The Movement Makes Us Human: An Interview with Dr. Vincent Harding on Mennonites, Vietnam, and MLK

June 14, 2018

activism / books / theology

I recently finished reading Joanna Shenk’s book, The Movement Makes Us Human: An Interview with Dr. Vincent Harding on Mennonites, Vietnam, and MLK, in which she recounts an extensive interview with Harding on those topics.

I’ve known Joanna for several years now; her work with both Jesus Radicals and The Iconocast have been deeply formative for me, and I’ve been deeply fortunate to know her a little, and it’s out of that context that I read this book.

The interview falls into several sections: the Southern Freedom Movement, Mennonites, the black community, nonviolence, whiteness, and building community. It concludes with a couple of articles/presentations Harding wrote as appendixes, which I’d never read before and are themselves brilliant.

This is a short book, but there’s a depth in it that I think makes it well worth the read. I wanted to draw out a few things that were especially relevant to me. At one point, Harding is talking about what it meant when, during the Black Power movement, he asked some white Mennonites what it meant to them when they saw an afro on the cover of Ebony magazine. They felt rejected because the woman wasn’t trying to look like white people.

I don’t think we’ve moved on very far from this. Anyway here’s how he reflects on it:

It seems to me that there was a sense in which, in so much of our engagement over these years – especially these post-WWII years – there’s been that larger cultural struggle for very often very good-hearted, well-meaning white persons to assume that when people of color, or in particular African Americans, go into themselves they are rejecting whites.

And there was a great danger – and I think some of it still exists – of, again, well-meaning whites not understanding that there is something that can be, in the best sense, suffocating about that kind of approach – that “We want you so badly, and would you please come to us and let us come to you on our terms.” And once you suggest that there are maybe other better, more healthy terms, that’s frightening because the agenda is no longer set by you. And so much of the fear, I think, that is deeply engrained in white America is the fear of not being able to set the agenda anymore and having to work out some kind of collaboration – real collaboration that would require everybody to make adjustments.

Relatedly, later in the interview they discuss a time Harding asked a class he was teaching what they thought might be “the gifts of whiteness.” Joanna asks him what he said in response, and he offered his own thoughts:

I’m not sure all that’s involved myself, Joanna, but my assumption is that at this point in history, in the light of especially the last five hundred years or so, what whiteness has meant in that context and particularly in this country – what whiteness has meant and done and not done… Those who carry that identity, at this point, have a very special opportunity, for one thing, to recognize the great destruction that has been wrought by those who have carried a banner of white supremacy. But then to figure out how to undo at least some of the damage and how to create something new out of the chaos, and how to then join with others in a way that white foreparents did not know how to do – that all that is part of what it might mean for whiteness to be seen as a gift in the struggle to overcome white domination.

I find a great deal of responsibility in this, but also a great deal of hope. There’s a space between those things where we can live, where I think we’re called to live.

One of the other sections I found powerful was the discussion on nonviolence. Harding remained a lifelong advocate for nonviolence, but he did it with an empathy for revolutionaries and other oppressed people across the world that, often, white pacifists fail to hold. Joanna asks him about the challenge that CORE and others offered to nonviolence during the freedom movement. The whole discussion is powerful, and has a sustained relevance, for me especially read alongside some of Harding’s speeches that are printed in the book’s appendix, but here’s one of the things I appreciated:

For [Martin], the philosophical base was always there and the religious, spiritual base was always there. But a lot of the language and teaching and organizing had to do with simply the strategy of, “How many guns do we have?” and, “What kind of craziness is it to submit all our women and children and grandparents to the results of our pulling out weapons that are no match at all in number and firepower to our oppressors?”

That was always a part of the argument, coming out of a sense of community. And at the same moment these were not either/or. He was – we were – challenging people to transcend the opponents and not to let the oppressors set the conditions for the struggle.

“You’ve got guns. I’ve got the light of freedom. I’m gonna let it shine.”

On a certain level that’s absolutely ridiculous, but on another level it gets to the truth we say we believe in and where the truth ought to be found.

Speaking of the appendices, as I said there are several of Harding’s speeches printed in the back of the book. I had never read any of them and found them all to be incredible. But my favorite was “I hear them… calling (and I know what it means)” from 1972. In it, he reflects on the communities that have shaped his life, and on the concept of calling. The part that most resonated with me was this:

Callings are strange things. I think I’ve heard a fair number in my time, perhaps fewer than I was supposed to – or maybe it was more; I’m not certain now. Sometimes they proved to be nothing more than echoes bouncing off from other lives (lives I sometimes thought were mine) and passed on their way. Others puzzled me, and led me into ways I do not yet understand. Some I understand and fear. A few – perhaps more than I know – I have followed as far as they led; and some are still moving. Still moving, preparing to join themselves to the sounds of the new summons, and I suspect there are yet borders to cross.

I have a lot of complexity and/or baggage around the word calling that in some ways is “processed” and some ways is not. Reading these thoughts resonated with all the ways I feel that word, and it was so very life giving for me to read it that way.