Churches for Middle East Peace Annual Advocacy Summit: Equal in God’s Eyes: Human Rights and Dignity for all in Israel/Palestine

OPP Report on the Churches for Middle East Peace Annual Advocacy Summit by Galen Fitzkee

Representatives of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy (OPP) tuned in to the annual Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) Advocacy Summit on Monday, June 22, to become more educated about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and advocacy efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. We were soon reminded that a virtual conference is not a perfect substitute for meeting together on Capitol Hill, however technical difficulties were resolved in short order and the program commenced. The theme of the webinar was Equal in God’s Eyes, Human Rights and Dignity for all in Israel and Palestine and focused heavily on the efforts we can all take to promote a peaceful and holistic solution to the fraught situation between Israel and Palestine.
Jeremey Ben Ami of J Street oriented those of us who were less knowledgeable with a brief summary of the human and political considerations involved in the fight against annexation of Palestine. He shared a message of optimism and encouraged each of us to get involved to change the course of American policy and thus the future of the Palestinian and Israeli people who both deserve a right to control their own futures. Ben Ami answered some questions about the immediate future of the region and layed out points of action that the US can take including clearly defining purposes for financial aid and making fair and balanced criticism of Israeli actions in international bodies.

COVID, Middle East, and Intersectionality

Next, we quickly transitioned into a panel of speakers from all over the world including Jerusalem, Gaza, Geneva, and the United States to talk about the human rights work of their various organizations. COVID-19 is making a tough situation worse throughout the Middle East and all around the world, according to World Council of Churches rep Carla Khijoyan. Jessica Montell, executive director of Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, reminded us that restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus are necessary but can be used as a pretext for human rights abuses and actually exacerbate other injustices. Bassam Nasser of CRS informed us about the current reality of life in Gaza, which has been defined by intense restrictions since before the pandemic. He noted new restrictions particularly affect access to education, which is usually a source of hope for Palestinians looking for a way to overcome their oppression. Overall, they encouraged us to get our information directly from the source and to focus on people rather than politics to both solve a humanitarian crisis and address the systems of power that undermine sovereignty and contribute to instability for all parties.

CMEP Overview

After a break for lunch, CMEP provided us an overview of their mission and programs that work to Educate, Elevate, and Advocate for the Middle East. Initiatives such as Pilgrimage to Peace Tours offer a first-hand look at the conditions in Israel/Palestine and help build relationships with local peacebuilders. CMEP also has made an effort to bring marginalized women’s voices to the forefront in the peace movement. Conflict resolution, even between extreme ideological groups. CMEP demonstrated that they have meaningful connections with faith leaders all across the region in places like Egypt and Iraq, and our very own Nathan Hosler made an appearance in a picture with members of CMEP and the Assyrian Church in Erbil. CMEP offers a wealth of video resources on their website as well as educational literature and ways to get involved with advocacy for peace. They often use the hashtag #ChurchesAgainstAnnexation on social media.

Protecting our Right to Stand for Palestinian Freedom

In light of the current unrest due to racial injustice in the United States, CMEP welcomed Dima Khalidi of Palestinian Legal Aid to draw parallels between the plight of Black Americans and Palestinians. “We are all held captive by a global system that prioritizes profit over people” she said as she encouraged us to hold fast to the truth about inequality and systemic realities that affect our neighbors here at home and abroad. Once we understand our origins, there is a responsibility to finally react to the work of black artists and organizers that implore us to act. We must follow their lead and listen to the solutions that they require in order to imagine an alternative society that is free of oppression. The response to movements against oppression such as the Black Lives Matter coalition has been and will continue to be repression and mislabeling, which we have seen first-hand in the United States. Palestinians face repression in the fight for their rights too. Leader reputations take a serious hit from smear campaigns and intense legal scrutiny in Palestine just because they speak out in favor of Palestinian rights. These threats and mischaracterizations of Palestine as terroristic or anti-Semitic have increased as grassroots support has grown. Pro-Israel groups have unleashed an assault on peaceful advocacy by bogging down efforts toward progress in legislation and seeking to criminalize and intimidate dissent strategies such as boycotting. While Khalidi wanted to make clear that the root causes of the situations in the US and Palestine are fundamentally different, it is amazing that we are witnessing similar strategies from the US and Israeli governments play out in real time. So, what can we do to stand with those fighting the uphill battle against oppression and subsequently repression? First, we must protect the right of advocacy and free speech rights as ways to dissent and fight for social justice. We should recognize that bold demands will not be easily accepted by the powers that be in either case because they have a stake in the oppression of minorities and the status quo. Finally, we must go back to the roots of the injustice in Palestine and the US so that reform and redevelopment can result in holistic and lasting changes. Khalidi left us to ponder a variation of the following question: Are we willing to listen to the oppressed and give up comfortability in order to finally achieve the worldly embodiment of Equality in God’s Eyes?

Foreign Policy and Election Panel

Since 2020 is an election year and the presidential election is fast-approaching, CMEP Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations Kyle Cristofalo hosted a panel of experts to address United States foreign policy. The consensus of these experts was that the current administration and ambassador to Israel David Friedman have been enabling Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s far right policies by encouraging de jure annexation and other illicit activities. They encouraged us to take a look at writings and actions that began at the outset of the administration’s term which include: recognizing Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, discontinuing aid to UNRWA and consequently Palestinian refugees, closing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, D.C., allowing incremental annexation of the Golan heights, failing to recognize violations of international law, and pushing a one-sided peace plan. The pattern of action in US foreign policy has been blatantly pro-Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people and hope for a two-state solution. Going forward, policy considerations should seek to reverse this steep trend towards the annexation of Palestinian territory and depoliticize the policies themselves. We were encouraged to maintain awareness of the human rights abuses occurring in the middle east. We can expect more of the same from a second term of a Trump administration who will likely continue to move the goalposts when it comes to opposing annexation as they seek to make changes irreversible. The speculation is that a Biden administration would not take a firm pro-Palestinian stance but may reengage with multilateral organizations and reverse extreme policy shifts that have occurred. It is likely that if Palestinians were able to vote in the US election that they would support a changing of the guard, however the unfortunately reality on the ground is that the Palestinian people continue to lose freedoms and the sovereignty of their own nation every day.

Closing

In closing, Grace Al-Zoughbi Arteen, a Palestinian Christian and accomplished instructor at Bethlehem Bible College, offered us a moving prayer in both English and Arabic. She reminded us of the meaning of the beatitudes for the oppressed, of our shared humanity and experiences, and of our hope in Jesus who offers us help, peace, and love.  

Humanitarian Impacts of U.S. Sanctions on Iran: Food Insecurity

This blog post was written by Office of Peacebuilding and Policy Food Insecurity Intern Priscilla Weddle.

In 2018, the current administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. The sanctions cover shipping, finance, and energy with the goal of “limiting Tehran’s ability to fund destabilizing activities and forcing its leaders back into nuclear discussion” (Piven, 2020). These sanctions have had a devastating impact on the country’s economy and its citizens. Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted an estimated 4.8% in 2018 and was forecast to shrink another 9.5% in 2019 (International Monetary Fund, 2019). Living costs have also risen as a result of inflation. 

Inflation is estimated to reach 38% with rates being especially high for food items; for example, the cost of meat has gone up 116 percent (World Bank, 2019). The rising food prices and unemployment rate has resulted in many families being unable to purchase basic items. Zahra Abdollahi, the director of Iran’s Ministry of Health’s Department of Nutrition Improvement, has stated that “The eight provinces are suffering from food shortage and malnutrition problems along with other types of deprivation” (“Government In Iran Struggles To Provide Food Amid Shortages,” 2019). It has become increasingly difficult for the Iranian government to handle this situation as their resources continue to diminish as a result of the sanctions.

The Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy has strong concerns about the welfare of the Iranian people because of the ways in which economic sanctions are correlated with insecurity and deprivation. We, as people of faith, have a moral impetus to advocate for “… the ways of living that lead toward a future filled with blessing and harmonious relationships rather than with violence and destruction,” as stated in the 1996 Statement on Nonviolence and Humanitarian Intervention. The U.S. should end its harsh trade sanctions that target the Iranian people.

The New Jim Crow

This resource is part of the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow” explains in this Ted Talk how certain laws disproportionately affect people of color causing similar discrimination as was seen during the Jim Crow laws. This video gives a look into how policies that may not seem racist can perpetuate racial disparities.

If you are unable to watch the video in the blog, click the following link to open the video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQ6H-Mz6hgw&fbclid=IwAR2RZWmeYh3jwCCmZg4M3Rl0DvdchBQ2QDNhqBkzTBuv2cEOs_aSkjow1zw

Tell a Better Story

We have a special reading today from Josh Brockway, Director of Spiritual Formation who was inspired to write for the “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” program led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

By Josh Brockway, Director of Spiritual Formation

I start my first lectures in my history class by asking the students to define history. The first student usually offers a riff on Santayana—those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Usually the second one, however, is is that “History is told by the winners.” 

For centuries the record of the past has been composed by those who have the education and the time to write. Not only that, those persons in power have provided the means, money, and permission to tell the story. From this vantage point of wealth, leisure, and power, the stories inevitably leave out facts and people that did not reflect well on the powerful. 

I learned early in my training as an historian that while the powerful define and tell the story of the past, there are ways of finding out about everyday people. Traces of the past hold up remarkably well to the passage of time. Thanks to grocery lists scratched onto broken pieces of pottery, thoughts and memories sketched into journals, and letters lovingly wrapped with string and stored in hope chests we can knit together portraits of the past. Since history is fundamentally the story we tell about the past, access to these traces help us fill in the gaps in official histories, or the histories written by the powerful.

While the powerful define and tell the story of the past, there are ways of finding out about everyday people.

In the 20th century historians started looking specifically for traces of people on the margins or in the gaps of official histories. Women’s history, Black history, Hispanic history, and even histories about Children are now common conversations among scholars. Telling the stories of people overlooked in textbook histories helps us understand the past more completely. Though there is bound to be uncomfortable parts of these stories, bits of information we might not want to know or that challenge the stories were told growing up, histories focused on people at the margins make for a better story.

Black history month is one of those cultural moments each year when the stories of Black Americans are highlighted because these stories have been rarely told in textbooks. The story of Black Americans has not been a part of the dominant historical story taught in our schools and textbooks. Thankfully, though, Black historians have painstakingly compiled the data and Black communities have maintained rich stories about Black life in America. With Black History Month, all of us can hear whispers from the past thanks to these historians and story-tellers as it reaches the general—and white—public. 

Black historians are crafting compelling stories of black life in America based on their own questions and using the rich trace of Black life. These better stories are helping us all to understand the breadth of our past as a nation. And yes, these histories make us as white folks uncomfortable. They challenge what we have been taught, since what we learned came from those who benefited from that telling of history. 

We are all learning things like the racist origins of rich and poor neighborhoods through the economic practices ofredlining (Color of Law by Richard Rothstein https://wwnorton.com/books/The-Color-of-Law/). We are learning that racist policies have driven and formed racist ideas (Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram Kendi https://www.ibramxkendi.com/stamped-from-the-beginning). We are learning about the horrific and violent lynchings that terrorized Black people from south to north (Equal Justice Initiative, https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/). And we are realizing that the stories we learned about the Lost Cause of the Confederacy were crafted by white supremacists after Federal Troops left the south at the end of Reconstruction (The Myth of the Lost Cause, Edward H. Bonekemper https://www.regnery.com/9781621574545/the-myth-of-the-lost-cause/).

And even then, we must realize that the better story of our shared past is more than racist policies, violent segregation, and mass incarceration.

Black History includes the beautiful and useful quilts made in Gee’s Bend Alabama. In this small Black community in the middle of the Alabama River, families passed down the craft of quilt-making in ways that few other communities could in the mobile times of the 20th century. The result is a stunning collection of utilitarian art that embodies the story of the people who sewed and used the quilts out of the cloth gathered from work clothes, remnants, and even feed sacks. https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers

Black History includes the rich period of time known as the Harlem Renaissance. From 1910 to the 1930’s, Harlem was the locus of Black art, literature, and music. Notable writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston among many others gathered there to share their stories and ambitions. Musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington added the sounds of Jazz to the nightlife of Harlem at clubs like the Savoy. Artists, playwrites, and actors all shared their creative productions with the community. And much like the rest of America, the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression signaled the decline of the Harlem economy, but the cultural works of the community remain apart of American culture to this day. https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance

A clearly American innovation in music, Jazz was the product of cultural interactions in the diverse city of New Orleans. Black musicians merged together ragtime, march, and the blues with improv solos and “trading fours” that mimicked the call and response of Black preachers, to make a distinct form of music. Rock and Hip-hop today have taken a number of cues from Jazz. It has also become a global music since Black artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker performed all over Europe since they faced discrimination in America. https://americanhistory.si.edu/smithsonian-jazz/education/what-jazz

Jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and Gee’s Bend Quilts are just a small snap-shot of the rich historical contributions of Black Americans to our culture. These snap-shots fill in the gaps of our text book histories so that we all learn a better story about our past. And yes, economic, physical, and emotional terrorism are interwoven into these stories. Yet, telling the better story means we tell the whole story about all the people.

The Systemic Sin of Redlining

This is the fifth resource in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

One of the systemic sins in U.S. history is housing discrimination. People of color have been denied mortgages, charged higher interest rates, and have been denied access to homes in predominantly affluent and white neighborhoods. Even after the passing of the Fair Housing Act, these practices that have occurred across the last 100 years still impact the lives of people of color today. The following video includes interviews with Black Americans who share their stories of the housing discrimination they experienced in Chicago. For more information, click here to read an article that goes into greater detail about redlining in Chicago.

For more information, the following article (also listed above) goes into greater detail about redlining in Chicago. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

Stepping Out of Our Comfort Zones: Combating Segregation in the U.S.

This is the fourth reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

Written by Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP


When picking a church, people try to find a church where they “fit in.” It may be that they attend a church that has a strong children’s program because they are a young family. It could be they attend a church with opportunities to share their musical talents or offers services with their preferred style of music and worship. If your Brethren, you make sure to find a church that has a lot of fellowship activities with awesome potlucks. Regardless, most people try to find a church that matches their beliefs in God and meets their needs and wants. What if one of those “wants” is that the fellow congregants are the same race as they are?

The most segregated time of the week is Sunday morning, when many citizens of the United States are attending church. As people choose the church they want to attend, they choose one where they “fit in.” We tend to “fit in” at churches where people look like us, act like us, and have similar customs. The race of people in our congregations often influences our choices even when we are not aware. We may feel comfortable in a congregation because of specific practices and traditions, but those traditions come from cultures. Different ethnicities and different cultures practice their faith and live out their faith in unique ways. For example, I teach as a college professor, and a student of mine from Puerto Rico shared how she was reprimanded in high school for wearing her rosary beads around her neck. In Puerto Rico, wearing one’s rosary was a symbol of faith! In the continental US, in a predominantly white Catholic high school, it was a sign of disrespect. So what type of church is she going to feel most comfortable attending? One where she can proudly wear her rosary or one where she feels condemnation for doing so? If you were Catholic, where would you want to attend?

Where we “fit in” at church ends up being segregated by race, which at face value may not sound like a bad thing. However, history has taught us that there is no such thing as separate but equal. What ends up happening is instead of simply coexisting in different churches, we become unaware of different churches. We become unaware of how others live out their faith. We become unaware of other customs, traditions, and ways of knowing the Divine. We become unaware that our way of knowing God is not the only way, and we forget how to learn. When we stop learning, we end up being the ones who criticize a young girl for how she wears her rosary beads.

When we practice our faith with people of different races, customs, and traditions, we learn more about who God is. The Lord created people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities to worship him in their own ways. As we practice our faith with people of various backgrounds, we learn more about who God is because different cultures connect to different characteristics of God. As a young white woman, the images and characteristics of God I have grown up with are different than the images and characteristics of God that a person of color may connect with. For example, for many people of color, the Lord is a God of liberation. God used Moses to free the people of Israel who were enslaved and oppressed. During his life, Jesus liberated people from oppressive forces in society: the sinners, the outcasts, the foreigner, the poor. He gave them a new life in a society that had pushed them to the margins. In Luke 4:18-19, we read that Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’…’Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (NIV).

Jesus did not choose a church because he wanted to “fit in” nor did he spend time with people he fit in with. He chose to spend his time with the marginalized and the outcasts, but it was not solely for the purpose of healing. He broke bread with, lived with, ministered to, and was ministered to by those who were marginalized in society. He lived alongside the oppressed getting to know them, who they were, and what their needs were. If those in positions of power struggle to even learn about who God is from people who are oppressed, how are they going to learn about the person being oppressed and what their needs are. If I, as a young white woman, who is in a position of power simply because of my race do not live alongside people who are oppressed, I may never learn. If I never learn, then I will continue living a segregated life perpetuating discrimination.

Segregation is no longer considered illegal, however much of the U.S. is segregated by race including housing developments, schools, workforce, and employment. Even though a company may employ people of different races, quite often the jobs and duties are segregated by race. Even with affirmative action, there are various struggles that people of color disproportionately encounter. For example, a position that requires a master’s degree is often considered a high-level position, and these positions are disproportionately held by people who are white. The difficulty comes in attaining a master’s degree. Higher education in general is costly for people in the United State, including expenses beyond tuition such as room and board, textbooks, travel, etc. People of color have a greater likelihood of experiencing financial insecurity than people who are white. An undergraduate education often is a huge success and huge financial toll for anyone. For those who experience financial insecurity, education beyond undergraduate becomes even more difficult and may seem unattainable. This results in predominantly white affluent people achieving graduate level education, so the applicant pool for an upper level position requiring a master’s degree is predominantly white. Even with affirmative action, the monetary toll of graduate level education and the need to provide financially for one’s family limits integration in these areas of the workforce.

How do we know money is one of the hindrances to integration? It requires that people live and work alongside those who are oppressed, listening to their stories and learning from them. If people do not step out of their comfort zones and remain on the outside looking in, incorrect assumptions will continue to be made, assuming that people who are oppressed do not have the drive for graduate level education, or they do not desire those types of jobs. Or concluding that they have every opportunity as everybody else, but they choose not to get the education; they are self-segregating!

These assumptions would be wrong.

As we move about our daily lives, instead of always finding places that we fit in, maybe we need to be looking for places that we don’t fit? Live alongside people that are different from us and learn what it means for them to live. What brings them joy, pain, sadness, and trouble? Celebrate with them in the joyous moments. Mourn with them in the times of pain. Be present even when it is not comfortable. Live like Jesus lived.

Reflection Questions

In the United States, our churches are segregated, and the average American’s life mirrors this segregation. Below are various roles people have in our lives. For each of these roles, identify how many people you interact with regularly who are of a different race than you.

  • ______ Family
  • ______ Friends
  • ______ Congregants
  • ______ Coworkers
  • ______ Clients (people you work with who are not coworkers)
  • ______ Additional______________
  • ______ Additional_______________

What are ways that you could increase the diversity of the groups you are a part of? What are some ways you could break out of your comfort zone to live alongside people who are different than you?

Read Luke 10:25-37

The parable of the good Samaritan is often used to explain how our neighbors who we are to love are not just the people who are like us, but also the people who are different than us. It is a common Scripture used when discussing race because the Samaritan extended love and care for the person of a different race; of a race who he was supposed to despise. By stopping to take care of the man, the Samaritan showed love for his neighbor. He also stood up to racism in the process by crossing the racial divide of the two ethnic groups. The Samaritan put the needs of the person above his own comfort and above societal expectations.

  1. What are ways that the Priest and the Levite wanted to protect their comfort over helping the person in need? Who were they “fitting in” with?
  2. What was the Samaritan risking by stopping to help?
  3. When is a time that you saw a “man along the side of the ride,” a time that you encountered racism, but simply continued walking? What could you have done instead?
  4. When is a time that you were the Samaritan, and stood up against racism? How was the experience?

How Do We Love Like Jesus?

This is the third reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We are offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

By Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP


“How do you deal with Jesus the man, the Christ? Do you take him seriously? His life – his words – his death – his victory? The more I have studied of Jesus the more I realize you cannot take him lightly. What he did was not just for the people in his century, not only Jews or Gentiles, but for men of all ages and all races…. Can I as a Christian and an American remain neutral on the subject? Can I show love for Christ if I do not show love for all of the people for whom he lived and died? Can I show love for God if I do not show love for my neighbor? How can I love God whom I have not seen, if I do not show love for my brother whom I have seen?” – Jay Gibble

The above quote was preached by Jay Gibble to the Altoona Church of the Brethren at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1965. And yet, these prophetic words are still relevant to racism in the United States today in 2020. In fact, it might be even harder to live out these words in current day. During the Civil Rights movement, many around the country rallied together to oppose Jim Crow, segregation, and overt discrimination against people of color. There were organized marches, sit-ins, and protests of unfair discriminatory laws and policies. It was clear what it meant to love your neighbor.

Loving your neighbor meant opposing overt discrimination. Loving your neighbor meant opposing laws that oppressed based on skin color. Loving your neighbor meant, for many Brethren, protesting alongside people of color in the March of Washington and participating in sit-ins at lunch counters. It meant standing in solidarity with fellow Black Americans and fighting for their freedom.

Since the Civil Rights movement, there have been laws passed to prevent overt discrimination based on one’s race. However, there are still many Black Americans who experience regular discrimination and the after-effects of slavery and Jim Crow. Only now it is much harder to see because we often believe the laws fully prevent discrimination. It is harder to see because, while some of the discrimination is based on blatant racial prejudice, sometimes it is based on our own implicit biases that we are unaware of influencing decisions that we make. If you pass a black man on the street, do you happen to clutch your purse a little tighter or cross to the other side of the road? Do you do this more often when it is a black man than a white man?

I caught myself doing this recently. I was taking the metro, and as I was getting off and riding up the escalator, a couple college age students passed by me and bumped into my bag. I started looking through my bag to make sure that nothing was taken, that nothing would have been out in the open that could be snatched, and that all was accounted for. The person who bumped into me was a well-dressed young black man. I caught myself. Have I had multiple people bump into me on the metro? Oh my yes. It is a crowded space. If I frantically looked through my bag every time I got bumped, that is all I would be doing getting on and off the train. So why did I freak out this time? I could tell myself it was just the situation. It could have been the overall behavior of the group or because they were walking past me, not just standing alongside when I was bumped. Though I do not know for sure, it was likely influenced by the fact he was a young black man. What I do know is that because of racial stereotypes, I have to question why I had that thought. Because of implicit prejudice, this young man has probably had many people have a similar reaction that I, as a white woman, will never elicit from people. No matter how much I study about race, I still catch myself in moments of implicit prejudice that I am constantly trying to unlearn.

The problem is, these small moments can lead to larger consequences for people of color. Research conducted by economists in 2004 showed prejudice toward “black sounding names” when measuring callbacks for interviews after sending out 5,000 resumes.[1] When identical resumes were submitted to various jobs, those with black sounding names received fewer callbacks than those with white sounding names, even though the resumes had the same qualifications. In fact, those with white sounding names and a criminal record still received more call backs than those with black sounding names and no criminal record. This type of discrimination leads to long lasting consequences where Black Americans make on average less money than white Americans even when education is accounted for, and Black Americans have 1/10 the amount of wealth as their white counterparts.[2]

So how do we love our neighbors amidst these implicit prejudices? How do we love our neighbors when these circumstances seem beyond our control? When I think of Jesus’ life on earth, I think of the man who did not just love by being nice to the people he was around. Jesus loved by changing people’s worlds. Many of the people Jesus healed were outcasts of society, discriminated against because of some physical quality. An example that comes to my mind is the woman who bled for 12 years (Mark 5:25-34). Quite often when we hear her story, we focus on her faith. All she had to do was touch Jesus’ cloak, and she was made well. Her faith in this Scripture is evident, but let us look at a slightly different angle.

Why was she so desperate for Christ’s healing? Not only had she bled for 12 years straight, something no one wants to endure, but she was also outcasted from society because of her condition. When a woman was on her menstrual cycle, she was unable to touch anybody, or else they would be deemed unclean. Anything she sat on would be deemed unclean, and if someone touched an object that she had touched, that would cause them to be unclean.[3] This woman would have spent 12 years unable to have human contact, and unable to be in a public space. Anyone she would have been around would have been suspect and anything she may have touched would have been suspect. The healing Jesus provided not only healed the physical ailment of the issue of blood but also reconciled her relationship with society, giving her new life where she was no longer an outcast.

What if our racist policies and our prejudices are the “issue of blood” that support Black Americans being outcasted in society, causing us to question things they touch; question who they are with; question their presence? What if instead of praying for healing of discrimination in the US as a healing of the Black situation that keeps them pushed down, we pray for a healing in our hearts and the hearts of people, and we pray for healing in our policies to support Black Americans? We pray that God moves us to action like Jesus was moved to action because of the woman’s faith. Maybe loving our neighbors, who are of different races, is a process of confronting our own racial prejudices, learning about racial discrimination that is still occurring, and working toward making change; working toward Jesus’ healing in ourselves and in our country. 

Activity and Reflection

As part of working toward healing, it is important to know what implicit prejudices may influence us. Below is a link to the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) developed by Harvard University. The IAT is intended to measure how quickly we may associate certain words with others. The idea is that we tend to associate words more quickly if we believe they are similar. To learn more about the IAT, click here. The IAT usually takes about 10 minutes to complete. If you are interested in completing one of the tests, please click here and choose one of the IAT’s on race.

Read Mark 5:25-34

  1. Beyond the examples provided above, what were some ways people would have interacted with the woman because of her condition?
  2. How would this have impacted her relationships with others? How would this have impacted her ability to provide for a family?
  3. What did your IAT score come back as? Are you surprised by the score?
  4. According to Harvard, most of the race-based IAT results show preference for white over black in some capacity. How does this pattern result in similar outcomes for people of color as seen in biblical times for the bleeding woman before her healing?

[1] Marianne Bertrand Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” American Economic Review 94 (2004): 991-1013.

[2] A. Javier Trevino, Investigating Social Problem, 2nd edition (California: Sage Publishing, 2019), 61-62

[3] Leviticus 15:19-33

Color Blind or Color Brave?

This is the second reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We are offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

Reflection by Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP

A common concept used when discussing race is being color blind: “I don’t see race, I see people.” While this sentiment seems to come from good intentions, it can have negative implications. In the following TED Talk, Mellody Hobson discusses the complications of being color blind. However, she offers another perspective, a way to be “color brave.”

Read 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”

1 Corinthians 12:14-15 NRSV

Have you ever looked at this Scripture and said, “My foot is part of my body. I don’t see feet; I only see a body.” It’s not a statement I have ever said, and it sounds quite foolish to me; but why? If we do not recognize our foot as its own unique part of the body, we do not recognize its unique contributions. Without feet, we would have difficulty walking, running, and simply standing, as many people unfortunately have had to experience. The body is changed significantly because of the loss of a specific, unique part. This change would be experienced very differently than the loss of a different body part, such as a gallbladder. A foot and a gallbladder serve different functions. They have distinct gifts that they provide for the body, and not having that gift would mean a significant change in how the body works and the lifestyle the person would live.

From a young age, we teach kids to identify various body parts, through songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” As they grow older, we teach the same thing about people and the Body of Christ. We recognize different spiritual gifts, such as teaching, speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy. We recognize intellectual gifts, encouraging some to be doctors, some to be teachers, and others to be electricians. Yet, often when we look at race, we think we should be color blind and not see any differences.

I believe some of this movement came about with the intentions of reducing discrimination. If I don’t see color, then I will hire the best person for the job without letting racial prejudice affect my judgment. The problem is, by removing someone’s race, we are removing someone’s gift. We don’t see the unique perspectives and life experiences someone has had because of their race. We don’t see their unique qualities and value. We also do not see the distinctive ways people have been oppressed because of their race, remaining blind to networks of oppression and policies that uniquely affect people of color.

When we remain color blind, we also don’t recognize that we have unique experiences and perspectives because of our race, and since those experiences are unique, they are not the same for everybody in the U.S. Our view of life is not the standard. Our perspectives and lived experiences are just as different, but no more or less important, than the hand is from the foot. The hand, foot, and gallbladder are all distinct parts, but they are parts of one body allowing that body to function in a specific way. The diversity of experiences, perspectives, and assumptions of all people of all races, cultures, and backgrounds are necessary for the Body of Christ to be whole and for God’s Kin-dom to flourish.

Reflection Questions

  1. How were you taught to think about race? Were you taught to be color blind or were you taught to recognize and value differences based on race?
  2. The TED Talk mainly focused on the benefits of being color brave in a corporate setting.  What are other benefits of being color brave and benefits of diversity?
  3. Reread verses 25-26. If our foot suffers, the whole body suffers. If a member of the Body of Christ suffers, are we all suffering? Does being color blind inhibit our ability to suffer alongside people of a different race?

Why Do I Need to Talk About Racism?

This is the first reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

Written by Alexandra Toms; Racial Justice Associate in OPP

Why do I need to talk about racism?

Why as a Christian should I be concerned about racism? I myself am not racist. I am raising my children not to be racist. I even have friends who are not white. So what more do you want me to do?

Why do I need to talk about racism?

There are laws on the books that prevent further racism. Brown vs the Board of Education ensures integrated schools. The Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination in public and in jobs. We have even gone as far as Affirmative Action to help right some of these wrongs.

Why do I need to talk about racism?

It’s been over 150 years since slavery ended and over 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement. Individuals may have been slower to change, but they are growing older. The younger generations do not even see the color of your skin. Discrimination is now part of the past.

Why do I need to talk about racism?

Even though 50 years have passed, for some it seems like just yesterday. A grandmother drops her grandkids at school, reflecting on the taunts and jeers experienced when she first went to a white school. She remembers drinking from the “colored” water fountain and being denied a seat at the lunch counter. The freedom riders assaulted; buses burned integrating rest stops. The memories and pain, not as absent as she had once hoped.

And now that the grandmother takes her grandkids to school in a time known for integration, she looks around hoping that her grandkids future is different. But her grandkids’ school is predominantly black. Her grandkids being raised in Harlem, not more than a block away from where she raised the kids’ mother.

Despite the integration that her parent’s generation work for, this grandmother sees her grandkids in such a similar situation. The schools are barely integrated, with only a few white children. Teachers are understaffed, the system underfunded. The students’ textbooks haven’t been replaced since early 2000. The history books not even reflecting the nation’s Black President.

Grandma watches her grandkids and hopes they can break the cycle of poverty and despair, go to trade school or college, get an education, and a job that is stable. Because they could be the first to buy a home for themselves, be able to take out a mortgage, denied to her, unaffordable for her children.

Maybe they will leave Harlem, move into the suburbs. They can raise a family, their kids at a school with new textbooks and iPads. But for now she just prays they get through middle school, not having to worry about these things that race through her mind in the school yard. She hopes that despite the educational system, they will be happy young kids, ready to conquer the world. She knows they’ll need that spunk and grit, for the uphill battle they don’t know they’ll have to climb.

So why do I need to talk about racism?

Because the struggle the grandmother and her grandkids work through, are ones that have developed from a long line of discrimination. Patterns of behavior from slavery and segregation, have paved the way for this young family’s current situation. A lack of training and opportunity, and a lack of family wealth have all been created by the past oppression denying civil rights.

So maybe I’m not racist, and I am teaching my kids not to see color, but am I actually doing the right thing, or should I do more to be anti-racist. What’s mine to do about structures creating oppression? Where can I speak out and up for those pushed down despite legislation.

Do I know a family like the grandmother and grandkids, have I shown them grace, or cast judgment on their situation? Can I look beyond the moment, at present decisions, and see what other factors have led to what I have deemed “personal choices?”

This is why we talk about racism, so we can see the grandmother and her grandkids as fellow children created in the Lord’s image. If we are to love the Lord’s children, love our neighbors as ourselves, we can’t be okay with the oppression they have experienced, the discrimination they have felt.

But we have to be able to see it, to recognize there is still discrimination, or else we blindly believe the grandmother’s situation is based solely on poor decisions. And this blind belief leads back to the original thinking that racism is over, solved by laws, legislation and colorblind thinking. If that is our thought, we miss an entire network of oppression, keeping God’s children below us, participating in the discrimination.

Reflection Questions and Scripture

  1. When you think of racism, what thoughts and emotions are brought up for you?
  2. As we start this journey learning and relearning about Black history in the U.S., what do you hope to gain?
  3. Do you have any fears or concerns as we enter into this month? Are there reasons you may be feeling tentative?

Read Psalm 139:14 and Ephesians 2:10

In Psalm 139:14, David writes that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Ephesians 2:10 says that we are “God’s masterpiece.” If a close friend of yours loaned you a piece of artwork that they had created, their masterpiece, how would you care for that piece of art? If you had to travel with the artwork to get it to point A to point B you would most likely handle it with an immense amount of care. You would probably take extra precaution getting it in and out of the car. You may even drive a little slower if it is something delicate. I worked at alongside a wedding coordinator for several years, and the most anxiety provoking part of the entire job was dealing with the wedding cake. Usually, we would just add some decorations to the table, and add some flowers to the cake, and even that little amount was done in very slow, deliberate movements. The worst time was when the cake arrived the day before, and we were in charge of taking it from the walk-in cooler and setting it on the cake table. I do not think I ever pushed that cart so slow or had my heart racing so fast at a wedding. This was someone’s masterpiece, and not just the person who made it, but also the couple who it was made for.  It was their masterpiece.

  1. We are God’s masterpieces; each of us, made by God, in the Lord’s image. What if we treated each other with as much respect, care, and sensitivity as the cake? How would the world be different?
  2. If something would have happened to the wedding cake, not only would I have been horrified that a masterpiece was damaged, but I would have been embarrassed, ashamed, and sorrowful for the couple who commissioned the cake. When we hurt other people, fellow masterpieces, do we feel ashamed, embarrassed, and sorrowful in response to God?
  3. How is racism causing harm to God’s masterpieces?

MLK Day Reflection

As a historic peace church, how do we understand the meaning of “true” peace? As we reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we can see how our understanding of peace amidst race relations has changed over the years.

If we look back to the time of slavery, we can see that Brethren were ahead of their time. Before the civil war, Brethren had already decided that slavery was against their beliefs and went counter to Scripture. Even in the 1700s, Brethren were holding yearly meetings, now known as Annual Conference. Statements against slavery can be found in minutes from these yearly meetings as early as 1782 when the Brethren unanimously decided that members of the denomination could not purchase or keep slaves. As a denomination, the Brethren “outlawed” slavery 80 years before the end of the Civil War, well before the Civil War was even a thought. As the years progressed, they also decided that those joining the denomination had to release their slaves, and members of the denomination could not accept labor from other people’s slaves. The statements were expanded on and reaffirmed throughout the 1800s.

There is no true peace without justice.

However, were the Brethren advocating for justice? Were the Brethren abolitionists advocating for the end of all slavery? In short, the answer is no. While the Brethren were against having slaves of their own or using slave labor, very few Brethren participated in actions to free others’ slaves. They did not pursue the freedom of all slaves. They simply restricted their own use of slaves, seeing slavery as sinful, which was still revolutionary in their time. But should they have done more? Should the Brethren have participated in anti-slavery efforts for the whole country, in addition to their own personal choice of not holding slaves? The Brethren’s stance worked toward the absence of tension between the Brethren and people of color, but was it true peace if it wasn’t advocating for justice of all?

As we move forward in history to the Civil Rights Movement, the Brethren’s story shifts. Many Brethren participated in various anti-racist efforts, working toward justice for all Black Americans, including 200 Brethren who participated in the March on Washington. Below are several stories of Brethren during the Civil Rights Movement:

Lunch Counter Sit-ins
While a student at Fisk University, Paul Laprad participated in nonviolent, peaceful sit-ins at the lunch counter. However, those sit-ins were often marred by violence and beatings in response to their protests. As a young white man, Paul received some of the most severe beatings because he was standing—well sitting—in solidarity with his fellow Black Americans.

MLK in Chicago
Tom Wilson was a pastor in Chicago, Illinois. During his pastorate, he worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for two years. Jim Poling, the assistant pastor of First Church in Chicago gives the account of walking into the church, and there was Martin Luther King Jr. standing in the office at his desk. Tom Wilson and Dr. King worked toward open housing and eliminating the slums of Chicago.

Selma, Alabama
A group of Brethren including Ralph Smetzler and Juniata College faculty and students went down to Selma, Alabama following Bloody Sunday, a march where civil rights activists were attacked during a march. The Brethren went to Selma trying to promote peace between the white and black communities. During one of the following marches, there was so much violence in a counter protest that two of the faculty from Juniata were injured.

Each of these stories is about peaceful action promoting justice for Black Americans. Instead of simply trying to work toward an absence of tension between Brethren and Black Americans, many Brethren worked alongside Black Americans and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for equality —for justice.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

The irony is that justice is found through the tension. If we only seek the absence of tension as peace, we avoid tension and see the lack of tension in our own lives as peace. True peace is not the absence of tension. True peace is found working through the tension as we advocate for justice.

So as we reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a few questions to ponder in our current day and work toward anti-racism:

(1) Which efforts from the Brethren were more in line with seeking true peace for Black Americans?
(2) Which efforts align more with how we are currently seeking peace as individuals and as a denomination?
(3) And regardless of our answer above, is there more we could do?

This post was written by Alexandra Toms