This article was originally published by The Mennonite

School for Leadership Training draws 250 to talk race and privilege

Photo: Christena Cleveland brings a social psychology lens in analyzing the parable of the good Samaritan at the School for Leadership Training, Harrisonburg, Virginia, Jan. 16-18. Photo by Randi B. Hagi. 

“Our liberation is bound up in the liberation of others,” said Drew Hart.  Hart and Christena Cleveland were the keynote speakers at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s 2017 School for Leadership Training (SLT) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“Yearning to get along … and be true to ourselves” was the theme of this year’s conference, Jan. 16-18. The event drew 237 registrants.

“When Drew and Christena were invited nearly a year ago, we had little idea how apropos this theme would be following an especially divisive presidential election cycle,” said Les Horning, SLT director. “We wanted to bring in keynote speakers and workshop leaders who could help pastors, church leaders, laypeople and students grapple with how we foster relationships across differences.”

Seminars and workshops tackled issues such as intellectual and developmental abilities, different age groups, pluralistic communities, military service, and urban poverty, identifying some of the “others” with whom our own liberation is bound.

“I’m excited to have the tools to talk about my whiteness,” said Phil Yoder, a second year MDiv student

Originial art by EMS student Rebecca Nolt. Photo by Randi B. Hagi.

who attended Professor David Evans’ “Rebirth of a White Nation.”

Those divisions were also symbolized in an art piece by Rebekah Nolt, a first year MDiv student at EMS. Black fabric hung over three panels and a table. Mounted on the fabric were small, colorful shapes which created a mosaic of the continents.

“During the Tuesday morning worship service, the pieces were ‘knocked off’ in a symbolic gesture of how power and privilege can disrupt our world,” said Horning.

What’s so good about this Samaritan?

Hart teaches theology at Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He began the plenary with a story about “Darius,” a disruptive child in one of the youth programs Hart ran during his time pastoring in Philadelphia. Darius “pushed every button I had to push,” said Hart.  After banning him from gym night, “the Holy Spirit started convicting me.” The teen’s violence, disrespect and lack of hygiene were clearly signs of neglect. Hart started inviting Darius over to his house once a week.

“He’s one of those people who can easily be written off,” said Hart, likening Darius to the injured man in the parable of the good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) The Levite and priest not only ignore the injured man, but distance themselves from him, creating a “hierarchical system of othering.”

An example of this behavior, Hart explained, is the American church’s “passing by” of those suffering from police brutality, lack of education, unclean water, inadequate housing, unemployment and substandard healthcare.

“What we see emerging out of this text is an ethic,” said Hart, and turned the microphone over to Cleveland.

Cleveland, a social psychologist and fifth generation minister, is a relative newcomer to Anabaptist circles. Raised in the Pentecostal tradition, she now works in a variety of ecumenical settings, and teaches at Duke University’s Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.

What causes a person to stop and help, like the good Samaritan, or to pass by someone in need? Cleveland referenced a study conducted at Princeton Seminary that suggested the only determining factor for whether or not someone stops and helps a person in need was if the subject was in a hurry.

“What are the practices that we need to put into place if we are to live with that ‘spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, creative love?’” Cleveland said, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of agape love. To be a good Samaritan, we must extend that love to those who are different from us. “It’s very simple, but it’s effortful,” she said.

The Priesthood of the Privileged

On Jan. 17, Cleveland gave an address titled “The Priesthood of the Privileged: A Practical Theology of Inequality, Power and Unity.” She began with a story about a monkey who tries to help a struggling fish by bringing it to land.

“The monkey was making a lot of assumptions about what the fish needed,” said Cleveland.

In contrast, Jesus was sociologically aware, and gave dignity to those on the fringe. As with the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, Jesus does not just heal her, but stops the crowd to recognize her.

Cleveland became aware of her own story after moving to a low-income black neighborhood in Minneapolis.

“I was Dartmouth-bound from the moment I was conceived,” said Cleveland, whose father quizzed her on SAT content in first grade. But her Minneapolis friends, even if they graduated from high school, struggled to apply to college.

“In every way I was supported, they’ve been thwarted. Privilege is the ease with which you move through society,” said Cleveland. She pointed to a study in which researchers sent out copies of a resume to various companies, only changing the name between Emily, Greg, Jamal and Lakeesha. Emily and Greg got twice as many calls back.

To white people, Cleveland said, “You are not inherently at fault. But you have inherited a fault, and you have to grapple with that.”

White Jesus and the challenge of discipleship

Later that day, Hart addressed the significance of Caucasian portrayals of Jesus in paintings, stained

Drew Hart at SLT. Photo by Randi B. Hagi.

glass and people’s minds.

As Hart explained, “white Jesus” was created shortly before the American Civil War, when black slave populations were growing, and the federal government was actively displacing Native Americans. White Americans needed a symbol of moral authority.

“Jesus now represents social dominance. Jesus, who was a poor Jew living under Roman occupation,” said Hart. “White Jesus is not harmless, because white Jesus bolsters white supremacy.”

God, he argued, takes sides with the oppressed, not the powerful. Hart suggested that attendees go learn from the less-privileged in their community, “until we can see the world again from the vantage point of the crucified Christ.”

One man asked how he could address race relations in his rural, all-white community.

“You’re right in the middle of needed work!” said Hart. Why were there no people of color there? Who lived there before Caucasians? Look at your fellow churchgoers, and the authors on your bookshelf: are they all from your demographic?

Hart closed the session with a challenge to “traditional,” white Mennonites.

“Are we ready to let go of the power hold over Mennonite identity?” he asked. “Mennonites already have everything they need to disrupt white supremacy.”

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!