A road untravelled


Addressing white power in the MB church

Mvwala Katshinga and I chatted casually in the Kintambo MB Church courtyard in Kinshasa, while I waited for my ride to Kikwit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Katshinga asked, “Did you read my contribution to John Driver’s book (Life Together in the Spirit)? I said the ordination of women pastors must no longer be a taboo.” He grinned and added, “You know, the MB church of Congo ordained our first woman pastor in 2003, and it didn’t take us nearly as long as the Canadians. You debated for decades before permitting it in 2006!”

I responded, “Yes, I met pastor Charly Lukala in 2003 and used your conference as an example in the debates prior to the 2006 vote. But I often felt Canadian MBs attending the workshops didn’t receive your experience as a legitimate argument in the discussion.”

Could it be that colonial thinking built on white power caused Canadians to reject the possibility of learning from our African brothers and sisters?

Coincidentally, as this conversation took place, I was looking ahead to Thailand 2017, the mission and prayer consultation. I decided to identify in my message there a critical challenge in missions today: white power.

White power is pretty simple: it’s the assumption by whites that it’s all about them; that they are inherently superior because they have education, money, and a historic ability to impose their worldview everywhere; and that the recipients of this imposition are “in darkness” needing the “light” of white economics, politics, knowledge, and religion.

White power influences almost every corner of the world. So, whites assume their way is the only legitimate one. Everyone of another race must play in the white game according to white rules achieving white expectations based on those rules. This includes the church.

Awakening to the problem

Relating in ICOMB first awoke me to this dynamic. Then in 2016 I saw a YouTube video in which Rothney Tshaka, a black theologian, was interviewed by a white colleague, Dion Forster, on this topic. Both are Christian university professors in Cape Town, South Africa.

Tshaka said that the first task was to develop black theology to show they were human. Whiteness wasn’t yet a topic of discussion – it was just assumed.

When black theologians put forth their writings, white arrogance emerged quickly. First came an arrogance of engagement: “Don’t be too loud. Know your place and be quiet.”

When black theologians didn’t back down, whites asserted an arrogance of withdrawal, saying, “I’m fed up with this conversation: too much conflict.” Tshaka noted, “Whites have options. They are in power and assume it must be maintained. Blacks don’t have these options, but this deeply affects the process.”

Tshaka identified a deep, subtle driver in all this that we might call the arrogance of knowledge. Whites have long dictated what kind of knowledge is legitimate, and how that knowledge is produced. A worldview formed by Western ways of thinking struggles to acknowledge the knowledge production of other cultures.

A one-way street

This is precisely what my Congolese friend Katshinga was putting his finger on. If we easily dismiss the Congolese approach to church matters, are we not judging their way of thinking and knowledge production?

Murray Nickel, who grew up as a missionary kid in DR Congo, offers a helpful insight. He observes there was an accepted harshness in the way whites spoke to Africans. They weren’t mean-spirited, but white people often talked down to Congolese people like they were children.

Years later as a practising physician, visiting a clinic run by Congolese doctors, Nickel noticed people talked to one another differently. They spoke softly, relationally, even across the patient-clinician hierarchy. “I used to pride myself in my egalitarian approach,” Nickel writes in Rhythms of Poverty, “but it was suddenly obvious I had a lot to learn.”

This also applies in Canada. Duane Elmer, a leader in cross-cultural relations, writes of speaking at a conference in Canada where a third of the attendees were from First Nations, and the others were white missionaries. Elmer asked, “What comes to mind when you hear the word partnership?” Missionaries spoke first, offering words like mutuality, sharing, respect, cooperation, and collaboration.

It occurred to Elmer that no First Nations delegates had spoken. After a long silence, one spoke firmly but passionately, “When we hear the word partnership, what comes to our mind is This is another way for the White man to control us.

What popped to mind when you read this? If your instinct was to roll your metaphorical eyes at another “tired comment of victimization,” you might want to step back to re-evaluate. Recent statistics show Indigenous Canadians suffer more hardship than U.S. African-Americans by almost every measurable indicator.

So, can whites check their privilege, and validate how other people produce knowledge?

Building a two-way highway

Canadian futurist John Ralston Saul says, “The road to Canada’s success runs through the First Nations.” To paraphrase that for our context, “the road to mature faithfulness of the Mennonite Brethren movement runs through the international MB church.”

I might even put the two concepts together: we must embrace Indigenous people in our own country if Mennonite Brethren are to grow in God’s Kingdom. That’s beginning to happen in the Manitoba conference and beyond through Paul Winter. I also think that Brazilian-born executive director Elton DaSilva somehow factors into this.

Internationally, three MB conferences larger than Canada’s (India, Congo, Khmu Mission) all succeed in church planting and discipleship despite poverty and opposition. They can teach us about faithfulness while church supports from society erode. The Brazil MB conference (COBIM) is committed to renewal, reconciliation, and mission. Through COBIM, some 40,000 believers in several countries will be added to our international family. We’ll learn more from leader Emerson Cardoso at Gathering 2018.

Considering our ICOMB family, white Christians would do well to reflect on and evaluate white power. Here are some thoughts:

Drop any sense of superiority.

We don’t have all the answers in Canada. Good solutions reside in our international church. Often our “normal” is held up by dominance and power. Remember black theology exists because God was presented as a white God.

Determine to learn from someone in the international church.

But don’t stop there: work toward learning with each other. The goal is relational learning where we both expect to change.

Be OK with discomfort.

Read critiques of white power and culture. Read “non-white” authors. Help your kids colour “brown” children in colouring books.

Have hope but be careful: hope is derived through intense debate. White power usually dictates that hope is found when those on the edge see the error of their ways and submit.

I recently roomed with Yoshifumi Tanaka, vice-chair of the Japan MB Conference, and vice-chair of ICOMB.
We talked for hours, touching on a variety of topics relevant to church life and mission in Japan and elsewhere. I have learned a great deal from Tanaka and I hope he has from me too. In ICOMB meetings, too, I have opened myself up to ideas and strengths that reside in our community.

This is the road to our future as a church. And whites are called to play a different game from here forward.

[David Wiebe is director of ICOMB, the International Community of Mennonite Brethren.

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robert thiessen April 4, 2018 - 14:10

After living thirty years among the poor and marginalized of Latin America, formulating our own understanding of these kinds of issues, it was wonderful to encounter a few years ago a Latin theologian who put words to these things better than any other I know of (of any colour). Justo Gonzalez (I think in Mañana, possibly Santa Biblia) writes that with the emergence of “some adjective-theology” (black, feminists, latin) there was the unquestioned assumption from “whites” that there really did exist “theology” without an adjective; ours. He shines a light on the white assumptions that all these other “-theologies” are somehow apart from ours, and we don’t recognize our particular theology as simply a longer-standing, but never-the-less Western and/or White theology, with just as many flaws and biases, perhaps more due to our blindness, than any other.

Janessa Giesbrecht April 11, 2018 - 15:22

Thank you for this article. It’s brutally honest, bold, gracious, and so necessary. It is good to be challenged.

Rick Block April 21, 2018 - 22:25

A very good article, thankyou David – without discussion regarding these systemic issues, they (and we along with it) remain entrenched. Opening up conversations to recognize how power, privilege, and discrimination impacts us all (as a church and society), is a healthy and needed step. I hope pastors and laity alike can be bold in being OK with the discomfort / growing pains to continue the conversation.

David H Woelk June 1, 2018 - 06:27

Regrettably the term White Power is to broad. I submit that it is Male White Power that is stifling our denomination. You need only to ask any female who has strived to be in leadership in the Canadian MB Conference. I have witnessed the white males in the MB Church leadership shut down females who have a heart for the life of the church too many times, my partner included. The Conference will continue to degenerate unless this is addressed. The young generation has no use for this nineteenth century thinking and is leaving.

Kevin Koop June 2, 2018 - 09:00

Hi David,

Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m sorry to hear about your partner’s experience. Some of the people who have inspired me the most are females within our denomination who have endeavoured to lead, speak up, preach, listen, and pray despite the barriers to those gifts that remain in the hearts of others. In fact, some of the most pastorally oriented and gifted people I’ve met have been females. Perhaps our young generation has no use for nineteenth century thinking (as did a great number of our parents in the 1970s), but I can say, we do have a great use for the older generation, even if don’t always agree with their ideas, thoughts or perspectives. We are all about relationship, and want what any human wants: to be loved, heard, honoured, and cherished for who we are. I’m a lot more hopeful, love has a staying power that transcends ideology, intolerance, and fear. It’s sometimes hard to see it in the short term, but my hope is I’ll get to be a part of the old (and jaded) guard in 30 or so years.

Take care!
Kevin Koop (born 1987)

Jeremy Penner March 21, 2019 - 14:19

Excellent article!


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