By Regina Shands Stoltzfus
I believe that peace is possible, and that justice is something that can happen. As a peace studies professor, former pastor and occasional preacher, I revisit these beliefs frequently because I also believe in telling the truth, as best as I know it. And if I didn’t believe that this messed up world that is experienced so harshly by so many could change, I wouldn’t teach and preach the things that I do.
Yet, I don’t believe these possibilities every day. Some days I believe it because it is what gets me to put one foot in front of the other. Many, many days I believe it because I see people doing the work – justice making liberatory works in action. I believe it because as I look at the historical record and think about how my experience of being a Black woman in this country is different from my mother’s and from my grandmother’s experiences. I know that change is possible, and change is what we seek when we work for peace.
But mostly I believe it because I have no other choice but to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to show up for my students in the classroom and be the one who helps fan the flames of their own hope, their own quest for a world within which they can flourish instead of being diminished. My job with them is a tricky one. Because they are young and energetic and full of the same kind of hope I had when I was twenty. I recognize and honor the power behind that exuberance. A lot of times I miss it. Yet I also wouldn’t trade this stage in my life, and the things I’ve learned about being in the struggle for the long haul.
When I first started doing anti-racism work, my children were young and our family lived in a multi-racial neighborhood and went to a multi-racial church, the church that I was raised in. I have never given up on that spark that was ignited in me simply by being in community with people who were doing something so many thought was impossible.
I have been doing anti-racism/anti-oppression work for three decades now, and believe me, it often seems fruitless. The babies that I had when I started are now grown, and some of them have babies of their own. I would be lying if I said I didn’t fear what might happen to them if at any point someone feels they are “out of place” or “threatening.” What keeps me going? Not only my fear, but my love for them. My community. Having co-conspirators to walk with me. Knowing that when I need to step back to gather my wits, to refresh, or to just be – I know that there are other people who are standing in – not my place but their place. We do this work together.
Historians remind us that to understand the future we must know the past. This seems especially critical now, when voices warn about the supposed dangers of examining the past or spread accusations that the past we wish to understand did not actually happen. Critical Race Theory is the bogeyman of the day, much as the Civil Rights Movement was in the 1960s. While we laud the CRM and its heroes (so many more names than MLK Jr and Rosa Parks) misty-eyed nostalgia can cloud the truth. Parks becomes mythologized as a tired seamstress who unwittingly sparked a freedom movement, and King’s own words are twisted into messages he never meant to convey.
Justice work is resistance work. In the context of many of our faith communities, it is resisting the idea that some of us were created as lesser beings, and it is resisting the systems and structures that perpetuate and sustain harmful hierarchies. For me, it is living fully into the notion that I am, that we are created in the very image of the Divine. It is the assurance that God has made manifest God’s own self, and delights to be in shalom community with us.
Remembering both ways of thinking about embodiment – the belief by some that I am less than, and the truth that I am – we are created in God’s image – is critical. In the summer of 2019, four generations of my family were able to gather together in Washington, DC, where my parents live. While there, we visited the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum encompasses so much of the beauty and the horror of the African and African American presence in the Americas. What stays with me the most is the small room, tucked away from the crowds, that contains the original casket of Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched in Money, Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, had her child laid in the glass topped casket so the world could see what happened to him. (Till’s body was exhumed for an autopsy many years after his death, and the original casket donated to the museum by the family.)
I had long known the story of Till, his death and his open casket funeral. In that small room at the museum, where no photos are allowed per the family’s request, I realized once again the magnitude of Mamie Till Mobley’s gift to the world – to look at the mangled body of her son, this son created in the image of the Divine, and dare us to see him. We must not look away.
Regina Shands Stoltzfus currently teaches at Goshen College in the Peace, Justice Conflict Studies (PJCS) and Bible, Religion and Philosophy (BRP) departments. She is co-founder of the Roots of Justice Anti-Oppression program (formerly Damascus Road Anti-Racism Program).
Co-author with Tobin Miller Shearer of the newly published (Herald Press, November 2021) book “Been in the Struggle: Pursuing an Anti-Racist Spirituality.”