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.

Published by Drew G. I. Hart, PhD

Drew G. I. Hart is a theology professor in the Biblical & Religious Studies department at Messiah College with ten years of pastoral experience. Hart majored in Biblical Studies at Messiah College as an undergraduate student, he attained his M.Div. with an urban concentration from Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, and he received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Lutheran Theological Seminary-Philadelphia. Drew was born and raised in Norristown, Pa and has lived extensively in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA as well. Dr. Hart’s dissertation research explored how Christian discipleship, as framed by Black theologies and contemporary Anabaptist theologies, gesture the Church towards untangling the forces of white supremacy and the inertia of western Christendom which have plagued its witness in society for too long. As two traditions that emerged from the underside of violent and oppressive western Christian societies, he found Black theology and Anabaptism each repeatedly turning to the particularity of Jesus in the gospel narratives. From that arises an ethic of solidarity with the oppressed and pursuing liberation in Black theology and an ethic of radical peacemaking and ecclesial nonconformity in the Anabaptist tradition. Each challenge the violent and oppressive logics of mainstream western Christianity and salvage the call to follow the way of Christ. Together in dialogue they deepen our analysis of the churches failures and the need for Jesus-shaped repentance. His work beyond teaching and writing has included pastoring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, working for an inner-city afterschool program for black and brown middle school boys, delivering lectures and leading anti-racism workshops, collaborating with local faith-based organizers and activists in his city, and doing a broad range of public theology. He is also a co-leader for a local Harrisburg faith-based relational network called FREE Together which has collaborated with POWER Interfaith, MILPA, the Shut Down Berks Detention Center movement, and a little with the Poor People’s Campaign. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew Hart, has received great reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Englewood Review of Books. Endorsing this resource, Shane Claiborne said, “This book is a gift from the heart of one of the sharpest young theologians in the United States. Hold it carefully, and allow it to transform you--and our blood-stained streets.” As a text, Trouble I’ve Seen utilizes personal and everyday stories, Jesus-shaped theological ethics, and anti-racism frameworks to transform the church’s understanding and social witness. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on white supremacy as an overarching framework for understanding racism, with careful attention to its systemic and socializing dimensions. However, unlike sociology textbooks on the subject Dr. Hart also considers the subversive vocation of Jesus and the nonviolent yet revolutionary implications his life ought to have for his followers today. His newest book project is entitled Who Will Be a Witness?: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance and will be published September 1, 2020. Who Will Be A Witness? invites the church to liberate its centuries long captivity to supremacist practices, and to expand its restricted political imagination in view of Jesus’ messianic reign. The book guides disciples of Jesus into joining God’s delivering presence through scriptural reasoning, historical reflection, practical theology for congregational life, social change theory, and the Christian call to love our neighbor. It is written for congregations, leaders, and students that understand that pursuing God’s justice goes way beyond waiting around for electoral seasons to come around. It is about the ongoing vocation of the Church right now, at the grassroots level, seeking after the wellbeing of their neighbors through faithful, strategic, and concrete action. Drew recently joined the Inverse Podcast team serving as a cohost along with Australian peace activist Jarrod Mckenna. Together they interview interesting people and explore how scripture can turn our ethical imagination and the violent and unjust systems of our world upside-down, which contrasts with interpreting the Bible as a tool for the status quo. Dr. Drew Hart was the recipient of bcmPEACE’s 2017 Peacemaker Award, a 2019 W.E.B. Dubois Award from a Disciples of Christ congregation, and in October 2019, Dr. Hart was chosen as Elizabethtown College’s 2019 Peace Fellow. Each award recognized him for his local and national justice work and public theology. You can find Drew Hart on Twitter and Facebook, or you can catch him as he travels and speaks regularly across the country to colleges, conferences, and churches. Drew and Renee, and their three boys (Micah, Dietrich, and Vincent) live in Harrisburg, PA and attend Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren.

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

  1. Really good stuff here, Drew. I know you frame it in a particularly anabaptist context, but I think there’s a lot here that’s much more broadly applicable. The impulse toward insularity is strong in (white) utopian leftist and post-leftist political thought, and it bleeds into expressions of Christianity informed by those schools of thought, and this post is a powerful rejoinder against that impulse. Well done.

    1. Thanks Luke, and yeah this is a helpful dialogue beyond Anabaptists. But I want to start a dialogue on this within one of the “camps” that I belong to, because I think there are some blindspots to how racism in our society works, and how we can faithfully resist not being complicit in it. Thanks for the insight in relation to leftist/post-leftist thought. Peace.

  2. Hi, Drew. I’m not an Anabaptist, but I popped over here because I am urgently in need of conversations like this one. I’m working out how my entire view of the world — all these things that I think I am CHOOSING to believe — are related to where I am located in a pyramidal power structure. And honestly? I’m kind of broken up about it. I’m broken up over my deep, deep, unspoken barriers to cross-racial friendships — not that I don’t have any, I do! — but there are high walls these friendships have to grow over, which is crazy and sad. And it’s really easy for me to say it isn’t my fault, or this is just the “natural” way of the world. Even though as a feminist and justice-seeker I should have perspective on this, I find often that I really don’t. Anyway, as a Jesus-follower and a compassionate human being I’m very hungry for the conversation that you’re opening here. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Esther. non-Anabaptists are always welcome!!! This is the first “In-House” convo i’ve done like this, just in hopes that it would get us thinking. But the whole Church needs to wrestle over these issues. In many Anabaptist communities, you will find that they have rightly avoided the partisan trap and thinking of their political options primarily through imperial options. However, like I argue, it has them bunkered down into non-action to often when it relates to big issues. I hope we can find ways to resist racism creatively and courageously. Glad to hear you are hungry for these conversations. We all are in a place where we are groping in the dark for a faithful alternative, given the Church’s deep failures in this country. Peace!

  3. Hey Drew,

    This is well written and I follow the logic.As an Anabaptist I struggle with how this is a differnet from the political framework the Conservative/Religious Right are opperated in? Give me grace here, but it sounds like your advocating for the church to engage in the Civic social space as long as the issues are your preffered issues. How is this not just the other side of the same coin? I understand the pragmatics but i’m not sure I understand how this is rooted in the New Testament narrative. Help me understand.

    1. Dan thanks for the response and questions. I may or may not answer your actual question, because I am not positive of what you mean by “civic social space”. From my vantage point, all social space is civic social space. However, in terms of differentiation from Conservative/Religious Right or Liberal/Progressive Left there are drastic departures. My challenge for the church is not based on hoping that the American machinery and the so-called democratic electoral system will bring in the Kingdom. I agree with Anabaptists that we must be ecclesially grounded and locally rooted, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t also have a prophetic voice and put our bodies on the line on the ground in relation to larger systems that oppress people beyond our own neighborhoods. My hope isn’t that we “turn up for the polls” in response to racism in America, that lacks the Kingdom resistance and creativity that a local community of followers are called to live into. But that doesn’t mean do nothing either. Jesus was a person on the move and he engaged various issues, and eventually clashed with the Jerusalem establishment in the process. How can we not get so focused on our own small contexts and neighborhoods without realizing that our neighborhoods and lifestyles, and values, impact other communities. That is the challenge that conservatives are not taking seriously. I still want a bottom up approach, but not a selfish bottom up approach that doesn’t take responsibility for white supremacy in the world. Are you understanding what I am getting at? Did I answer your question at all? If not, we can try it again! Thanks.

      1. Drew,
        I’m tracking with you. So I’m a white dude. I live in a poor, predomontly hispanic and black urban neighborhood. My struggle with this is that in my city their isn’t even consensus from the POC community about what you’re proposing. I weekly hang with some older black pastors to talk about urban ministry and our city. Now I’m being straight up Drew but they all regret to some extend the amount of focus and energy they put on contending against larger social injustices in their churches and I quote from one of them “we’ve lost so many young folk who know how to fight the system but not how to live in Kingdom community”. That was shocking for me to hear.

        This is complicated. I know I’m biased cause of the color of my skin but I’m sitting with, listening to and learning from POC’s in my own city and there is not aggreement on whether the prophetic voice is situated outside the church or situated within the church.

        So I’m split here. I’ve immersed myself in Cone and the modern Prophetic voice. Yet I have some pastors who are convinced they’ve only had so much bandwidth and they’d rather have spent it on cultivating an alternative community. On top of that I’m looking at the scope of the N.T and seeing very scant emphasis on addressing larger systems. I want to see it, for real i do. When I read through the N.T. If I can break it down into crude percentages I see 90% energy poured into the inward mechanics of being a vital Kingdom counter-community. The Apostle Paul even says wacky things like “We urge you, brothers and sisters to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders”. 1 Thes 4.

        So what the hey? 🙂

      2. Dan,
        Great, I think we are getting somewhere now. I guess I want to point out that there has never been consensus on social engagement in the Black Church. While it is true that the Black Church was the home and center for the freedom movement in America and there have been great examples of prophetic ministry that have flowed out of many of these communities, it is also true that the majority of the black church has never fit into the category “prophetic”. When Martin Luther King would try to engage Black Churches to participate in protests, he always found resistance in the more theologically evangelical Black Churches. Many out of fear and because they thought theologically that they needed to tend more to spiritual matters than social realities. The Black Church I grew up in, though it cared about broader social issues, certainly had more in common with that stance and the positions that I think I hear you echoing from the pastors you are in conversation with. So, no pushback there, the reality is there is no consensus. But my experience is that the more evangelically rooted black churches also are much more influenced by white evangelical thought, even while remaining differentiated and distinct as a Black Church. It might be interesting to check and see how many of these pastors themselves engaged in the civil rights movement, or if they had chosen not to engage.

        However, I do think that our job isn’t to merely create “people who know how to fight the system” but disciples of Jesus. So we utilize things like critical race theory and systems theory, but we must always guard against the tail wagging the dog. If that is what you hear me advocating, then I hope that you would slow down and know that I fully agree. I think things like critical race theory are to be used by the church rather than to run the church, similarly to how many missional theologians have used postmodern theory but refuse to let that dictate its norms.

        For me, I always begin theologies with the narratives of Jesus, so I would say that the 1 Thess 4. pasassage is a very contextualized letter helping that local church be missional in a context where Christianity was being disparaged and they needed to live out and model that it was a good force in society. But taking seriously Jesus’ life in the 4 gospels as the center of the biblical narrative, I wouldn’t describe the way of Jesus as “a quite life” but rather a disruptive life. In Acts, Peter summarizes Jesus’ life in this way: 10:38-39 “with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree.” That of course is the shorthand for the kind of life Jesus lived. John Howard Yoder continually called Jesus the nonviolent revolutionary, nonviolent zealot, and nonviolent liberator and believed that he was a “model for radical political action”. It is Jesus’ commitment and example in liberating the oppressed, feeding the hungry, and speaking prophetically and defiantly to power (Luke 13:31-35) that is my motivation. Ultimately, and sorry to over use Yoder here, but the cross of Jesus is about accepting for clashing the the powers that be and accepting the consequences that come with that.

        So, I am not proposing that our Churches become instruments for partisan politics or that our job becomes indistinguishable from social theorists. However, we do live at this time, place, context, and situation, and must slowly consider what it means to live faithfully now. When most Christians were passive in regards to slavery and quakers made a hard turn and became actively anti-slavery, I think that was a necessary part of following Jesus for that time. Our very discipleship after Jesus calls us to put ourselves at risk for the least and the last. So, my only pushback would be to not see being a counter-community as something separate from being a prophetic community. A truly counter community under the reign of God will necessarily be a prophetic community and a community that does justice and shows mercy. I think John Perkins is a great example of someone that has remained fully rooted in his community, is ecclesially grounded in social action, and speaks prophetically about larger justice issues, but always mobilizing the church to act. Maybe pointing to a specific person better illustrates what I am trying to point toward. Let me know your thoughts. Appreciate the dialogue.

  4. Wow. Thanks for this, Drew. A needed reminder that since I moved out of Evangelicalism I need to replace my passion (idolatry) for political answers with action to make a Kingdom impact. Once again you are teaching me. Looking at life through minority/oppressed lenses makes a world of difference. Thanks!

    1. Appreciated! And yes, it is a call to action! Thanks for your continual spirit of openness to truly hear and take seriously other people’s experiences and vantage points. Peace!

  5. “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.”
    Thanks for this essay, Drew. Your perspective is fresh, prophetic, and challenging; a true gift for the church in general, but also for an Anabaptist community that is still dealing with its captivity to the logics of the very Christendom from which it critically emerged. By constantly exposing these dynamics and others, you offer many of us (especially me as a white male) opportunities to become more human.
    I just wanted to hold up the quote above in order that you might help me understand it better. I found these two sentences to be in tension. As I have understood it, post Great Migration urban planning, especially in NYC, was intentionally designed to segregate the black community. I would see this as an intentional continuation of the racialized practices that have always and continue to govern the formation of our society. If that is true, then it raises the question of whether or not race does have a sophisticated way of managing us. Can you expand on what you mean by sophisticated here? I guess I would tend to think, based on my understanding of Alexander and others, that our segregation is a result of very intentional racist practices and not at all due to the sophisticated intrinsic or essential power of race to divide. Does that make distinction make sense? I’m just trying to understand these historical and social dynamics a little better. Thanks.

    1. Hey John,
      Thanks for engaging, and not only the encouragement, but also for the close and careful reading, and subsequent question that arose. I completely agree with you that the patterns of segregation throughout the nation, and especially in our urban centers, were intentionally created in response to the great migration. Likewise, it is hard to say that subsequent white flight wasn’t intentional segregation as well be relocating into spaces unaccessible to most black people. However, I think the perpetuation of these realities is much more sophisticated than its original impulses. So, whether you ask someone who ‘currently’ lives in an all white suburban community that emerged from white flight or the police officer stopping and frisking a young black or brown youth in the inner city about intentional segregation or racism, they will very likely not have any idea what you are talking about. They are just pursuing the american dream or doing their job and following orders. It is this phenomenon that I want to call “sophisticated” because it has masked the complicity of everyday “players” from realizing that they are involved in, and are bolstering a racialized system. Though some do, I don’t think the majority have an clue or intention in participating in such outcomes. They see themselves as individuals standing on their own two feet like everyone else. So, my only nuance of your point is this: Yes, absolutely, it took intention for these things to come to be. However, very often, I think it is the veiled complicity of our racialized society that does the most work for our society today. Maybe, I just want (or need to believe for myself) that most white people are intentionally and consciously engaging in such practices. If I’m naive in that, you can let me know. Thanks again, appreciate the thoughtful response. Hopefully I answered you fully.

  6. Thanks, Drew. Your response helpfully answered my original question. I completely agree with this: “However, very often, I think it is the veiled complicity of our racialized society that does the most work for our society today.” My experience as someone trying to repent of white pathology is that white people acknowledge we live in a veiled racialized society- that is, admitting that our society is sophisticatedly governed by race – while at the same time conforming to intentionally and consciously racist patterns, or even committing racist acts. In other words, white people accept the diagnosis but still continue to feed the illness. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head again. Keep these posts coming!

    1. And thank you, its helpful for me to hear you process this as well. I think we were thinking of different white populations. For me, it was the folks that wouldn’t admit that we live in a racialized society, for you it was those who can admit that but yet continue to persist in those patterns nonetheless. That’s an important distinction. I think your concern points to the need to not get stuck in white guilt and white confession, but instead to focus on solidarity and action. Peace bro!

  7. I should clarify that the distinction in white populations only goes so far: I don’t think it’s possible for any white person to fully acknowledge the extent to which our society is governed by race. This is due to white supremacy. I agree that moving beyond guilt and confession is the challenge. Thanks for taking the time during your studies to converse and write such substantive blog posts! Peace!

  8. “Heeding God’s Call” is a good example of action that honors the interconnectedness of all people. Urban and suburbanites demonstrated together today on good Friday to address lax straw purchasing practices by local gun shops, as well as lax state laws and lax enforcement that result in disproportionately large numbers of black youth deaths. We can work together to address social injustices.

  9. My personal idea of Anabaptism is that it doesn’t try to erect a “God’s kingdom” in this world, but that it develops opportunities for Christians to live as Independent from this world as possible, at its farthest edges. Perhaps there could more be done in this way? E.g. shaping small and self-sufficient communities for ex-convicts who want to begin a new kind of life?

  10. yeah, for me Anabaptism can never mean that, because its central component is “following Jesus”. So we are not avoiding society, but rather we follow Jesus into society. It was Jesus that trekked from Galilee to Jerusalem and which ended up in a huge confrontation with the authorities and power players of his time, and unsurprisingly resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion. However, I do agree that we should not try to “erect God’s Kingdom”. The reign of of God is an in-breaking reality that humanity cannot manufacture. What we can do is participate in that Kingdom and faithfully engage society, as Jesus himself did, which led him to feed the hungry, have a prophetic word to the authorities, and care for the felt needs of those around him by loving them concretely based on their particular condition. So, sure, if ex-convicts need a space to start fresh let’s provide that. But that doesn’t discount the reality that we are interconnected. What affects one directly affects all indirectly. How do we love people with that reality?

  11. Drew, I’m puzzled by the word non-racist in the title of this article. I kept waiting for some explanation, but didn’t find it.

    1. It really is pointing towards the end of the post, in which I call upon a flattening of racial hierarchy and privileging of whiteness as the normative position within the Church. It does not mean to suggest that racism will disappear, but that we will be actively resisting racism rather than unconsciously participating in it.

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