Making Your Life Matter

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Kayla Mueller had a life that mattered.

Her name has been in the news lately because of her death at the hands of ISIS.

But her courage and sacrifice for the good of others will live on.  She loved others, not because they looked like her or shared her tribal identity, but because she loved God and knew God loved them.

Kayla’s example made an impact on everyone now reading her story and her life mattered in particular to those whom she served and rescued.  She is remembered especially by Julie, a young Yazidi girl, who knew Kayla as a protective older sister and true friend.

Kayla’s selfless attitude and actions are a true reflection of Christian love and is an example of a life that mattered for all the right reasons.

Does your life matter?

We all want our life to matter.  My Christian faith has led me to believe human life has intrinsic value.  But does this mean all life has equal value?  Is your life worth the same to society as a serial killer’s life?  Is my life equal in value to a President who is guarded by dozens of armed secret service agents?

The answer is both yes and no.

It depends on perspective.  My life may have equal value to the President’s if you ask my own family and friends.  However, I would expect that the answer would change if the random person from the street were asked and that is one reason why we do more to secure the President.

A President’s death would likely be far more disruptive to more people than my own and that gives their life more value as far as national security is concerned.  It does not mean my life has less intrinsic value, but it does reflect a reality of life that does matter.

What we contribute and value matters.

President John F. Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had lives that mattered to someone.  And, despite the fact Kennedy is responsible for more deaths than the man who killed him, his life was valued more than Oswald’s by many Americans.

Why?

Kennedy, in his inaugural address, challenged those listening to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  He had the right idea and how much we matter to others depends on what we do for them.  Kennedy’s life mattered more to many people because he worked within their own established system rather than defy, resist or rebel against it.

Our value as individuals will be judged better or worse depending on what we contribute to the whole. Our outcomes, in part, will be shaped by our own attitudes good or bad and the respect we show to others.  All people are supposed to have equal protection under the law. However, this does not mean all people contribute the same to society and that matters.

We live in a time where many have an entitled self-centered mindset and wish to be valued without being willing to make a positive contribution.  Many Americans are only in it for themselves or people like them.  When no life matters except our own then our own life loses value.  When we treat others like they do not matter it hurts them and is sabotage to our own value.

Make your life matter for goodness sake.

We make our life matter more by loving all people as we wish to be loved.  When we treat other people with love we create value where it did not exist before.  By loving others as we wish to be loved we create value and make our life matter more as a result.

Yes, certainly that does not mean all people will value us.  Some might despise us no matter what we do because of their hateful ideologies or judgemental assumptions about us.  We cannot force others to love us or treat us as if our life matters.  If our life doesn’t matter to someone then all the pleas, protests and demands for respect can’t change that.  Even our kindness will not matter to some.

Nevertheless, we can always make others matter to us, we can always live a life that matters for the right reasons, and nobody, not even ISIS, can stop us.

Be like Kayla Mueller who died to save others.

My challenge is for all of my readers to go out and love someone who others do not care about or notice.

Find someone who is different from you (not your own race, family, culture, religious affiliation or political background) and then show them unconditional love.  Love them as thoroughly and completely as the good Samaritan did.

Be like Jesus who laid down his own life so others, including his personal enemies, could find their salvation in his example and together have opportunity to live a more abundant life.

Live a life that transcends differences and expands the scope of love to all people deserving or undeserving alike.

Live a life that matters.

Marriage as Martyrdom: The Truly Christian View of Love and Romance

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Do you want to know a secret?

You are never ready for marriage nor are you ever worthy of anyone’s faithful abiding love—and nobody is.

We are all fatally flawed, even those of us who are more capable of hiding it beneath a facade, and eventually our own immanent human weakness will be made known.

Some, for fear of being exposed as the frauds, never open themselves up fully to the love of others. They prefer the safety of the illusion that they are able to create (in the solitary confines of their own minds) to the risk of honesty about their own hopelessness. This is a worldly approach to love, it is all about proven performance, all about carefully maintained outward appearances and it lacks true faith.

Others make themselves vulnerable. They confess their faults openly and let their flaws be known. They would rather deal with the pain of rejection than deal dishonesty with themselves or others. These people have hope of finding real love because they have humbled themselves, they have taken this risk to confessed their own sinful imperfection, and choose to live in faith of forgiveness rather than in fear.

Christian love transcends existing reality and, in true communion with God, seeks to find a more glorious future—it reaches out in faith rather than dwell alone in fear of our imperfection.

Jesus sacrificed all while we were still dead in our sins, Jesus healed even those who did not take time to thank him, and faithful followers must do the same. Christian love is a preemptive love, it is a truly selfless love only possible through means of God’s grace and a genuine spiritual transformation.

Christian love is always a gift given to those completely undeserving.

In contrast, the secular world has a version of love that is special favor distributed based on past performance. It is only given out in expectation of a return bigger than the investment made and abandoned quickly when the initial pleasurable feelings of an expected return fade. It it is a selfish false love despite the selfless romantic language it is often disguised in. It is a love of “what’s in it for me?” and is the only kind of love those without the Spirit of God can show.

The religious hypocrite may too use the language of faith and grace to describe their love. However, with a bit of testing of spirits, sometimes their lack of truth in love can be revealed and their acting the part (as hypocrites) will be known. This self-seeking love and self-serving spirit is found all over the church—even tacitly sanctioned in the romance and courtship arena. But in marriage the truth of our love is known.

Is our conservative Mennonite idea of romance purely Christian or somewhat worldly?

I must vote the latter.

As much as I hear talk about being the “right person” and emphasis on past and anticipated performance it is quite evident that we have an idea of love being something that is deserved. It is the very antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we profess. If love were indeed something earned then we would all be stuck in an impossible situation in relation to God and hopeless.

It is paradoxical, but many of the things the world uses as a basis to reject people and withhold love are the very things only love can cure. For example, many prefer to criminalize addiction and take putative measures against addicts. Unfortunately this approach is often extremely counterproductive, we drive those suffering further towards the margins of society, and a growing body of research shows that connection (a practical expression of love) is the solution.

We in the church, as religious people, do make an effort to reach out to those on the margins of society. I have great respect for those faithfully involved in prison ministry, who visit the elderly interned in nursing facilities or for those who conduct clubs for disadvantaged children. However, these are also things that can be done mostly out of obligation or religious duty, an attempt to earn the favor of God, and not out of genuine Christian love for others.

We can maintain a facade of Christian love in church and church activities. But there is a point when the truth of the kind of love we possess will be brought to light. And, while I’m not talking about only romantic love, our romantic and marital love is where this mask can no longer be maintained. Sure, we can fake self-sacrificial love around our religious peers when preening for their approval, but we will not give away our whole life for our lie and therefore must keep some places off limits.

It is ironic that many conservative Mennonites (the same who affirm a belief in a doctrine that would preclude them even defending loved ones) also preach an extremely self-serving me-first worldly idea of romance. I’ve had a father literally whip out a calculator while trying to explain why I was ineligible to court his daughter. It is appalling faithless hypocrisy and yet never really seriously questioned.

My way or the highway: If I can’t marry who I want to marry, why marry at all?

Marriage, as something self-interested, means we will only marry when the calculations favor our own interests. This, again, is a worldly idea of love and the antithesis of actual Christian love.

Unfortunately many in the church, going against their profession of faith, will only marry when they believe that it will produce a future advantage for them and choose based in things like family pedigree or past performance. They rely on their own understanding and not faith in God.

Such might have been the case when a young woman named Emily Cavanaugh turned down a suitor back in the spring of 1938. She rejected a young man’s love because he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere in life and she believed he would never amount to much. She wanted a leader in the church and, by her analysis, he lacked that potential.

That young man rejected by Emily later preached to millions. He even acted as a personal advisor in matters of faith to Presidents of the most powerful nation in the world. I had the honor of hearing him speak to the multitude at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. His name is familiar to many people today.

The man?

Evangelist Billy Graham…

One should note carefully that all of the significant men in Scripture were losers and outcasts by worldly standards. Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old, Isaac had his head in the clouds, Jacob was a liar, Moses had murdered a man and couldn’t speak confidently and this pattern of God using the unlikely candidates continues into the New Testament. Matthew was a collaborator with an enemy occupation, Thomas had doubts about Jesus, Peter was a basically racist (with a bark much bigger than his bite) and a Paul was actually abusive against the faithful. They were misfits, but God saw what others did not.

Consider what God told Samuel when he was in search of a leader for his people:

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

The man who fit the requirements was King David. David, unlike Saul before him, was not a man of impressive stature and was a mere shepherd (a menial task) at the time Samuel found him. What David had was a strong faith that was not recognized by his peers and yet was already known to God. The courageous warrior and Biblical hero that we know today only emerged later in the story. One can imagine the faith that it took for Samuel to anoint this unknown commodity as the future leader of a nation.

I believe those who reject a suitor (or a marriage eligible woman) based in their own expectations and arbitrary standards may want to reconsider their own profession of faith in a man run out of his own home town as a false prophet. I would recommend some reflection on the words Jesus spoke to his Bible-believing (and deceived) detractors:

“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus was also turned down by his rightful bride because he was deemed unsuitable. That is a reality worth considering when it comes to how we pick and choose today. Perhaps our reasonable standards today are wrongheaded and unGodly? Perhaps we are no better than our unfaithful religious predecessors?

Do our American ideals for love and marriage fail in delivering orthodox Christian imagery?

Marriage, in western society at least, has somehow become a legal arrangement dependent on human vows and will. But this “till death do we part” contract view of matrimony is not necessarily the most faithful understanding in Christian tradition. In fact it is this view that makes the very definition of marriage dependent on human whims. Marriage has become about us rather than about God.

But, what if we were to put God at the center of the marriage union instead of human effort and need?

The Orthodox Christian marriage tradition (in contrast to our Western and somewhat Catholic originated ideas) puts much more emphasis on the eternal perspective and mystery of God. And, in fuller recognition that God is the one who creates the martial bond, they make no wedding vows. To them God makes a marriage commitment sacred, not human promises.

Most significantly, the Orthodox view puts stronger emphasis on the symbolic and positive spiritual value of Christian marriage. It does not treat marriage as if a mere compromise for human weakness. As an Orthodox friend of mine explains it:

“…marriage is the means blessed by God from the very beginning for a man and a woman to be yoked together in order that they might achieve union with God. In Orthodox Christian teaching, the original intention of God is reaffirmed by Jesus in his teachings and in his blessing of the Marriage Feast at Cana. Furthermore, the Orthodox put a great deal of emphasis upon the mystery of Christ and his Church—the Bridegroom imagery of Ephesians 5 and see marriage as one very important manifestation of God’s love for his children.”

(Fr. Anthony Roeber, priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and Professor of Early Modern History & Religious Studies, Penn State.)

Conservative Mennonites do like their symbolism. We have persistently held onto symbolic Christian practices (like veils, kisses of charity and foot washing) long after the mainstream church abandoned or neglected them. This cultural penchant for resisting change could give the impression of faithfulness. Unfortunately, our reality of heart can sometimes be vastly different from what we display outwardly.

Is our concept of marriage a reflection of a radical commitment to Christian self-sacrificial love? We might say that our romantic endeavors are God honoring and rooted in faith, but is this actually true? Or, beneath the veil of religious symbolism, is our romance spiritually vacant and about our own personal preferences?

Love as God loves and for God wants to do through us, not for what we want to choose for ourselves.

I believe emphasis on choice and knowing (on our own terms) often comes at the expense of faith. There is cognitive dissonance in the church when you compare our courtship ideals to what we expect in marriage. In courtship we forget about God’s perspective and adopt a worldly approach. Yet then we expect that self-centered attitude to disappear once some religious ritual is performed?

Marriage is not about our choosing what is best for ourselves. To be successful in marriage requires commitment to self-sacrificial love and giving up our own rights to another. I believe that our American/Western culture is hung up choice and independence, it is to our own spiritual detriment too, but there are few who address this weakness in our courtship ideal. We push human calculations, our own personal or political advantages, and not faith.

The worldly perspective of romantic love is self-centered and is only about a person getting what they want. But the true Christian ideal is martyrdom:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:21-33)

That, a text oft used at weddings, is a great guide to marital relationship. However, to remain consistent, isn’t this the same reality of love that should be guiding our lives and including the whole process leading to marriage from start to finish? Can we truly expect Christian love to be made manifest in marriage when we married for selfish gain or to advance our own personal agenda religious and otherwise?

A faithful follower of Jesus should marry because they wish to better serve God by their devoted self-sacrificial love to another. It should not be a market based decision, a weighing of available options and determination to select what will be most beneficial to ourselves. When marriage is about our own plans and ambitions it becomes as a business transaction between two people. Yes, we can dress it up in the language of love or romance and celebrate it together in religious formality, but we might as well call it what it is: legal prostitution.

There is sometimes a vast difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe in practice. We can claim to be ready to sacrifice anything in service to God, but are we actually willing to sacrifice our right to marry or marry the person of our own choosing? Do we bring honor to God in our romance or are we as self-seeking and carnally minded as our secular neighbors?

It’s not what you can obtain through romantic pursuits, but about the glory God will obtain. Marriage, for a Christian, should be a great testimony of our faithfulness, a practical display of a transcending self-sacrificial and eternal commitment to love.

Our romance, according to the most ancient of Christian traditions, can be our greatest witness and testimony of faith put to practice. In truest form marriage is a dying to ourselves for love of another or, in other words, martyrdom.

The Dilemma of a Colorful Thinker

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I write this post with trepidation. I have been accused before of being too open with my thoughts by some. But I have been told by others that I am very guarded about my personal life and have been urged to express more of that. The truth is that my sharing is often intentionally not vulnerable. Talk may be cheap, but sharing my innermost feelings always comes with an emotional price tag and the risk feels too great. I can discuss abstract ideas for hours without wearying, but when I lay my deeper feelings out it leaves me exhausted, often also feeling degraded and disappointed.

I believe all people desire affirmation or acceptance. We also want to maintain our own separate identity, to be different from others and still be accepted. I had that conflict growing up as a religious minority. I wanted to be identified with my unique heritage. However, I also wanted to be treated as a unique individual and resisted being cornered with the many stereotypes of classmates. Questions, frequently asked without ill-intent, would often be framed as statements categorizing me, “you are X therefore you do Y and Z…”

Uniquely Mennonite; also a Unique Mennonite

I was born into a Mennonite home. Mennonites are a small Christian sect, a product of the Anabaptist movement that swept through Europe in the 1500’s and are known today for their traditional way of life and non-violent stance. Mennonite is both a religious denomination in that ‘members’ conform to certain established standards and, because historically many members come from within existing Mennonite families, it can also classify as a distinct ethnic group.

Most Mennonite children attend private schools and some, more frequently over the past couple decades, are home schooled. However, my parents chose differently, my siblings and I all attended the local public school. It was a consequential decision and a source of some inner turmoil for me as well. I am a proud alumnus of Lewisburg Area High School, yet there was a time where I begged my mom to home school me and throughout my schooling I always identified more strongly with my Mennonite sub-culture.

At school I conscientiously did not join my classmates in various activities. I would stand respectfully and silent during the reciting of the pledge of allegiance. As a devout Christian, I believed my allegiance was owed to something greater than country and I felt I could not pledge to anything besides God. I was separated in other ways as well. I did not grow up with a television at home, so I was out of the loop as far as popular culture and could not identify with much of the chatter about this or that celebrity. I didn’t wear shorts in the summer. I was odd.

But, in church, I did not always identify well with my Mennonite peers either, they had their own school experience and cliques. Prayers by church leaders would give specific mention of the students and staff of the Maranatha Christian School, but would leave out those few of us who attended elsewhere and I noticed it. The neglect of mention was completely unintentional, but it did contribute to a feeling of not mattering, that feeling was a source of insecurity then and lingers in my mind today. I never felt I fit into my school or church culture.

I savored my independent mindedness. I could feel privileged over both my public school and Mennonite peers at times. I had a spot amongst the misfits in both categories too. But, my finding a place among the misfits was to still feel excluded from the mainstream of both settings and was to be a double misfit. It was exclusivity with some exclusion or at least I felt excluded. I had one foot in with mainstream American thinking, with another in a culture that celebrates a persecuted past, and with that a mixed identity all my own.

My Place Amongst the Persecuted

Mennonites have a long memory. We are dutifully reminded of acts of gruesome torture committed against our people from hundreds of years ago. There’s a book, Martyr’s Mirror, nearly as sacred as the Bible in many Mennonite (and Amish) homes, which is basically a chronicle of the violence done to Christian believers. The book includes haunting etchings of the terrifying ends of some who would not recant their faith under trial and these stories help shape Mennonite identity as a persecuted minority.

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Torture of Geleijn Cornelus, Breda, 1572

Mennonites have a mistrust of mainstream society. Part of it is in a product of a religious emphasis to intentionally maintain a ‘non-conformed’ outward appearance and lifestyle. But the other big part is a real fear that persecution is just around the corner and that we could all soon suffer the same fate as our spiritual/ethnic fathers. Mennonites (and Amish) have been so insular and so separated from mainstream society that they actually have their own unique genetic disorders. Many still maintain their own German dialect, commonly referred to as “Pennsylvania Dutch” or “PA Dutch” for short, and church outsiders are referred to as “English” by Amish people.

The irony of it all is that Mennonites are more frequently adored than they are despised. Our biggest critics tend to be those who are disgruntled ex-members or those who had a bad experience in one church and judge all Mennonites based in it. We are treated both with respect and also patronizingly at times. My sister, a medical doctor, was once asked by a non-Mennonite if she would be interested in cleaning houses or babysitting, which could be taken as an insult to a person who was qualified for much more. Many have assumed my ignorance as well and apparently because of my rural and religious upbringing.

People do judge by outward appearances. People do make prejudiced assumptions based on ethnic heritage or religious connection and I have experienced this first hand. I believe that is likely why I have instinctively classified myself with the victims of prejudice rather than with the perpetrators. My unique upbringing may have been the reason why I was fascinated with history of racism in America. I read books; some of them required reading, but many others by curiosity and choice. The titles escape me, but I remember experiencing the civil rights era from the perspective of a woman in the NAACP, then living life as a young woman in Japanese internment camps and later spending time with a fictional lawyer named Atticus Finch.

My Struggle to Find Acceptance

I also have another identity and that one created in my slow development that earned me nicknames which included “micro” in them. I was short and small for my age. I was a late-bloomer beyond even my then diminutive size. I was older in my class, a polite and respectful student, I would often find more in common with adult teachers than my age-group peers, I had keen interest in history, was knowledgeable, but was also very innocent. I had little more than platonic interest in girls until my late school years and had mostly kept a safe distance from them. I did not seem to draw a whole lot of female attention either. I was an introvert in a crowd and shy around women.

With my struggle with stature, with a lack of strong social skills, athletic abilities, or other especially developed talents (besides being a non-stop daydreamer with some artistic gifts) and having not received an abundance of popular attention, I developed a bit of an inferiority complex. It only intensified as I became interested in dating and noticed many girls were more interested in a muscular, square shouldered or smooth talking male figures and I realized that just wasn’t me. I was this sensitive bundle of analytical thoughts without an adequate ability to express them. It was also furthered by the fact that I felt I was a misfit. I was way too religious for the more secular public school girls, but I was way too nuanced and philosophical for the cut-and-dried products of my own conservative religious culture.

For whatever reason, fate or fortune, I struck out with the first Mennonite girl I asked and that experience was where my confidence really began to wane. I had a an acute awareness of nuance differences of how people treat each other and knew too well how girls treated the ‘cool’ guys compared to those less popular. I was not disliked or mistreated. But I was also not that quintessential Mennonite guy either. It seemed the average Mennonite girl wanted this simple, macho, disinterested, reserved fellow and I did not fit that conventional mold. I was complicated; I alternately talked too much while not saying enough of the ‘right’ things, was fully Mennonite in some ways and not enough in others. I also lucked out with a church full of first cousins.

I was a deep-thinker, a conscientious person, fiercely loyal, told multiple times (by marriageable women) that I would make a wonderful husband, earnestly faithful, protective and gentle. I wanted to be the hero of the woman I admired, unfortunately I always seemed to play the cards of the villain or that’s how it felt my sincere efforts were received. It is against my nature (or maybe my Mennonite training) to harbor ill-will towards anyone. But feelings of rejection (both real and perceived) are as a poison to the soul. I have had my flashes of misogyny or jealousy, with those feelings immediately followed by longer moments of self-loathing and contempt for everything I was or was not. I was a victim of bad-timing, I was disadvantaged by my genetics, I was unfairly categorized and felt it all to be an injustice.

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Drowning of Mattheus Mair, Wier, 1592

It may be irony, but it was black women who later affirmed my strengths and restored some of my confidence lost along the way. Like in the books I read, where I could identify with the female minority lead character, I felt minority women could somehow understand me and with them is where I felt most accepted. I was treated like I mattered. It did not hurt that some were educated beyond my Mennonite peers and could appreciate discussions of philosophy, psychology, sociology, identity and race.  Not wanting to produce a stereotype about Mennonites, but I would probably be more popular with my ethnic kinfolk if I would shoot more deer, get a big diesel truck, be an outstanding volleyball player and learn to love card games.

The Schizophrenic Demands of Insecure People

We live in a culture that both tells us to “be you” and yet also encourages conformity of thought or action and shames divergent thinking. We live in a society that preaches against stereotypes, that celebrates individuality and yet continually it categorizes people by race, religion or gender. I am simultaneously castigated as the perpetrator of racism and sexism, as a white male, but then instructed not to build identity around race or to make any judgments about sexuality. It is a feeling of being whipsawed, assailed for doing something that I have not done by those who are doing exactly what they say I shouldn’t do and that I didn’t do.

That is the dilemma of a colorful thinker: Do I go with those who say I should be identified with the perpetrators of historical violence? Or should I go with my instincts, my experience as a minority, and make my identity with the victims?

For me the choice is clear: I am neither victim nor villain. I have felt a victim of circumstance in the past. I have been treated unfairly, excluded unjustly, felt like a perpetual underdog. I have been condescended to and even discriminated against based in my race or religion. I have withstood bullies who picked on me because of my differences (my genetics did not lend to physical intimidation) and I have endured educated elitists who hurled insults, alleged my ignorance for challenging their perspectives and then would burned their straw-man effigies of me with an unwarranted glee. But I refuse to make my identity center on my claim to victimhood.

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Burning of Anneken Hendriks, Amsterdam, 1571

I will not be like the bitter white co-worker who blamed his lack of success in college on not having the special privilege of affirmative action and would spout one racist opinion after another. I rebuked him without hesitation. I share no identity with his racism and hatred. I will likewise not patronize, show favoritism or cater to others simply on the basis of skin color and historical injustices. We all have challenges to overcome in life and it is easy to assume that our own are bigger or more real than someone else’s. I am not going to coddle and perpetuate the insecurities of any person, white, black or otherwise. I do not believe we help people overcome by treating people as helpless and hapless victims.

In discussions over race, with constructions like ‘white privilege’ and such, I have more frequently been lumped in with the perpetrators of racism rather than treated as a unique individual. It is frustrating, because Mennonites were some of the first to protest slavery and that is the identity that is more real to me than my skin color. Amish and Mennonites were even singled out in America for their ethnicity and conscience, some locked in prison during the First World War because they refused to fight. I feel, at times, that I have more in common with a persecuted minority than with anyone else. Yet, because I am a white male, some assume I could not possibly understand them and seemingly dismiss my perceptive without ever hearing it.

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Burning of David and Levina, Ghent, 1554

I may not understand exactly what it feels like to be black in America. But I do know how it feels to be treated as inferior and less of a man on the basis of superficial things. I know too well what it is like to be categorized and stereotyped. I understand the conflict of one who loves their own heritage, has a defensive urge against those who attack their ethnic community and yet is still aware of the problems of their own people. I have a love-hate relationship with my own Mennonite religious/ethic heritage. I was taught to be afraid, not just of the police, but of mainstream society in general and some of my religious peers think they are persecuted because of perceived slights.

I have felt insulted and belittled at times. The slights were real and sometimes intentional too, but not always. I have found my reactions are a product of personal insecurities and sometimes little more than that. People all have their sources of insecurity. Conservatives fear a tyrannical government will soon take away their rights, thus fearfully stockpile guns and ammunition. Liberals think that the economic system is stacked against them and want government to impose on their neighbors allegedly as an act of justice. We can build identities around these insecurities. We may find people who share our fears and can look for evidence to ‘prove’ our own disadvantaged status or victim role. Unfortunately, while we do this, while we are demanding respect of our own person or people like us, we are also often leaving a wake of destruction behind us.

Insecure people produce more problems for themselves and others. We all know them, that super-sensitive person who is so insecure that they see an insult in even the most innocent requests or gestures. Take, for instance, a guy who told a story (apparently thinking his audience would be sympathetic) of a time he was driving down the road and a woman driving in the opposite direction scratched her nose as they passed. He knew an insult when he saw one. So he spun his vehicle around, aggressively pursued the offending party and gave a lecture on her disrespectful behavior. Of course, who knows why she touched her nose at that moment. Much more disturbing is a man who assumes an insult or injustice at every turn—and does not see his own offending belligerence.

Seeing Beyond Divisions of Black and White

I am a person with multiple identities and with none in particular. I am not alone either, I believe many Americans have many different identities and do not fit neatly into statistical categories. That said, Americans do also have bigger common identities of race or gender and these identities can sometimes be used to divide us. Our differences can be a cause for celebration, but they are also the basis of falsely dichotomous ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narratives and are used feed existing insecurities. But, treating every person like a unique person to be individually loved as a unique person, rather than in category of victim or villains, would solve a multitude of problems.

Pigeonholing, finger-pointing, scapegoating or shaming those who have offended me probably will not solve my own insecurities and I’m doubtful this type of action would ever create desirable results those whom I deem as guilty. Demonization usually only creates another class of victim. When we treat people like problems rather than people, when we throw them into categories of perpetrator on the basis of their appearance or history, then we have become contributors to the disease of prejudice rather than healers and helpers. If we want more heroic people in the world, then we must treat more people like heroes and as we wish to be treated. If we want dignity and respect for ourselves, then we need to stay committed to treating others with dignity and respect.

Healing of existing wounds will not come from two sides beating each other with superior arguments or competitive claims to offense. Tensions certainly will not be solved by making any person feel inferior or labeled as a villain. The urge to point out statistics about black men in response to those who cite statistics about police will not bring us closer to peace. The truth is if there is to be healing it will come from us learning to identify with all men, and not with only those who look like us or share our own opinions.

We need to recognize even our own intuitions, even those that are informed with history or statistical evidence, might be skewed, prejudicial and wrong. What we perceive to be true is not always whole or complete truth. We need to be more introspective, practice more constructive self-criticism, and address our own faults squarely. The assumptions we make about ourselves and about other people can hurt our chances for success. Yes, I could build a pretty solid rationalization to defend my own insecurities, but it would get me nowhere towards overcoming the obstacles to my success and, if reinforced long enough, could become a reason to not try at all.

Creating Shared Identities

It is impossible to say categorically that every white man has it better or every black woman has it worse and it is foolishness to assume it. A single black mother probably has more in common with a single white mother than she does with a black woman who is happily married. Then again, a black woman, who endures assumptions about her appearance, might actually be able to identify with a young Mennonite woman who dresses differently because of her own religious/ethnic heritage.

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Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer, Asperen, 1569

We need to endeavor to create shared identities bigger than race or gender or religion or even economic status and rid ourselves of crippling victim identities entirely. There are more of us misfits than there are those of us defined by statistics or stereotypes. We all have unique advantages or disadvantages and also our own special challenges to face. So, rather than dwell on ourselves only, or focus solely our own specific problems, we could realize struggle in various forms is common to all people and part of our shared humanity. I have my own struggles, you have your struggles and in sharing our burdens together we become brothers and sisters in the same fight rather than rivals or enemies.

I am not saying we should lose our unique identity either. What I am saying is that categories of white and black, privileged or persecuted, hero and villain are too small. We are colored, but not in black and white or shades of gray, we are truly many shades of many colors and uniquely our own person. We have many shared identities that could bridge our gaps and create common understanding, but to find them we need not to be bound to our past or prejudices.

My advice: Build an identity with those who overcome with love and despite the odds against them. Tune out those who only feed insecurity and fear.

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