One of the qualities instilled in me growing up was gratefulness. It was a cardinal rule: Always say “thank you,” and show appreciation for things. In my Mennonite Brethren church we were also taught to show gratefulness to God through prayer. I remember every Sunday one of our pastors offering the “pastoral prayer” and thanking God for things we were grateful for, including sick people that regained health, the coming of rain for our crops and the ability to worship in freedom.
We would also thank God for his financial provision, including for our church programs and the successful completion of a church building or renovation project. And because gratefulness was so important, I never thought to question this. Why shouldn’t we give God thanks when we experienced his financial blessings?
It wasn’t until I started visiting less affluent churches that I started wondering about this. For instance, while in high school I visited a local Hispanic MB church. I loved their vibrant worship and community, and I also couldn’t help but notice the contrast between my church’s facilities and their smaller and less up-to-date church building. Around the same time, I went on my first mission trips to border towns in Mexico and saw an even more dramatic contrast between the living conditions of those church communities and my own.
A question began to tug at me, though I hardly ever let it fully emerge: If the financial blessings enjoyed by my largely white church came from God, why wasn’t he blessing other Christians and churches on an equal measure? Was God favoring us over other churches?
My church community did have some answers to these questions. The main one, which was normally more implied than stated, was that we who were white, and particularly white German-Russian Mennonite Brethren, were harder workers and more resourceful than others. That was why we had more wealth and thus could give more to our church programs and buildings. I wondered if this was true. I also pondered: If we credited our own hard work so, why were we showing gratitude in prayer for God’s “blessings”? I couldn’t quite put together where our hard work ended and God’s blessing began.
I heard another explanation as I got involved in global mission work a few years later. As I traveled more widely, I puzzled over why the U.S. as a whole had such incredible wealth while many countries in which I worked struggled with poverty. Some fellow missionaries had a succinct response for me: Since the U.S. is a “Christian nation” we experience God’s blessing, while nations that follow other religions (even if they have Christian churches) do not. One missions teacher showed statistics contrasting the wealth of some “Christian” Western countries with the poverty of Nepal, a Hindu country. The evidence was clear, he said; when a country honors God it will experience financial blessing.
I couldn’t doubt that this might be possible. After all, in the Old Testament God was pretty clear with Israel that their security and prosperity hinged tightly on if and how they honored him and his covenant. And yet, something didn’t seem quite right. Was it really that simple? Quite aside from the question of what defined a “Christian” country, if we held a microscope to some of the ways that the U.S. made and used its wealth, could we really maintain that this was God’s blessing?
I suppose it was at that point that I became a bit of an agnostic on the question. I didn’t want to leave God out of the equation entirely—I wanted to remain grateful for his blessings, and I knew he was a God who blessed people. And yet it no longer felt right to too quickly say that the financial wealth that I and our churches experienced was from God. There just seemed to be too many other things at work. So, I decided to put the question aside and not worry about it too much.
Listen and learn
That was, until this last year. When our country was recently wracked with racial unrest I, like many of us who are white, was challenged, directly and indirectly, by friends of color to not remain complacent. That was something that I had often done and that I had the ability to do because I was not personally and regularly facing discrimination and racism like my friends were. Would I pull back into my white bubble, or would I stand up and listen, learn and, where appropriate, act? I decided to do the uncomfortable thing: listen and learn.
As I have done so I’ve been challenged in a number of ways. One has been to recognize the various privileges—some might prefer to say advantages—that I have had in my life. In his book White Awake author Daniel Hill says that an important point of growth is to learn to recognize more and more quickly the privileges that we enjoy.
I’ve been trying to do that. And as I have done so, I’ve noticed things.
I’ve noticed, for instance, that when police officers drive past me as I’m walking along, they’ll either look past me or give me a nod or a smile. But that isn’t always the experience of my friends of color, who are sometimes scrutinized or even questioned more closely simply because they are not white.
One of the more difficult things I have had to notice is the nature of the “blessings” that I and white Christians like me, including those in my home church, have enjoyed. I started to see more clearly what many of my friends of color had already long since seen: I and many white Christians and churches have immense advantages in our lives and ministries and not just because we are hard workers or have been especially blessed by God. Rather, it is because we often have a financial head start over others. Or, even if not, we get treated, well, better.
It is simply true that a significant part of the U.S. economy and wealth is enjoyed by white people and historically much of that was made by centuries of slave economy. After slavery was abolished, various forms of economic enslavement kept African Americans in subservient positions of labor which helped build up the wealth of the white community even further. This then has been passed along to subsequent generations in various ways.
But our wealth was built in other ways as well. My own Mennonite Brethren family and many in our churches started building up their wealth on farmland in Oklahoma that was bought for fairly cheap prices, not long after those lands were taken from Native American tribes. That wealth and privilege was developed and passed along. I thus had a head start in my life indirectly and in part because of the cheap land of displaced Native Americans.
What do I do with this?
So, what do I do with this? For one, I continue to appreciate the hard work of my parents and those that came before. But I also recognize that the playing field is not even. As has sometimes been said: White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder. People of color most often have to work even harder and surmount many more obstacles in order to achieve the things that I and my white community have attained.
I also continue to appreciate the things and opportunities I have been given through my family and those that I enjoy because of my whiteness. I now know that there have been times I’ve been hired and treated well by employers and others because I am white. And there is nothing wrong with being treated well. But simply put, the only thing wrong with white privilege is that it isn’t everyone’s privilege. My job, I’m learning, is to do what I can to advocate for and be allies with people of color so that they are treated with the same dignity, opportunities and respect as white people.
What does it mean for those of us who are white, and white Mennonite Brethren, to enter this journey of discovery? I would suggest listening to people of color and the various experiences they have had. Learn openly, without defensiveness, about the things that we as white people haven’t experienced and simply haven’t seen about others and about ourselves.
And be sure to read! Two great books to help with the journey are White Awake by Daniel Hill and The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma. These are white evangelicals who are great and open guides for the rest of us.
I’m still on this journey, and I’m still grateful to God for so many things. But I know that the advantages I have, and the countless people of color that had to suffer to help me have them, isn’t one of them. Those are not “blessings” but rather reasons to lament, pray, listen and seek God. And in doing so, I pray that God may somehow use me—and more of us white Mennonite Brethren—to in some small way help return blessing to those from whom it was stolen.
Darren Duerksen is associate professor of intercultural and religious studies at Fresno Pacific University. He has served in various MB churches and previously served as a missionary with Multiply in the U.S. and India for seven years. He currently attends Prodigal Church (MB) in Fresno, California.