An Anabaptist “In House” Discussion: Forming a Non-Racist Approach to Ethics and Social Responsibility

I am concerned that many Anabaptists have unconsciously and unknowingly adopted a model for social action and ethics that is problematic because it cooperates with our racialized and unjust society. Therefore, I figured I would offer an “in house” discussion on the subject. This all flows out of listening to the language and comments of my brothers and sisters (though mostly brothers) as they talk about engaging society (or not) in relation to various social issues we are confronted with in the U.S..

More specifically, I have observed many talk about desiring to remain “local”, “contextual”, “on the ground”, and “ecclesially” oriented when it comes to dealing with social realities. Let me be clear, I believe it is essential that we are rooted and grounded in local communities. When I hear these terms being used, it is often done so in great contrast to the Christendom logics for social engagement that is so common in American Christianity. Many seem to only imagine their social options for responding to injustice as being limited to the so-called democratic electoral process. More specifically, every four years, Christians pop blood vessels and gain grey hairs stressing over who the next president will be. This is the only active engagement that they will have socially, so I guess their limited options impose on them a certain manner of stress that cannot be released through daily resistance and activism. So, I am in agreement that our Christian imagination should not merely be defined by citizenship and the options given to the ‘good citizen’. However, there are also some serious consequences for swinging the pendulum all the way in the other direction, and again, they have racial implications, as well as others.

The first thing we must remember is that we live in a racialized society. By that I mean that race shapes how our societies movements and organization. Basically, race manages us socially and geographically. Unconsciously, most people are “patterned” by race in various ways. Most people go to a church where the majority of people are of the same race. Most people live in a neighborhood where most people are of the same race. Most people attend a school where the majority of people are of the same race. Most of the people that we call to actually chat with are of the same race. Most people regularly invite only people of the same race over to their homes for dinner. Based on race, we often have a sense that we “belong” in certain spaces and not in other spaces. In a sense, race has a sophisticated way of managing us and segregating us, despite that it is not legal segregation. This is no surprise, given that we are working with 400 years of deeply racialized laws and practices in this land. Those types of responses, if not intentionally resisted, will be unconscious and inevitable practices in our society.

If we take seriously the depth of our racialized society, and how it impacts our lives (which I have only unveiled a tiny fraction of), then we must consider the racial outcomes that flow from limiting and only concerning ourselves with “local” & “contextual” realms. For example, lots of research has been done exposing national racial issues that demand massive response. A perfect example is Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow. She exposed the national crises and confirmed with data what African American communities have been experiencing and prophetically speaking out against since post-civil rights era. Her simple point is that at every stage of “law and order” from policing, stops, arrests, trials, sentencing, and even after release back into society, the process is racially biased against Black people. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to order it and read it carefully. Anyway, if you live in a primarily white, suburban, middle class neighborhood, that is not vulnerable to these practices, and instead actually look to the police and judicial system expecting it to provide protection and law and order, then what are the implications of deciding to limit your social engagement to your local situation.

You see, by looking down and limiting your social engagement, you create for yourself an artificial social vacuum. It is as though your community and social life has nothing to do with what goes on regionally, nationally, or globally. That isn’t so. The reality is that our way of life always has direct implications beyond our local contexts, because we are interconnected much more than we realize. Only from a vantage point of privilege and comfort, blinded by the logics of dominant culture, can someone think that an ecclesial ethic is sufficient on its own, when it has not taken seriously its own social location and complicity in social systems. This is precisely why historic Anabaptists streams have a complicated history as it relates to slavery and racism in America. On one hand, most Anabaptists did not participate in slavery, unlike almost every other Christian tradition and denomination. On the other hand, unlike the Quakers whom many eventually became great abolitionists, Mennonites did very little to actively confront and challenge slavery and later racist manifestations like Jim Crow, Lynching, the convict leasing system, etc. So, it definitely is important to have a formational community that produces people that can resist participating in things like slavery. But it is also important to produce people that are willing to head towards Jerusalem and accept the consequences that come from confronting a social order that does not align with God’s Kingdom.

In 1963, Martin Luther King decided to protest in Birmingham, which was not his actual residency or home. In the process, he was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement over Easter weekend (which is probably the most faithful observance of that weekend that I have ever seen). However, some moderate yet influential white ministers, who were supposed to be “for” integration, critiqued King and the movement while he was sitting in jail. One of the big critiques was that the civil rights movement was moving to fast and was being provoked by “outside agitators”. They argued that it needed to be dealt with by local Birmingham citizens, not outsiders. Dr. King in contrast, understood the danger of limiting one’s social responsibility merely to one’s own local context. Here is just a small portion of his response, in his now famous, Letter from Birmingham Jail:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.[1]

So, in wrapping up, I hope to stretch the focus from merely being ecclesial ethics and local concerns. We do not want to fall back into Christendom logics, where the only options are from the top down, but nor can we disconnect between what goes on in Nazareth with what goes on in Jerusalem and Rome. I encourage us all to continue to practice an ecclesial ethics that is simultaneously a socially located and marginalized ethics. I’m not sure the Church collectively can truly follow Jesus faithfully in the world if it isn’t exploring the world from the vantage point of being in solidarity with the crucified among us. And if one suffers, we all suffer, therefore, as King argues we are no longer outsiders because everyone’s suffering pertains to us.

 

[1] King, A Testament of Hope, 289–303.

Advertisements

Book Review (or Recommendation): Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland

I wrote a book review, or more accurately a book recommendation for Biblical Seminary’s faculty blog, on Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ that came out in IVP at the end of 2013. Here’s a sample of my thoughts on the book:

Jesus’ prayer for the Church was that we would be ‘one’, yet it seems that oneness couldn’t be any further from the current reality of the Church in our society. Every imaginable division possible seems to be wreaking havoc in the Church. The Church is divided by race, socio-economics, partisan politics, education, theology, geography, and the list could go on and on. While we all know that we are called to unity in Christ, it seems that we are helplessly lost, moving towards a trajectory of deeper and deeper division. Why can’t the church live into its calling, so that we can be a distinct and visible alternative to the normal patterns of division found within society?

**Cue for Christena Cleveland to enter the dialogue**

For those who do not know, Christena Cleveland is a Christian leader, educator and author. She also happens to be a social psychologist. With that particular skill set, coupled with her strong commitment to the unity of the Church, she is situated quite nicely to help the Church understand many of the “hidden forces” at play in our every day interactions that unknowingly divide us. Thankfully, she has written that exact book in Disunity in Christ. In an accessible, thoughtful, and often entertaining manner, Cleveland weaves together social psychology research and theological principles on unity, with effortless grace. She manages to breakdown complex concepts, time and time again, with everyday illustrations and encounters as her teaching tools. Far from a highly theoretical text, Disunity in Christ will leave its readers with a basic yet usable foundation of social psychology when they are done. Yet, much more than that, they will walk away more committed to the unity of the church, and better equipped to actually live out such unity in their lives.

Click over to read the second half of my review on Biblical Seminary’s site. . .

 

 

2 Necessary Moves To Break Free from White Supremacy in the Church: Constantine, “the White Male Figure”, and the Centrality of Jesus

I am supposed to be reading about Constantine and his relationship to the bishops in the 4th century. H. A. Drake turns the discussion away from merely looking at Constantine and his actions, and whether or not he was genuine or not, you know the old Constantine scholarly debates. Instead, he looks at the Bishops and their role in the emerging form of Christianity, and their complicity in shaping a coercive Christianity. This is so important. For me, the issue of Constantinian Christianity (as Anabaptists often describe it) has less to do with Constantine, because heck, he is an emperor. Christian or not, he has imperial interests. Nothing surprising about any move or decision he makes.

What I am much more interested in is moving the discussion away from Constantine, to towards the way that the Church apostasized itself by displacing Christ as central and allowing Constantine to take that place. One must go no further than looking at Eusebius’ Church History to see that many Christian leaders were seeing Constantine rather than Jesus, as the new David. That Constantine presided over councils rather than the presence of Jesus, and the imperial edicts mandating and coercively enforcing orthodoxy following that council is not surprising when the way of Jesus is no longer normative. In fact, as people have noticed, even images of Jesus began to change after that point. Jesus himself begins to no longer be portrayed as a humble man, but as an imperial figure in art post-Constantine. The imperial figure, then is centralized, has the right to make calls on orthodoxy, and enforces those boundaries, reigning supreme over the Church.  It is the Bishops and the Church, and their gazing on “Christian” emperors that give them this power. It is a choice to fix one’s eyes on Jesus or the imperial figure.

Yet, can we really make huge distinctions between the past and the present, like we are above such problems? While no Roman Imperial Image reigns over us today, hasn’t the center still been occupied by something other than the Jewish anointed, crucified, and resurrected One? Certainly in America, that dominating figure since the 1600s has been “the White Male Figure”. The supremacy of the White Male Citizen as the standard to be measured against runs at the heart of the American experiment. When it was “self-evident” that all men were created equal, didn’t it really mean all “white men”?  Were not black people subjugated to the status of property? And finally, wasn’t Jesus himself recast and refashioned into a “white male figure” which remains on the walls of churches and homes even today?

When people want to learn about theology, there stands “the White Male Figure”. The White Male Figure has occupied the center, playing the role of the theological police for everyone else. Though western and American forms of Christianity have participated in some of the most atrocious and violent acts within Church History, the White Male Figure claims clarity and objectivity, accusing other ecclesial traditions without that violent baggage of actually being the violent ones or of transgressing faithful witness. Speaking from a position of power, those labels stick and stigmatize marginalized Christian groups. The White Male Figure, sees himself as apolitical, but in actuality, every statement, every accusation, involves strategic power moves and claims, that re-affirm hegemony and shut out dissenting voices.

Given the longevity of western Christianities tradition of exalting the White Male Figure as the standard of perfection and the model for citizenship and discipleship, it becomes the norm to see the White Male Figure at the center. Once people are accustomed to that norm, it is no longer seen as a violent practice, but instead, the one that points out this form of domination is the one accused of participating in violence. It is the irony of people becoming mal-adjusted to injustice and white supremacy. In fact, to even call out white supremacy in relation to mythic “White Male Figure” is in itself seen as heretical and anti-Christian.

However, what must be understood is that as long as the “White Male Figure,” in its mythic and legendary glory, stands at the center, then that inevitably means that the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all creation, Jesus the Victorious One, does not stand in the center. The Jesus that has been manipulated to look like, think like, and bolster the agenda of “the White Male Figure” is not the Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but is an imposter and enemy of Jesus. The Living and Resurrected One does not take the mode or disposition of the oppresser, but rather his disposition is found in his being crucified by earthly authorities that found him to be a threat to the status quo. Two moves are necessary for the Church to get back on track:

  1. The Church must decentralize “the White Male Figure”: Unlike popular opinion, this is not an attack on “the White Man” but instead it is a humanizing project. The “White Male Figure” standard demands people to be apathetic to the racialized other, to gaze on them with contempt and see something other than someone who God found to be worth dying for in the person of Jesus Christ. When one succumbs to playing this role, it is unfortunately them that become monstrous, being enslaved to the elemental forces of this world and the dominion Satan. Only through being transferred from that dominion to the Kingdom of the Son in which humanity can do “life together” through the Spirit in solidarity and mutual sharing of love, can the humanizing project be accomplished. This means that those that have stood in the center must step off the table as referee and are now free to sit around the table sharing and embracing God’s beloved as equals, no longer enslaved by the logics of race and white superiority.
  2. The Church must centralize the Jesus of scripture and encounter the Resurrected One. This is a human and fleshly Jewish Jesus. Jesus of Scripture (who is synonymous with the Real Living Jesus that we can encounter and follow) moves on the margins, making those spaces the Main Stage of God’s mission. This Jesus must be followed. What is interesting when we encounter this Jesus, is that he opposes the option of both the Imperial Figure & the Dominating Figure for his followers. Check Luke 13:31-35, Jesus is on the move among the broken and oppressed but Herod wants to kill him. Jesus prophetically unveils Herod’s mythic foundation as a ruling figure to be respected, by naming his problematic praxis. He calls him a “Fox”! Let’s be clear, in Jewish tradition and Jesus’ usage there, it is clear that Jesus is not complimenting him for being smart, but rather that he is in actuality small, deceptive, and a predator. Likewise, when Jesus’ own disciples aspire for greatness, like that of Roman rulers, Jesus cuts that mimetic desire off as an option and says “not so” for you. He explains that the Gentiles dominate and “lord over them”, but his followers instead are called to be servants in the way he himself has served the least and the last of society. In following Jesus and centralizing him in the Church, God’s people will find an alternative response to racialization and white supremacy in our society. Right under the nose of our racist society a space is created for “Beloved Community” and “Life Together”. And from that solidarity, a prophetic movement that is a light to the dark corners of our world can begin.

But do we have the courage to follow Jesus faithfully in this way, or will “the White Male Figure” remain centralized in our Christian communities and movements. The challenge before us, given our long history of faltering, is great, but our God is able!

Book Review: Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well by Glen E. Miller, MD (Reviewed by Renee Hart)

As a healthcare worker and more importantly as part of humanity, I was struck by Glen E. Miller MD’s very personal and powerful book entitled Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well: A Doctor Explains How To Make Death A Natural Part Of Life. A book that is written particularly for the elderly or chronically ill and their families, it is full of helpful advice and practical steps to prepare for a “good death”.[1]  In an age where “70 % of patients say they want to die at home, yet only 40% do so”,[2] the author places a lot of emphasis on the importance of intentionality in preparing for a successful transition to the next life.[3] Within the book the author includes thought provoking exercises for reflection, links to on line resources, and other helpful charts and checklists; including the one he himself created and used in order to be well prepared for his own good death.

As the book begins, the author describes his qualifications for writing such a book:

(1) As a physician, I cared for dying patients. (2) As a hospital administrator and author of a book on the subject, I understand the workings of the healthcare system. (3) As a patient, I experienced the need to make far-reaching and urgent medical decisions under the stress of uncertainty and time limitations. (4) With a degree in theology, I recognize dying as a spiritual event- more so than a physical, emotional, social or psychological one.[4]

This book addresses practical concerns, such as creating Advanced Directives and appointing a Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions, without neglecting the essentials of being spiritually and relationally prepared for a good death.  Personal reflections of the author, who himself is anticipating the end of his life due to his failing cardiac health, as well as numerous stories and conversations that he relays throughout the book, make it a honest and intimate reading experience.  It is a resource which is equally as useful for personal reflection as it would be for group teaching and discussion. I highly recommend this book as essential reading for all who have come to an awareness of their own mortality.[5]

 

(As full disclosure, I was given this review copy of Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well with the purpose of having it reviewed publicly on my blog. I am not receiving any funds and there is no expectation of necessarily receiving a positive review. These are the honest thoughts of the reviewer.)

[1] Miller, Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well, 135.

[2] Ibid., 57.

[3] Ibid., 137.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid., 19.