Where do I get the nerve to claim such a thing?
The prevailing reality of not just white privilege, but white supremacy; not just in our society – but in our community.
In Waterloo Region.
In Mennonite churches and in Mennonite culture.
And worst of all, despite being a people who endlessly preach peace and justice,
who claim to be fighting against the evils of prejudice,
most of us aren’t even aware how complicit we are with our own racism.
I’m going to start with my racialized experience.
What? You might say – “but Chris, you’re white!”
I don’t deny that I am complicit in white supremacy,
and I benefit from white male privilege in so many ways.
But racism is not just about the colour of your skin.
I’m of Slavic ancestry – Croatian on my father’s side, and Polish on my mother’s side.
My skin tone is more olive-coloured than the Anglo-Germanic majority.
Both Yugoslavian and Polish people have suffered much in history because of racism and empire, both in Europe and North America.
It wasn’t too long ago that I wouldn’t have even been considered “white” in the United States.
Rarely does my ethnicity actually affect my life – until I entered into local Mennonite circles.
See, I wasn’t born Mennonite. I became of the Mennonite faith as a teenager.
Does that make me a real Mennonite?
I still receive subtle comments from “pure-blooded” Mennonites whom I respect, that exclude me as having an ethnicity outside the Mennonite norm (this happened as recently as last week, actually).
There’s certain conversations between Mennonites where I get the sense my opinion isn’t valued, or even listened to, because it’s still seen as coming from the outside.
I often get people saying, “Brnjas? What kind of Mennonite name is that?”.
Probably the main reason I’m still Mennonite today is because I found a contemporary Mennonite church that isn’t so inward focused, that allows me to be me.
Furthermore, I currently work at a Mennonite institution with enough diversity that in most ways I feel accepted as I am.
I’ve learned to sing the songs, eat the food, say the right words – and I’ve learned to enjoy and appreciate them.
But I still like having one foot on the outside – it helps me see the big picture better.
Now here’s the thing. A power imbalance exists in our community.
Look at any large company, or government organization, or especially non-profits in Waterloo Region, and look at the last names.
It won’t be long before you find a last-name like Wideman, Jantzi, Bauman, Kropf, Martin, Zehr or Wagler, to name a few. And often they are in high-up positions.
Mennonite ethnic and cultural identity formed around being persecuted after the Protestant Reformation – and in later persecutions such as the Communist Revolution in Russia.
But Mennonites are not persecuted in our part of the world anymore – we’re in the centre of power.
Mennonite culture has not shifted in this reality – it’s still focused on being a pure community, unstained by the world. This focus is a relic from the persecuted past.
Because of this persisting relic, the culture is still stained by its xenophobia, and it’s racism.
Regardless of theological belief, Mennonite culture maintains an inward-focused theology of separation.
Painting over the fence may hide the wood, but that just makes it a painted wooden fence. The wood is still there.
The divinely-mandated residue still lingers in the culture, even if Mennonites become more secularized in terms of how they see Jesus, god, and the bible.
This residue assumes (in a humble-brag kind of way) that Mennonites know best about peace, justice, or faith.
The Mennonite tradition perpetuates through family. It shows charity to the outsider, but does not necessarily allow the outsider to be included unless they assimilate into everything – the faith, the culture, the family traditions.
Mennonites have also become quite wealthy and influential. We have become mixed with the dominant culture in terms of privilege.
Vincent Harding, an American black activist pastor, in speaking at Mennonite World Conference in Kitchener in 1962 (!!!) said:
We let our Mennonite culture become our God. We have allowed ourselves to be pressed into the mold of the white, Western world, a world on the decline.
Harding eventually left the Mennonite church because of it’s passivity and refusal to be honest about its complicitness with racism.
Over 50 years later, we’re seeing the fruit of pressing ourselves into the dominant mold.
This mold mixed with wealth and privilege produces ongoing racist belief and action in Mennonite culture today.
It also makes our churches increasingly irrelevant.
Last week I went to the Annual Gathering of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada in Leamington.
We celebrated the diversity in our midst – but it didn’t take long for me to feel discouraged.
We’re not unified in diversity.
We’re just segregated.
The invisible walls erected between people weren’t so invisible to me.
And yet unity was being proclaimed from the pulpit.
I felt so tired.
See here’s the thing – racism has many faces.
Segregation is one face of racism.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
Even though we were in the same gym together – there wasn’t a sense of real togetherness.
I had friends there who don’t fit the traditional Mennonite stereotype, who told me about their feelings of exclusion from the Mennonite mass.
We have many Mennonite churches in our denominations, but they’re segregated and grouped off.
This is a Swiss Mennonite church, that one is Russian Mennonite, this one is a Hmong Mennonite Church, that one is an Ethiopian Mennonite Church, this one is a Chinese Mennonite church.
And there’s a hierarchy and power imbalance between these churches, with the Swiss & Russian Mennonites holding most of it.
Another face of racism (and xenophobia at large) is tokenization.
We see this happen in more ways than just race.
Many young adults have felt like the “token” young adult in their congregation – always asked to give the young adult perspective on life by their much older church.
I also saw this happen, when one of the church leaders, while sitting with his mostly older white male leaders, joked that “he wished he was a woman” for the sake of diversity.
Tokenization brings certain people into the spotlight only because they fit a diverse category – without understanding who they are or why their unique identity matters.
Mennonite institutions and churches around the area, are all dying to show people how not-white they are.
So they put the person with the “exotic” ancestry in front of the camera,
while the people with real power conduct their business in a monotone of whiteness.
Finally, another face of racism I see, related to tokenization, is fetishization.
The racialized other is seen as the ideal – and so is thus paraded around by white leadership to show stale, boring white Mennonites how to be.
It may not seem like racism – but it actually perpetuates the exclusion of the racialized other.
It provokes anger, shame, and jealousy amongst the white Mennonite power base – which then becomes unfairly directed at the racialized other who is paraded around by church leadership as the ideal.
It makes the segregated racism amongst Mennonites cut deeper.
I got an email from MCEC later in the week. The email opened from the leadership saying ‘This is truly a celebration of unity at the end of the day.”
I didn’t feel very unified.
I feel like there are undercurrents strongly pulling us in different directions; we’re not far from apocalypse as a denomination.
You can’t fight racism with more racism.
Next Sunday is Pentecost.
Pentecost is an incredible moment in the Christian calendar, commemorating the story in Acts when all nations in the Jewish diaspora came together in Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit spread like wildfire amongst them – and they went home and spread the good news to their home nations.
Jesus Christ is for everyone, for all nations to freely accept or decline.
Jesus is not a white Messiah nor a king of an empire.
Jesus is not a “gospel” to spread my way to the ends of the earth.
A few years ago, I was walking home on Erb Street on a sunny Sunday around lunch time. As I was waiting for a traffic light to change, I saw a Nigerian man on my left waiting in a suit with a bible in his hand. I asked him if he just came from church.
He told me he had just arrived in Canada a week earlier.
He was a missionary from Nigeria.
A missionary to us from Africa? Such a ludicrous thought to me as a well-adjusted post-Christian white Canadian.
Depending on our racialized perspective, us white people in the West love to view Christians in the developing world as unenlightened, or backwards, or naive, or victims of colonialism, or uneducated in terms of true Christianity.
The Mennonite cultural value of humility masks our deep arrogance.
Jesus isn’t white, Jesus isn’t Canadian, and Jesus isn’t Mennonite.
I’m often quite critical of Menno-ethnocentrism. I believe it comes with a real danger that can play out in racist and even violent actions when Mennonites have power and influence, as they do in our part of the world.
What’s my point? I’m only pointing the finger at me.
None of us is above racism. No one.
We are all racist – even if it’s only on a subconscious level. We have to be able to admit it. But we can’t stop there.
We need to understand our own participation.
We need to ask good questions:
How do allow ourselves to be changed and have communion with the racialized other?
How do we share faith together outside of our homogenized, white, and ethnically Mennonite bubble?
How do we be in relationship with those with identities different than us?
And we need to keep growing.
As theologian Drew Hart writes, “We either renew our minds and become transformed or we conform to the dominant ideologies that convince us that we are moral despite what is going on around us.” (Trouble I’ve Seen, p. 80)
I am complicit in this racial and discriminatory exercise.
I need transformation.
We all do.