Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of “Race Criminals”

Sixty years after he penned “Race Criminals,” David A. Shank’s anger at his co-believers still jumps off the page. Writing in February 1945 as the editor of The Vanguard, the newsletter of Civilian Public Service conscientious objectors assigned to camp 18 in Denison, Iowa, Shank aimed to awaken white Christians in general and white Mennonites in particular to their complicity in racism.

“You are guilty, you know,” he wrote. “You are prejudiced and you are bigoted and,” he added just to be certain that his message was clear, “you are pumping the bellows for the fires of racial discrimination and hatred.” Having accused his audience of racist attitudes, a racially superior mindset, ignorance, inactivity, and insensitivity, Shank ratcheted up his rhetoric with a condemnation specific to Mennonites that only pacifists would find convicting. Replete with an offensive and inflammatory racial epithet—presumably for the shock value—Shank declared, “It is just as unrighteous for a Christian to say ‘nigger’ as it is to be found fighting in the front lines of battle, and much more cowardly and hypocritical.”1

Vanguardv1n41945Feb 1

The Vanguard, 1 no. 4 (Feb. 1, 1945)

I know of no other examples of white Mennonites writing about racism in the World War II era—and precious few in the subsequent three decades—that approach the emotional intensity, prophetic tenor, or unabashed criticism of Shank’s editorial. Although African-American academic, activist, and pastor Vincent Harding would go on to challenge white Mennonite complicity with racism in no uncertain terms by the late 1950s, Shank’s reproof precedes Harding’s censure by more than a decade.2

The February 1945 issue of The Vanguard focused on “brotherhood.” Contributors to the mimeographed newsletter reported on a talk by Dr. A. T. DeGroot, a Drake University professor from Des Moines, who advocated social equality of the races; lauded Roi Ottley’s New World A’Coming and Richard Wright’s Native Son for their bracing racial content; and explicated the dangers of race prejudice. None of the other articles approach Shank’s righteous anger. A fellow camp member, James Harnish, also charged Mennonites with both tacit and overt racism but in much more mediated tones. Harnish wrote that participation in racism “is inconsistent with the mind and spirit of Christ.”3 A concluding ten-point program offered by Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingrich called for interracial friendships, evangelism, book reading, letter writing to elected representatives, and charitable donations to race-focused organizations but again in the mildest of tones.4

To be certain, an editorial in The Vanguard did not have the same reach as did an article in The Gospel Herald, the official Mennonite Church publication of the day. Historian Irvin B. Horst, then an undergraduate student, offered his take on “Mennonites and the Race Question” later on in 1945 for The Gospel Herald. Like Shank, he also pointed out white Mennonite involvement in racism, but the most stringent criticism he had to offer was that “we have quite a way to go in loving our Negro brethren.”5

The difference in tone may have simply been due to personality, passion, or preference, but the larger context of racism in the church raises the question why more voices like Shank’s didn’t surface. In 1945, Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber, long-time matron and superintendent of the African-American mission at Broad Street in Virginia Conference, had been summarily dismissed from their posts, ostensibly due to their opposition to the Conference’s Jim Crow policies.6 Also in Virginia, the Trustees of Eastern Mennonite School refused that same year to admit Peggy Webb, daughter of Broad Street member Roberta Webb, due to “race questions that have been long in forming and deeply set in the values of the inhabitants of this state and community of which we are a small minority.”7 In his Gospel Herald article, Horst testified that “Many Mennonites feel . . . that the Negro is all right if he ‘keeps his place,’ but must be ‘kept down,’ for if placed on the level of whites he will take advantage of this position and become ‘fresh.’”8 He added, “There are Mennonite communities where young members of the church find sport in making Negroes fearful and scare Negro pedestrians with automobiles.”9

It seems as if there was plenty to get angry about.

But white Mennonites of the era rarely expressed anger in public and especially not in written form. In the CPS context, historian Perry Bush notes that “Mennonites were truly the ‘good boys’ of the CPS system. . . . [they] obeyed its directives quite submissively.”10 So even if CPS men had begun to form a racial conscience – whether in Iowa, Mississippi, or Florida – that could lead to unusually acerbic rhetoric directed to their religious community, they did not direct the same kind of ire at CPS authorities. The anger Shank expressed at the time may have been nothing more than the outpouring of a youthful firebrand, safe in lashing out at his co-believers even as he acted the model conscientious objector.

Yet Shank’s essay raises another question, one that remains pertinent whenever a member of a community points out a problem within that community to the community. If Shank had aimed his pen at an employer—revealing racism evident in a workplace for example—there would have been no whistle-blower laws to protect him. Those didn’t gain prominence until the late 1980s. As it was, Shank focused his anger on his co-believers and so risked a measure of internal censure. Not only could he have been dismissed, but he might also have found himself shoved to the margins of the community, rendered irrelevant, or, worse yet, branded a trouble maker—no longer a good boy of the Mennonite system.

But he wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

A full year later his article was reprinted in Box 96, the newsletter of CPS camp #27 in Mulberry, Florida. Shank went on to serve with Mennonite Board of Missions in Belgium and West Africa for more than three decades, taught for three years at Goshen College in Indiana, helped start Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, and played a role in the founding and leadership of other educational and mission endeavors. Much loved and often honored, he was no pariah.

David and Wilma Shank 1974

David and Wilma Shank, 1974

Why wasn’t Shank marginalized in the aftermath of his harsh indictment? Why didn’t his anger—out of place even among the CPS men who had become awakened to societal and ecclesial racism—label him a troublemaker? Others had been censured. Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber lost their cherished posting at Broad Street for much less vocal protest. What protected Shank?

Some of the answers are obvious. White Mennonites have long been tolerant of their young people’s excesses, whether of worldly flirtation or prophetic invective. Likewise, Shank stood at a remove, lodged in Iowa, engaged fully in the work and witness of the church’s CPS service. His peers respected him. A fellow camp member wrote that Shank was gifted “with considerably more than average intellectual endowment.”11 He was also white, male, and positioned by virtue of his surname as a member of the pack, a tripartite privilege, layered and laminated from birth. And, unlike the Swartzentrubers who also bore those privileges, his position in the church did not depend on a board of conservative bishops fully accommodated to the racial segregation of the South.

But I also think he was given a pass because he expressed his anger in a theological frame that white Mennonites of the era understood: guilt, innocence, redemption. Those terms made sense and flowed into the evangelical streams then running through the church. They offered a way out. As harsh a message as Shank had to proclaim, he still concluded with “redemption follows confession and the passion to do and to give ‘to all nations whatsoever I have commanded you’.”12

It was the confessional catharsis: “I am convicted of my participation in racism; I am sorry that I have done so; I am relieved that I no longer have to concern myself with the issue.” By no means particular to Mennonites, various permutations of this theological relief valve have recurred throughout the twentieth century as white Christians found themselves accused of both complicit and active participation in racism. The emphasis on confession and repentance has been especially prominent in the white evangelical community.13 In response to racial accusations, white Christians have consistently taken advantage of the confessional catharsis to gain psychic relief and move forward.

Elsewhere I have documented the cycle of public and individual confession of participation in racism followed by a period of inactivity or inattention to racial issues within the Mennonite community.14 My point is not to draw into question the sincerity of these confessions but simply to note that white Mennonites, and I think white Christians as a whole, have too often relied on the confessional catharsis in order to avoid the more difficult and sustained work of solving what Shank called the “‘white’ problem.”15

I wonder if one possible response to Shank’s editorial, one that holds the promise of a measure of integrity, is simply to name the confessional catharsis cycle, recognize its historical recurrence, and commit ourselves to embarking on a more sustained, holistic, and ultimately more honest response.

Rather than reprising yet another round of confessions, we could—as David Shank advocated in ’45—then move from criminality to authentic mutuality. It would be a legacy worthy of the gift of Shank’s original ire.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, for scanning and sending me The Vanguard issue on “brotherhood.” He knew that I would be interested.


  1. David A. Shank, “Race Criminals,” The Vanguard, February 1945, 2. 
  2. “The Mennonite Churches and Race,” Gospel Herald, May 19, 1959. 
  3. James Harnish, “Mennonites & Race Relations,” The Vanguard, February 1945. 
  4. Gingerish Melvin, Dr., “A Ten Point Program,” ibid. 
  5. Irvin B. Horst, “Mennonites and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, July 13, 1945, 284. 
  6. “Executive Committee Meeting – Friday 10:00 A.M., January 5, 1945,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1945). 
  7. A. G. Heishman, “Annual Board Meeting Trustees Eastern Mennonite School,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite School, 1945), [2]. 
  8. Horst, 284. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 114. 
  11. Albert Dietrich and Frank Dietrich, Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Frank Dietrich and Albert Dietrich (Fordham University Press, 2005), 292. 
  12. Shank, 2. 
  13. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “Conflicting Identities: White Racial Formation among Mennonites, 1960–1985,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 19, no. 3 (2012); “Whitening Conflicts: White Racial Identity Formation within Mennonite Central Committee, 1960-1985,” in A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity, ed. Alain Epp Weaver (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2011). 
  15. Shank, 2. 

2 thoughts on “Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of “Race Criminals”

  1. Thanks to Tobin (and Joe) for the article and the call! I remember the Shanks’ papers being at the Mennonite Church archives in Goshen when I did an internship there in 2009 if you’re looking for more. I think they are mostly from their time in West Africa, though. Josh Hertzler (Goshen, ’11) did his senior thesis about them.

    Like

    • Yes, 64 boxes of material at the MC USA Archives (now in Elkhart), to be exact! Anyone is free to come help me process them 🙂 It’s a fascinating collection.

      Liked by 1 person

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