Fear and the Black Manifesto

I have been thinking a lot about fear as of late. Two events prompt me.

The first is the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Black Manifesto. The second, a statement released in early September 2018 by a group of evangelicals entitled a “Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.” The two documents—and the responses to them—suggest to me that white evangelicals, and the Mennonites sometimes counted among their number, have a legacy of fear to confront.

intelligencer-journal-1969-05-26.jpeg

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The story of Mennonite engagement with the Black Manifesto is an unexpected one. It begins in New York City.

On May 4, 1969, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee staffer James Forman took over the service at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. From the front of the sanctuary, he read the Black Manifesto, a document demanding $500 million in reparations for the church’s participation in slavery and ongoing racism. Forman’s act sent shock waves through the Christian community not so much due to the amount of the request but because it came with the threat of ecclesial takeovers. Newspaper reporters from across the country described his original intervention and the subsequent occupancies that followed. In Mennonite-intensive Lancaster County, the Intelligencer Journal ran more than twenty articles about the Black Manifesto in the space of just over two months.

Those articles told the story of Black Manifesto activists disrupting churches and religious organizations. In some cases, congregational leaders arranged for police to be present if disruptions took place.1 Riverside Church obtained a restraining order to keep Forman from hijacking their services a second time.2 In Philadelphia, police arrested a group of Black Manifesto activists who had occupied a Methodist congregation.3 On three separate occasions, Forman and his followers took over denominational headquarters in major cities.4 One group of activists threatened to spit into the communion cup during Catholic mass.5 Reporting on these events focused far more on the takeover actions than on the full list of demands included in the Manifesto.

As those reports continued to proliferate in the popular press, Mennonite church officials started to weigh in. Given that former Mennonite pastor and church agency worker Vincent Harding appeared on a roster of the Manifesto’s steering committee, church leaders paid close attention from the beginning. Two weeks after Forman’s appearance at Riverside, Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section executive secretary Walton Hackman sent a cover memo and copy of the Manifesto to every member of his executive committee and each department head in the entire organization informing them of Harding’s involvement.6 One week later, General Conference voluntary service workers in nine cities received a copy of the Manifesto.7 By June, an appeal to fund summer programming at urban Mennonite churches made a brief reference to the Manifesto in the pages of the General Conference magazine The Mennonite.8 That same month, Orlando Kaufman, the director of the southern voluntary service unit known as Camp Landon, floated the idea of an act of repentance on the part of white Christians but did not feel that most Mennonites would be ready for such a response.9

Never before had so many white Mennonites responded so quickly to a race-based challenge to the church. The passage of the 1954 Brown decision ending segregation in the U.S. had prompted a flurry of articles in the Mennonite press and precipitated the 1955 Mennonite Church statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 had likewise resulted in a similar rush of public articles, but in neither of these cases was the subsequent response as sustained, vociferous, or widespread as the response to the Black Manifesto. Mennonites paid attention to the prospect of worship disruption.

Leaders of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference Peace Committee took the response one step further. After meeting on July 10, they decided to send a letter to every pastor in their conference—some three hundred ministers—instructing them what to do should a Black Manifesto emissary show up at the door of their meeting house. A copy of the Manifesto came with every letter. In their missive, the Peace Committee members expressed considerable sympathy for the Manifesto’s authors and acknowledged their own failings, noting, “we too have so often failed to care and be concerned about the needs of those who are suffering right in our own communities.”10 While stopping short of a direct call for financial reparations, the committee members did enjoin the pastors to “demonstrate Christian love and peace,” accept “Black people as equals,” make “financial resources available where it is needed, and “provide employment and housing opportunities.”11

The specific instructions, however, reveal the committee members’ underlying concern and, at root, a measure of fear. Enjoining the pastors to embody “the way of love” to any Black Manifesto emissary, the letter’s authors also instructed the ministers to allow for their services to be disrupted and to “listen to the reading of the Black Manifesto in a spirit of Christian love.”12 Such instructions appear consistent with the doctrine and expressed commitments of the Mennonite community at the time.

What follows next seems somewhat less consistent.

The third point of instruction states: We must avoid any defensive, unchristian spirit or actions such as attempting to restrain those who would enter our services or buildings or the calling of the police. This will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.

I remember the first time that I read this statement. It struck me as significant. Paul Landis and Noah Good, both highly influential members of the Lancaster Conference community, imagined that at least some of the pacifist, quietist, separatist, ordained members of their flock would get physical with black visitors to their congregation. They were afraid that they might call the authorities.

Good and Landis clearly were far more concerned about their pastors acting in ways they deemed inappropriate than with what might happen to those African-American activists if things got violent or the police showed up. In 1969, the police already had a long record of responding with violence to members of the black community. The likelihood of violence increased dramatically in settings where white lives and propriety were somehow threatened or disrupted. Yet, that threat to black life was not the primary concern emphasized in the letter.

That Good and Landis would be concerned about conflict should come as no surprise. White people’s avoidance of conflict in general and racial strife in particular during the 1960s has been well established.13 What was true for the white populace as a whole was doubly true for white Mennonites.14

Yet the chance that a Black Manifesto emissary would show up at a Lancaster Conference church was extremely low. I have yet to find a reference to a rural or suburban congregation being taken over by Forman or one of his emissaries. Some may have occurred, but they certainly did not show up in reports from the era. Congregations in Ephrata, Elizabethtown, Millport, or Masonville simply were not on the radar for those focused on the payment of half-a-billion dollars in reparations.

So why send the letter at all?

Perhaps Good and Landis wanted to educate their pastors about an issue that they deemed important. They knew that their members would have no ready access to a copy of the Manifesto, and wanted them to be informed.

Perhaps the Conference leaders desired to forestall the kind of ruckus that had taken place when church leaders of other denominations had shut the door on Forman and his lieutenants. Things had gone awry elsewhere.15 It is reasonable that they would not want to display public conflict at a time when Conference leaders were considering joining the larger Mennonite church denomination.16

Or perhaps Good and Landis had every reason to fear a racist response. In an interview I conducted with him in 2005, Landis recalled his “concern that people were buying the right-wing reaction to black power” and his desire to foster “more of a Christian stand.”17 But overall, his memory of the events surrounding the Black Manifesto in Lancaster Conference was vague.

Memories can fail us.

Yet I am less interested in faulty recollections than I am in reactive fears.

Because those same kinds of fears are still with us.

In early September 2018, a group of evangelical pastors—all of them men—released a Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Others have analyzed the racism, sexism, and hetero-sexism amply evident in the declaration.18 My interest is in the fear that seems to be underlying the authors’ intent.

It looks a lot like the fear evident back in 1969.

The parallels between the two periods, nearly fifty years apart, are striking. In both 1969 and 2018, the African-American community and their allies have organized powerful challenges to white supremacy. As in 1969, much of that criticism has been directed at the church. Womanist and mujerista theologians, anti-racism educators—many of them faith-based, and a burgeoning group of historians, sociologists, and critical race theorists have challenged the patriarchy, sexism, and racism present within the Christian church in general and the evangelical community in particular.19

No wonder that a group dominated by white men released a statement essentially saying that they did not have to pay attention to, consider, evaluate, or reflect upon their receipt of white privilege, participation in male dominance, or class dynamics. Those supported by systems of oppression have consistently been the last ones to agree to discuss that reality and have offered the most strident objections to changing the status quo. Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur and the other original signatories have much to gain by deflecting discussion about the systems that serve them. They are in particular, as noted in multiple responses, deeply reluctant to talk about racism.20

Beneath that resistance is a deep fear of exposure.

I don’t know the men who wrote the 2018 social justice gospel statement. I haven’t interviewed the pastors who received the 1969 Black Manifesto letter. But I recognize the signs: defensiveness, anger, striking out, attempting to forestall any discussion that might lead to a loss of power, a loss of face. Later in 1969, Mennonite pastor John Powell challenged the church to establish a “compassion fund,” a sort of Mennonite version of the Black Manifesto to be funded by above-budget giving at the rate of six dollars per member. Although some funds did come in to support the Minority Ministries Council’s ministries in African-American and Latinx communities, they never received even half of their $500,000 goal. In their attempts to raise the Compassion Fund monies, Powell and his colleagues encountered similar defensiveness. Powell wrote that, among many statements he had heard, white Mennonites had responded, “The Mission Board is collecting money to give to the niggers.”21

In her masterful 2013 study of white southern evangelicals and the challenges they faced to integrate their congregations, Carolyn Renée Dupont discusses at length the fear of the unknown, interracial contact, and loss of control that she found in white congregations during the civil rights movement.22 Under the guise of theological fidelity, white segregationists rejected the presence of the black body in their worship space. Their fear was evident, palpable, concrete.

*  *  *  *  *

A white pastor recently told me that she recognizes her reticence to speak up regularly about racial issues because she is afraid. Members of her congregation had invited church leadership to release a statement publicly expressing their opposition to white supremacy in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville in August 2017. Although they did organize a mid-week service of mourning and repentance, members of the church’s leadership team did not allow the statement to move forward because they were afraid that it would offend wealthy, white men in the congregation.

Although twelve months later the congregation had still not released a statement despite their location in a state with several active hate groups, she told me that she is trying to confront her fear. I respect her for it.

*  *  *  *  *

The history of Mennonites’ response to the Black Manifesto, this curious moment of warning pacifist pastors neither to pummel visitors to their congregation nor call the police to do it for them, as well as a statement issued to forestall discussion about racism and other forms of oppression, and privileging call for a similar sort of courage as that shown by the pastor who spoke to me, one that—at the very least—casts out fear. Or at least acknowledges how fear very often keeps us quiet at the very moment when we need to be speaking with our fullest voice.

 

 

 

Endnotes


  1. “Forman Lauds Pastor after Rights Sermon,” Intelligencer Journal, May 12, 1969. 
  2. “Forman Asks $200 Million from Catholics,” Intelligencer Journal, May 10, 1969. 
  3. “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church,” Intelligencer Journal, July 11, 1969. 
  4. “Offices of Church Occupied,” Intelligencer Journal, June 6, 1969. 
  5. “Protesters Arrested in Churches,” Intelligencer Journal, June 16, 1969. 
  6. Walton Hackman, “Manifesto to White Christian Churches and Jewish Synogogues [Sic],” (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1969). 
  7. Fred Unruh, May 26, 1969. 
  8. “Special Funds for Summer City Needs,” The Mennonite, June 10, 1969. 
  9. Orlo Kaufman, June 19, 1969. 
  10. Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis, Letter, July 1969. 
  11. Ibid. 
  12. Ibid. 
  13. Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race (New York: BasicBooks, 1997). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “White Mennonite Peacemakers: Oxymorons, Grace, and Nearly Thirty Years of Talking About Whiteness,” Global Mennonite Peacebuilding: Exploring Theology, Culture, and Practice, 35, no. 3 (2017). 
  15. “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church.” 
  16. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lancaster_Mennonite_Conference 
  17.  Paul G. Landis, “Interview with Paul G. Landis,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Lancaster, Pa./Evanston, Ill.2005). 
  18. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2018/09/on-john-macarthurs-racist-statement-on-social-justice/ 
  19. See, for example, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011); Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, ed. Bruce Ellis Benson, Melinda Elizabeth Berry, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014); Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietistic Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 
  20. See, for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-impossible-to-separate-social-justice-from-the-christian-gospel/2018/09/10/26764628-b528-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html 
  21. John Powell, “The Compassion Fund Is,” Gospel Herald, March 24, 1970, 271. 
  22. Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2013). 

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