The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

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A few months ago friend of mine shared a link to a news story and asked my opinion.

The story, “UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle,” did not seem to apply to my own conservative branch of the Mennonite denomination.

My initial thoughts were that this was one of those wacky liberal churches and therefore not relevant.

However, upon further reflection, I realized that my own brand of Mennonite is not impervious to cultural trends and, despite all the babies crying on Sunday mornings now, we could face a similar population collapse down the road.

Headlines about record-low fertility rates in the US or an unprecedented population collapse in another nation might seem irrelevant to our own situation.  But they can also give some indication of the patterns, telltale signs and changes in behavior that come before such events.

I’ve heard people say that we, as conservative Mennonites, are “50 years behind society” and there seems to be some truth to that.  I know with the advance of technology (like that which makes this blog possible) the pace of change is now quicker than most would have imagined a generation ago.

The conditions that allowed the Mennonite tradition to continue for hundreds of years are disappearing, and quickly.  It does not seem we are in an especially strong position to cope with the new social, economic and technological realities.

This generation could very well be the last.

Here are some factors that could determine where things go from here…

#1) We grow mostly because we have big families and convert our own children.  Like it or not, “Mennonite” is an ethnic group—complete with unique genetic disorders and a game based on our common surnames.  Yes, we do have some converts from the “community folks” and yet most of us came from Mennonite or other established Anabaptist stock.  If our birth rates were to continue to drop (as they have been amongst Mennonites in North America), then there will likely be some problems down the road.

#2) Marriage is being postponed and even avoided altogether, thereby decreasing birth rates.  Mennonites seem to be taking cues from society when it comes to committed relationship.  But, unlike society, we do not have children outside of marriage and therefore our postponing of marriages means older mothers and fewer children, and that is assuming they will marry eventually.  I just had a young woman (maybe mid-twenties) ask me to do a blog to advise her and her friends on how to tell pesky guys to get lost—not an unusual sentiment.  It seems women from conservative backgrounds are becoming less interested in marriage and motherhood, and that is a death knell to a church that can’t bring in more than an occasional convert from outside our own existing gene pool.

#3) The feeder system from Old Order groups and elsewhere could dry up.  It is not a big secret that Mennonites migrate from conservative to liberal.  My own church has lost many born into it and the casualties have always been offset with those gained from other groups more conservative than our own, or those escaping expensive land prices in overdeveloped Lancaster County.  But this means of growth via a continued supply from upstream (or downstream?) is not guaranteed.  It could change as economic pressures increasingly encroach on the Old Order lifestyle.  It is harder to support big families with higher land values, a tougher regulatory environment, rising healthcare costs, etc.  We can’t count on migrants for growth.

#4) Urbanization and loss of an agricultural lifestyle results in cultural change.  My grandparents moved up out of the Franconia Conference territory (near Philadelphia) in the 1960s to begin farming where the land was cheaper and roads less congested.  My grandparents have remained relatively unchanged in the way they dress since that time.  However, their friends “back home” have changed dramatically both in dress and perspective.  There are still a small number of “breakaway” conservatives in that region, but the main body of Mennonite churches there are extremely progressive and their trends could give us some indication of our own future.

#5) The decline of meaningful brotherhood and rise of alternatives reduces interest.  The Amish were right to identify transportation technology as a threat to community.  We might pride ourselves for having stronger communities than the church down the road (a disputable claim) and yet would we compare favorably to prior generations?  I know that even in my own three-decade life span there has been a dramatic change.  We seem less closely knit and more quick to leave for the church up the road rather than come together as one community of diverse members.  We do more world travel, have more activities for every specialized interest or age group, and are kept very busy.  However, we are also fragmented with less vertical integration, more homeschooled children, and less everyday connection—resulting in weaker communities.  Our communities could eventually disintegrate completely as they lose relevance.

#6) Lack of foresight and appropriate faithful preparation is endemic.  Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is because nobody else is talking about this.  We are chronically unprepared for change.  It seems many conservative Mennonites have their heads buried in the sand (or simply buried in day-to-day business and family affairs) and do not see trends coming down the pike.  There appears to be very little effort on the part of the ordained leadership to account for changes in culture (or technology) and even less effort to respond in a positive or productive manner.  Few advocate for a faithful and deliberate approach to problems.  We miss opportunities to increase our effectiveness because we do not utilize the greater means available to us.  We perish for lack of vision.

#7) In the void of thoughtful preparation, what results is only fearful reaction and hasty retreat.  Mennonites, like other Christian fundamentalist groups, began to withdraw from strategic high ground after being blindsided by the pushback against the state endorsement of religion in public schools and the rise of secularism.  Many decry, “They took prayer out of school!” but the sad reality is they did not remove prayer and a faithful witness from schools—we did!  We trembled like King Saul facing the Philistine giant and removed our children and influence.  We did not read 1 John 4:4, “greater is he that is in you, than he is in the world,” and believe.  It is little wonder why nobody believes us when we try to convince them of our great God.

#8) Our missions are often without purpose and out of touch.  I know a young woman (a very sweet person and sincere Mennonite) who told me, “hearts don’t change,” in response to a circumstance outside her experience.  I was astonished at the cognitive dissonance on display and it made me wonder why she was spending thousands of dollars to be at IGo Adventures and Spouse Seeking Institute in Thailand.  It reminds me of the time when we formed a committee at my church to discuss local missions where mailing out more tracts seemed to be the idea with most traction and nothing practical ever came of the committee.  Needless to say, I am not very optimistic about our abilities to do effective outreach.

Is a Mennonite population collapse in North America inevitable?

I don’t know.

I’m not expecting our complete extinction.

I’m pretty sure the Mennonite name will continue on in one form or another.

For instance, we do have a list of genetic disorders that will carry on our legacy.

But, as a religious culture and tradition?

I believe that depends.

It depends on how we approach the issues listed in #1-8 above.

Will we address problems head-on and work through them deliberately or be blindsided?

Will we adjust our thinking and adapt our methods as needed?

Or will we (like the dying Shaker movement) use hope as a strategy?

Nothing is written in stone yet.  But I do know that the conservative Mennonite culture is a frustrating place for innovative and forward-thinking people.  Old habits, functional fixedness, inability to think outside the box and a “don’t rock the boat” mentality all stand in the way of a faithful and vibrant future.

We need to ask and answer the hard questions rather than avoid them.  We should be taking note of trends, and be confronting them collectively as a group.

Notice a growing number of older singles?

Look into the Moravian option or at the very least reconsider the faithless courtship teachings that have created the current mess.  There is no reason why we should pretend there’s nothing that can be done.

Wonder why our missions are ineffective?

It could be that we are isolating our children rather than trusting God and teaching them to live in fear rather than faith.  They can’t empathize or understand anyone outside the Mennonite culture.

Where do we go from here?

It is up to you.  But, if you don’t want to be the last Mennonite standing, I suggest it is time to remove the stale items from the shelves and introduce some fresh ideas.

Change is inevitable.

Be proactive.

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Baltimore: Race, Rage, and Reality

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As fires rage in Baltimore, my thoughts go to the many good people of all races harmed by those who excuse their own destructive and abusive behavior. Mob violence only adds to injustice.

A (Completely Open and Honest) Conversation About Race and Violence

Many, including President Obama, have urged a conversation on race.  I have avoided speaking in terms of black and white because I didn’t want to feed existing prejudices.  Unfortunately, by my silence, I am also feeding into a dangerous ignorance about the root causes of violent behavior.  There is a real elephant in the room when it comes to discussion of race and statistics, here’s a part of it:

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It seems to me there could be a connection between that and the disproportionate violence here:

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And this is how it breaks down as far as who is murdering who:

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Media Fueled Ignorance and the Bigger Threat to Black Lives

A few weeks ago I read an article, “I Fear for Our Black Men,” and then began reading the comments in response.  I was shocked.  Instead of shared sympathy from other black women there was a lot of anger towards black men.  From what I gather the complaint is that when a police officer harms a black man it is an outrage and a cause for civil unrest, but when a black man beats his wife or girlfriend nobody cares:

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Why do we focus on stories about men being victims of police and yet ignore a far bigger problem of women and children victimized by men? Police brutality, while a matter of real concern, is a drop in the bucket of violence in general society and the black community. And the real disproportion is how much attention is focused on their failures rather than the bigger problems. It is straining on the gnat while swallowing the camel.

Which leads me to the topic of government and media complicity.  Much is said about disproportionate arrest statistics or incarceration rates.  But very little is mentioned about the disproportionately higher levels of violence I highlight above.  Apparently we are supposed to obsess on the race only as an explanation and ignore all other factors—factors like resisting arrest, criminal records, dysfunctional homes, etc.

Why Not Build Identity Around Good Behavior Instead of Race?

I would rather talk about behaviors than race.  I would rather good people of all races identify with other good people of all races.  However, since shared race is how some people choose to build their identity, then I need to address the issue of racial tribalism directly: If you take the side of a person simply because they share your racial tribe identity, then you need to take complete ownership of the bad they do as well and you are a partner in it. 

But I would rather we didn’t do that.  I say we lose the tribalism motif.  I say we stop focusing all of our attention on race and historical grievance.  I say we start to address current behavior instead.  That is fairer.  It is fairer because the vast majority of people (all races) are not criminals.  If we are not criminals we should not lump ourselves together with bad actors and defend them simply because we share their skin tone.

L-O-V-E

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Love.  It is a four letter word.  It is something often talked about, a thing sought after by most people, but seemingly rarely understood. 

I am speak specifically about the love that is the bond between two people.  It is something elusive, difficult to define and mysterious in some ways, but a very real part of our human existence.

I’m sure there are as many perspectives on love as there are people.  However, I can think of three main categories that describe tendencies or common landing spots for many people when it comes to the topic of love.

A Cynical (Scientific) View of Love

This is the idea that reduces love to a function of biology.  It is hard to deny sexual attraction as a factor in who people select and who they reject as potential partners.  Base desires (like those described crassly in this article) could seem to explain love away as little more than two people acting in their own mutual self-interest or selfishness.

This is jaded view.  It is backed by scientific evidence.  Statistics do show that factors like height, economic status and appearance do play a significant role.  It would be easy to conclude that who we love is a mere product of pheromones, playing ‘the game’ right and nothing more than that.  It is not an idea without merit.

A ‘Romantic’ (Emotional) View of Love

This is the love of middle school girls (pardon the stereotype) and those starry-eyed idealists who never mature.  This is the territory of the “meant to be” people who confuse their current feelings with “happily ever after” fantasies.  I say fantasies, because I’ve seen these types of relationships based on initial attraction and tingly feelings fail miserably.

Certainly some of these relationships do survive and grow.  But I put the word romantic in apostrophes because this is a very shallow and childish view of love.  It is also a view of love that leads to disappointment both for the prince(sse)s who discover Mr(s) Perfect isn’t actually and also for those who never do find ‘the one’ and miss opportunities right under their nose.

A ‘Christian’ (Transcending) View of Love

Love is a choice.  This goes against conventional and popular ideas of love that put emphasis on the feelings, predestined and chemical side of things.  It is an idea that we can rise above animal instincts, that there is an aspect of our reality not determined by fate and that love can be something more.

I use apostrophes around Christian because the behavior many who profess faith is better described by the views of love I listed prior.  Christian love is supposed to follow the example of Jesus Christ and self-sacrifice.  Sure, some may hide their self-seeking under a layer of righteous sounding excuses and rationales, but underneath the religious veneer there is nothing that separates them from their secular counterparts.

Higher Love Requires Sacrifice

The appropriate Christian view of love centers on commitment over immediate feelings and base sexual urges.  It is not something defined by fleeting teenage hormones or unrealistic Disneyland expectations, but something that develops and slowly grows stronger over time.  It is a mature kind of love that looks beyond outward appearance and sees a heart.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV)

The views of love that focus on youthful passions is not the kind of love I seek.  I do not want love that is actually lustful desire nor that based on some fairytale perfectionistic delusion.  Instead, the love I see as worth study and emulation is that of an old couple. 

I think of my grandparents who have seen each other through the best and worse of life.  They have a love built on time, experience and wisdom.  They have remained faithful to each other despite their quirks, mistakes and shortcomings.

I sometimes wonder if this kind of love is even possible in this impractical and superficial age.  Still I do hold out hope.

God bless!

Amish Lies: I read it on the internet…, part 2

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I was not planning to do a blog about immunization and autism.  However, an article posted by a social media friend, along with comments from US Senator Rand Paul made recently, prompted my response.  The article makes two claims about Amish, immunization and autism (presented in questions) in the title; and both claims turn out to be false. 

Claim: Amish Do Not Vaccinate

It seemed plausible at first brush, especially given that this small Christian sect mandates an austere lifestyle and rejects many modern conveniences, that they would also not vaccinate.  However, I have an advantage in that I know some Amish people.  But, more significantly, I have a sister (Dr. Olivia K. Wenger, MD) who led a study on Amish and their attitudes towards vaccinations. 

The research of Dr. Wenger and her colleagues, although addressing primarily the opinions of Amish parents about vaccinations and not vaccination rates, is sufficient to disprove the idea that Amish do not vaccinate.  This is some of what they found:

“Among 359 respondents, most (68%) stated that all of their children had received at least one vaccine, and 14% of those surveyed said their children had received no vaccines.”

Amish, in fact most who responded in the study cited above, do vaccinate.  So the idea that Amish do not vaccinate is a myth and lie.  That false claim alone is enough reason to dismiss any other claim found in the article, but in case you are unconvinced, I will address the other claim in the title as well.

Claim: Amish Do Not ‘Get’ Autism

The anti-vaccination article claims there are only three known cases of autism amongst Amish people.  Again, I could’ve accepted this as valid, but mostly because there’s a strong possibility of autism being undiagnosed in this community that is as insular and closed as the Amish community.

However, this too was easily refutable despite no studies directly addressing the topic.  I found research, by Dr. D. Holmes Morton, MD and others, that triples the number of cases of Amish children with autism symptoms:

“In March 2006, Drs. Kevin
Strauss, Holmes Morton and others documented 9 autistic Amish children, which could raise the autism rate of Lancaster Amish community Olmstead supposedly investigated to almost 1/5,000 all by themselves.”

So, both claims are untrue based in readily available evidence.  Unfortunately stories like this are posted as true over and over again by those who are anti-vaccination or sympathetic.  It is soaked up as proof of a link between autism and vaccines, yet it is demonstrably false information.

If your primary cause is truth, then carefully vet your sources!

As a believer in individual freedom, religious liberty and one who is respectful of conscience, I am doubly offended by articles like this.  Quite frankly I am embarrassed to see these types of spurious claims circulated by those associated with my political leanings and religious faith.

Yes, opposition to vaccinations crosses political and religious lines, but is often a topic of conversation amongst my Libertarian and Christian peers.  That some of them regularly repeat this sort of thing as legitimate or present it without question is a source of serious frustration for me.  It does a disservice to even good questions about vaccinations.

Nothing is gained by linking falsehoods to what is true.  If anything, people who are not ignorant of science will ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and reject all that is associated with the falsehood.  In a world awash with information, why should they waste time on a source that lied to them once and/or doesn’t carefully vet their sources?

“Do not spread false reports.”  (Exodus 23:1a)

I realize not everyone is a scientific or critical thinker.  I myself struggle with the discipline required for serious research and that is part of the reason I would not make a career of it.  That said, we do need to take responsibility for the information we disseminate online and owe others our due diligence verifying claims with reliable sources before repeating it.

Sadly, anonymous articles with sensational headlines garner more attention than these unsung heroes who are actively creating solutions for sick Amish children.  There are sources far more reliable than an article that does not even include the name of the author.  Professionals like Dr. Morton and Dr. Wenger have dedicated their careers to studying Amish genetics and medical disorders. 

Footnote: I cite secondary sources for the research of Dr. Wenger and Dr Morton, but if you want to read the original studies, the links are below:

Underimmunization in Ohio’s Amish: Parental Fears Are a Greater Obstacle Than Access to Care

Recessive symptomatic focal epilepsy and mutant contactin-associated protein-like 2.

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.

(Click here for more Martyr’s Mirror images)

Height Privilege is Overrated

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There’s no denying the advantages of being tall. 

Tall people are able to reach higher to get something off the top shelf and can see over a crowd.  It is a competitive advantage in many sports where factors like wing span or vertical leap can potentially earn millions and worldwide popularity.

It is a distinct social advantage to be tall.  Height seems to increase a candidates chances for winning elections, statistics show that taller men fare better in wage earning and in attracting female attention.  It is historical too, tall men seem to have been admired since at least the time of king Saul:

“Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2)

Height is a factor in how people judge qualifications and character.  Short men who gain power are besmirched with the ‘Napoleon complex’ label to describe them.  I can’t imagine a tall man being called a weasel or rodent.  Furthermore, why is person lacking character called a “low life” or an insult to “belittle” a person?

This is obviously systemic discrimination and an insidious prejudice that seeps into the very way we construct language, right?

According to a Slate article, “Short Changed,” the proof is in the numbers:

“Economists have known for a long time that it pays to be tall. Multiple studies have found that an extra inch of height can be worth an extra $1,000 a year or so in wages, after controlling for education and experience. If you’re 6 feet tall, you probably earn about $6,000 more than the equally qualified 5-foot-6-inch shrimp down the hall.”

Armed with this knowledge, one could peg many things lacking in their life to their not being tall, they could claim their leadership skills have been overlooked because they were shorter than another candidate or claim their ambitions would be cast in a more favorable light if they had been accompanied by a 6′-2″ commanding presence.  A single guy of shorter stature could accuse women of being superficial and small-minded for rejecting him and could possibly be right.

But this also gives a lame excuse for lack of effort and honesty…

Maybe a guy is short and a jerk?

Or he’s not actually qualified despite his oversized ego?

Statistics tell us a story and they probably do indication some slight injustice towards short men.  But some damage could be self-inflicted as well.  When a person assumes they are handicapped or victims of discrimination they can react in a way that damages their own reputation and the conditions they create for themselves cause their own disadvantage.  If taller men have a psychological edge, then shorter men may be more prone to inferiority complex and a lack of confidence that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Life isn’t fair and there is no simple solutions to correcting these types of subtle injustices.  Measures taken to fix privileges of height based in overall statistics would likely create only another level of injustice if other disadvantages were not also considered.  How can we decide the benefits of beauty so that ugly people are properly compensated or determine what was a product of simple lack of trying?  Should we punish those naturally confident to make life fairer for those of timid disposition?  It is impossible to right every wrong.  It is hard to find who owes who when all things are taken into account.

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Nick Vujicic and Kanae Miyahara

My advise is to use disadvantages (real or perceived) as motivation rather than as an excuse to fail.  Nick Vujicic, pictured above with his wife, was not only born short, but he also has no legs and arms, but that didn’t doom him to a life of despair. 

Some of us have likely been discriminated against more than others on the basis of our height, age, gender, weight, ethnicity, race or beauty, but it should never be our excuse to hide behind.  We all have unique challenges, but these challenges we face can prove our strength of character and overcoming these giants will be to our credit.

It is interesting that the man who was picked to lead after king Saul (who had turned out to be an irresponsible and jealous man) was not picked for his unusual height or beauty:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “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)

David, the king who followed Saul’s reign, despite flaws, had courage and made no excuses.  David’s claim to fame was slaying the giant Goliath who had taunted Saul and his army to a contest that nobody including the tall king was willing to take on.  What David lacked compared to Saul in stature or notable appearance he made up for with faith and a good heart.

Short or tall it is better to be a David (or married to one) than a Saul.  Heart trumps height even if nobody but God notices.  So make no excuses and take on the challenges before you without fear or doubt.

Statistics hate men…and police too?

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If I were to tell you that one category of American is twenty-seven times more likely to be killed by police, would you sense an injustice?

Well, it is true that men were twenty-seven times more likely to be killed by police than women in the years between 1988 and 1997.  In fact, according to the NCBI data, of those killed by police from 1979 to 1997 of them 97% were male.

I suppose we could conclude from the statistical data that men are victims being systematically slaughtered by the law enforcement agencies.  But, that would likely be the wrong conclusion and I believe most of us can come up with theories as to why men are more likely to be killed by police than women that do not include a nefarious plot or even include mention of anti-male sexism.

Men are typically more testosterone driven and aggressive.  Men are also probably more likely to be involved in criminal behavior.  Men are killed more often by police because they are more likely to be involved in activities that put them at risk of being killed.  I could spend time proving those statements, but I think most people do not need further proof because it is fairly obvious and understood without needing to go into great depth.

There is another ‘endangered’ group of people that includes men, women and minorities.  This group is those who respond to our calls for help, they are tasked with bringing law breakers to justice and the people we complain about when their serving their duty involves enforcing laws pertaining to us.  This group is those who are police officers.

According to one statistical analysis I found, more than ten per 100,000 police officers are killed in the line of duty each year.  In a recent column Michelle Malkin gave this breakdown of the numbers:

“The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) reports that a total of 1,501 law-enforcement officers died in the line of duty during the past ten years, an average of one death every 58 hours, or 150 per year.”

But, how many, one may ask in retort, are killed by police per year?

Reliable statistics are hard to find on police homicides.  However, from what I have found, from those trying to fill in the gap of information, is that around one thousand people are killed by police per year.  In a population of around 316 million people that works out to be around 0.31 people killed per 100,000 people living in the US.  So, combined and compared, police are over thirty-two times more likely to be killed by us than we are to be killed by them.

Understandably, police have chosen a career that increase the chance they will encounter violence and the occasional innocent person who is gunned down had less of a choice.  However, the vast majority of those killed by police have made choices that have increased their likelihood of a violent encounter and in most likely could’ve avoided the outcome had they employed a bit of restraint themselves.

The real tragedy in recent cases that have been deemed newsworthy where young men have been killed by police is the absence of conversation on more obvious reasons.  The mainstream media is quick to point out a possible racial motive, but fail to mention all of the other factors from culture to behavior that have an influence over outcomes.  We do a great disservice to both police and young men by claiming that this is a matter of systematic oppression.

It is not a matter of oppression or sexism that men are vastly more likely to be killed by police than women.  No, it is a matter of men being more likely to do things that lead them to violent encounters and to fix that we need to encourage men to work out their problems differently.  Similarly, disproportions between men of different races may also be explained by other factors rather than by oppression or racism.

I do not believe we should ignore statistics nor should we downplay history either.  However, if we are to have a conversation, we should make it an honest and fair conversation.  We should not just be discussing police abuses, but we should also be discussing fatherless homes, cultural glorification of violence, the idea that manhood means avenging all insults and a mentality of blaming circumstances rather than overcoming them.

The real injustice is that we apply a different logic or reasoning when it comes to considering the statistics that show men are disproportionately more likely to be killed by police than women.  If we would apply the same logic and reasoning we would be holding ‘male lives matter’ signs and creating hashtags like #alivewhilemale or #crimingwhilefemale would be trendy.

And, yes, apparently women do get away with criminal behavior.  That is, at least at DWI checkpoints where men are disproportionately selected despite not being more likely to drink and drive.  From the article linked:

“A surprising study finds women have the advantage when it comes to DWI checkpoints. They are more than 3 times less likely to get singled out for inspection.”

Encouraging outrage will likely only contribute to a continuing cycle of violence.  At very least angry protests or promotion of mistrust and hatred for police is not a solution.  We need less dividing people into categories of blue, black or white and more discussion of factors other than race or gender that have an influence.

More understanding, more truth and love all around is what we need.