Rockway Mennonite Collegiate students wonder what ‘taking the knee’ means for them, and what they can do
“It’s taken us four hundred years to get to here,” said Drew Hart at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate’s 2017 Spiritual Emphasis Week, held over three days in late September 2017. The assistant professor of theology at Messiah College, a private Christian college founded in 1909 by the Brethren in Christ Church, in Mechanicsburg, Pa., was speaking of his lived reality as an African-American man in a racially divided country.
Drew Hart is the author of the Herald Press book Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. (See a review of the book at ‘Where do we go from here?’)
In his public address to a gathering of parents, pastors and local educators, he summed up what he had earlier been sharing with the students and teachers.
He first focussed on “Taking Jesus seriously,” looking at “how Jesus can help us face oppression in our society.” He noted that Jesus told his disciples to “not lord it over each other like the Gentiles do.” Jesus, he said, was speaking in occupied Galilee with the tramp of Roman soldiers everywhere. The story of Zacchaeus caught the students’ imagination, as he learned jubilee principles and applied them. Jesus himself went to Jerusalem and clashed with the authorities, dying under the hand of the oppressors.
He told many of his own stories in his second presentation, about growing up in both majority-black and -white communities and how his black body was a source of pride or tension, depending on the community. He found the worst place to be black was on the campus of a mostly white, evangelical Christian college, where black men were regularly called thugs and people acted in fear towards them. This was a shock to him, as he had expected his Christian sisters and brothers to know him in Christ and not in a racial manner. He wondered about Canada’s parallel history in regard to racism and oppression, mostly with Indigenous people.
His last presentation looked at what socially and politically aware Christians might do. Telling the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s American education at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his friendship with Frank Fisher, an African-American theology student, and his attendance at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Hart described how Bonhoeffer learned to “see society from below, how to read the system differently,” and “look at how racism affects us all.”
He then turned to the story of a friend and colleague of his at Messiah College. Todd Allen had been asked to speak to a white congregation; just before the African-American began to speak, an older, white man shouted, “When are you all just going to get over this?” “Get over it?” mused Hart. “When did we get on it?”
Most of the attempts to solve racism are superficial, Hart said. He told the story of sitting with a white pastoral colleague who placed a cup between them with the restaurant’s logo on one side and writing on the other. “Tell me what your side looks like, and I’ll tell you what my side looks like,” said the man, talking about living in the United States. Hart responded by telling him that, while the white friend didn’t know what life was like for blacks, he, a black man, had to know what white life was like in order to survive every day in the highly racialized society, with white supremacy knit into everything.
Hart’s point was that until whites, and especially white Christians, can learn to see from the side of blacks who have been oppressed for four hundred years, no significant change will happen. He also suggested that white supremacy functions in very similar ways in anti-black and Indigenous erasure.
An active question period followed, with Ryan Graham, an African-Canadian parent of students at Rockway, asking what was the most frequent question students had asked of Hart. He noted two:
• “Taking the knee” at National Football League games.
• “What do we need to do?”
According to Hart, anti-racism is “a life-long pursuit.”