Institutional Anniversaries: Bad or Dangerous?
In a discussion about his genealogical method of tracing disciplinary power and its operations in institutions such as prisons and hospitals, the French philosopher Michel Foucault famously clarified: “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad.”1 Benjamin Goossen offers a convincing argument that the “commemorative impulse” driving the planning for a quincentenary celebration in Europe of Anabaptism’s origins courts the danger of re-inscribing a “patriarchal, Eurocentric understanding of Anabaptism” that renders “women and people of color invisible.” I take Goossen’s argument to be an echo of Foucault. Goossen’s point is not, in my reading of his essay, that centennial commemorations or institutional celebrations are irredeemably bad, but rather that they are inherently dangerous, dangerous in that they risk reinforcing the supremacy of dominant groups and reproducing patterns of exclusion and oppression.
As someone serving on a planning committee to organize centennial celebrations for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 2020, I fervently hope it is not the case that centennial celebrations are irredeemably bad. An organization like MCC wishes to commemorate a historical landmark like a centennial for multiple reasons, not least of which is mobilizing and energizing support, including financial support, for the institution’s future work. (Undoubtedly, one hoped-for outcome of Mennonite World Conference’s Renewal Decade is generating financial support to sustain MWC’s global ministries into a second century. Goossen strangely does not address the financial interests that MWC has in leveraging the commemoration of historical events for ongoing institutional support.) Yet there are undeniable dangers in such commemorations. Goossen worries about triumphalist narrations of Anabaptism’s history that foreground the deeds, including martyrdom, of “great white men” such as Conrad Grebel, Georg Blaurock, and Menno Simons and that thus re-inscribe whiteness within Anabaptism. Similarly, MCC’s centennial celebrations could run the risk of reinforcing MCC’s whiteness by a focus on MCC’s (multiple) origins in 1920, as Swiss German and German Russian Mennonites organized to respond to the famine faced by their Glaubensgenossen (and, in some cases, Blutgenossen) in Ukraine. 2 Or MCC’s centennial narratives could default to a “great white men and women” account of history that focuses on figures like Orie Miller, Peter Dyck, Edna Ruth Byler, and Doris Janzen Longacre.3
At an MCC leadership orientation I attended in 1999, Tobin Miller Shearer, then working with MCC U.S.’s Damascus Road anti-racism training program, articulated a basic premise of anti-racism work, namely, that an organization founded by white people will serve the interests of white people unless deliberate and ongoing anti-racism work, accountable to communities of color, is undertaken.4 Some in our orientation group objected, countering that MCC was founded to serve the interests of hungry and displaced people around the world, not white Mennonites in Canada and the United States. Yet that objection missed the point, failing to reckon with the danger of humanitarian organizations, including Christian humanitarian organizations like MCC, adopting neo-colonial modes of operation and of the various needs and interests of their (primarily white) donors overriding the needs and interests of the communities which are the purported beneficiaries of relief, development, and peacebuilding programs.5 In a racist society, even organizations established with noble ideals, even church organizations committed to work “in the name of Christ,” will reproduce white privilege in numerous ways unless institutional anti-racism measures are put in place to disrupt that reproduction.6
Planning centennial celebrations for MCC will thus be a dangerous task – just as MCC’s work (and the work of Christian humanitarian organizations and humanitarian organizations more broadly) is fraught with potential dangers. Put theologically, in a fallen world marred by sin, including systemic sins of racism, sexism, and colonialism, it should come as no surprise that Christian efforts to do good and to serve in the name of Christ (and public celebrations of those efforts) run the risk of reproducing, even if only unintentionally, the sinful systems in which we are enmeshed. But dangerous, as Foucault reminds us, is not the same as (irredeemably) bad. As Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference, two organizations that emerged at roughly the same time, prepare to commemorate major anniversaries, may they be mindful of the dangers inherent in the commemorative impulse, even as they rightly celebrate how God has used and is using imperfect vessels like MCC and MWC as part of God’s reconciling mission, a reconciling mission that upends systems of violence and exclusion.