I am Mennonite, and we are Racist

Where do I get the nerve to claim such a thing?

Experience.

Listening.

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.

It’s everywhere.

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.

What?

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.

 

8 responses to “I am Mennonite, and we are Racist

  1. I find this point interesting.
    “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.”
    I think it can be taken a step further to say that racism is really a spectrum that we can all place ourselves on; racism isn’t black and white (the pun works too); we will always be at least a little racist, even if, nay, especially if we think we are open and equitable. The discussion, based on the issues outlined in this piece, should be what is acceptable and good racism. Otherwise, any movement aimed at the elimination of racism will end up praising the racialized other, itself a negative form of racism.

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    • William,

      I understand what you’re getting at and I think it’s a good point – but the power dynamics at play make it very difficult to make any sort of discussuion regarding “acceptable and good racism” possible from a place of privilege. We will always have at the very least subconscious and systemic racism, but it’s those things that are mixed with power, wealth and privilege that are particularly dangerous. Mennonites, at least locally, are in that place – and we need to talk about and deal with our complicitness in this racialization.

      Like

  2. Amen! The cultural baggage is a problem…I have seen people blithely snubbing others with “non-Mennonite” backgrounds, and not even realizing it. But I have also seen congregations being inclusive and accepting the gifts we each bring. Racism is a reality in my life too, I have to be vigilant, and face painful truths…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for your brave and thoughtful article, Chris. This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought over the last few years. And I’ve definitely noticed how much the ‘persecuted’ identity seems to blind Mennonites to our privilege here in Canada. There seems to be a need for some re-writing of Mennonite history in this country…

    Mennonite ethnocentrism can also be very problematic, as you said. And I long for a Beloved Community in which everyone is valued equally. And yet, I find myself clinging to my Russian-Menno cultural background in the midst of a capitalist society, where we’re basically told to shed our culture and heritage for a globalised, homogenous identity based on what we buy. I think this cultural erasure is at the root of a lot of social and environmental issues, not to mention mental health issues and the breakdown of communities, because culture is essentially how we create meaning in our lives, and in our society. At last year’s North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies conference, Adrian Jacobs, a Cayuga Christian, talked about how the more we understand the Bible through a particular cultural lens, the closer we get to the truth. This was in the context of a conference dedicated to understanding and valuing indigenous expressions of Christianity. So these days, I’m less interested in denying my Russian Mennonite cultural identity, and more interested in understanding it (including the dirty laundry), taking responsibility for it, and valuing the particular experiences and geographies of my ancestors that shaped my faith and worldview in a certain way. Equally, I want to understand other people’s unique cultural expressions of their faith, and let them inform mine. Maybe missionaries from other countries are exactly what we need. When I visited Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia, they talked about how privileged southern Baptist churches were experiencing a deep transformation after welcoming Karen Baptist refugees into their communities, and taking seriously their message that wealth and prosperity were not what the gospel was all about.

    All this to say–maybe cultural expressions of Christianity aren’t so much a problem, as a starting point (and they can easily become a problem when we become ethnocentric, as the Mennonite Church has).

    I think this quote from Jean Vanier (Community and Growth) says it all:

    “It is understandable that a new community should be turned in on itself, strongly conscious of its qualities and originality, and giving thanks for these. At the start of a marriage, a couple has to take time to forge its unity, this isn’t egoism, but a necessary stage and growth. With time, the community must stand back a little to discover the beauty and particular gifts of others, as well as its own limitations. Once it has found its own identity and discovered how the Holy Spirit is guiding it, it must be very attentive to the manifestations of the Spirit in others. It should not believe that it is the only community to have the privilege of being inspired by the Holy Spirit; it should listen to what the Spirit is saying to others. This will enable it to rediscover its own gifts and mission and encourage it to be more faithful to them. This in turn will enable it to discover its place in the Church and in humanity as a whole. If it is not attentive, the community risks missing a decisive turning point in its own growth.”

    Conversations like this are crucial as the Mennonite Church finds itself standing confused at that turning point.

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    • Thanks for your brave and thoughtful response, Laura. That’s a beautiful quote from Vanier – such an inspiring figure. I lament the loss of my own cultural identity from my ancestry, and I’ve spent some time to try and reclaim it (I’ve tried to learn Croatian, Rachel & I went back and saw Croatia for the first time a couple years ago), but as much as some parts seem intuitive, a lot of the culture of my ancestors feels, well, foreign. And yet my parents had to leave their cultural expressions behind in order to find freedom from the toxic parts that were kept at bay through shame and silence.

      I like what you said about being “less interested in denying my Russian Mennonite cultural identity, and more interested in understanding it (including the dirty laundry), taking responsibility for it, and valuing the particular experiences and geographies of my ancestors that shaped my faith and worldview in a certain way. Equally, I want to understand other people’s unique cultural expressions of their faith, and let them inform mine.” I think the main issue for me is the power & privilege that is mixed with Mennonite ethnocentrism – not the expression of ethnic identity itself. In K-W, this is a real issue in our particular context that not too many people are talking about publicly, though often privately.

      Thanks for sharing!

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  4. This is so good. We live in Abbotsford where Mennonites are everywhere; and they have taken over the non-Mennonite denominations too (like Alliance and Baptist). We have been targets of the racial discrimination firsthand and it’s a painful story. Also, we have lots of Mennonite “friends” and none of them ever, ever invite us to their Churches, even though we’ve been desperately seeking a Church home now for a long time. In fact, we’ve been told to simply not come to their Churches. I resent the Mennonite privilege and the favourtism they show one another here in Fraser Valley Churches–I’ve never, not once experienced any type of gratitude from Mennonites for the freedom and peace they found here (and at the expense of other groups like the Aboriginals). Also, we have found a certain privilege, and a certain comfort in liberally “taking” from non-Mennonites in their congregations with no social duty or compulsion to give back. I think Mennonites need to learn that playing Mennonite bingo is a form of eugenics, and it’s incredibly unattractive and has no place in Christ’s community. Maybe some of the Mennonites here could speak to why they take over non-Mennonite denominations? I respect them having their own spaces, I’ve not once tried to go their Churches–but why co-opt denominations like Alliance and Baptist? (Ironically, my own roots can be traced back to the same region of Russia, but my people were a strange mix of Austrian/Polish, and had fled Europe right after WWI. This is the thing, Mennonites discriminate even against others who are Germanic! How crazy is that!)

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  5. I live in Germany and I’m of German, but non-Mennonite ancestry. The Mennonite church in my town is an extended family; they are not particularly inviting or interested in newcomers.
    When I first made contact, i was rather frustrated. Now I accept it and it’s fine with me. I think: Let them be how they are. I would even wish they were more “ethnic” in their customs (traditional German Mennonites are family-centered, but on the whole completely assimilated to their German cultural surroundings).
    And my reason? i see the relation of separatism and tribalism from a completely different angle.
    The “young Anabaptist radicals” are mislead by the idea that Anabaptism is about peace, justice and making the world a better place. But this idea failed with the kingdom of Munster. Always since then Anabaptism was about creating better places at the margins of the world, i.e. separating from the world. Separation is not an error, but the very centre of Anabaptism – the one and only thing they have to teach the other Christians and which justifies their existence as a particular church.
    And separation will always end in becoming more tribal. you marry within the group, you raise your children within the group, you get more distant to outsiders etc. It’s a good thing.
    I don’t refuse that they might accept the one or other outsider if he wants to share their separation. But on the whole I think that they should teach outsiders to do their own separation and to build their own churches. And yes, they could do more in this way, without submitting to the pagan gods of “diversity” and “inclusion”.

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    • To brueckenbauer above, what an excellent analysis! and how sharp, the Mennonites in Germany are not German, and never will be–even those that currently speak German are not ethnically German. But your points about anabaptism are so interesting and I think sharp, especially if we compare anabaptism to say Anglicans or Catholics or Lutherans–we have recently started with the Anglican Church and we find it much more “normal” in that we don’t have to become so bizarrely different to fit in. The Anglicans are more engaged with the public culture. Anabaptists want their own schools, their own shops, their own people–it’s like that movie “The Village.” What I only wish is that they would warn people upon entering how totally different their Churches are and what is required to fit in, and that most people actually won’t ever be able to fit. But I disagree with tribalism–now you have cousins marrying cousins marrying cousins. We know what happens biologically when this type of things happens and I also believe it happens to us spiritually and psychologically as well, we become inbred.

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