Antiracism as spiritual practice

Issue 2022, vol. 76

Review of Been in the Struggle: Pursuing an Antiracist Spirituality, by Regina Shands Stoltzfus and Tobin Miller Shearer (MennoMedia, 2021)

Where does the story of this book begin? We might say it began in the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, when many white people and predominantly white institutions began to take more interest in dismantling racism. In response, Tobin Miller Shearer created Widerstand Consulting, a nonprofit dedicated to providing training, audits and consultation with institutions seeking to dismantle racism. He and Regina Shands Stoltzfus are the voices of Widerstand’s online training. And MennoMedia reached out to the two to ask if they would write this book.

In the book’s “Introduction,” however, the story begins in a different place: when the authors met as employees of Mennonite Central Committee in the early 1990s. They found in each other both a co-laborer in antiracism and a friend. The stories of their work together, and their friendship, feature prominently in the book, and illustrate both the joys and challenges of antiracism education and advocacy, as well as of interracial friendship.

Yet perhaps the story begins even further back, hundreds of years, to when America’s racial categories were being constructed. Europeans began to remove indigenous Americans from their lands; enslavement of Africans took hold as a cultural and economic centerpiece of life in the Americas; colonial laws began to be written around categories of “White” and “Black.” The brutal legacy of this time has continued through history, and we still live in a profoundly unequal society, built those hundreds of years ago. This book draws on the stories of people struggling against that system throughout the centuries. It celebrates successes, and discusses disappointment as white supremacy has worked to maintain its power.

Been in the Struggle: Pursuing an Antiracist Spirituality emerges in the context of all these stories, and more. As the “Introduction” says, “First, all spiritualities are about stories if they are about anything at all. … Second, spiritualities are equally about relationships if they are about anything at all” (31). Likewise, reading a book is surrounded by stories and relationships. This review is written by the pastor of a predominantly White, Mennonite Church USA congregation in south-central Kansas. Our congregation offered two Sunday school classes that worked through the Widerstand Consulting course “Dismantling Institutional Racism in Congregations,” and then also read Been in the Struggle as a congregational book study as a part of MCUSA’s “Common Read” initiative. About a dozen people participated in a weekly Zoom meeting, discussing one chapter a week. Reading and discussing the book together created a space for us to share our stories and deepen our relationships with one another.

In outline and content, Been in the Struggle bears many similarities to “Dismantling Institutional Racism in Congregations.” This is for the good, because the authors have spent decades teaching about racism and antiracism, and this book incorporates much of what they have learned through those years.

The authors guide the reader in what they mean when they talk about “racism” as a collective and societal phenomenon rather than an individual intellectual, relational or moral failing. Many chapters include stories from their own lives and work, describing both successes and failures and what we can learn from each. They also have deep experience in the misconceptions that white people and predominantly white institutions have about racism and how to address it. Naming and discussing these was often illuminating in our congregational reading group, and helped spark personal stories of when those misconceptions were at play.

Some of the authors’ learning has resulted in helpful frameworks and systematic thought. Items such as three paradigm shifts institutions need to go through (167) or a chart outlining a continuum of antiracism awareness within an institution (177) abound in this book, evidence of long experience and careful thought in antiracism education and consulting. Elements like these work especially well in a book study setting – they expose readers to expert insights and also help participants imagine opportunities and possibilities beyond their experience.

Another strength of this book is its emphasis on “the struggle,” reminding us that antiracism is difficult and uncomfortable much of the time. The book’s stories about American civil rights leaders of the past were especially helpful in this regard. For example, in Chapter 10, the authors discuss the life and career of Rosa Parks. Rather than the mythologized story about a person who, by happenstance, chose not to give up her seat on a bus one day, the book tells a fuller story, about a woman who had been taught from a young age to be a part of the black resistance to racism, attended summer schools for activism and was a strategic community-builder before, during and after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Chapter 2 relates the stories of Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and Anne Braden, reminding us that progress on racism does not “just happen.” Struggle is involved, and whole lives have been and still are dedicated to the effort. Stories of “the struggle” in the past can inspire us in the present, as they inspired so many at the time.

My primary concern with Been in the Struggle is reflected in an informal survey I took of my congregational book group at the beginning and end of our study. After we read Chapter 1, “What is an Antiracist Spirituality?,” I asked group members if they could answer the question. The results were mixed, but leaned toward “no.” Untroubled, I encouraged the group to keep reading and see what emerged. After we had completed the book, I asked the same question. The results were still mixed. There had been little change in the group’s ability to define “an antiracist spirituality.”

My sense is that the authors do not have a unifying vision of what “an antiracist spirituality” is. Clarifying this could have helped the book more firmly claim its niche in the expanding library of antiracism literature. A comparison with other resources may be illuminating here.

On the one hand, this book might strive to mimic something like Thomas Merton’s Letters to a White Liberal. Merton was a contemplative and a cloistered monk, writing about the American civil rights movement. He brought decades of deeply cultivated spirituality to a reflection on racism, and threw his support behind civil rights. Been in the Struggle, if it were to strive for something like this, could change its subtitle to Pursuing a Spirit-led Antiracism. Of course, the authors are not seeking to mimic Merton. Instead of decades in the cloister, they have spent decades educating, studying and consulting on antiracism. That is the primary raw material for this book, and it is rightly in the foreground.

Or we could compare this book with Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. Kendi weaves autobiographical reflections with antiracist insights to teach, challenge and inspire the reader. Miller Shearer and Shands Stoltzfus speak of spirituality as being about stories and relationships. Yet Kendi uses stories and relationships to speak of antiracism while also explicitly saying that he has walked away from his parents’ Christian faith. Been in the Struggle could enter into this conversation, perhaps guided by another subtitle: Encountering God in Antiracism. 

This latter option is the book I wish that I and my book group could have read. It is the opportunity that this book had and, at its best, it points in this direction. In what way is antiracism work a spiritual discipline, leading us into a deeper relationship with God? In what ways is it an act of faith, stepping boldly into an unknown future, trusting a transcendent justice to guide and exhort our human efforts for justice? How is the spiritual life of individuals and collectives enriched by pursuing antiracism?

Answering such questions requires deep spiritual reflection and insight, which I trust the authors can provide. Various responses are hinted at throughout the book. But in the end, I was concerned that what we were reading was another book, with yet another alternative subtitle. Been in the Struggle: Antiracism Training, with Spiritual Thoughts Along the Way. 

It is disappointing to say this, because some of the “spiritual thoughts” are true highlights of the book. The section on interracial friendship, drawing on the ups and downs of the authors’ relationship, contains profound insight into the possibilities and limitations of personal relationships as a “solution” to racism. The section on love and antiracism explores what is missed in Christian conceptions of love that are divorced from on-the-ground reality. Yet these come between and around the “educational” portions of the chapters. Antiracism training appears to organize the book more than the pursuit of an integrated antiracist spirituality.

Perhaps this was the source of my book group’s confusion on what to make of the phrase “antiracist spirituality.” Reading the book certainly made me reflect on what it could mean. And although Been in the Struggle does not tie its “antiracist spirituality” to any particular spiritual tradition, the Christian and Anabaptist traditions – out of which the authors and publisher of the book emerge – have a rich assortment of resources to draw from here. For example, when asked how they experience God, many people turn to the transcendent and ineffable feelings of being in nature, or listening to good music, or personal prayer. I have come to believe that for Jesus, the apostles and even for the early Anabaptists, just and peaceful human relationships are as “transcendent” as any mountaintop or concert. The “kingdom of God” that Jesus proclaimed is spiritual, and it is a social and political phenomenon. The down-and-dirty of seeking the good of your neighbor is a window to the divine. The human pursuit of antiracism draws us closer to God, if we are open to it.

This book was a valuable resource to my congregation. Those who read it were able to learn about, and reflect communally on, the many years of wisdom and antiracism education experience that the authors possess. They offer a vision of what it means to be a part of the antiracist struggle: “The work of antiracism has at least three broad components: bearing witness, fostering justice and sustaining work for the long haul. These components are active and best done in community” (207). This encouragement does us well as we also seek to share stories and deepen relationships. It opens the reader to reflect on antiracism as a spiritual pursuit. It is also suggestive of what it means to be church together: striving imperfectly to proclaim and demonstrate the world to come, a world of justice and right relationship, a world we have been seeking these many years.