What Mennonites Have Wrong About Racism: Pt 2

Why Do I Do This? 

Someone wrote to me last week and said something along the lines of “Keeshon, please keep writing, please help us fix racism in our churches and our country.” It has prompted me to make it very clear to all of you who follow this series that this is not my intention in the slightest. At the end of the day, churches across the globe are segregated. We can not infiltrate the pews of every church in America, we are Mennonite and we will continue to attend our Mennonite churches. Black churches will continue to exist, and Hispanic churches and so on. This series is about love. It’s about taking responsibility for our faults, and chasing after a Kingdom culture, and not whatever we have created or taken part in so far. 

I am unsatisfied, as many of you are. We are unsatisfied with what seems to be contentment, and a lazy approach to social conflict in our nation. But if I speak with lofty words, give you the keys to ending racism, have complete belief in my ideologies, and give all I have to the downtrodden and afflicted of our world… but I lack love. I am a noisy gong. A pointless and arrogant voice in a conversation and debate on race that gets us nowhere (1 Cor 13). Let us improve from here by pursuing the culture that Jesus leads and has commanded of all of us to partake in. Let’s not forget that ultimately, no matter how simplistic it may sound, Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the Truth. Jesus is the Life. Jesus is the answer to racism. But our faith, our belief, our devotion, our love… Can’t be lacking. Let it not once be named among us. 

Before I discuss trap #2 with you, I’d like to point out the difficulties of terminology going forward. Understanding that “black” is both an identifier of skin color and culture. Sometimes used together, and sometimes used separately. I don’t want to go through this entire series always self-correcting and using many caveats. Understand that these terms are all super complex. We are in a constant battle of what is ideal and what is reality. I try to be as specific as possible, but if you have questions, shoot them at me. I will consider going over with you all sometime down the road (out of this series) what these terminologies should look like. Why I use terms such as “person of color” far more often than “black person”. What I am specifying by saying “African American”. Why these things actually do matter and aren’t just liberal agendas. 🙂 One day, but not now. 

Also of note, I want to hear from you! Are there questions you would like for me to address at some point? I’ve got some pre-written plans and outlines for the series, but I would be glad to do a Q & A blog toward the tail end or middle of this series. Things that are more practical and specific. I also have a podcast scheduled with a friend soon and could address some of those things with him. I only like to write about things that I feel I have a real voice for, so I may pass a question off to a more experienced friend, but questions are awesome, keep them coming. As well as your insights. 

We will look at two more traps that our Mennonite culture makes us vulnerable to, and then I will go more into how we can shape the race conversation in our circles. How this can change for the next generation that we raise. Articles are posted every Monday morning, you can catch part 1 of this series in the link at the bottom of the blog. To God be the Glory. 

Trap #2: The Trap of Elitism (Ethnocentrism)

The second trap is one that comes with any group that contents itself to live in a culture that lacks diversity. One of my strongest concerns with Mennonites is our willingness to live our lives without much spoken concern to the fact that we aren’t integrating like minded Christians into our circles. The sermon I shared at the end of my last article was shared to prepare you for this part of the series. David Platt said, “If I could be so bold… but don’t we need to stop and ask the question, ‘why is this conference so white?… We all hate slavery. We all hate Jim Crow laws. Certainly, we can not be content then with churches, seminaries, mission organizations, and conferences, that look like time capsules preserving the divisive effects of the past.’” He was sitting in front of hundreds of pastors from across the globe, what a challenge. 

I’ve wondered for a long time why there has been little to no harmony between Mennonite cultures and the African-American cultures of America. There are some fairly obvious cultural walls, but it seems like after being associated with the Mennonites for a decade and a half, I would have seen more fellowship between the two cultures. Perhaps more exceptions to the norm. Why so little connection? Think about it… Among the black culture, there is an overwhelming amount of “belief” in God. For sake of not grouping all black people (or our cultures) into one box in America, I will use the sample size of those I grew up with. Off the top of my head, I can’t name one black friend I grew up with that made it known they didn’t believe in God. And of all the people who ghosted on me once I stopped being the way I was and began to live a Christian life, it wasn’t my black friends who left me or judged me. Most people weren’t down to follow God with the commitment level I was longing to be at, but my African-American friends were always supportive. I can only speak from my perspective, as I know many people who would feel differently, but I believe if there was more cultural understanding, and humility, there would be more diversity among both church groups. 

This is a quote from a black friend who is very familiar with a Mennonite community in a different city…  “You would think that many Mennonites will be surprised to find black people in heaven. They see us on earth as an unfaithful and criminal fold, but many of us  will be worshipping one day together. What we couldn’t do on earth, God will bring to pass in Heaven.” This friend blesses me to continue fellowshipping as a Mennonite, and we have a high respect for each other. But he would never join us on a Sunday morning. He sees our lack of racial diversity as a stain on our reputation. I agree with him. It is a stain. 

As I’ve engaged in conversations with this friend, and several others like him since we left high school together, it’s become clear to me that he is far more critical of his own culture than he is of us as Mennonites. I wish there would be a way for Mennonites to sit down with him and enjoy a meal with him, his perspective is golden, and there are many others that could speak into our situation. But there lies part of the problem, it is something that could happen. 

I once found five friends of color that fellowship within a Conservative Mennonite community. Four out of the five are or were members of their church. I asked them one simple question, “Do you feel heard? Do people care about your struggle?” Only one of them said yes. They had gotten as close to the Mennonite people as they could. They were members, they took communion, they joined the youth group, they were fully accepted as a person. But their native culture, that was a point of disinterest to the communities they were a part of. I wrote an article in response to this, but I never posted it in fear that I would dox them. All I can say is that while not all Mennonites of color struggle with these issues (some of them have given me feedback on this series), there is a large percentage of unheard people of color among us already. If we don’t listen well to those who are here now, why would we listen to anyone who may be coming in the future? This is a major problem in our churches. 

I believe the greatest reason we see these hurt feelings is ethnocentrism. If a culture judges every aspect of other cultures by the standard of their own, they bring about many harmful outcomes. There is a difference between having preferences and imposing a standard. I will never fault Mennonites for preferring their own family structure over the structures they see in other cultures. I believe they have something good going for them that I don’t see in the culture I came from. But when things like this are used as a weapon or judgement against others, we are throwing stones in a glass house. I see us touting things to bring credit to ourselves, and not credit to God and His Kingdom. We can easily sit around and feel great about the things we have done and created, the culture we have cultivated, but this is not a good way to relate to the other cultures around us. The Kingdom culture and Menno cultures are not equal, one is man-made, and man-led. One is led by Jesus Himself. 

If this is what others see when they look at how we think and behave in relation to people different from us, then there is no doubt we will never diversify. Would you want to join a group of people that looked down on so much of what  you were taught? You could easily forsake the bad, but what about all of the good? They wouldn’t listen long enough to hear what good you have learned, they never recognized your talents, what you had to bring to the table. There is so much that God meant for good in your life, but they will only assume the worst. 

This is a trap we can find ourselves in, and if deflection is the most common trap, then ethnocentrism is the most damaging and hurtful one. Jesus broke down in His flesh the walls of hostility. (Eph 2:14). Paul said that God made the Gentile and Jew one. God would like to see the same true for us today. Name any two cultures or ethnicities, and He wants to see both following Him. We as Mennonites should consider strongly what Jesus’s mission was, what He intended for us as followers today, and how he expects us to love and serve those who operate out of our host culture. 

So now that we’ve addressed some of what we are doing that seems to keep diversity far from our reality… Let’s look at some of the reasons that others (especially African Americans), have a general distrust of cultures such as Mennonites or Anabaptists. This one is tough, bear with me. 

Trap #3: The Trap of Lacking Empathy 

I’ll lose some of you here, but I think it’s important, so I’m sticking my neck out. 

I’m a history teacher, nay, a Social Studies teacher. I believe that history is a written record, while Social Studies is exactly what the name implies. When I have classes with my middle school and high school students, I am looking back in history with them, and studying its effects on us today. It not only helps us become more culturally literate, but it helps inform how to better live our lives today. 

As you could imagine, racism is a hot topic in our classrooms. Students want to know how to respond and think about it. I try to walk them through the journey impartially, I want them to see the landscape and come to informed decisions. In my classroom, every opinion is permissible. I may teach them non-resistance, I may teach them sacrificial love, but they can and do disagree with me. As long as they are informed. 

I haven’t told my students this, but they do far better at coming to informed decisions that many adults in our Anabaptist churches. We hold class debates, assess worldviews online, do case studies… They can gather a mass of information, and challenge themselves to not react just in emotion, but with the ethics God has laid out for us. Is this what you have done when it comes to the race issue in America? And I’m talking to you Canadians too. Y’all aren’t off the hook. 🙂 

Empathy is my number one desired trait in a friend. I’ve told my siblings that I’ll marry the most empathetic woman I ever meet, I see it as one of the ultimate signs of a good person. Our ability to put ourselves in another person’s position is crucial to how well we can love those around us. Ask yourselves this question, in general, are we as a culture strong or weak in the area of empathy? 

The popular topic to ponder is the black vs. white tension in America. This has existed since the onset of our nation. I’m especially engaged in this conversation because I can represent both races. I’m born of a white German mother, and a black African American father.

 Many Mennonites that I have met are in one of two camps. 

  1. Things were wrong, but they are so improved now that there shouldn’t be a problem. We are not responsible.
  1. Things were wrong, and are still wrong. We need to be aware and empathetic to why the tension still exists. 

It will likely come of no surprise to you that I advocate for the second option. And this is based solely on the ethic of love. What is more in line with Christ’s character, and what will communicate to the people in the conversation that we are loving people, agents of Christ?

As mentioned in my first article, the question of responsibility isn’t a great one. We will get blamed for many things, blaming back makes us look disinterested in being loving people. Like it or not, this is the model Christ has given. 

There have been many times where I have sat in moderately large gatherings (let’s say 12 or more), and prominent black figures were mentioned. When they are historical figures, there is a good chance only a handful (if that many) will know who they are. Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass, etc… Not a clue. The extent of their knowledge is knowing that Martin Luther King Jr. existed and stood up for black people. They don’t really know what he did, what he believed on a theological level… They are, at their peak, only content to quote him on Facebook and pick out the parts they like that sound good to them. No real interest in a history that is only as recent as a generation or two before us. . 

This confused me as I aged spiritually. I read in the scriptures about how responsible we are as Christians to stand up for the rights of others and help those in poor conditions. Proverbs 31:8-9, Isaiah 1:17, Ecclesiastes 4:10, James 1:27. Why did it feel like we as a culture were so weak in this area? As I listened, and realized how little most Mennonites knew about the discrimination that took place just decades ago, I realized that they were probably just as unknowledgable of what injustices are taking place in America today. If they can’t visit or listen to the extensive resources available to them about the past, what makes us think they would have eyes to see what may exist today? 

When people in biblical time periods turned away from the injustices of others, they were rebuked. God went as far as to say that he will turn their eyes from their worship and hate their offerings (Amos 5). If we are even close to being guilty of the same thing, we are in a very dangerous position. We don’t take it seriously enough. 

It isn’t enough to wash our hands of the racial conflict in our world. Saying things like “I’m not personally racist, so don’t talk to me.” Not only likens us to those rebuked in the Scriptures, but it puts us under the same judgement. Why do I find significance in our lack of knowledge pertaining to African American struggle? Because empathy chases knowledge. Empathy sits in the seat of the oppressed. It thinks alongside them. It endeavours to bear burdens that don’t personally belong to them. 

Can we really say this describes us today? Does it even describe the recognizable church as a whole? 

Why do I use the example of black vs white tension? Because its history is rooted deeply in our country. Knowing why it is possible for someone like me to write something like this without a threat on my life seems to be fairly important doesn’t it? Shouldn’t our children know and learn the history so they can grow up more empathetic and loving individuals? Or are we exempt? I’ve done curriculum studies, and the civil rights movement and any other black history is heavily undervalued in our Mennonite schools. It is near impossible for us to be positive agents for change in racial conflict if we don’t even try to know the history that got us here. 

This is an incredibly dangerous position for us to be in. Many of us will be indeed surprised at the judgement seat. The conviction is already outlined in the Scriptures, if only we would read closely and listen. 

We’ll talk more about how social fatigue and political agendas play into all of this at a later time. But brothers and sisters, let’s remember that we are sheep. We are servants. Laboring for those around us is far more in line with our calling than being understood and living comfortably. For the time being, let’s focus our hearts and minds on the Kingdom.

Moving on From the Traps (For Now)

Moving forward in this series, I’d like to dive into some more Scripture. Let’s look at what Paul had to say about the multi-ethnic church. Also, let’s look at how Jesus’s mission on earth informs us on how we should be churching today. Identifying some of these blindspots in our culture is important to me. I plan to do more of this later in the series, but for now, I’d like to dive even deeper into God’s Word and help us become informed from direct inspiration from God. Ultimately, racism is a sin issue, not just a social issue. Many ditches have been fallen into when man has tried to cover sin with social reform. Our social reform should happen in light of spiritual truths, not the other way around. 

I also want to tell a few more stories from personal experience and shared experiences with other Mennonites of color. These stories aren’t an exposé of Mennonite culture. I find little value in participating in what has been a massive surge of these kinds of articles in the last five years. I think we need to listen and grow from them, but my perspective is different. Here I am, for better or worse, happily Anabaptist. I’d be far more happy if we could address some of the issues I’m highlighting through this series. May God direct us and convict us. 

I’ve included an interview from Anabaptist Perspectives that touches on this very concept. It is from Jonathan and Annlyn Kulp titled Racial Reconciliation in the Church. I’ve watched it over several times in the last week and have found their perspectives to be very fitting for our times. Annlyn comes with an experience that we all need to listen to, let me know what you think of her comments. I’ve also included two videos I did with Anabaptist Perspectives with my friend Reagan around this time last year. Don’t watch those until you’ve watched the one on Racial Reconciliation first. 

6 thoughts on “What Mennonites Have Wrong About Racism: Pt 2

  1. Which is worse – people who DON’T try to appreciate other ethnicities or cultures, or people who DO try, and get it wrong? (In theory, there’s an option of “getting it right” – but can that even be expected when someone lives in a region with a single ethnicity making up 98.82% of the population?)

    I have some friends who attended a week-long choral music camp, ending with a program open to the public. That program was live-streamed on YouTube, and I watched it there. Out of 25 songs performed, I think 17 were in English. Others included “Indodana” and “Ndikhokhele Bawo” in (I think) the African isiXhosa language.

    I also think those songs were asking a lot from both the performer’s efforts and the audience’s appreciation. Even the handouts with translations are limited help; some places they were reduced to saying (expression) or (interjection) for things that English doesn’t really capture.

    And, for their efforts, a YouTube commenter wrote, “Beautiful attempt. But I think it needs a Xhosa choir to really bring out the depth of that one.”

    They had tried hard. They got some diversity. And then they get knocked for not having authenticity. Yeah, it was only a YouTube comment. Easily dismissed. But assuming the criticism was valid, how could these people be faulted for responding with, “Fine – we’ll leave the Xhosa songs for the Xhosa people to sing, and stick with ones from our own cultural identity.”

    If they’d instead persist in their efforts, at what point do they get criticized for “cultural appropriation?”

    And another question: Many indigenous peoples desire to preserve their cultures as they have historically existed, and have reasons to fear that diversification will destroy them. Is this desire for cultural preservation legitimately good? What controls whether that desire falls under criticisms of ethnocentrism or not?

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  2. Keeshon Washington April 8, 2020 — 11:03 am

    Hey Karlin, planning to address this question in my Q & A article. Thanks for passing it on.

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  3. Another excellent read. I think you are correct in thinking that the dearth of knowledge of black history leads to a lack of understanding and empathy. I realize that my knowledge of black history was very limited before attending college. I’m still not nearly as informed as I want to be on that topic. I believe a deeper understanding of the factors at play, from a historical perspective, is so valuable when addressing topics that may be difficult or divisive. One of my favorite classes in college was a honors class focusing on slavery and black history. We had many, many interesting discussions in that class, and we had a diverse group of students. I learned so many things that I was totally unaware of. Thank you, Keeshon! I look forward to you next release.

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  4. Pretty cool post. I just stumbled upon your article and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog post. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

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  5. This is good. Empathy often grows from humble, loving relationships. It’s hard for that to happen when so few people in a group have a close relationship with any person of an ethnicity other than their own. Communities with little diversity are often challenged to empathize with those outside their community.

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