At the age of 10, I began going to Friedenswald Mennonite summer camp, in Cassopolis, Michigan. Being that I grew up in Indianapolis, with very few Mennonites, this is a place where I felt a sense of belonging. There was no American flag being raised in the mornings and no need to explain why I was abstaining from the pledge of allegiance or why would not put my hand over my heart for the National Anthem. Aside from that, many cousins were there and friends who were essentially like cousins because our parents had all grown up together, dated each other, vacationed together, etc. Some of the best memories were gathering around the campfire and singing each night.
Recently, I have had the looping memory of one particular song we used to sing. I cannot remember the entire song, but I do remember these lines, “I don’t want to be a Pharisee, I don’t want to be a Pharisee, ‘cause they’re not fair you see. I don’t want to be a Sadducee. I don’t want to be a Sadducee, ‘cause they’re so sad you see…” As I remember singing this and laughing with my Anglo-Mennonite friends, a feeling of nausea arises. I did not know this at the time, but Pharisees and Sadducees, were sects of Judaism, in 1st century Palestine. Essentially, I was a part of a group of majority white Christians who were gathered around a fire and singing, “I don’t want to be a Jewish person” Do I really need to draw the comparisons between that and a group of white men marching into Charlottesville, screaming “Jews will not replace us”?
I suppose the key difference is consciousness. I did not know that I was saying something anti-Semitic, but someone did. There were times when Christian superiority would seep out in a more direct way. The camp pastor, during my high school years, received a question about other religions and their validity. He said something like, “All the major religions are on the right track, but Christianity is the religion that all others are trying to live up to.” I had adored this pastor, but right then and there, I wrote him off. Similarly, I wrote off the idea of baptism because I could not affirm that “Jesus is the one truth, way and light.” When I was baptized in 2010, I made sure not to say those words. These ideas did not resonate with me because of how closely tied I felt to the Jewish community, in Indianapolis. I went to the JCC for summer day camp, took piano, swimming, and worked there during High School. Aside from that, I had many more Jewish friends than Mennonite ones in Indianapolis. Personally, the Jewish religious practices felt like they had more depth than other Christian spaces, like Young Life (I hated Young Life) So, these subtle and overt messages of Christian superiority made absolutely no sense to me.
In the wake of the stark rise in all forms of bigotry towards minority groups, we are called to assess the unconscious permeations in our own families and communities. These very overt expressions of anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia shine a light on our own subtle and unconscious expressions of these -isms.
As I reflect on the Mennonite Conference this summer, I continue to think about our process regarding the Israel/Palestine resolution. I think it gives us a huge opportunity for self-reflection as we engaged in an internal process, which effected those outside of our community. The resolution that was submitted was the result of two years of work, put in by a ten-person reference group of composed of Palestinians, Israelis and American Jewish people. The resolution was presented to the delegate body and passed with overwhelming approval. The summary of this resolution is as follows:
As followers of Jesus and his gospel of reconciliation, we long for peace, security, and the well-being of all people living in Israel and Palestine. We have heard the cry for justice of Palestinians, especially those living under oppressive military occupation for fifty years. We are also acutely aware of antisemitism and violence inflicted upon Jews in the past and the present. The suffering of these two groups has too often been set against the other. We recognize, rather, that the legacy of Jewish suffering is intertwined with the suffering of Palestinians. In this situation, there are Palestinians and Jews who work for justice and peace for all, rejecting violence and oppression. We are blessed to count them as partners and seek to support them and learn from them. We confess that we, as Mennonites, as Christians, and as Americans, bear some responsibilities for the injustice and violence that both peoples have experienced historically and currently. We commit ourselves to take active and specific steps to redress these harms. On one hand, we will oppose military occupation and seek a just peace in Israel and Palestine; on the other, we will seek deeper relationships with Jewish communities and actively oppose antisemitism.
This resolution passed with an overwhelming majority and I was one of the delegates that voted yes. This, however, was not without some thought and trepidation. During the open mic time, I was able to observe a microcosm of the larger discourse as a majority white, American, Christian group stuck their nose in this conflict. With in our tiny Mennonite body, we stretched the gamut. On the far left, people spoke of this resolution “not going far enough” in terms of its support for BDS boycotts, pushing for even more of a cultural boycott of Israel. On the right people spoke of Christian Zionism and that God was returning Jewish people to Israel, as part of the Biblical prophecies. And, furthermore, we even had an anti-Semitic fascist, who had pamphlets that basically denied the Holocaust.
It makes my blood boil to know that this man has been tolerated and allowed a seat at the table for many conventions prior to this one and this was the first one where I was tolerated as a queer person. He was allowed 2 minutes at the open mic, about the resolution, to spew his delusional rhetoric and I was given 5 to read a poem about bridging differences and singing a song with the words, “I won’t use hate to separate.” Let me just put on my therapist hat and say, “Mennonite Church USA, I am struck by that.” This is a snap shot of where we were, at the time of passing this resolution. If we are to take seriously the call to oppose anti-Semitism, this is a snap shot, a picture, we need to face head on.
The overt anti-Semitism of the fascist is obvious, but it is important to look at the more subtle anti-Semitism that may lurk in some of the other views, as well. On the left, there has been a tendency to conflate Judaism with the state of Israel, pushing some American Jewish people out of progressive spaces, leaving them more vulnerable to rising levels of anti-Semitism in the United States. I fear that some progressive are looking away and even participating in the scapegoating of Jewish people as a group. Furthermore, context matters. When we are speaking out against Israel as White-Anglo Christians, that is different than a progressive American Jewish person or an Israeli person. We have different skin in the game. We don’t have parents and grandparents who were killed, fled or survived genocide. THAT MATTERS. If we are prepared to do a full boycott of Israel, we must be prepared to do a full boycott of the United States. Take you money out of the banks, out of your retirement funds, out of the stock markets. Oh, and stop paying taxes. If we want to talk about oppressive regimes and oppression of racial “others,” we don’t need to cross any seas. We white Christians are the occupiers of this United States.
On the right, the anti-Semitism feels more sneaky and a lot more creepy, for lack of a better word. Basically, Christian Zionist view the Jewish people as pawns in their own salvation in the “end of days.” I think it goes something like Christians (and they are probably talking about a very particular type of Christian, certainly not LGBTQ ones) are the true chosen ones who will magically ascend to heaven, when the Jewish people are returned to Israel and the Messiah returns. Personally, I think that salvation theology has got to go or needs a great deal of deconstruction before it can be useful. I can only see its merit from the view point of the oppressed (which early Christians were, indeed oppressed, and White Straight Evangelicals are not). This is the type of theology that is deadly when it teams up with empire and with capitalism, where “others” become used for the ultimate benefit of those with the most power. It was used to justify slavery, the doctrine of discovery which massacred and continues to oppress Native people. Unsurprisingly, it has been the backing of much of anti-Semitic violence over the last 1500 years.
So, with all that baggage, why did I vote yes on this resolution? I thought it was a really good resolution and I trusted the people who worked on it. I wouldn’t have voted yes had there not been collaboration with Palestinians, Jewish Voice for Peace and Israelis. But, I also voted yes so that I could write this essay and attempt to hold us and myself accountable. I seek to ally with all marginalized people inside and outside of our Church body. Mennonite Church USA, you marginalized me as a queer person and now I am a thorn in your side. I am not coming back into the fold without the other marginalized people, nor will embrace a collective identity that boasts superiority in subtle or overt ways, or needs to denigrate “the other” to figure out who they are, or tries to whitewash the pain of others in the name of reconciliation and “togetherness.” I don’t want to belong to that. I want to belong to something new.
A few nights ago, I had a dream where I was back at Friedenswald Camp, in Michigan. I was walking around and looking at pictures on the wall. A woman, who is black, comes up to me and says, “You know, they have a picture of the KKK group that lives around here. Its up on the wall and they ask me to polish it sometimes.” (for the record, a former grand dragon of the KKK did used to live around the Cassopolis, MI area, during my childhood, when I attended the camp). The woman looks at me and I understand in this moment that it is too dangerous for her to confront this and it is as if a get a telepathic message from her that says. “What are you going to do about it?” I take the picture off of the wall and show it to my father (this is not my actual father, in the dream, just a representation of white-hetero-christian-patriarchy). I say, “What the hell is this?” He says, “What? It’s just a part of our history, it’s harmless.” I yell, “You want it polished and you ask this woman to polish it! That’s so fucked up! Why would you ever think that I would bring my Jewish friends and partner to this place with this picture on the wall?” I then smash the picture on the ground.
This dream left we wondering what are the photographs on our collective Mennonite walls right now?Among many, in a complex history, here are a few from Mennonite Convention 2017: Snap shot 1: LGBTQ Mennonites being tolerated for the first time being asked to listen to the laments about Evangelicals leaving the church because they did not want to sit at the same table us. Snapshot 2: People of color breaking down when talking about their experience of erasure and abuse while white Christian men complained about feeling oppressed. Snapshot 3: Stories of abusive pastors and men in leadership being protected, while women and other abuse victims are asked to forgive. Snapshot 4: The tolerance of Holocaust denier, while we pass a resolution that charges us to confront anti-Semitism. And here is one from my own past: Singing “I don’t want to be a Pharisee” as a 10 year old and thinking just for a moment, “Something doesn’t feel right about this. What’s a Pharisee anyways?” and then overriding it. “This is church camp after all…this is where I belong…it must be okay. It’s harmless, right?”
So, as the wise woman in the dream nudged, “What are we going to do about it?” Here is my initial plan. Picture number 1: SMASH! Picture number 2: SMASH! Picture number 3: SMASH! Picture number 4: SMASH! Picture number 5: SMASH! The privileged parts of us want to rush towards reconciliation or even peace building on the behalf of others (like the Israel/Palestine resolution) without doing the necessary smashing within our own psyches, lives and communities. Only in the courage to shatter these images, or at least de-throwning them, can we live into right relationship within our Mennonite boundaries and then with our neighbors. Amidst the shattered pieces, something new, something whole and something much less brittle awaits. This is the type of salvation theology that I can get down with.