Mennonites and white supremacy

Issue 2020, vol. 74

I have been involved with Mennonite Life for the past dozen or more years as a proofreader, editor, reviewer and essay writer, but this is my first issue as editor. Like practically everything else about the year 2020, it has not turned out as expected.

The normal Mennonite Life process is for an advisory group to meet once in the fall and come up with a list of possibilities for essays and reviews, followed by queries going out and material coming in. So it went for the 2020 issue. Then, early in the year, I got a query myself, from Lisa Schirch, who works with the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy (Japan), the Alliance for Peacebuilding (Washington, D.C.), the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. She had done a survey of literature on relations between Anabaptist-Mennonites and Jews, from the Radical Reformation in the 16th century through the present day. Would Mennonite Life be interested in publishing it?

“Anabaptist-Mennonite Relations with Jews Across Five Centuries” and the accompanying personal reflections by Lisa and her peacebuilding colleague Rabbi Marc Gopin are, I suspect, unlike anything Mennonite Life has published in its nearly 75-year history. This is in part because little in general has been written specifically about how Mennonites and Jews have related to each other over the past 500 years. It may also be because the picture this article paints (which young scholars like Ben Goossen and Aileen Friesen have been making more visible in recent years, but that more seasoned ones such as John Thiesen and James Urry have been elucidating for more than two decades) is not an especially pretty one.

And I have to confess that I hesitated for a bit. The article is long. It could be a small book. Lisa chose to try the route of Mennonite Life in hopes of making this survey as widely available, free of charge, as possible. Still – was the topic really suitable for this publication?

Then, on May 25, 2020, the Memorial Day holiday in the United States, a white Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin murdered an unarmed black man, George Floyd, whom he and three other officers – all of whom stood by – had stopped on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin strangled Floyd by kneeling on his neck, in broad daylight, in full view of bystanders, clearly aware he was being filmed and just as clearly not caring.

The country exploded. Black Americans are seeing COVID-19 deaths in their communities far out of proportion to their representation in the population. They were already reeling from reports of police and police-related killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., earlier in the year, as well as black birdwatcher Christian Cooper’s phone video of a white woman weaponizing the police against him on the same weekend as Floyd’s death. They are exhausted by years – by decades – of watching police murder black men, women and children (Tamir Rice [2014] was 12; Aiyana Stanley-Jones [2010] was 7 years old) with impunity. And white Americans looked at the video of Chauvin killing Floyd and could not deny what they saw.

The time of white supremacy is over. I’m under no illusion it will simply fold its tent and go quietly – clearly it has not and will not. But it’s over. The United States and Canada are countries built on white supremacy – on white enslavement of black people; on whites exterminating, stealing the land of, and kidnapping the children of indigenous people; on both legal and extrajudicial oppression of people of color. That is the history. That is the legacy. It’s way past time to end it. And part of white supremacy is antisemitism. As Lisa Schirch’s article makes abundantly evident, Mennonites bear their share of culpability for the rise of white supremacy in the United States. We need to face up to the history and end the denial.

Although, as mentioned above, there is an advisory team for Mennonite Life, the ultimate responsibility for publishing “Anabaptist-Mennonite Relations with Jews Across Five Centuries” rests with me. Lisa Schirch is more than willing to engage in conversation about her work, and her e-mail address can be found at the beginning of the article (as well as at the end of the reflections from Schirch and Gopin). You can also e-mail me at


Also in this issue are some perspectives on care for the land, from two artists and a farmer (with an artist’s eye in his photography, for which you’ll have to find him on Instagram). Painter Warren Rohrer, who died in 1995, and poet Jane Rohrer, still living in Philadelphia in her 90s, grew up Mennonite on farms in the eastern United States (southeastern Pennsylvania and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, respectively). Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Chris Reed of Penn State University have created an exhibit (although, like everything else, it has been postponed until 2021) pairing the “paint and words” of the first Mennonite to take his place as an important American abstract painter and one of the first to have her poetry published in the mainstream literary press. (And don’t miss the short video included with the article – link at the end.) Meanwhile, dairy farmer Jason Schmidt is trying against the odds to care for and make sustainable a fifth-generation farm in south-central Kansas, well aware of the responsibility farmers bear in the climate crisis and of the people who were displaced for his ancestors to gain the land he now farms.

Alain Epp Weaver gave the Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College in 2019, leading up to the centennial year of Mennonite Central Committee in 2020, by looking at the “mission” of MCC over 100 years. He launched his four-lecture series with a sermon at Bethel College Mennonite Church on MCC’s ministry of reconciliation. And Emma Beachy, a Bethel College student studying history and music, examines Mennonite attitudes toward capitalism during the U.S. Cold War era, which aren’t necessarily what you might expect.

Finally, we share reviews of several recent publications from Cascadia Publishing – poetry, memoir, a church history, and process theology – as well as one of the newest volumes in German-Russian Mennonite diaspora studies, John Eicher’s comparison and contrast of the Menno Colony and Fernheim Colony in Paraguay.

There are pandemic-related updates of two upcoming conferences originally scheduled for fall 2020.