Justice & Unity: Reflections on Mennonite World Conference

“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

Comments (3)

  1. Ben Krauss

    Hey Joanna, thanks for your post, I have similar feelings towards MWC A15.

    I had a lot of problems with this ceremony for various reasons:
    – why didn’t Jonoine get an opportunity to speak? (they could have given him a translator, if he didn’t speak Spanish well)
    – why did he hand over the spear – a symbol of violence and power in my eyes – instead of BREAKING it? or forging it into a “pruning hook” (Isaiah 2:4)?
    – why did only the indigenous need forgiveness, were not also the white Mennonites guilty of taking there land?
    – and really profane, but nevertheless important, why didn’t they rehearse it more, so that Helmut Isaak wouldn’t almost have given BACK the spear?

    but, I think the indigenous pastor Dietrich Pana put it right – “I (Pana) am a Mennonite” – this indirect, loving criticism may have changed more than direct attacks – like MWC starting with THREE women talking – which caused people to leave the Assembly…

    How do we criticize so that we’re clear about our point, but don’t drive people away, but to be confronted by our criticism?

  2. Jean

    When I read the reports in the Mennonite press on the “forgiveness” service at MWC, I felt sick in my stomach. It seemed to me to be magnifying racist attitudes towards indigenous people and reviolating siblings in Christ. Thanks, Joanna, for this reflection – I look forward to the discussion it will raise.

  3. ST

    many mwc people worked really hard to hold the space as open as possible, so that all could feel a deep welcome. such a variety of things happen at a conference like this; a range of emotions is experienced throughout the week. people come with many different levels of expectation and knowledge. as some people in convention leadership say, if you found something that moved and inspired you spirituality, and something else that made you frustrated…then we have done our job of bringing real people together.

    in order to prevent myself from doing something rash and reactive to what i perceived was happening on the front stage, i walked out of the auditorium as the forgiveness ceremony began.

    luckily, i could busy myself with the many tasks there were to do. i breathed a prayer for it…and tried to release the many multilayered complex situations that i don’t understand and that play themselves out in dramatic ways in our global communion.

    thanks for this post. there’s a lot in there…and it is so good to keep processing after the event (for years to come). may god’s grace accompany us as we continue to address this power dynamics in our daily lives.

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