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2015, vol. 69

Dialogue Matters: And Other Ongoing Gifts We Can Receive From Vincent Harding

by Drew Hart

Drew Hart is a PhD candidate at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in constructive theology and ethics with ten years of pastoral ministry experience. He is a regular speaker at churches, colleges, and conferences, and the author of an upcoming Herald Press book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. He tweets with the handle @Druhart and writes for the Christian Century-hosted blog Taking Jesus Seriously.

In 1960, when Vincent Harding moved to Atlanta, he began trying to weld together the ongoing nonviolent activism being lived out by some in the Black Church with the peace witness of the Mennonite Church. This effort became less than a decade long experiment, because Harding would eventually break formal ties with the Mennonite Church. Though his time and effort keeping a foot simultaneously in both the Black community and Mennonite community was fixed should not suggest to us that he no longer had an important role to play in for Mennonite lived faith or that he did not continue to influence the Mennonite Church deeply. In fact, his ongoing legacy for the Mennonite Church lives on today.

When parting ways became more and more inevitable Vincent Harding also increasingly became more and more influential in the Mennonite Church. From my readings, conversations, and observations, it was precisely Harding’s apparent distance and base in the black community while in the Mennonite Church that allowed him to speak more truthfully to Mennonite leaders as well as be heard more receptively from ethnic Mennonite insiders. This is the irony of Vincent Harding’s presence for the Mennonites. It might just be the Mennonite Church’s inability to manage Harding from within that made him a perfect candidate to speak prophetically to this historic peace community.

Some of my interpretation of this reality comes from reading in-between the lines of a phone conversation I had with Dr. Harding prior to his passing. To be fair, I was not a close or long term friend of Dr. Harding. I was introduced to Dr. Harding through a mutual friend, Joanna Shenk. Unfortunately I only had two conversations with him, not realizing how limited a window I had with this great man. The first conversation was very brief and introductory, though we shared contact information and planned to find a time to speak again at length and in-depth. The second time I spoke with him, he was beyond generous with his time, resulting in a very long and meaningful phone conversation that covered a whole range of subjects and stories. Most importantly, he patiently told his story with me and then deeply desired for me to share my own as well. I have come to realize that is classic Vincent Harding, always seeking to be dialogical rather than monological with others. He wanted to receive rather than just give. During our conversation I quickly realized that he was assuming that I was Mennonite myself, given my Anabaptist orientation and my various Mennonite connections. Once he found out that I was not Mennonite, he strangely seemed very pleased to hear that. It wasn’t because he did not want me to engage the Mennonite Church, but he seemed to suggest that I would be more helpful to the Mennonite Church if I was not a Mennonite myself. It was an interesting point he was making at the time, though I didn’t ask him to say anymore. It is only after the fact that I have connected those brief remarks he made with me on the phone with his own experience with the Mennonites.

I can only assume that Dr. Harding looked back on his own life, and his brief participation in the Mennonite Church, and then his following influence after leaving the Mennonite Church, and sought to interpret and make sense of his shifting role for that community. In the Church we often appropriate Jesus’ own words to explain such a phenomenon when we say a prophet is not accepted in his hometown. The kind of help the Mennonite Church needs is outside help. It is the gift of the other that will be most beneficial for Mennonites. And so it was that the more of an outsider Dr. Harding was in his own relationship in the Mennonite Church the more significance he seemed to offer. Even today as we reflect on the significance of Dr. Harding, we can see that in many ways his influence in the Mennonite Church might be greater than it has ever been. Many people are looking for peacemaking and not just pacifism, non-retaliatory love in action and not just non-resistance, and faith informed by the Mennonite Church and beyond, and not just ethnocentric Mennonite thought and practice that refuses to take the traditions of others seriously. Dr. Harding represents the intersections of black faith, Anabaptism, and also broader democratic and dialogical engagement in society, all in one person.

It is becoming clearer and clearer for many people that the Mennonite Church failed to live out its Anabaptist witness in North America for centuries. Despite the complicated history surrounding the Mennonite and Quaker hybrid group that signed an anti-slavery petition in 1688, the Mennonite Church has been overwhelming silent in response to white supremacy and violence in this country. Likewise, as First Nations people were being violently displaced, the Mennonite Church passively stood as onlookers followed by becoming direct beneficiaries to this violent conquest, amassing countless acres of stolen land. Very little has or continues to be said about the direct ongoing advantages Mennonites have received because they never thoroughly opted out of white citizenship and identification in society. During the 400 years of anti-black history in this land most Mennonites found themselves incapable of taking the hard stance of speaking up truthfully to the powers that be while identifying with the victims of the state as was called for. It is for that reason that Vincent Harding’s friend, Dr King, once asked Where have you Mennonites been? It was an appropriate question given the Anabaptist emphasis on following Jesus and the way of the cross which rhetorically remains at the center of Anabaptist teaching. While there certainly were many ways that this could have been lived out, certainly quiet accommodation ought not to have been one of them. Now seems to just as good as any other time for the Mennonite Church to receive the gift of Vincent Harding as much as he received the gift of the Mennonite Church that deeply shaped him at a critical time in his own journey.

The faith experiment that I embody and continue to explore is what I like to call anablacktivism. At the heart of this playful term one finds three components - Black theology, Anabaptism, and activism. When I consider someone that lived out concretely what Anablacktivism was all about I conjure up the life of Vincent Harding. In his life Harding weaved the gift of Anabaptist witness with his activism and growing Black consciousness in the 60s in a powerful way. His universal love for humanity drove his democratic and dialogical inclinations and his particular love for Black people and those oppressed shaped his commitments, activism, and scholarship. At the center of Anablacktivism is the very dialogical spirit that Vincent Harding had that didn’t just want to be a talking head but sought to enter into dialogical conversation with others as human beings. That is others perspectives were a gift, and without receiving and being transformed by others we are incomplete. As the Mennonite Church has continued its trajectory assimilating into white North American dominant culture since 1683 onward, from which its social disposition in social hierarchy seems contradictory to what most love so much about 16th century Anabaptism, Vincent Harding’s legacy and embodied and visible life story becomes a rich testament to our call to march towards the promised land today. As a Black male outside of the Mennonite Church I cannot talk about or imagine Anablacktivism without taking seriously the gift of Vincent Harding. It seems that many in the Mennonite Church are poised to begin taking seriously Vincent Harding who sought to follow Jesus faithfully in the United States in a manner that the Mennonite Church couldn’t quite perceive on its own. May his witness in the future continue to strengthen the Mennonite Church in following, and being formed after, Jesus in our society with a similar spirit of radical openness to others, a love for all humanity, and the courage to stand in solidarity with historically oppressed people in our land participating in God’s shalom and jubilee.