Nonconformity has been emphasized in different ways in our society, but strangely it frequently failed to nurture Christian lives capable of resisting the racialized forces and patterns of this world. For many mainstream American evangelicals, the proof of their nonconformity resides in their Christian-stamped lives. By this, many mean their regular attendance at Christian services, their social networks with Christian friends, their devouring of Christian books, their delight in listening to Christian bands, and if truly devout and pious, their adorning of Christian shirts and hats. However, for many Anabaptists, this kind of nonconformity practice reminds them too much of Christendom and not enough of the life and teachings of Jesus. It has a veneer of Christianity but its core is not necessarily rooted in discipleship to Jesus leading to enemy love, truth-telling, hospitality, peacemaking, simplicity, and contentment with life. Communities that participate in the Anabaptist tradition have tended to have a much stronger history of emphasizing nonconformity in their lives together.
Since our Christian practice is done in history, our discipleship and community traditions will always bear those marks. Certainly this is the case when we gaze at Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities. There one finds the most dramatic kinds of Anabaptist nonconformity, which continue to confuse and entertain mainstream America. As the “quiet in the land,” they have certainly lived in ways that make them visibly distinct in society. Horses and buggies, no electricity, shoo-fly pie, simple attire, and a copy of Martyr’s Mirror are among the many characteristics that many of us on the outside know about these communities. While many interpret them as being anti-technology, it might be more helpful to understand them as not buying into the lie of modernity and the lure of materialism, as well as being patient and present with one another in community. This does not negate the ways that legalism and unhelpful practices may have creeped into their traditions. Rather, it recognizes that they are doing more than just being “stuck” in a past era, but are consciously in the twenty-first century making determined choices as a community about what they will prioritize and value, and what they believe may deter them from the things that matter most.
And yet, when we consider Anabaptist nonconformity in the United States, we can only feel discouragement and disappointment for the ways these discipleship communities, whether Old Order or contemporary, have also been swept up by the racialized patterns of this world. In fact, it is precisely the lack of theological imagination for the practice of nonconformity in the United States that reveals the degree to which race has bound and confined American Christian life. For both Old Order and General Conference Mennonites, and in most cases even more so for the Brethren in Christ, the early twentieth century was a time of crippling adherence to our racialized society. Mennonite historian, Tobin Miller Shearer, has described the years from 1918-1943 as an era that “involved deliberate segregation, overt participation in the racial order, and initial resistance to change.” In fact, he reveals that “Even as they sought to separate from the influences of a world they deemed sinful, (Old) and General Conference Mennonites followed the example of secular society by practicing racial segregation.” Ironically, this period represents a moment when the importance of nonconformity still remained vital and when many Anabaptists had believed they had been successfully living separate and distinct lives in contrast to the world around them. While the contemporary Mennonite church has become much more racially diverse nationally today, nonconformity remains an untapped Christian practice for engaging our racialized society. The Brethren in Christ are even more racially homogenous, and this probably reflects its own quicker journey towards assimilation into white dominant culture.
In our current twenty-first century moment, the character of our racialized society has risen to the surface as we witness police brutality and protest, disproportionate treatment based on race in our legal system, a growing gap of wealth along racial lines, the re-segregation of our schooling system, and most importantly, a Christian church that has not only been conformed to our racialized society, but that has unfortunately been the most powerful force in conforming our racialized society. That is, when we get intellectually honest about what has happened in this land over the last 400 years, we must confess that the (white) American church has not typically been dragged into a racialized logic and life against its will, but it was white Christians who primarily organized and reorganized our society by race. As such, the American church first needs to be born again, and then it needs to discover the liberating gift of nonconformity as an ongoing practice within our racialized world.
In this paper, I will make the case for nonconformity as an essential Christian practice for our racialized world. I will do so by demonstrating some of the ways our lives have been deeply racialized, even when done unintentionally and unconsciously. After unveiling the ways our lives are organized by race, the paper will reflect on Paul’s famous challenge to not be conformed to the patterns of this world but instead to find transformation in God’s reign through the renewing of our minds. No fancy interpretations or sleight of hands or reexamining Greek words are necessary. Once we grasp the degree to which our lives are racialized, which I believe most do not see or realize the extent of it, then the fresh spirit-filled word for our time should be readily apparent for those who have ears to hear.
Racialized society and our racialized lives
Before anything substantial can be said about the racialized society we live in we must lay some important ground work on race itself. Most Americans assume they are experts on race and racism, thinking that these subjects are common sense. Many never take the time to realize that the very concept of race is taken for granted in our society in unfortunate ways. We are socialized to think that these categories of humanity are saying something substantial and scientific about the differences between various people groups. However, race is actually not a naturally scientific and biological way of making “others” of humanity. The ways that we have been socialized into these words belie the fact that race is smoke and mirrors, in that it actually obscures human similarity and difference rather than revealing them. In the end, race is merely a human social construct. That is, rather than being a meaningful biological category, it is in fact humanly created.
The way that we think of race is an extremely new phenomenon. If you were to talk to Martin Luther or Menno Simons in the sixteenth century and referred to them as white, they would have had no clue what you meant. Since modernity we certainly have used various physical features and phenotypes to try to categorize race. However, such physical categorizations testify to their own making. Racial pseudo-science like the one-drop rule are ridiculous in themselves. This racial calculation decided that anyone with any evidence of African ancestry was black even if he or she simultaneously had mostly European ancestry making up the majority of their genes. This racial formula seems arbitrary until you understand the function of race and racism in society.
When Americans have conversations about race, most think that the heart of the subject revolves around the black experience, and whether or not black people will ever progress and find equality in this country. With this focus, black people are the primary racial equations to consider, and their choices and behaviors are believed to define our racial progress as a nation. But such ways of focusing on blackness as the central subject of race misses why race was constructed in the first place, and it certainly cannot explain and make intelligible why something like the one-drop rule ever came into being. Similarly, they ignore the more obvious reality that the myth and practice of white supremacy, rather than black choice, is what created the racial injustice.
Fundamentally, race is first and foremost about birthing the myth of a superior people naturally fit and divinely chosen to rule the world. That is, race was fundamentally about white supremacy and superiority over others, for their concrete advantage. Race was used to justify various European groups dominating nonwhite people all over the world. To do so and claim perpetual innocence, Europeans had to become something new. They had to accept a new identity, a new way of moving upon the earth, and a new relationship to black and brown bodies. Western conquest, colonization, slavery, and genocide, followed by new forms of white supremacy and exploitation, from 1492 to the present day, are all part of the long story of race in the modern era. As such, race is not a neutral category of difference but it has always done social and political work. It justifies how we structure and organize our society. Western Europeans chose whiteness. That is, they chose to participate in social dominance at the expense and exploitation of others by adopting a new racial identity. Over time they reinvented themselves. The particularities of German, Irish, or Italian culture, language, last names, and identity was frequently discarded to assimilate into Anglo-Saxon definitions of whiteness. The old died and the new was born. And this new creation in this land was white America. The definition of whiteness, which initially only included Anglo-Saxon Protestants eventually was stretched to include these other European immigrant groups.
The entire society was being structured and organized so that white people could inherit the earth. To be identified as white had tremendous value. It meant you mattered. To be found non-white by anyone was to be forced down the ladder of racial hierarchy. It is not surprising, then, that in the early twentieth century, when some Asian immigrants came to America, they saw how white supremacy functioned. To be white was to be granted full access to societal benefits, including advantages in employment, housing, owning land, as well as having protection under the law and the freedom of mobility not bound by Jim Crow law. So many non-European immigrants went to court seeking white status under the law. The Color of Wealth explains further:
Court decisions on white status were based on a mix of supposedly scientific criteria and the common understandings of the day, leading to a mess of contradictions. Syrians were deemed white in 1909, 1910, and 1915, but not in 1913 or 1914. Asian Indians won white status in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1920, but not in 1909, 1917, or after 1923. The persistence of immigrants in suing for whiteness is evidence of the financial and social benefits that came with white status. After all, no one sued to be considered Asian, much less black.
With that in mind, we should begin to see that implicit in the function of race is its capacity to create categories of hierarchy which advantages some while oppressing and exploiting others. Too often we have meaningless definitions of race and racism that are only concerned about the intent of someone’s heart, but pay no attention to the role race plays in shaping our everyday experiences in society. Moving from thin definitions that only consider if an individual has prejudice or hatred towards another person (which no one can ever prove because they are matters of the heart), we must keep track of how race justifies in our minds the status quo racial realities. That is, it does work. Race justified the forcible removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands and their near genocide because they were deemed “merciless savages” and because white people, as the myth goes, were given the land by God and therefore had the divine right to take it from its original inhabitants. Race does work. Race justified the removal of enslaved Africans from their land and told white people that black bodies needed to be controlled, supervised, and mastered, for their own exploitative good, and so the wealth and economic boom that America experienced was not thought to be unjust or oppressive but within the natural order of things. Race does work. After 250 years of slavery, another 100 years of neo-slavery through the convict leasing system and sharecropping, as well as Jim Crow white supremacy and the lynching of 5,000 black men, women, and children that continued well into the twentieth century and beyond, race continues to do work.
Most people figure that the disparities in the legal system, in encounters with police, in employment, in education, and so on, have nothing to do with 400 years of white supremacy. It is assumed to be a consequence of black pathology. Many people believe that something is wrong with black people and their culture. Race justifies these inequities as having nothing to do with oppression and having only to do with inferior performance. It says black people are lazy, less intelligent, and incapable of keeping up. And to believe that any people group as human beings would not also be in the exact same situation given all that has gone on historically in this land, and all that continues to happen today all across our country, is to believe in a racial lie of black inferiority. Today, just like in previous generations, race does work.
If we are to see more honestly how race does real social and political work in justifying an unjust way of organizing our society, then we must come to terms with our racialized world. And what we will begin to see is that race and racism are not random incidental lapses from our normative post-racial lives, but race shapes our lives in deep and significant ways and in mundane ways that we frequently have not realized. As such, we are socialized from birth into our racial world. To have been socialized in such a way does not require anyone to hate racial minorities. It just means that living with race is like a fish living in water. It is all we know and so we often do not recognize the strange and odd contours of our lives.
One of the most helpful Christian texts to expose and describe our racialized society must certainly be Divided By Faith. The authors (two Christian sociologists) helped articulate some of the peculiarities to look for in a racialized society. They claimed that “the racialized society is one in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socioeconomic inequality are the norm, our definitions of personal identity and our choices of intimate associations reveal racial distinctiveness, and where “we are never unaware of the race of a person with whom we interact.” Along with the signifiers of a racialized society, they also provided a helpful working definition as well: “In short, and this is its unchanging essence, a racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” What is most helpful about this framing is that it helps people who are tempted to think of race primarily as an issue of individual intent to begin seeing the forest and not just the trees. That is, it allows people to see the way our entire society is organized by race and how racial lines significantly affect how people are viewed and treated socially. This means that combating racism should not be centered on trying to discover who the hidden KKK members are in society, as though we can scapegoat them for all our societies’ racial troubles. Instead, it realizes that we all participate in society, and therefore, we all must account for the ways that we either participate in dismantling white supremacy embedded in our systems and lives, or how we passively go along with these racial currents and patterns.
Many people like to think that if they were alive while a seriously oppressive and racist social structure was in place they would resist it. Everyone imagines that if they lived between 1619 and 1865 they would have been abolitionists or would have participated in the Underground Railroad. They would like to think that if they lived in the mid-twentieth century they would have been a civil rights activist. The truth is most white people failed to see and respond faithfully to the injustices happening in their own generation. Most white people for the past 400 years have seen themselves as nice, kind, and generally innocent of any atrocity, even as they accommodated massive oppression all around them in society. This pattern has continued to this day.
Devastating backlash followed the limited gains of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. In 1970, there were around 300,000 inmates in our prison system nationally. However, the numbers began to spike at disastrous and exponential rates. In about three decades, the prison population exploded to about two million inmates. Thorough documentation has shown this has disproportionately affected black males, mostly through conviction for nonviolent drug offenses. Today we have the largest prison population and incarceration rate in the world. However, what people have revealed through research is that white youth actually use and sell drugs at the same rates as black youth. This certainly does not fit our stereotypes, but white people are mostly selling to white people and black people are selling mostly to other black folk. Yes, our drug habits are as racially segregated as the rest of our lives. The reality is that while drug usage is very similar, the policing, prosecution, and sentencing vary dramatically in different neighborhoods. There never was a “War on Drugs” in white neighborhoods as there was in poor black neighborhoods. White kids coming home from school are not routinely harassed, stopped and frisked, or humiliated by police officers in their own neighborhoods. And when they are caught with drugs, the evidence shows that white youth are much more likely to get a slap on the wrist while black youth frequently have the book thrown at them for the exact same offense. White youth are often seen as just innocently experimenting while black youth are described as thugs destroying the fabric of society. There are deep racial disparities in the actual sentencing as well. At every stage in the process with the policing and judicial system, there are great disparities that allow white college students to throw wild parties with very little concern for the impact on their lives while many black youth are permanently being denied access to meaningful life opportunities for the rest of their lives for the same crime.
We now have mass incarceration in our nation through a prison industrial complex, replacing former systems of control over black bodies like slavery and then the convict leasing system and chain gangs. This is a deeply racialized system. Again, we are talking about disproportionate and discriminatory policies that encourage harassment and physical abuse. There are disproportionate and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisks, or searches. The arrests are disproportionately harming black and brown people, followed by disproportionate sentencing for the same crime. And if that were not enough, there are even discriminatory policies for those who have served their time because people are legally allowed to discriminate against returning citizens with convictions in employment and housing, and in many states they have even taken away their right to vote after serving time.
For an example of the impact that this has on people’s everyday lives, consider a university study that explored the impact of race and a criminal record on people entering the initial stages of the employment process. They measured positive responses, which could be anything from a call back to getting hired on the spot. What they found was that white men without any conviction had a 34 percent positive response. In contrast, white men with a conviction had a 17 percent positive response, which means having a conviction cut their chances of employment at the first stage of the process in half. More troubling than this was the revelation that black men without any conviction at all had a 14 percent positive response. Yes, that means white men with a conviction fared better than black men without a conviction. Let that sink in some. Finally, for those black men that also had a conviction they only had a five percent positive response. This demonstrates how blackness and criminality, which our society encourages through its systems, become stigmas placing some people in permanent outcast status in our racialized world.
While there are a lot more studies like that one, demonstrating the depths of our racialized society, it is important for us in the church to also do some self-examination around the racialized character of our lives. By now we probably all have heard the cliché that “Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week.” This continues to generally be a true sentiment, but in many ways it misses and avoids a much more significant problem. Rather than only examining the life of the church during an hour or two once a week, we ought to be concerned with the witness of the church 24/7. On one hand, the church is frequently looked upon by the world as a den of bigots and hypocrites that do not know how to love their neighbors very well. But my concern gets even more to the root of things, which is that the nature of our lives are too often thoroughly patterned by race, whether we realize it or not.
Again, it is not just the society as a whole, or even how we gather as Christian communities that is racialized; our very lives are racialized. Only the willingness to reject defensiveness and enter into self-examination before God can deliver us from these forces. Consider your own social networks, places of belonging, and cultural engagement. Race has a powerful way of acting like a mechanism or management tool that organizes our lives without us ever realizing it. For most people, their deep social engagement is among people in their own racial demographic group. Race guides us along in our day and lets us know which spaces we belong in and which ones we do not. It identifies which bodies we can intimately get to know and engage and which ones it would be awkward or inappropriate to engage. Race is literally patterning our lives, as it cuts off, limits, or redirects our relationships and bodily movements. Who sits around our dinner table, who we call up regularly to share our lives with on the phone, what music we listen to, and even something as simple as the makeup of the authors of the books on our bookshelves will usually reveal deep and wide racial distinctiveness. This reality is a shock for most people because they did not wake up and decide to perform race in such a way.
We will only begin to understand the inertia and power of the racial formation we have undergone when we come to grips with how our racialized minds shape how we view the world and its inhabitants. Our actual mindsets and frameworks make sense of the society we encounter. When we dare to get introspective, most of us will find deeply racialized minds; that is, we have been raised to make sense of the world in a way that has normalized our racialized world. And that very normalizing of the status quo mostly suggests we have internalized a racial hierarchy as a way of gazing at the bodies of other people. Few examples demonstrate this best than the Clark Doll experiments which were originally done in the 1940s.
The Clark Doll experiments peeked into the hidden and implicit biases of children. They took black children and white children, one at a time; an adult would ask them a series of questions about the white doll and black doll that was in front of them. The interviewer would ask questions like, “Which doll is the good doll?” and “Which doll is the bad doll?” Similarly, they would ask, “Which doll is the pretty doll?” and “Which doll is the ugly doll?” Now this study was first done in the 1940s so few people were surprised by the answers the white children gave back then. Most identified all the positive attributes with the white doll and the negative ones for the black doll. These children had all been socialized at a very young age, because of the depth of the racialized society they lived in, to internalize anti-black sentiments and gaze at these dolls through a lens of white supremacy.
What was surprising during these experiments was the response many of the black children gave when it was their chance to chime in. These young black children also demonstrated high levels of prejudice, but it was certainly not reverse discrimination. Instead something even more terrible was revealed. These kids also expressed anti-black sentiments. When asked which doll is pretty or good, they pointed to the white doll. But when they were asked which doll was ugly or bad, they frequently pointed to the black doll. Many of these black kids had internalized the very same racialized hierarchical mindset. Overall they did not internalize the anti-black sentiments to the same degree as the white children but the experiments clearly showed that to be human in our racialized world made one deeply susceptible to being socialized into having thoroughly racialized minds.
Some might think this is terrible but has very little meaning for today; we assume that we have made tremendous progress and that was the 1940s. Unfortunately, the tragic truth is that this experiment has been repeated in the twenty-first century with very similar results. Both white and black children continue to internalize white supremacist views that predispose them to have anti-black mindsets. The hard reality is that it doesn’t take hatred or animosity to inherit these racial lenses. All we have to do is passively be human in a racialized society, and the inertia of race will do all the socializing work necessary without us even realizing it. Some white parents are shocked when their kids espouse racially prejudicial ideas. It is common for people to say in response, “I don’t know where he or she learned that because we always taught our kids to treat everyone the same.” What they do not realize is that generic and well-meaning platitudes and attempts to teach your children to treat everyone the same fall short of being intentionally and actively anti-racist. Teaching your kids these universal truths must be accompanied with a targeted approach that gets at the specific problems at hand in our society. If a child gets violently sick, I hope their parents would do more than give them Vitamin C because it is good for one’s body; I hope they would have the child’s body diagnosed and then get the particular prescription needed to remedy that particular illness. Similarly, a universal message can be taught, but the racialized society is what will be caught. And as we have seen, the consequences of a racialized gaze can be deadly.
On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice was playing with an Airsoft replica toy gun in the park when someone called the police out of concern. The caller said they thought it might be a toy gun and they believed the person to be a juvenile, but were not sure. Police were dispatched but when they pulled up to the 12-year-old boy, the officers immediately saw him as a threat and shot the child in the stomach. The officers did not attempt to provide first aid to the child and he eventually died from the gunshot wound. This story is devastating in itself, but I tend to wonder how much we underestimate the power of our racialized minds. Many people think that they just go about their day objectively, without having any biases to give us false perceptions of reality. It is routine for police officers to say after shooting a black victim that they “feared for their lives.” While there have been a few times when it seemed like some police officers were coached into saying that, in general I do not doubt their sincerity. My concern is that people are more prone to see black bodies as dangerous and criminal, given our particular racial history, making the task of discerning danger that much more volatile. I do not believe that white police have a greater racial bias than the average American. Most people have deeply racialized minds that encounter black bodies and see danger when there is none, or at least disproportionate to reality. Certainly the way that mainstream society uses racially coded language like calling dead black people thugs rather than at least mourning the loss of a precious life speaks volumes. If we are to view all lives as valuable, we must view black lives as precious, which requires the renewing of our minds.
Nonconformity through holy embodiment and renewed minds
“Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
In this passage, Paul is exhorting the Church to faithfully live as the people of God in a society that entices us in the wrong direction. Paul challenges us to align our bodies and our minds with the active presence and movement of God in creation. It is a Holy Spirit-filled approach to decolonizing our everyday embodiment and mindsets through transformation and renewal. In doing so, we can resist conforming to the hegemonic patterns of society.
Not allowing our embodiment and our minds to be conformed to the dominance, coercion, and hierarchy of our world requires a different kind of discipleship than what we typically engage in. We must make the use of our bodies holy. That is, they ought not to be puppets to the way our society organizes life. Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice suggests that what we do with them actually matters. Christian discipleship is much more than a spiritual journey. Where my body goes, and where it belongs, matters. Where I reside and with whom I live in solidarity matters. That it resists falling in line with the patterns of this world certainly matters. What ways will your body disrupt the racialized patterns of society? How will it make the story of Jesus visible in the age of mass incarceration and while black bodies are routinely subjected to violence and control by the state? Will your body take up the cross and follow Jesus through our racialized world? Paul challenges us to not move along passively in society: do not go along with the flow. This has powerful import for our society so deeply entrenched by 400 years of white supremacy. Participating in the body and form of Christ allows our bodies to be visibly present in the world as a hopeful counter-witness to the things our society normalizes and takes for granted.
We must also renew our minds to see more clearly the things we have normalized. Full transformation cannot happen when your understanding has internalized a way of viewing other people’s bodies without seeing their dignity and worth as creations of God. The moment you allow your mind to view the world through the gaze of dominance, from the view of Herod or Caesar, you have already surrendered your capacity to know and see things from the standpoint of our crucified Messiah. Adopting or internalizing dominant cultural ways of knowing is a tempting replacement for the wisdom of God. Mainstream perspectives take certain outlooks for granted, and those views might seem like common sense to most people. However, those racially conformed and colonized views will pass away, and what will be left are our transformed lives expressed through faithful embodiment in the way of Jesus and our minds aligned with the truth of the Messiah’s reign. When that happens, we can remember the many Christians in this land who provided us visible witnesses into what a life transformed by God actually looks like when it refuses to conform and accommodate these death-dealing racial patterns. And we also remember those who marred the name of Jesus when they exploited the bodies of others or merely became silent witnesses to such atrocities. May each of those holy memories inspire a needed practice of nonconformity in our own lives and as we gather together in the presence of Christ in our racialized world.
 Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 6.
 Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 112–115.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2015), 34–40.
 Meizhu Lui, The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide (New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2006), 250.
 Michael Emerson, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 7.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY; Jackson, TN: New Press: Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2012).
 Alexander, 6–8.
 Devah Pager, The Mark of a Criminal Record (Madison, WI: Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Madison–Wisconsin, 2002).
Author: Drew G. I. Hart
Drew G. I. Hart is assistant professor of theology at Messiah College, having received his Ph.D. in 2016 from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He is the author of Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (Herald Press, 2016).