests of a marginalized group in front of your own interests. That is a tall order. Hart was calling for a “Jesus shaped way of life.” Jesus, who identified himself with those who society has rejected. “Jesus shaped way of life.” that is faithful, in solidarity with black Americans, and resists racism.
I had never heard theology like this before.
Hart pointed me towards Black theologians who believe that the liberation of oppressed peoples is central to Jesus’ message.
Black Theologians who integrate into their theology the experiences of marginalized groups in the United States. A theology that addresses systemic violence that exists via mass incarceration, police violence, death penalty, red-lining and gentrification, lack of food access, and the list goes on. What does my Mennonite, hopefully, “Jesus, shaped way of life” have to say about this.
Heading to the Black liberation theologians opened my eyes to how my personal faith at the time was not considering the experiences of black Americans.
The late Black Liberation Theologian James Cone wrote in the 1960s about how the theology that was coming from the white theologians had very little to say about the issues that Black Americans were facing. Dr. Katie Cannon comes along a few decades later and adds to the problem, arguing that Black theology is not considering how black women are specifically marginalized. White theologians were not even recognizing the connection between Christianity and the practice of slavery.
Larry Morrison, in his article, “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830” argues that “the foundation of the slaveholding ethic and the pro-slavery argument was built on the scriptural defense of slavery.”
Our passage today is one of those distasteful passages that have been abused in this way. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.”
Morrison writes about 5 propositions for interpreting the Bible that were used to defend slaveholding in the United States.
The first one was “The bible contains the unerring decisions of the word of God.” – God does not make mistakes in the Bible.
The second is that “Both testaments endorse slavery.”
The third is that “since God is the authority, whatever is declared in the bible as lawful, is lawful, regardless of how terrible the people of this time period think it is.”
The fourth is that “God is the supreme lawgiver and judge, and our human brains don’t understand God’s wisdom and justice, however evil we might judge it.”
The fifth is that “if God’s word is the written truth, one must believe in the righteousness of slaveholding.”
The first time I heard this, I was shocked with how airtight these arguments were, and how often these types of propositions are used to defend all kinds of ethics. Cone believed that the theology and ethics that come from those who were once slave owners, such as these 5 propositions, would not contribute to the liberation of Black people. What was needed was an understanding of the Bible, and of Jesus, that looked like Jesus’ ministry – the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. However, to do this, this theology would need to come from the voices of Black Americans. It would need to center the experiences of Black Americans, because the dominant theology coming from white America was still interested in approaches similar to those 5 propositions.
I chose our passage today because of how it’s been used against millions of people – which is something that I don’t want to have to think about. It reminds me that there are aspects of my faith that have, and continue to, contribute to the pain and suffering of others, and it takes the stories and experiences of others to start to work at evolving the practices of a church into something that would be liberating to black Americans, and in doing so would be liberating to all people.
It is this discomfort for how my faith has contributed to racism, that pushed me to find a Seminary where I would be able to study Black Church Studies, and Womanist Ethics. I feel deeply passionate about the Mennonite Church learning from Black liberation theology. I believe, and this excites me a lot, that there is a lot within the Mennonite tradition that has synergy with Black liberation theology.
First – at one point in time, the Mennonite faith was one that was oppressed. People were mistreated and killed for their beliefs. And while Mennonites no longer experience oppression for their faith, these experiences from our tradition can help us understand the importance of solidarity with a people group that has been oppressed. Second, the Mennonite faith is deeply concerned with the wellbeing of their neighbor. Part of our duty in our salvation is bringing about God’s kingdom of peace and justice here on earth. Our theology should lead us to working toward justice for oppressed people.
What does it look like to infuse black theology, Black voices, into our community? Part of what it looks like happens right here in our worship services – centering the voices of people of color. Using readings from people of color. Using people of color as theological resources, so it is not just the experiences of white Mennonites that are heard.
And this community has taken steps towards racial justice in the broader community. While I am still learning the history of this church, I have heard about how this community found ways to contribute to the civil rights movement.
I am also learning about the formation of our Racial Justice Ministry following the murder of George Floyd, and the exciting work that they have done – collaborating with groups who are working towards ending the death penalty and bail reform – both issues that predominantly affect Black people. Locally, they have contributed funds to open a Salon where black members of our Bluffton community can get haircuts from professionals who know how to cut their hair.
This past week, FMC helped to sponsor Dr Christopher Carter to come to Greenhorn to talk about the intersections of racial justice and food justice, in hopes to stimulate in our community a conversation on the topic of what we eat, and how it sustains systematic racism.
Carter shared about his veganism and its part in resisting the colonial nature of corporate farming, which he tied to the same colonizing energy that removed Africans from their land, and is removing small farmers throughout the midwest from their land today. Carter believes that super large scale farming disproportionately harms communities of color and low income communities. One of Carter’s ways of addressing these injustices is through soul food, the culinary genius of the Black community, which is just as much about how food is grown and prepared as it is the food itself. Carter hopes that veganism, and soul food can be another route in which Americans can resist systematic racism.
Our church community has also contributed to this type of resistance of colonizing powers through farming co-ops. Even just the amount of sharing of food that goes on in the community is a form of resistance. Perhaps we can consider that today as we eat at the potluck.
That being said, there is always work to be done. There are many possibilities for church communities to dream of working towards justice for Black Americans. Columbus Mennonite, the church I attended prior to coming to Bluffton, contributed each year an increasing amount of money to black and indigenous organizations as a form of a reparative act for the slave labor and stolen land that white America has benefited financially from. While this does not by any means make up for the amount of wealth that was made from the enslavement of Black Americans, it is a small step. The call for Reparations has been a movement that has failed to gain traction at the federal level, but small reparative acts could be possible at a church or at the community level. This stuff is radical. And also Jesus-shaped resistance through solidarity to an systematically oppressed community.
However, we are not Columbus Mennonite – we have our context here. In Bluffton, where we can continue to imagine ways to support the community of color here and follow their lead.
As a community, we will continue to decide “What we shall do.” What are we called to do in response to the recent death of Tyrie Nichols at the hands of police officers in Memphis Tennessee – murders that continue to happen. How do we want to live out our “Jesus shaped way of life” that recognizes the harm that has been done in the name of our tradition? What does it mean for our Church, a predominantly white institution, to choose to step towards solidarity instead of trusting its gut. I hope for engaging conversations during our potluck hour.