This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bluffton lecturer challenges racism in the church

BLUFFTON, Ohio — Author, blogger, activist and professor Drew G.I. Hart presented the Keeney Peace Lecture, “What Has Shalom to Do with White Dominant Culture?,” during Forum March 29 at Bluffton University.

Drew G.I. Hart speaks March 29 in the Keeney Peace Lecture at Bluffton University. — Bluffton University
Drew G.I. Hart speaks March 29 in the Keeney Peace Lecture at Bluffton University. — Bluffton University

Hart combined his pastoral experience with his academic training to challenge the church to pursue practices that make for justice.

“As disciples and followers of Jesus who are committed to the way of Jesus, we must account for the power dynamics and forces of dominance that distort our peace witness,” said Hart, who recently earned his doctorate in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

He explored the history of race and the connection between it and peace. Hart said race is a social construct, and whiteness is an invention that, over time, came to stand for everything good and right in the world.

“It rationalized and at times theologically justified all sorts of horrific actions from the supposedly Christian world,” he said.

These historical forces of racial hierarchy continue to influence people’s mindsets today.

“People believe that black people are lazy but cool, Asian American are submissive yet foreign, Latinos and Hispanics are illegal yet hardworking and people from the Middle East are dangerous yet mysterious,” Hart said. “In all of these racial frameworks and others, they are designed to make whiteness the normative standard for humanity.”

He then laid out how racial logic justified everything from slavery to a Jim Crow society to today’s school-to-prison pipeline.

“The way our society functions continues to marginalize, oppress and ultimately do violence to the communities that have been most historically oppressed,” he said. And while Mennonite communities banned the practice of slavery in early America, “German and Dutch Mennonites would continue to occupy the freshly and violently claimed lands of Native Americans that were violently pushed further and further west.”

Hart explained that Mennonites weren’t doing the dirty work of land-seizing and slavery, but they were benefiting from it.

By 1959 this passive non-resistance was even questioned by Martin Luther King Jr., when he said, “Where have you Mennonites been?”

“While the peace witness has frequently meant alignment with the oppressed and marginalized in other countries all around the world, it has rarely led to meaningful solidarity with black people in this country,” Hart said.

Join those who suffer

Hart described a new way that peace theology can bring about shalom for all people in the world, a way that centers on Jesus’ own life as a poor Jewish man living and dying under Gentile rule.

“Jesus knew the things that made for peace, but not only that, he personally understood the ways that violence from the dominating group could become a death-dealing reality in his life,” he said.

Hart said we must join in the lives of those that suffer, not to save black or brown people but to save ourselves: “And in doing so, one just might see more peacefully, and, in some way, make visible the truth of the crucified Christ.”

Hart further explored questions surrounding race and peace during a signing event on campus for his new book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, which offers concrete practices for churches that seek solidarity with the oppressed.

Hart’s visit was possible because of a peace lectureship established in 1978 by the family of William Sr. and Kathryn Keeney to express appreciation for Bluff­ton’s influence and to strengthen the community’s peace witness.

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