by Berry Friesen
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I say to you, do not counter evil in kind.”
“Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware
of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’.”
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves;
so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
In the wake of the provocations, violence and counter-violence in Charlottesville, Virginia August 11-12, leading voices within Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) have been urging us to get involved in the problems highlighted there.
I will briefly review four of those messages. Then I will offer a few reflections.
The Mennonite’s coverage
We heard first from Hannah Heinzekehr via an August 14 article published by The Mennonite. The article uses the phrase “white supremacist” nine times to describe the people who came as demonstrators to Charlottesville; twice it describes them as “the alt-right.” It goes on to quote six individuals who were involved in some aspect of the counter-protest to the alt-right demonstrators.
Sarah Thompson, executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, led trainings to prepare members of the Charlottesville community for “militant nonviolent direct action” meant to disrupt alt-right activities. Thompson also participated in what she called “a ministry of encouragement” for local activists who planned and participated in actions to resist the alt-right presence in Charlottesville.
“I’d say get comfortable with being uncomfortable and get comfortable with making white supremacists uncomfortable,” said Dr. Jalane Schmidt, a former Mennonite who co-leads a local chapter of Black Lives Matter and helped organize the counter-protests in Charlottesville. “You have to disrupt stuff.”
Art Stoltzfus, a member of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, attended a worship service on the University of Virginia commons on the evening of August 11. Along with other worshippers, Stoltzfus exited the church by its side doors in order to avoid contact with the alt-right demonstrators, many of them carrying lit torches and marching on the commons. “It was sobering walking out the door and then looking back and seeing all those torches and hearing the chanting,” said Stoltzfus. He especially noted “how young these people, mostly white men, were.”
Cynthia Lapp, pastor of Hyattsville (Maryland) Mennonite Church, joined a line of roughly 30 clergy members who marched on the morning of August 12 from downtown Charlottesville to Emancipation Park for the purpose of denying entry to alt-right demonstrators. “Being in Charlottesville felt like a really concrete way to say that I as a white person bear some responsibility for the racism of the church, of the society and of the economy,” said Lapp, “and so I need to put myself out there.”
Janie and Luke Beck Kreider joined a downtown march on August 11 and provided logistical support for counter-protesters on August 12. As reported by The Mennonite, they hope other Mennonite individuals, churches and the denomination will see these events as another wakeup call to get involved. “Speak out. Do your own work around white supremacy and whiteness and racism,” said Janie.
Ervin Stutzman, MCUSA Executive Director
Also on August 14, Stutzman issued a three-paragraph statement in response to the events in Charlottesville. The statement uses the phrase “white supremacist” twice to describe the people who came as demonstrators to Charlottesville; once it uses the phrase “alt-right.” Here are the final two paragraphs.
“As followers of Jesus, we must speak out against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism that prompted the demonstration. We declare with the authority of scripture that all people are created in the image of God, and that no so-called race is inherently superior to any other. We call all of Mennonite Church USA to be watchful and open to the Spirit of God, inspiring and emboldening us to stand together with people who are the target of hate solely because of the color of their skin, gender, sexual orientation or religion.
We support the people of faith and all people of good will who are uniting in a spirit of hope and love to resist the influence of hate groups around the country. We call all of Mennonite Church USA to pray for justice and mercy in our nation, that we may grant to all the dignity and respect which they deserve as people loved by God, and for whom Christ died.”
Mennonite Central Committee’s “Statement on white supremacy and racism”
On August 18, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) issued a statement authored by a staff member, Andrew Wright, in consultation with “U.S. staff and board members.” The statement uses the phrase “white supremacist” ten times to describe the people who came as demonstrators to Charlottesville; once it uses the phrase “alt-right.”
The statement begins by declaring MCC’s position:
“MCC rejects white supremacy and its violence in all forms—including white racism, white silence, white fragility and white privilege—as a scourge that continues the legacy of trauma inflicted on people of color.”
It provides commentary on MCC’s own history, confessing to and repenting of often being “slow or unwilling to join the struggle for racial justice.”
“Though in our peace witness we sometimes may be called to ‘seek a middle way,’ MCC also recognizes that in the context of white supremacy, our peace stance requires us to work alongside and with those striving for racial justice, while remaining committed to nonviolent means.”
After declaring “that the call to discipleship explicitly includes a call to the work of dismantling racism in all its forms,” the statement concludes with a call to MCC’s broader constituency:
“We invite and call on our constituency to reject white supremacy, and to join us alongside other communities in forming creative and prophetic responses to racism as an expression of Anabaptist Christian convictions.”
Stanley Green, Executive Director of the Mennonite Mission Network
On August 20, Green preached in my congregation during the morning worship service. His text was John 20:21, especially these words of Jesus: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Green emphasized that Jesus lived out his calling from YHWH by engaging with people, including those caught up in conflict and strife. Those following the call of Jesus also will engage with such persons in our time, said Green. “We are not called to form a holy huddle, but to a life of engagement like Jesus lived.”
Twice Green referred to the events of Charlottesville, encouraging our congregation to see our engagement with people in such events as obedience to Jesus’ call.
- Does “engagement” mean “taking sides?” Yes, in a way it does. But that doesn’t mean joining one of the “sides” currently defining the conflict.
In the case of Charlottesville, the conventional narratives divide things up this way:
White supremacists vs. militant anti-racists
“White” vs. “People of Color”
Fascists vs. Anti-fascists
Right vs. Left
Are these the “sides” Jesus wants us to choose from as we answer his call? I have my doubts.
During his lifetime, Jesus rejected “the sides” on offer: Zealot militancy, the collaborative engagement of the Sadducees with the Roman and Judean authorities, the self-righteous distancing of the Pharisees. The “side” Jesus embodied was very different; it was like being a savvy sheep amid a battle of wolves.
- The MCC statement refers to “a middle way” MCC has often pursued in its peacemaking work. In light of Jesus’ teaching, this practice seems important. What is “a middle way” in the context of America’s growing racial and political polarization?
- The tone of Stutzman’s statement suggests a calling to bear witness to our shared identity (“created in the image of God”) and to our shared belief that “no so-called race is inherently superior to any other.” The article from The Mennonite and the statement from MCC suggest a calling to eradicate white supremacy as a social movement.
Jesus often confronted evil, but he did little eradicating. When we engage in a campaign to fix society by eradicating evil, aren’t we heading in a direction Jesus never went? Shouldn’t we be talking about this?
- We can “stand” in the middle of conflict out of apathy, ambivalence or cowardice. Or we can “stand” in the middle because the “sides” on offer entail destructive and violent means. Can we recognize and reclaim a standing-in-the-middle that requires principled courage and love of the enemy?
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. A version of this essay was previously published at his blog, www.bible-and-empire.net