If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Healing Racism: A contemporary reflection on an old story

American society has tried to rid itself of blatantly racist attitudes toward people of color. And that's a good thing. We don't like it when the KKK flaunts their racist attitudes and stirs up trouble. We have moved beyond blatant bigotry. We don't burn crosses, wear hoods, and spit out hate speech. We have put away many of or old stereotypical images like Aunt Jemima, Watermelon-eating Negroes, blackfaced images like Al Jolson and Amos and Andy. We've laid to rest characters like the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto (which, by the way, means "stupid" in Spanish), and Hopsing, the loyal cook for the Cartwrights on Bonanza. We don't tell racial jokes that we once told to our white friends. We wouldn't dare refer to Brazil nuts as someone's toes using the "N" word. We have taught our children creative new ways to make choices besides one old form of, "eeny, meeny, miny, moe ... " We have lauded the civil rights movement and its strides toward equal opportunity for all races. It's nice to have a day off on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. We watch Oprah and cheer on the Lakers. Why, we even elected a black president of the United States. We are a post-racial nation, right? Some of us can even say, "You can't say I'm racist. I have a Black friend" or "Hey, I work with Mexicans. I can't be racist."

While we exempt ourselves from racism, we, white, Euro-Americans, were shocked at how the African- American community responded to the outcome of the OJ Simpson trial. The L.A. riots made us scratch our heads. We don't quite understand why people of color don't trust the police or public officials like we do. To us the disproportionate number of people of color in prison and on death row seems to indicate, from our enlightened perspective, that they are just involved more in crime than whites are. Segregation of people of color from whites in many of our cities has nothing to do with racism. Birds of a feather just seem to flock together. We don't seem to get it. And there's a reason.

Racism is alive and well. Whether or not we are prejudiced against people of color, racism is a reality that permeates North American society. In this post-civil rights era we are encountering a more ingrained, deeply rooted, subtle form of racism that is more difficult to recognize and to heal. The story of Naaman and his healing can serve as a metaphor to address another kind of healing needed today----the healing of racism.

The story of Naaman begins in the land of Aram. Naaman was the commander of the Aramean army, a mighty warrior held in high honor and esteem. He was afflicted a skin problem; leprosv. Even though his "leprosy" was probably only a mild form of skin disease, it must have caused him untold moments of social embarrassment Naaman's wife heard through her slave girl of a prophet in Samaria, who can cure him. She told her husband. Naaman decided to send a letter to the prophet through the official royal channel of King Hazael of Aram. Naaman was able to use his power and privilege to get what he wanted. I won't comment on how that works for whites in American society. Upon receiving an official communique from the king of Syria, asking that Naaman be healed, the King Joram of Israel, ripped his clothes. He couldn't heal Naaman of leprosy any more than having an African-American president can heal our nation’s racism. Elisha informed the king that Naaman needed to come to him. Surely this bruised Naaman's ethnic ego.

Naaman's skin problem was bad enough to cause him to take the risk of stepping over to the other side of the tracks. Naaman gathered his entourage and headed south of the border. As he halted his chariots in front of Elisha's house the coins he brought jingled. Still wrapped up-in a garment of ethnic pride, Naaman didn't even get down from his chariot to speak directly to Elisha. Elisha, who was a dignitary in his own right, must have considered this an ethnic slap in the face. So, he responded in kind by sending out a messenger to Naaman to tell him a thing or two. Elisha's messenger told Naaman that he must go and wash himself seven times in the muddy Jordan river, another big blow to Naaman's ethic ego. This demand raised the hackles on Naaman's skin and he stormed away infuriated.

In our story we find Naaman infected with an ethnocentric worldview. Admittedly, he did have to eat a slice of humble pie in order to cross the border into a foreign land and to stand before a foreign prophet of a foreign God. Naaman wasn't looking for any long term relationship with another ethnic group. He wanted to do his deed and get the heck out of there. This kind of like the hit-and-run approach of short-term mission work. Go to some ethic community, do your thing, and then go back to right side of the tracks, with no long term commitments. Naaman figured his healing would not take too long. He expected Elisha to come out to him, like one of the priests of his own religion. The prophet was supposed to call on his god's name, magically wave his hand over Naaman's spotted skin, and abracadabra, he would be healed. Then, he would be on his merry way. Instead, Elisha told him to go and wash himself in Israel's Jordan river. "What? Are you nuts? Aren't the Arbana and Pharpar rivers, the rivers of my land and people, better than the waters of the Jordan? Why can't I be healed in my own land, among my own people?" What did Elisha's Jewish land and rivers have that were so special? Naaman didn't get it. He had trouble understanding how washing in a foreign, inferior river was going to heal him. Naaman, the river is not the issue here. It's your ethnocentric attitude.

Our process for healing racism may begin with overcoming our ethnocentricity. Ethnocentricity is a viewpoint and attitude which says, "My race, my ethnic group is superior to others." In order to understand Naaman's actions and attitude toward another people we need to understand his actions in collective terms more than as an individual attitude. Let's think of Naaman as part of a larger social system of a people displaying prejudiced attitudes toward another people group. Ethnocentricity says, "My people, my nation, my ethnic group is better than yours." Ethnocentricity keeps us from healing relationships. As long as we cling to white superiority and privilege, we will not be able to nurture those relationships which can be healing balm to our lives. Dealing with our ethnocentricity can become the first step on the road to healing racism.

Ethnocentricity blocks the power of God's healing streams that flow through all races and nations. To consider our race, our people, our land as better than everyone else's fosters xenophobia, the fear or hatred of the stranger or foreigner. Ethnocentrism has dominated our white, European culture and history. It has resulted in a nation wounded by imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, racism, and violence. Ethnocentrism is, in reality, one of the first words that must be written on the pages of American history. As European Americans we need to be reminded that the land on which we live was not our land to begin with. The death of millions of Native Americans, their ghettoization, and the destruction of many indigenous cultures in the process was fed by ethnocentrism. There is no record that any of the intruders into these native lands looked positively upon the Native American peoples, their religion, or culture. The Naamans who took this land of America thought, "What do the streams of Native American life have to offer to us Europeans? Aren't the cultural streams of our native land much cleaner?"

In our own day ethnocentrism still permeates the land founded upon "liberty and justice for all." It has resulted in systemic white racism. One of the ways we blind ourselves to the presence of racism is by thinking of it only in individual terms as racial prejudice. Racism is not about personal prejudice. When we say, "Well, Black people can be just as racist as white people," we are thinking of racism in individualistic terms. Racism is not just a matter of personal prejudice. Mennonite Central Committee's Damascus Road Antiracism training defines racism with this formula: Racism= prejudice + systemic power. Trainers are adamant upon this analysis in understanding racism, even when white people don't get it. No other ethnic group in our society has the power to enforce its prejudices upon another group, no matter how manner individual exceptions we might propose. Therefore, with this definition racism is a white problem. If anyone still doesn't get it, I suggest that they take the Damascus Road training.

The disease of racism causes us to break out in a skin condition called "white supremacy." I'm not talking about white supremicists like the KKK marching down the streets in white sheets unashamedly yelling "white power!" I talking about the pervasive, but unrecognized situation in white American society. White people, white culture, and white religious expression are seen by the majority of people in our society to be the norm. Our ways are superior and define what is normal. As a collective group white, European Americans with the most power and privilege in our society. Whites hold economic, judicial, educational, political, and social power. Whether or not we are overtly prejudice or racist in intent, all whites, including myself, participate in and benefit from a racist system, which subordinates and oppresses people of color.

White racism is still with us. Racism is not exclusive to the KKK, the Aryan Nations, and the Skinheads. That's why electing a black president has very little to do with systemic racism. Systemic racism exists in the systems and institutions of our whole society. Racism shows up in pocketbooks, politics, and perceptions. Take, for instance, these findings from some recent surveys and studies. A Census Bureau study from ten years ago revealed that the average college-educated African American man earned less than the average college-educated European man by $10,000 a year. That fee is most likely the same or higher today. Another survey revealed different perceptions among whites and blacks about work among the races. Two-thirds of the whites surveyed believed that African-Americans get "equal pay for equal work," while two-thirds of blacks believed just the opposite.

In another study, for whites an integrated neighborhood is a community with at least one Black household out of fifteen, while for African Americans it is a fifty-fifty ratio. Also concerning housing, another survey showed that 55 percent of whites said blacks are not worse off concerning their homes than other groups with comparable education and income, but 64 per cent of the blacks surveyed believe they are worse off. One survey showed that more than one-third of whites still think blacks tend to be "less ambitious," "breed crime," and "have less native intelligence than whites." Naaman had a skin problem. Racism is, in a real sense, a skin problem; the problem of power and privilege the comes with having white skin and judging other based upon the amount of melanin in their skin. It is disease that has infected our institutions and infected our social arrangements, including education, housing, job opportunities, economics, legal and judicial systems. Ethnocentrism, white supremacy, and racism block the healing streams of God's power that flows out to all nations, races, and peoples.

Healing racism will require that we step into God's healing streams. It will require a religious and social conversion; a baptism against the strong currents of racism. Naaman was cured of his leprosy only as he obeyed the word of God from the foreign prophet, Elisha, and washed himself in the Jordan river. He was not only healed physically from his leprosy, but also personally and spiritually from his egocentricity, and socially from his ethnocentricity. He stood face to face with Elisha and confessed his faith in the God of Israel. A religious and social conversion took place within Naaman's life. His new perspective caused him to act in a rather strange way. He asked to take some dirt from the land of Israel to worship on! Naaman even asked to be pardoned when he bowed within the house of worship of his former god, Rimmon. Naaman missed the point by focusing on the land, like some who wake up to racism and advocate "cultural awareness" or "multicultural training" as a solution to racism. They are missing the point.

The story of Naaman can point us to the healing waters. Our own spiritual and social healing from the disease of racism will require that we listen to the Word of our universal God that comes from the prophets of other races. We will be called upon to bathe in the living streams of other races and peoples. In order to be healed of our racism we will need to listen to and take seriously the prophetic voices among African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans. Their word may open blind eyes and set captives of racism free. We will need to trust the leadership of people of color to show us the way to the healing streams and not think our ways of doing things is always the right or only way. But, be prepared. Our white communities will probably be far more resistant to following the word and leadership of people of color than Naaman was in following Elisha's advice. Yet, the word of our brothers and sisters may be just the Word from God's that we so desperately need to hear for our own healing. The streams of lives and communities different from ours may be the water we need that cleanses us of America's original sin.

To be healed of our skin problem will require stepping into God's healing streams. We can put our toes into the stream by educating ourselves and our children about racism and the cultures of people of color. One of our white privileges is that we don't have to know anything about other cultures or think about race or racism, which is a daily reality of people of color. We can step into healing waters by making long term relations with people of color in our communities. We can go waist deep by dealing with racism on a congregational level. I'm proud that my wife, Iris, was deeply involved in antiracism work through Mennonite Central Committee US and was present at a UN conference in South Africa that addressed racism and xenophobia on a global level.

In its formative years Mennonite Church USA decided to be an antiracist institution, due in great part to the work of Damascus Road. The healing of our denomination will involve including people of color into positions of power and influence. This means that persons of color will be involved in positions of church leadership, policy and decision making, program planning, and mission prioritizing for our denomination and its institutions. There is much, much more to be done to open the doors to qualified persons of color and to change attitudes, policies, and practices. Each step forward is going to be a real struggle. The opinions and suggestions of people of color will need to more than token representation, but rather be given equal weight to that of the white majority of church leaders. As an antiracist institution the Mennonite Church will take the concerns about racism that are raised by people of color seriously. Their concerns will not be written off as "reactionary," "overly sensitive," or "too race conscious." Only as we listen for the prophetic Word of God in other voices and dip ourselves into their streams will we be spiritually and socially healed of racism.

Some of us may still be wondering what in the world the story of Naaman has to do with racial issues. Isn't this stretching the application a bit? Well, a precedent for applying the story of Naaman to ethnic issues was once set by a well known preacher. When he was in his early thirties, just starting his ministry, he preached his first sermon in his home church. He read the scripture text for the morning service and started to preach. The congregation was amazed at the eloquence of his sermon. That was until he got to the part where he applied the Scripture text to their lives. He apply the scriptures to some unrecognized ethnic viewpoints and attitudes of his audience. The preacher took the familiar of the story of Naaman and gave it a contemporary application. He said, "There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” The congregation shifted in their pews and tugged at their collars. The implication was right there in their own Holy Scripture. God is free to chose another race and people, above their own, through which to act and to bring healing. When the sermon was over the congregation didn't come up to the preacher after the service, smile, and say, "Nice sermon, preacher." Instead, they went into a rage, drove him out of town, and were ready to throw him of the edge of a cliff! Who was that young preacher? Jesus!

If we are to be healed of our disease of racism, like Naaman we will need to listen to the Word of God coming from unexpected sources and strange sounding requests. Today's prophets are telling us to go and dip ourselves in God's healing waters, however foreign and unfamiliar the streams. It’s time to step into the healing waters.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Recommended Reading: The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray

The Naked Anabaptist needed to be written, and I can't imagine anyone better than Stuart Murray to write it. I fully share Stuart's enthusiasm for what the Christian community at large can learn from the Anabaptist way of being Christian, and I hope you'll share my enthusiasm for this book. --Brian D. McLaren, author/speaker/activist

Although I have not read this book yet, I can recommend it based on all the other excellent writings of Stuart Murray. The release date is July 2010. Murray works as a writer, trainer and consultant for the Anabaptist Network based in Bristol, England. His expertise is in Anabaptist history and theology, church planting, emerging church, mission in post-Christendom. Murray provided helpful comments in a chapter on Anabaptist hermeneutics for my doctoral dissertation and has written on dialogical preaching, which is the topic of my dissertation.

This book "uncovers" the bare essentials of Anabaptism stripped of its cultural clothing within the Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish traditions. The book addresses the following questions: What is an Anabaptist? Where did Anabaptism come from? What do Anabaptists believe? Can I become an Anabaptist? What is the difference between Anabaptists and Mennonites? As a person who came among the Mennonites 23 years ago through studying the 16th century Anabaptists, I believe Murray's book will provide a helpful guide to those interested in what the bare essentials of Anabaptism might look like today.

An extract of the book can be read at: http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/539

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Praying Hands: Icon for Lent

Albrecht Durer's praying hands have become an icon of the Christian prayer. The story behind the drawing goes like this:

Back in the fifteenth century, in a tiny village near Nuremberg, lived a family with eighteen children. Eighteen!
In order merely to keep food on the table for this big family, the father and head of the household, a goldsmith by profession, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and any other paying chore he could find in the neighbourhood.

Despite their seemingly hopeless condition, two of Albrecht Durer the Elder's children had a dream. They both wanted to pursue their talent for art, but they knew full well that their father would never be financially able to send either of them to Nuremberg to study at the Academy.

After many long discussions at night in their crowded bed, the two boys finally worked out a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby mines and, with his earnings, support his brother while he attended the academy. Then, when that brother who won the toss completed his studies, in four years, he would support the other brother at the academy, either with sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by labouring in the mines.

They tossed a coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Durer won the toss and went off to Nuremberg.

Albert went down into the dangerous mines and, for the next four years, financed his brother, whose work at the academy was almost an immediate sensation. Albrecht's etchings, his woodcuts, and his oils were far better than those of most of his professors, and by the time he graduated, he was beginning to earn considerable fees for his commissioned works.

When the young artist returned to his village, the Durer family held a festive dinner on their lawn to celebrate Albrecht's triumphant homecoming. After a long and memorable meal, punctuated with music and laughter, Albrecht rose from his honoured position at the head of the table to drink a toast to his beloved brother for the years of sacrifice that had enabled Albrecht to fulfil his ambition. His closing words were, "And now, Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. Now you can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you."

All heads turned in eager expectation to the far end of the table where Albert sat, tears streaming down his pale face, shaking his lowered head from side to side while he sobbed and repeated, over and over, "No ...no ...no ...no."

Finally, Albert rose and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He glanced down the long table at the faces he loved, and then, holding his hands close to his right cheek, he said softly, "No, brother. I cannot go to Nuremberg. It is too late for me. Look ... look what four years in the mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once, and lately I have been suffering from arthritis so badly in my right hand that I cannot even hold a glass to return your toast, much less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with a pen or a brush. No, brother ... for me it is too late."

More than 450 years have passed. By now, Albrecht Durer's hundreds of masterful portraits, pen and silver point sketches, water-colours, charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings hang in every great museum in the world, but the odds are great that you, like most people, are familiar with only one of Albrecht Durer's works. More than merely being familiar with it, you very well may have a reproduction hanging in your home or office.

One day, to pay homage to Albert for all that he had sacrificed, Albrecht Durer painstakingly drew his brother's abused hands with palms together and thin fingers stretched skyward. He called his powerful drawing simply "Hands," but the entire world almost immediately opened their hearts to his great masterpiece and renamed his tribute of love "The Praying Hands."

----story from http://www.moytura.com/reflections/prayinghands.htm

The second set of praying hands is a scratchboard drawing that I finished today. A scratchboard is a thick piece of paper coated with a thin layer of wax, then covered with black ink. The artist uses a a sharp tool to scratch away the lights leaving the darks, unlike ink and pencil drawings in which the artist adds the darks leaving the lights.

I offer this as an icon for the season of Lent, a time of prayer and meditation that began yesterday with Ash Wednesday.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dove Tales Features My Booklet

The latest edition of the Peace and Justice Support Network's publication Dove Tales contains an article by Jack Knox on my booklet The Economic Crisis and the Divine Economy.

Download here: http://peace.mennolink.org/resources/newsletter/dt_8_1.pdf

No More Pain: Revelation 21 Painting Series

Finished the fifth painting in my Revelation 21 series today.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Goshen College Caves In To Public Opinion: Educating the Public in How to Compromise Your Faith

Recently Goshen College, a Mennonite school, changed its historical Anabaptist/Mennonite stance on not playing the national anthem at its sporting events. It caved into to public opinion criticizing its Anabaptist/Mennonite "pacifist" practice of not playing the national anthem, which is rooted in militarism and nationalism. I see this as just another sign of the slowly eroding peace witness within the Mennonite Church, which I questioned in my award winning article for Mennonite Weekly Review entitled "When is a Peace Church No Longer a Peace Church": http://www.mennoweekly.org/2008/7/21/when-peace-church-no-longer-peace-church/?print=1

News story: http://www.wsbt.com/news/local/34294434.html

Goshen info: http://www.goshen.edu/president/anthem/

A good article responding to Goshen's action can be found at JesusRadicals: http://www.jesusradicals.com/goshen-college-hurts-the-church/

Here is a letter I wrote to the president of Goshen College, Jim Brenneman, whom I know.


I am writing to express my displeasure with Goshen College's decision to cave in to public opinion concerning playing the national anthem at Goshen College sporting events. The national anthem is undeniably a song that grows out of a militaristic and nationalistic tradition. As you have expressed in Goshen pubic communications, "Our practice of not playing the national anthem at our sporting events has been a practice of the college since its inception 114 years ago rooted in the nearly 500-year-old confessions of faith of the Mennonite heritage and in the simple New Testament expressions, “Jesus is Lord” and “God so loved the world.”

To change this practice seems to me to be just another evidence of the slow erosion of the Mennonite peace stance, which I questioned as Minister of Peace and Justice for MC USA: http://www.mennoweekly.org/2008/7/21/when-peace-church-no-longer-peace-church/?print=1. I wrote this because of what I was seeing across the denomination in congregations, conferences, and church institutions.

It is my conviction that holding to our peace witness, amid public pressure to conform, can provide better venues for dialogue and witness than letting go of those convictions by incremental compromises. Even if Goshen continues to "make peacemaking" a part of its education, this action speaks volumes as to what that really means when the "going gets tough."


Rev. Dr. Leo Hartshorn

Here is the response Jim Brenneman sent back to me on 2/26/10:

Dear Leo,

I wanted to both acknowledge my appreciation for your feedback and also offer a word or two of response.

First, never before has Goshen College in so public a way proclaimed our commitment to peace in all its forms, than in the last two years. For the first time in GC history, we have done television ads (on regional Super Bowl/Olympics/etc.) and radio spots, proclaiming that GC is about “Healing the World: Peace by Peace.” Our website, our publications, viewbooks, speeches, have all be designed around “Making Peace”. You can read more about the GC promise of “Making Peace” in the upcoming Bulletin. These resources provide an overview of our commitment to describing ourselves in vivid, positive, affirming, contagious ways as a college that promotes peace! Literally, we are shouting it from the rooftops in new and unprecedented ways. We have not abandoned that understanding, though my hope is that we are helping to expand people's understandings of peace. It isn't just about being anti-war (though it includes that), it is about the Biblical understanding of shalom.

Second, our five core values (which positively state who we are and are a wonderful encapsulation of the Anabaptist convictions), explicitly named 8 years ago, are being used to redesign from top to bottom our curriculum; learning outcomes; board, faculty, staff orientation/education through a Core Values Institute; tenure processes; etc., so as to ensure that we “realize our intentions” in keeping GC closely tied to our Anabaptist/Mennonite roots, even while we open our doors wider to those who do not know an Anabaptist from an Antibaptist. In this way, we hope our “Anabaptist story” will truly be an intentional missional adventure (even if one never chooses to become a Christian, Anabaptist or otherwise) creating “choice” for both cradle Mennonites and others to hear the Anabaptist story and make it their own. We are self-consciously structuring our teaching and learning here at GC around the core values, trusting those values to carry the day (like a magnet to shavings), rather than bounding our set of beliefs by impermeable lines of demarcation that, while necessary at outer limits, are not the best approach in wooing new adherents or conversation partners to the table.

Third, Goshen College continues to be a leader in Peacemaking, Environmental Transformation, Intercultural Teaching and Learning, Interreligious Dialog (new SST in Egypt geared around Muslim/Christian engagement), all the things that have made it and will continue to make this such a wonderful place to learn. We also want to spread this influence in the world to include professions of diplomacy, governmental/nongovernmental leadership, civic engagement, business, and other professions not always considered part of the “peacemaking” enterprise. So when we say on our banners flying from every pole on campus: “Making peace with business, the arts, environment, sports, Christ, etc. its more than a slogan, it’s a vocational invitation.

And finally, I have devoted my entire adult ministry to bringing into the Mennonite Church hundreds of new members and have helped mentor pastoral and other leaders new to the Mennonite Church. For not a few of them, their discovery of the peacemaking way of Christ came by a welcoming spirit that did not challenge their perspectives at the door, but invited them to consider new perspectives over time and in community. That continues to be part of our missional commitment at Goshen College.

This letter might not fully address all your concerns, but I trust it helps convey that we are passionately committed to our theological heritage even as we attempt to negotiate the challenges of contemporary issues.


Jim B.

James E. Brenneman, Ph.D.
Goshen College
1700 S. Main St.
Goshen, IN 46526
(574) 535-7501