My friend and fellow writer Lauren Zimmerman says she’s heard Mennonites express regret for not being more involved in the civil rights movement. That doesn’t surprise me. However, she also said she’s seen those same people continue to be passive regarding recent events following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police. I wish that surprised me more.
To those who may feel similar regrets but choose to be silent, I say this: We are living a civil rights movement right now — amplified by a pandemic as well as economic, mental health and health-care crises. You weren’t involved in the past? Now is your chance.
Mennonites are notorious for conflict avoidance. We cite pacifism. But it is complacency masquerading as pacifism. Pacifism is anti-violence, not anti-conflict, anti-argument or anti-tension. That is an important distinction, and one that often gets blurry. We may still be pacifists while engaging in activism and the fight for justice. Being antiracist or anti-establishment or even anti-police is not violent. Avoiding those positions while claiming pacifism is a poor excuse.
Tension and discomfort are necessary for change, but those can be hard when conflict avoidance is so embedded in Mennonite culture. We have to actively work to resist it — something that takes work.
It means hard conversations. It means taking action. It doesn’t mean violence. In fact, I’d say the goal of the Black Lives Matter movement and adjacent actions are to dismantle systems that perpetuate violence.
It isn’t enough to commit to nondiscrimination. By remaining silent, by being bystanders, we allow violent systems to prosper. To truly be anti-violence, passivity is not an option.
So what can we do? If we want to work through pacifism, we must be even more informed and aware of the places we can be helping. White people can often forget that voting, while important, isn’t the only way to enact change. It’s an inherently racist and classist system.
There are more, also important things to be doing, like lifting up BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) voices, protesting, donating, signing petitions and investigating local police and school system policies. This includes action in our interactions, like using our privilege to protect and advocate for BIPOC, standing up to family and friends and being a part of the teaching.
A big part of this is doing our own work to educate ourselves. This is our job, not the job of BIPOC.
An important aspect of antiracist work is recognizing racism as a kind of trauma. Asking BIPOC about certain things can be retraumatizing. White people don’t often realize this. Racial trauma is exponentially worse than many forms of trauma that the privileged will encounter, due to its generational aspect.
Preaching or acting?
All of this is not to say that nothing good is happening. Several good articles and statements are circulating in the Mennonite community. An article by Ben Goossen (“Resurgence of a Global Mennonite Far Right,” MWR, July 13) illustrates some of the shortcomings and racist history of Mennonites, based on his recent research and travel. Mennonite Church USA released a statement that included good resources and calls to action. It hosted an informative panel on dismantling racism in the church. The Mennonite community is lifting up BIPOC voices and shedding light on systematic racism.
But between these snippets is much white silence, and it is deafening. As I look at The Mennonite’s themes from the last few months, I recognize some important, fundamental, Mennonite values (hope, peace, community). However, I see little tying those values to the injustices happening all around us. We are too busy preaching peace to actually act for it.
I see this in writing, on Facebook and in day-to-day interactions. I see it in institutions and individuals. Silence. There is plenty of talk of hope, community and peace in the time of COVID-19 — all good things. I sometimes think it is easy to convince ourselves that because we are talking about what is good, we are doing enough. But we can talk about those things and also talk about racism. BIPOC do not have the privilege of silence, and they don’t have the privilege of nonviolence when they are shot on the street for nothing more than the color of their skin.
Complicit too long
We’ve been complicit for too long. Though slavery no longer exists, we can see evidence of Jim Crow, white supremacy and other forms of systemic oppression in every facet of our society.
We simply have to look outside of our bubble of privilege. As the people who benefit from this the most, it’s our job to address and dismantle racism. Even when our lives are “back to normal” and the protests grow scarce, the issues remain. The goal isn’t to feel better about ourselves, it’s for BIPOC to stop dying.
This is not an isolated moment in time. To make up for the years we have been passive, we must work for change, starting with our day-to-day actions. We cannot claim to be pacifist if we aren’t actively working against the violence and injustice around and within us.
And if you are trying to live your life through Jesus, well, have I got news for you. He was one of the most subversive figures in history. The time is now. It’s never too late to do better.
Kate Szambecki, from Newton, Kan., is a student at Eastern Mennonite University. This article includes contributions Lauren Zimmerman, an EMU student from Toledo, Iowa, and Ellie Bradley, a Bethel College student from Newton.