Rosemary Freeney Harding, with Rachel Elizabeth Harding. Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering.

Kimberly Penner

The Conrad Grebel Review 35, no. 1 (Winter 2017)

Rosemary Freeney Harding with Rachel Elizabeth Harding. Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

. . . while we all have experiences of deep personal, even spiritual crisis in which it seems as if “nobody was there,” I believe that at the most fundamental and the most transcendent levels of our experience as human beings, we are never left alone. There is always accompaniment. There are always remnants.

Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering is the deeply moving and theologically rich memoir of Mennonite civil rights activist Rosemary Freeney Harding (1931-2004) written in collaboration with, and assembled by, her daughter Rachel Harding. The epigraph above is from page 161.

Through Freeney Harding’s life, Remnants “seeks to bring the indigenous wisdom of the African American community, particularly of women, into engagement with more academic understandings of intellectual production,” including theology and Christian ethics (xx). The book is relevant and meaningful for many audiences, including those pursuing scholarly matters of interest in African American and Afro-Atlantic religion, womanist theology and ethics, public theology, Anabaptist studies, mysticism, or social justice (xx).

Remnants is divided into six parts in addition to a foreword and an afterword. These parts consist of interviews, journal entries, poetry, and previously published essays, as well as Harding’s reflections on her mother’s life and influence. These materials proceed mostly in chronological order and are written in Freeney Harding’s voice. The content includes, for example, Freeney Harding’s ancestral history, experiences of racial segregation, learned spiritual values, participation in the freedom movement (including her work as a cofounder of the first racially integrated social service agency in Atlanta, Georgia—Mennonite House), and the influence of mystical traditions such as Buddhism and contemplative Christianity on her understandings of reconciliation and nonviolence.

Freeney Harding makes several key claims about spirituality and social justice activism. First, she contends that activism, informed by the values of Black religion and culture that influenced her upbringing, is “grounded in the traditions of hospitality; healing practices; ghost and spirit stories; and a welcoming and inclusive community” (117). Second, she claims that self-love is necessary for working to end injustice, for it is only once we love ourselves fully, including our skin and bodies, that we can love others fully (69). Third, she connects nonviolence to an ethos of “accompaniment,” namely a willingness to walk alongside the others and even our enemies (160).

Freeney Harding also claims, fourth, that mothers and mothering are significant for spirituality and activism, since mothers and grandmothers often play pivotal roles in the formation of cultural and moral identity (218). Fifth, she recognizes how various systems and relationships of violence are mutually reinforcing. In other words, she takes an intersectional approach to violence and injustice. In particular she names the interrelationship of racism and settler-colonialism in comparing African American experiences of slavery and indigenous people’s experiences of colonization and genocide in America (94). She also identifies the ways in which sexism and racism compound one another (94).

Remnants offers valuable insights for Mennonite theology and ethics. Freeney Harding presents a view of discipleship that is embodied and that incorporates an emphasis on both the individual and the communal body of believers. Within this view is an understanding of body knowledge as a source of wisdom, an acknowledgement of the particularity of human bodies, and a commitment to the experiences of suffering bodies. Her view of nonviolence is also significant. She does not condone violence, nor does she suggest that nonviolence requires uncritical self-sacrifice. For her, nonviolence includes a quality of spirit that is able to transcend violence by giving strength to those who suffer and struggle for justice, and that is “even capable of including our inflictors in its aura” (159).

Freeney Harding saw this modeled in the Freedom Movement for racial justice in America. She writes that nonviolence in the Movement “meant that there was room for everyone—every ethnic group, every race, males and females” (169). Finally, as both an insider to Mennonite communities (upon her confession of faith) and an outsider (as an African American amidst predominantly Swiss Mennonites), she is well positioned to see Mennonite theology’s potential to be inclusive across difference, and incorporates an understanding of the holy as that which is not limited to one particular form or tradition (191).

Kimberly Penner, Ph.D. Candidate, Emmanuel College, Toronto School of Theology, Toronto, Ontario