“Will you forgive us?” they said from the platform at Global Youth Summit. “As North Americans, if, through pride or selfish independence, we have said, ‘I am not part of the body…’ Will you forgive us? If we have known that other parts of Christ’s body suffer, and have refused to share their pain… Will you forgive us? If in place of Christ, the head of the body, we have served our own theology, tradition, or prejudice, and loved only those who loved or looked like us… Will you forgive us?” As I reflect back on my experience at the 15th Assembly of Mennonite World Conference, this litany, shared by North American young people, remains at the forefront of my mind. It was an important reminder to me that true unity is not possible without a recognition of power inequalities in the church.
In order to bring about this unity based on reconciliation, power imbalances in the church must be named. In Mennonite Church USA we recognize that this means questioning our institutional structures and the ways in which they favor white, Euro-centric styles of leadership over the leadership styles of other groups of people. As a denomination we have committed ourselves to being anti-racist and we recognize that it will take much time and effort to overcome the oppression that is embedded in our structures.
Within the global church, I believe that there are things that we, as white Mennonites around the world, must repent of . We must ask for forgiveness and we must change, before there can be authentic unity in the church. We must seek to be reconciled to those whom we have wronged.
On Saturday morning of Mennonite World Conference Chris Marshall spoke of unity as an essential mark of the church. In his bible study he called us to be reconciled to each other within the church, as an Anabaptist-Mennonite body, before we seek to witness to the world around us. As I listened to him I wrote this in my journal: “This is a different spin on unity than we’ve had so far related to the church… up until this point the assumption, by and large, has been that we are united in the church and our call is to be agents of reconciliation outside of the church.”
In retrospect I’ve also reflected on the message from Bishop Nzuzi Mukawa from DR Congo. According to Mukawa, the church works toward reconciliation when it preaches and lives the gospel of justice. During his message on Wednesday evening he challenged the church to be honest about the inequality in access to resources. In addition to critiquing the global trading system which benefits the rich and naming the consequences of global warming in poor countries, he declared that rich countries should pay damages to poor countries, rather than requiring them to repay international debt. He exhorted us to work in solidarity with the poor and to recognize the pain that much of the body of Christ is experiencing. If we are one body, he said, we must feel the pain in our body.
At the pre-Assembly gathering of Latin American and African Women Theologians I was also challenged to think about unity in terms of justice and equality. These women theologians boldly denounced doctrines that perpetuated the exclusion of women from positions of equal leadership with men. Working toward unity, they acknowledged, would not be easily received based on the systemic sexism that is present within the church. At the same time, they committed themselves to this work, believing that unity could be realized as women and men work together to name systemic injustice and be liberated, in different ways, by the power of the risen Christ.
With these understandings of forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity in mind, I was eager to experience the symbolic act of peace, between the German Mennonites and the Indigenous Mennonites of Paraguay. As Helmut Isaak forgave the man who had killed his brother, an event amply reported in the Mennonite press, I waited for Isaak’s acknowledgment of the ways in the which German Mennonites immigrants had devastated the livelihood of the indigenous inhabitants of the Chaco with their arrival. According to Wilmar Stahl, a 62 year old German Mennonite anthropologist who I had the privilege of meeting while visiting the Paraguayan Chaco, the Chaco natives have experienced much trauma. He described them as “persecuted by two armies; dazzled by a powerful war machine; decimated by epidemics; disinherited of their natural habitats; reduced in number by transmigrations; forced and lured, at the same time, into a new way of life, with the false assumption: that it would be best, to make themselves depend on the ‘superior white man.’”
So I waited for Jonoine, chief of the Ayoreo people to, in turn, be given opportunity to extend forgiveness to the German Mennonites for these injustices. But to my disappointment, Jonoine was not invited to speak. Without a mutual acknowledgment of wrongs, I was dismayed. Was this symbolic act of peace truly an example of unity—a unity grounded in justice? Would I have felt differently if Isaak had handed over the microphone to Jonoine asking, “Will you forgive us?”
– Joanna Shenk
This piece will also be published in the Octber 26, 2009 issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review