This post is part of a blog series on racial justice where writers reflect on what it means to do anti-racism work in their context.
Michael Danner is the associate executive director of Church Vitality for Mennonite Church USA.
To my white brothers and sisters across Mennonite Church USA, I’m inviting you to engage in proactive, deliberate efforts to oppose and dismantle racism in all of its forms. Engage the resources provided by MC USA and beyond MC USA to guide these efforts. What you do or do not do will impact your church, neighborhood, town, state and nation. Act to make every place a place where all people can flourish.
I know that many of you are already engaging in anti-racism work and have been for a long time. For others, you are just now considering how to begin. Still others may be skeptical or resistant to this invitation for a variety of reasons.
My invitation is rooted in Jesus’ work of creating “…in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in his one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross…” (Ephesians 2:15b-16a). It isn’t tied to any left or right political agendas. It isn’t rooted in popular notions of social justice. It’s not rooted in guilt, shame or blame. Rather, I’m inviting you to participate in the work God is already doing in and through Jesus for the world.
In Ephesians 2, Paul is helping the church in Ephesus connect Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross to the racial division between Jew and Gentile. Paul argues that since the enmity between Jew and Gentile was put to death by Jesus, they should live together without division.
How can we tell when this is happening? Paul says that the true mark of the oneness of Jew and Gentile is that they both have access to the Father by one Spirit. It isn’t a matter of sentiment, slogans, monetary gifts or good intentions. Equality is measured by access to the social, economic and religious resources of the community.
The cosmic reconciliation accomplished by Jesus is embodied in a human community where the dividing wall of hostility remains demolished.
Thus, to claim to love God and not love your neighbor is impossible (1 John 4:20). To claim to follow Jesus while your brothers and sisters suffer is incoherent (Matthew 25:31-46). To claim to be God’s people while participating in exploitation and exploitive systems is unacceptable to God (Amos 5).
I’m inviting you to engage in anti-racism work because I believe it is the work of God in and through Jesus!
In case you didn’t look at my picture, I am a white, American male. I am not ashamed or apologetic about that. But I am aware that the systems all around me have been formed to help me succeed in ways that are not true for everyone. This isn’t something I earned or merited, but it is something for which I am responsible and accountable. Therefore, there is much work to do.
Part of that work is individual. In his book Trouble I’ve Seen, Drew Hart writes, “No one in America is untouched by the currents of racial bias and white supremacy” (p. 175). I am not untouched by the currents of racial bias and white supremacy. I have participated in cultural racism, I have implicit biases and I have benefited from identity power. In order to engage in anti-racism work, loving my neighbor as myself, I need to understand the depths of how racial bias and white supremacy have shaped me.
Part of that work is systemic. White supremacy is more than individual acts of racially motivated violence or discrimination, it is also a system designed to benefit one group – those designated white – at the expense of others.
As a white person, my knee-jerk response to systemic racism, described through terms like white supremacy, white privilege and institutional racism used to be, “I’ve worked hard to get where I am,” “I’m not racist,” “I’ve never engaged in racial violence or discrimination,” and so on. I was defensive. I thought the question being asked was “Am I a racist?” When it comes to systemic racism, the questions are different. How do current systems distribute power and privilege? Is it equitable? Is one group supported while others are oppressed? Are there disparities in access to education, health care, housing and employment? Are people from different groups treated fairly in policing, the legal system and banking? How does the system treat the most vulnerable, the alien and stranger among us?
My first exposure to anti-racism came in the late 1990’s through Damascus Road training at Metamora Mennonite Church. It created some cognitive dissonance, to be sure. I took a posture of being “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). I had a lot to learn from people who had very different experiences then me. The words that came to me most quickly were defensive and angry. If you are struggling to understand the experiences of BIPOC persons and find your responses defensive, start with being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. (See MC USA’s resource page on where to begin.)
The more I learned, the more I could see the impacts of racism in the present. It isn’t something back there; it is something that is alive and well right here. It isn’t something that is only in others, it is also in me. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” My mind needed (and needs) to be renewed. It has been malformed by white supremacy, and I need to submit to God’s transformation in my attitudes, actions and inactions around individual and systemic racism.
Then I remembered the time(s) Jesus turned the tables (John 2:13-16, Mathew 21:12-13 , Mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-46). Learning is important. Self-work is also essential. But both are insufficient. In James 2:14-17, the author explores the relationship between faith and works. In verses 15-16, the author asks a practical question: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:15-16).
Having the right anti-racism analysis, in itself, doesn’t change anything. Recognizing the inequities in the system, but not lifting a finger to change the system, accomplishes nothing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” The next steps in my journey as a follower of Jesus, committed to anti-racism, is how do I become an accomplice with Jesus in the work towards racial justice.