This post is co-written by Tim Nafziger and Mark van Steenwyk. Featured photo by Tim Nafziger.
This is the second in a series of pieces we’ve co-written. This article builds on our first together: Oppression is Bad, Now What?
In the last two months, in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, we’ve read many white people in my Mennonite community and others committed to nonviolence reiterating their commitment to peace. In a recent article for Anabaptist historians, Tobin Miller-Sherer describes these “smug and satisfied declarations about the superiority of nonviolence” as “bumptious.” This is a good word because Mennonites are extremely skilled at being proud in a humble way.
Why? Let’s take a closer look.
White Mennonites are eager to love their Neo-Nazi enemies who showed up in Charlottesville on August 12, but Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas calls us to be more honest about who their enemies are:
Last week a sweet, white woman asked me to pray for her because she was struggling to love her enemies, the ethno-nationalists who paraded through the University of Virginia campus. “Your enemies? I doubt they think of themselves as your enemy,” I replied. “They are your defenders, marching to protect the dominance of your race—of your life and your children’s lives.”
One article we saw being shared frequently in the weeks after August 12, was the story of Daryl Davis, a blues musician who has used his music as a bridge to connect with klan members. Davis has done remarkable and admirable work. However, white Mennonites holding up an individual black man who approached Klan members is problematic because it puts the responsibility back on people of color rather than the white community. In general, focusing on conversion of individual white supremacists focuses on the comfortable individual conversion narrative that is familiar from Mennonite books like Coals of Fire which Tim grew up being read from, rather than looking at the broader social change work we have to do as communities and as society as a whole. This call to the conversion of individual fascists and bigots was a key part of pastor Hillary Watson’s article, “Before you punch a Nazi: A new Anabaptist response to white supremacy.”
An exemplar of this framing and perspective from outside the Mennonite church comes from Harry Boyte’s essay, “Nonviolence after Charlottesville” which makes no attempt to look at the broader issues of systemic racism at work in Charlottesville (let alone in the United States). Instead, Boye complains that activists today are too polarizing. He refuses to acknowledge social location, offer any analysis of oppression or privilege and seems to reject the idea that one might have enemies at all: “One way power leads to polarization is based on the notion that opponents are enemies who must be defeated.”
The problem is that the starting point for these narratives is convincing audience of value of nonviolence, rather than challenging the white moderate, which Martin Luther King identified as the a key need in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963. The intransigence of white moderates continues to be a major barrier to undermining white supremacy today. As Chantelle Todman Moore put it in an article in The Mennonite in July:
“When we neglect those existing on the margins of our churches, communities and country instead of centering them in the life of the church, our claim to being a peace church becomes simply an intellectual exercise. We can tell you the tenets of nonviolent resistance, pacifism, avoiding war taxes and even why the idea of “just war” is just wrong. But when you take a closer look at our lives, congregations and church structures, you see cycles of physical, social and psychological violence being played out that mostly impact the “least of these” among us.”
Todman Moore highlights the proposed new definition of a peace church that came out of the Hope for the Future gathering. What if white Mennonites used that new definition as a starting point when talking about Charlottesville and the rising visibility of white supremacy for white US Americans?
Being a pacifist shouldn’t be like playing a game of violence whack-a-mole, where we react to every expression of violence as though it were the same. Such a posture usually ends up reinforcing the status quo, because structural oppression almost always “appears” less violent than revolutionary violence.
Instead, being a pacifist should cause us to invest time learning nonviolent ways of responding to oppression and committing ourselves to direct action and fiercely loving acts of solidarity.
Until the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and Standing Rock, most white liberals (including many Mennonites) in the United States could act like Barack Obama’s election had more or less taken care of racism, let alone white supremacy. That was relegated to a few old men with hoods who would die out sooner or later.
Erna Kim Hackett explores this fallacy in depth in her recent article: “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation And Started Talking About White Supremacy.” She outlines “white theology’s pathological individualism”:
All Scripture has been reduced to individual interactions between God and a person, even when they are actually between God and a community, or Jesus and a group of people. As a result, white theology defines racism as hateful thoughts and deeds by an individual, but cannot comprehend communal, systemic, or institutionalized sin, because it has erased all examples of that framework from Scripture.
This is where the Mennonite tradition’s strong communal stream can offer a critical alternative in the way it centers who we are and what we do together as the body of Christ. This emphasis on community over individualism is what has attracted many to the Anabaptist tradition.
Secondly, white Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For the citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when it is studying Scripture, is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society- and it has made them blind and utterly ill equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.
Rather than using our history of martyrdom as an opportunity to distance ourselves from the sins of empire, what if Mennonites owned our position in society and used our history of marginalization as a starting point for empathy rather than a defensive maneuver?
Looking beyond the KKK: Christian pacifism and White Supremacy
The young, swastika waving warriors of Charlottesville can become a distraction from the deeper structural racism that permeates U.S. society that Hackett and Todman Moore (and the Hope for the Future gathering) address.
Upset people of color and their radical critique of our systems are only tolerated insofar as we, white liberals, recognize that they have a reason to be upset. They can have room to vent a bit so that, once we’ve heard their anger, we can placate them a little and keep going about our business. White people, in the liberal mode, are supposed to function as the ones who keep things civil. They need to be polite, respectable and be the ones who create space for everyone else.
White people can go about our lives in our white supremacist system without having to understand the world from the perspective of people of color. The reverse is not true. Understanding whiteness and how to function in white culture is a necessity for all people of color in the US today.
We are both Christian pacifists committed to creative responses to white supremacy that step outside the myth of redemptive violence.
Pacifists are at their best when they commit to strong solidarity and are willing to lay their lives on the line for the ones they love. It can be a pure expression of compassion–suffering with the oppressed in such a way as to magnify the full humanity of the oppressed while, at the same time, showing love for the oppressor as well.
We struggle between that posture and the posture of fiercely dismantling oppression through forceful means: Property destruction, raised fists, militantly challenging the gears of oppression.
These aren’t mutually exclusive. One of the great myths of our current ethical climate is that they are. Nevertheless, there is a tension between the two. It is hard to embrace both, at the same time, at least for most of us.
Both are expressions of love for the oppressed. And, to be overly simplistic for the sake of emphasis, one focuses on the humanity of the oppressed while the other focuses on the dehumanizing nature of systems of oppression.
The danger of the first stance is that it can lead to detachment and mistaking service for liberation. Lovingly serving the poor doesn’t necessarily challenge systems of oppression. And, if done naively, it can help legitimize structures of oppression. Loads of liberationists (notably Paulo Freire) write about this.
The danger of the second stance is that it can add to the cycle of violence and unwittingly cause much greater harm for the oppressed while dehumanizing the oppressor. Challenging structures of power and oppression doesn’t necessarily affirm the humanity of those caught up in those structures. Scholars and practitioners of nonviolence talk about this all the time. For another exploration of this tension, see My ‘Nonviolent’ Stance Was Met With Heavily Armed Men by Logan Rimel, who was part of the faith based nonviolent action on August 12 in Charlottesville.
What is the solution? At the very least, it is important that if you’re committed to the way of peace that you don’t too easily collapse the tension. Otherwise, since our society conditions us with things like the Myth of White Neutrality (the assertion of whiteness as the default or norm) or the idea that politeness is the same thing as kindness, etc, we run the risk of sustaining oppression in the name of pacifism. Perfectionism is also a factor for many of us as white people: we would rather avoid mistakes by avoiding engagement than risk the messiness of anti-racism work. For more on this, see the seminal 2001 piece, “White Supremacy Culture” by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in which perfectionism is at the top of their list.
Likewise, since we are conditioned with the Myth of Redemptive Violence and toxic forms of power (notably, toxic masculinity), collapsing the tension runs the risk of putting too much confidence into our ability to destroy oppressive structures without sowing seeds for continued dehumanization.
We need to continue to recognize that the most effective practitioners of white supremacy were not out on the streets in Charlottesville. They are the corporations like NRG that are pushing for a new fossil-fueled power plant in Oxnard, California, where Tim’s community has been involved in opposition. They are school district bureaucrats who are more concerned with protecting their image then changing policies to challenge ingrained racism in curriculum.
They are any organization that allows white experience to frame conversations around race, like the misguided attempts of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to install a thought-provoking sculpture inspired by the hangings of the Dakota 38. When organizations (even denominations) attempt to bring healing to racial wounds, they can unwittingly reinforce white supremacy when they allow white experience to determine the shape of the conversation. After all, white supremacy isn’t simply about hatred of non-whiteness, it is about controlling non-whiteness.
The work of dismantling these systems is often not very glamorous. The Showing up for Racial Justice chapter in Charlottesville spent a year going to meetings of the Charlottesville city council to push for removal of statues. Friends of ours there were involved in the messy, hard long term work of organizing, herding and rallying a group of people to work together. And then prepared for months for the Unite the Right rally. And the world paid attention for that brief moment and now has mostly moved on.