Interview with Dr Katelin Hansen: MennoNerds on #BlackLivesMatter

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Dr. Katelin Hansen is someone I deeply respect.  Her work with the racial realities in the United States on her blog bytheirstrangefruit is a go to resource for me, even being from Canada.  It is of particular interest to me as she is white, like me, and is very well grounded in what it means to be an advocate as a white person.  It is complex,  as she said in our preamble before the questions started flying “colonialism/racism was created by white people.”  As I try to understand the #blacklivesmatter movement more in depth, and consequentially learn about racial realities in my country to have this conversation with someone as grounded and grassroots as Katelin is a complete pleasure. Her answers to my wonderings are gentle, challenging and inspiring.  Please read, learn and act.

Chris: Thanks Katelin for your willingness to dialogue about the Black Lives Matter movement.  It is deeply appreciated.  For some of us Canadians, we don’t have a deep sense about what the Black Lives Matter movement is.  We hear the occasional news story from “Big” media and some of us know the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, but that is often the limit of our engagement. Being from a different country with different racial realities might be contributing to that I think.  Can you share a little bit about the emergence of the movement and how it has impacted current social realities?

Katelin: I suspect a lot of people in the USA (especially white people here) also don’t have a great understanding of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which often leads to undue suspicion, fear, or anger. There is indeed a reticence to immerse ourselves in full engagement with what it being said, so much of the message is misunderstood, or missed entirely.

The phrase itself was coined in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who after Trayvon Martin was killed, used it to respond to the anti-Black racism that was being made so apparent. The phrase began to pick up momentum even more after Michael Brown was killed, because as he lay in the street for over four hours, it demonstrated again that some lives simply mattered less than others in our society. As the month unfolded, it felt like we were hit with more and more evidence, often videoed live in the act, that Black lives don’t matter.

So ‘Black Lives Matter’ is powerful for the very reason that such a statement is needed at all. Because so often Black lives are treated as though the don’t matter, we are compelled to reaffirm that yes, yes, they do!! It does not mean “Black Lives Matter instead” or Black Live Matter only” but it is an affirmation that gives special cover to those who have not felt that truth from the society around them.

And what an indictment on the Church! This, the very institution charged with conveying and acting on the message that our lives matter to God, especially those treated as ‘the least of these.’ (The white church being by far the most culpable).

Thus, Black Lives Matter is a statement of commitment that we will work to ensure that our Black sisters and brothers are protected, respected, and empowered in our society, in a way that has never been the case to this point in USA history. I am not immersed in Canadian culture myself, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were similar issues of injustice there as well, While I know the USA has a very particular and sordid history with race, power combined with prejudice is a mighty force that knows no borders.

Chris:  Canada most certainly has a sordid history with race, power and prejudice.  The Canadian history, and currently realities with Indigenous people is, well, terrible.  I think this is why it is important for us to talk, because of the different contexts, yet similar racial realities.  In common we both live in countries that are saturated with white privilege, and power.  

For some of us in Canada, we have been embarking on a process which is called the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”  The purpose is to reconcile Canadians with the injustice that occurred to Indigenous people through the Residential schools, which were more or less intended to assimilate Indigenous people into white, colonial, European culture which was masked and informed by a particular, power hungry Christianity.  It was a process where survivors of Residential Schools would share their experience and add it to official record.  It was a multiple city commission.  I attended one session in Vancouver and was drastically changed.  One thing I notice about the rhetoric here is that it is about truth telling, listening and reconciliation while moving toward a hopeful future.  It is often framed int he context of a journey.  This is certainly more complicated, but I am wondering how the engagement between the white people and power structures and BLM is being framed.  What does it look like to move forward together?  

Katelin: Canada does seem to be better engaged with the injustices surrounding its indigenous peoples than does the USA. One of the consequences of the USA’s particularly shameful history with its Black residents is that the injustices against other communities of color often go overlooked and underaddressed. A similar effect happens in other countries, with other populations. Even as Canada begins to address its sins against indigenous peoples, it often parallels the USA with regard to other racial groups as well. The focus is often on indigenous peoples (and much focus is needed!), but as this Rabble article notes, “collapsing Black struggles in the U.S. into Indigenous struggles in Canada actively erases Black/Afrikan struggles in Canada. It would be more appropriate to suggest that the Canadian corollary to Black struggles in the U.S. are specific Black-led struggles in our own country.”

As you mention, much listening is needed. Unfortunately, oppressed groups have been speaking up for years without much response from those in power. It seems it is only when things get rough that the media turns its attention–so what lesson does that teach? After centuries of being unheard, it reinforces the message that no one cares.

Chris: What does a hopeful future look like as the church engages BlackLivesMatter? Can you give an example or two of predominately white congregations working in a hopeful way?  What advice would you give us as individuals who are look to support and work toward justice and hope in the midst of diversity?

Katelin: The acts of struggle and protest are themselves deep acts of faith and hope. If we did not have hope in a better future there would be no reason to press on and to continue engaging these issues. Because ours is a religion grounded in hope, being in the midst of these ast of hope is exactly where the church should be. Of all people, Christians believe that it will all turn out alright in the end and that God chooses to do the work of hope on the earth through the Church. As Dr. Christena Cleveland points out, hopelessness is a state of privilege. Too often, those in the dominant culture throw up their hands at a situation that the oppressed have been dealing with courageously for generations. Let us act on hope by engaging, by showing up, and by offering our support.

I confess it is difficult to point with confidence to predominantly white churches doing the work well. Not to say they don’t exist. There are certainly examples of churches opening their doors to marginalized communities and of pastors leading predominantly white churches that are leaning into the issues. But more often than not, once a white church fumbles through the early stages, and begins pushing down this path in earnest, they often find that they cannot truly do it well without fundamentally changing their composition (indeed I suspect this reality is what scares off so many churches from truly engaging!). A predominantly white church committed to the work or racial justice will soon find that the work can’t really be done if it is done in isolation from communities of color or without submitting to the leadership of those most affected. And then shortly thereafter it will find that it is no longer predominantly white. It’s better for their spiritual and institutional health that way anyway.

For those looking to support and engage in the work, I would suggest looking around and plugging into the work already happening in their area, particularly the work led by the marginalized and oppressed communities in question. It’s there, I promise. It’s just a matter of showing up, asking how you can be of service, and listening well to the answer. And educating oneself. It’s not the job of people of color to get earnest white people caught up on centuries of sociological thought and experience.

Chris:  What is the consequence of churches being silent on matters of racism?

Katelin:  I suspect you mean the white church’s silence (churches of color are rarely silent on racism, although perhaps underheard)? The consequences a dire and cut to very root of the Church’s existence on this earth. If we fail to speak up, we fail on so many axises: as a societal moral compass, as the hands and feet of Christ, as witnesses to God’s character, as spreaders of Good News. Both physical and spiritual lives are at stake. We destroy our witness and fail in our charge to love God’s people. As Spencer Perkins notes “white Christians’ decisions to choose comfort of their own race over the Christian ideals of brotherhood and oneness that our gospel so boldly preaches have undoubtedly weakened their witness to the African-American community.” James Cone concurs: “What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel.” He observes that ” “like most blacks of her time [Ida B.] Wells dismissed white Christianity as hypocrisy.” In her view, “our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” This effect continues today.When the white church is silent it is not only passively complicit in the deaths of millions, but actively contributes to the growing death toll going forward. In short, when the church is silent we fail to be the Church at all. We become known by the ‘strange fruit’ we bear.

Chris:  Thanks so much Katelin.  Please check out her blog: By Their 2014-08-03 15.56.14Strange Fruit

What are your questions about the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States? What do you find yourself thinking about after reading this interview?  

The Story behind the Face of Poverty

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Here are five things you may or may not encounter when you meet the story behind the face of poverty.

1. Our humanity is something we all share in common.  In our humanity we share a common brokenness no matter what our socio-economic standing.  To ‘serve’ the ‘poor’ as someone who is greater than the ‘other’ is to reject this notion. Any worldview that assumes a humanity that is materialistically wealthy is greater than the materially poor is debilitating and completely misses the point.  This attitude rejects the humanity in those who are poor and live in poverty.  A stark reminder that God’s love transcends barriers.

2.  People are extremely resilient and creative.  It is humbling to hear of what devastating problems actually look like, and inspiring to hear how people survive in the midst of it all.

3.  Those who live in poverty are the hardest working people you will ever meet.  The stereotype suggesting that those in poverty are just lazy is debilitating and down right insulting to the single mom who works the minimum wage job in a courageous effort to put food on the table and shelter for her family.

4.  Hearing the story of poverty from a child will Break. Your. Heart.

5.  Some of the poorest people in the world are the richest.

I strongly encourage you to dare cross the socio-economic barriers our culture has presented before us and relate with those who are homeless or live in poverty.  Your list will likely be different than mine, but your worldview will change as if it were orienting itself into the compassionate heart of a missional God.

What prevents you from serving beside, and walking with, the poor and homeless?  What have you seen or heard as you serve in this way?  What have you encountered?

Thirty Four: “The Upside-Down Kingdom”

 

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I was recently given an old school copy of  “The Upside-Down Kingdom” written by Donald B. Kraybill.  When I read the section below, I thought to myself “YESSSS!” then clenched my fist and proceeded to fist pump vigoursly.  It’s a bit sad that my son was in bed at this time as he is alwasy good for a high-five, sometimes even a high-ten.

Donald B. Kraybill on the Kindom of God:

“In a real sense the term defied definition since it is pregnant with many meanings.  This in fact is the secret of it’s genius.  It stimulates our imagination again and again.  Biblical scholars generally agree that the term ‘kingdom of God’ indicates the dynamic rule or reign of God.  The kingdom of God occurs when persons are ruled by God.  The German scholar Jeremias points out that the reign of God always stands for the government, authority, and power of the King.  It does not refer to a territory in a spatial sense.  Nor does it have an abstract or static meaning.  The kingdom does not stand still on a particular piece of ground – it is always in the process of being achieved.  The kingdom points us not to the place of God but to the act of  God.  It is His ruling activity.  The kingdom is present whenever women and men submit themselves to God’s reign in their life.”

Amen!

 “The Upside-Down Kingdom” – by Donald. B. Kraybill, page 25.

Twenty Nine: The difference between Charity and Social Justice

It’s a story that I heard somewhere.  One that I certainly have not made up.  I’ve only heard it spoken before, but it goes something like this…

There is a guy walking on the bank of a massive, rushing river.  It’s a beautiful day, so he closes his eyes to enjoy the sun shining on his face and the wind blowing gently through his hair.  All of a sudden he hears a horrific scream.  He turns his head and to his surprise there is a person floating down this massive rushing river.  Without thinking the man jumps into the river, swims over to the person in need, grabs their arm and brings them to safety.  Just as he begins to catch his breath, he hears the screams of another person floating in the river in obvious need.  So, like before, he jumped in, swam over to the person in need and brought them to safety.  Then he hears the screams of another person in the river, and another , and another, and another.  He began pulling in people from the river, a lot of people.  It became obvious that their were always going to be people floating down the river.  So the man had an important idea, he was going to create something to consistently help the people who float down the river.  So he sets up shop, gets some volunteers to help, and begins pulling people out of the river with ease and regularity.  The months go by when a volunteer, a seemingly regular and unassuming person, asked the man an unintentionally pointed question; “why are these people ending up in the river in the first place?”

Charity is a really good thing.  It helps a lot of people who really need it.  Charity, while a wonderful thing, does not engage the tough questions in a way that social justice does.  Social justice asks and acts on the question “why?”

So when someone volunteers at a food bank, they are doing some wonderful charitable work.  They are helping people who need food.  But when people start inquiring  about why there is hunger, or why so many people live on the street, and bravely act on those wonderings it stops being work of charity and becomes the first steps in the pursuit of a social justice.

Charity is safe.  It can be done from a distance.

Social justices requires investment, commitment and even more importantly, relationships with those who are the most vulnerable of society.

Sometimes I wonder if churches get the two mixed up in vision statements, inspirational sermons or bulletin announcements.  When they say social justice, I wonder if churches really mean charity.

Imagine a world that does not need food banks, or homeless shelters…