Beware the Amish pirates

When There is No Peace: Where are the Saints?

August 30th, 2014 by PamN

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19

“…the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.” W.E.B. DuBois

I traveled to Ferguson, MO from August 21-24 along with two other community organizers from New Orleans, LA. We visited the Canfield Green apartments where 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer and where beautiful memorials had been created. One sign referenced the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4: 8-10 – “And the Lord says: ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out.” And indeed, roses lined the street where traces of Michael’s blood were still evident, crying out for those with ears to hear.

We talked with Ferguson residents, including a group camped out in a parking lot across from the police station and some youth camped in the “approved assembly area” in the parking lot of an old car dealership. Both of these groups said they planned to stay until Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown was indicted, and we brought them water and ice and fruit as a way of expressing our support and appreciation for their persistent call for justice.

That evening, we saw how W. Florissant Avenue was closed to all thru traffic beginning at its intersection with Chambers Road, a full mile away from the “approved assembly area.” Anyone who wanted to join the protest had to walk a mile just to get to the protest site and then march in a spot cut off from the rest of the public, where police imposed a “5 second rule” which required protesters to keep moving, breaking up any conversations among groups of protesters who began to gather together.

This was only the most recent attempt to contain and squash people’s cries for justice. Others who had been in Ferguson earlier reported even more intense police repression. Police shot tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed people who were in places they had every right to be including their own backyards, driveways and doorways. Purvi Shah of the Center for Constitutional Rights was part of a multigenerational crowd –including a number of children– into which police fired tear gas, with no warning and a full three hours before the midnight curfew that had recently been established. Many first person stories of encounters with police oppression are available if you look for them. What we saw in Ferguson was a community under occupation by police. No one felt safer. The constant threat of violence by police toward protestors was palpable.

The power of the state arrayed against the people of Ferguson reminds me of Desmond Tutu’s quote about an elephant with its foot on the tail of a mouse. Reverend Tutu advised us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

What is extraordinary about Ferguson is not the killing of an unarmed black youth or the ways that institutions like the police, city government, etc. act in racist ways. That happens in New Orleans and it happens across the country. What is special and inspiring about Ferguson is that people’s thirst for justice is so strong there that they persist in protests despite the ways they are persecuted and threatened by the powerful militarized forces arrayed against them. Like Jesus, they are guided not by what is, but by their vision of what can and should be, and because of this, they, like Jesus, have found the courage to speak out in defiance of the powers of Empire, even to the point of risking their lives. They have done this now for two weeks. The evening of Friday, August 22, the 13th day after Michael was shot, we joined protestors who had left the approved assembly area and marched three miles to the Ferguson Police Department, to drums and chants of “We want justice,” “No Justice, No Peace!” and “Indict that cop.” Despite the fact that they were met at the police department by a line of armed police who stood in formation, blocking their access to the building, people gathered across the street and continued to cry out for justice through song, drumming and conversation. One young man said on the mic “we are not going to go over there tonight. Let’s be clear that we have a right to go over there, but we are not going to exercise that right tonight.”

I am reminded of a powerful sermon response that Vincent Harding delivered at the Eighth Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam in the summer of 1967:

The beggars are rising – they refuse to lie on the ground, crippled, crushed, begging. They are rising in Detroit and in Harlem…. and among them is Christ, the beggar of Nazareth. Do you see him? Do you hear him in the noise of all the voices? Do you realize how his spirit blasts all bastions of security, affluence, and greed? He is there. We can hide but he is there. We can continue paying our taxes for armies and bombs, and continue to cry: ‘What can we do?’ We can call on the police and the army. Fearfully we can hide behind law and order or behind the walls of our churches. Nevertheless, there is a spirit walking freely upon the earth. There is a spirit in search of freedom. This spirit will not perish…. We should know one thing – the insurrectionist beggars are not waiting any longer. Christ has promised to help all beggars and he keeps his promise. Let us not misunderstand. He is on the side of the beggars. On which side are we as Mennonites, Christians, and humans who love humanity? ….Are we surrounded by the barricades of a status quo where we pray that the storm may pass on so that we can continue living without disturbance? …. In this case, we must admit that we are…. missionaries of law and order, defenders of a status quo, and seekers for peace without a cross.

I saw good news in Ferguson. I encountered the Spirit of Truth and Love and Hope there. As someone who has committed my life to working against racism, sometimes I despair. The systems that we fight against are huge and trap us all, including white people, and it can be hard to believe that things can change. I have often clung to words like Arundhati Roy’s “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” In Ferguson, I heard the whispers of a new world, stirrings of the promise of Hebrews 12:27, that things will be shaken up so that “what cannot be shaken may remain.” The message of the Gospel is that there is a Force more powerful than Empire, more powerful than White Supremacy, and these protesters are preaching the Gospel! I saw in their faces not only righteous anger and determination, but also joy, because they have discovered that they are free because, like Jesus, they no longer are walking in the fear of death. In the face of that sort of Soul-Force, the power of empire fades into the background, like the police line in the beautiful pictures my friend Aziz took of the protesters while we were in Ferguson.

As people who believe in the gospel of peace, now is a time that presents an amazing opportunity for Mennonites to give flesh to our beliefs. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past when way too few Mennonites responded to Vincent Harding’s call to join in the civil rights movement. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Christians to whom Martin Luther King Jr wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In order to respond to the Gospel call for Justice coming out of Ferguson, we need to get clarity about what true peacemaking looks like. Peace is not refusing to be in open conflict or refusing to take sides in conflicts which exist. The situation in Ferguson doesn’t call for neutral mediators, bridge-builders between two sides who are in conflict, with us in the role of “peacemakers.” The “two sides” don’t have equal power, and they aren’t both right.

Like Desmond Tutu, historian and social justice worker Howard Zinn warned against neutrality in the face of oppressive power. In Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (a helpful read for those who wish not to conform to the world but instead to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” Romans 12:2), Zinn writes:

Why should we cherish “objectivity”, as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in those struggles.

Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.

When we choose neutrality and are unwilling to engage conflict, we are clinging to the false peace that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Old Testament prophets warned against.“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,” Jeremiah warned, “saying ‘Peace, peace.’ when there is no peace (6:14).” We need to face the cracks in the very structure of our society, rather than just trying to cover up cracks in the walls, as Ezekiel warned: “…they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and … when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it (Ezekiel 13:10).”

What would working toward a positive peace in Ferguson look like? Chris Crass a white antiracist organizer gives us one vision:

So I’m seeing all these pictures from last night of adults trying to convince young Black people to leave the streets and only protest during the day in Ferguson, and this is being heralded by the police and mainstream media as “helping bring peace to Ferguson.” Where are the pictures of the white community leaders, the Federal government and the United Nations standing before the police in Ferguson telling them to put their guns down, go back to their homes, to take their frustrations out in constructive ways and to stop making us (the white community and the U.S. government) look like vicious, armed to the teeth, defenders of a white supremacist society without an ounce of regard for Black lives?

“Peace”, as defined by the state and mainstream media, in Ferguson, means a return to the, below the national radar, war against the Black community that is “normal life” in this town that the Mayor repeatedly affirms “has no racial conflict”. Conflict, we are to understand, only exists when oppressed people fight back, but when oppressors rule through racist laws, policies, culture, and violence, it’s “peace”. That is why ever since the Rodney King rebellion in Los Angeles in 1992, the slogan is “No Justice, No Peace”. The Black young people in Ferguson, bringing discipline, non-violence, and determination in the face of continued violence and media smearing, are heroes!

The positive peace that Jesus calls us to work toward requires the presence of justice. Here are just a few of my ideas about some ways to work for justice that holds the promise of real piece. I am excited to hear others’ ideas as well.

  • We can support the demands of groups organizing on the ground in Ferguson through letters to the editor, letters to your governmental representatives, conversations with friends, family, church and community members

  • Send money to support the organizing in Ferguson

  • Join or organize a solidarity march

  • Find out what is happening in your city/town to address racial inequities and support the work, particularly groups led by organizers of color

  • Sign this Color of Change petition calling on GoFundMe to cancel the fundraising site for Darrin Wilson. Wilson is on paid leave and since he has not yet been charged, has no legal fees, yet donations to support him have exceeded donations to the Brown family.

  • Check out other suggestions for action in this toolkit put out by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a network of white antiracist organizers

Let us not repeat the mistakes of our past. Let us join in this movement for change, this movement for justice, this movement for real peace, this movement where we will experience Jesus walking next to us and the Truth shall set us Free.

Additional Recommended Readings

Pam Nath has been living and working in New Orleans, LA for the past seven years. She works for Mennonite Central Committee Central States and is a Roots of Justice trainer.

Remembering Our Identity

August 20th, 2014 by JasonS

We are Anabaptists. We are Mennonites. We are distinct from other Protestants and denominations. We care about peace, justice, community. We are a unique and special people.

Many of us feel this way or at least I know, at times, I do. There is a special quality of Christianity that is evidenced in Anabaptism. Yes, we were persecuted by the Holy Catholic Church, but we were also persecuted by fellow Protestants. There is severity and deep conviction in our confession of faith.

Yet, in truth, too often we rest on the laurels of our Anabaptist forebears. We recall or express nostalgia for the countercultural, anti-empire sentiments and actions of those who came before us, all the while colluding with the current empire on many levels in our life. Some of us (even unwittingly) invest in stocks for pharmaceutical corporations and weapons manufacturers, thus endorsing a system that benefit from death and destruction.

Many persons and whole churches have substituted absolute pacifism with Just War Theory. In that regard we have embraced Augustinean Christianity to the detriment of Jesus’ command to love even our enemies who persecute and abuse us. We claim a Mennonite identity, but too often embrace an American identity or political ideology (whether left or right). We fail to recognize the radical calling upon our lives, which is to root ourselves in a Christ identity.

Some of us need a fresh baptism, a next baptism to awaken us to Christ’s calling upon our lives. We may have been baptized in water, but now we need a fire baptism to burn out the iniquity and inequality that pervades our lives. Like a prairie fire that burns the dead things and promotes richer soil, so too do we need the Spirit of fire to prepare us to live more deeply and richly.

A few years ago my wife and I and our two young children departed from our home in Brooklyn, New York, to travel more than halfway across country to South Dakota to visit the place where my Hutterite ancestors settled in this country in the 1870s. For many centuries my ancestors were Hutterites. My paternal great-great uncle led the Hutterites to this country and his younger brother, my great-great grandfather, Johann Feta (Father John) was the first of the Hutterites to experience the new birth.

After his born again experience he helped to found the Mennonite Brethren denomination with Jacob Wiebe, a Russian Mennonite reformer. I grew up hearing stories of persecution and sacrifice about our Anabaptist ancestors. The most recent story is that of my grandfather’s uncles who were tortured and martyred by the U.S. government in the prison at Fort Leavenworth because they resisted participation in the First World War. These stories shaped my early spiritual formation.

When we visited Hutterite colonies I was disheartened to learn that many of the Hutterites I met had moved far from their radical roots. All who we met were kind and generous and lived in deep community, but I was surprised upon visiting the schoolhouse to see art projects dedicated to the U.S. flag by lower school children. And while fellowshipping I learned that most of the adult Hutterites vote, which at one time may have been perceived as endorsement of a fallen system.

Whether or not one lives in a Christian intentional community, attends an Anabaptist church, or can trace their ancestry to early movement leaders, the aim should not be to find our primary identity in our religion, ancestry or any other thing, but in Christ.

It is important to visit and revisit stories and places to recognize the myriad ways that the Kingdom of God enters into this world, through individuals, families, communities, and movements. We do not need to live under tyranny and the threat of persecution to be faithful disciples of Christ. Yet it is important to remember the price paid by Christ and by all the witnesses who have suffered for the faith over the last two thousand years. These martyrs, these witnesses, point to the truth of the Gospel message. The blood of the Lamb reminds us of the cost of Christ’s conviction and moves us from a place of complacency to a place of devotion and active participation in the body of Christ.

Too often, as Christians, we forget those who came before us who lived sacrificially, who were true witnesses to a living faith. When we forget their stories, we become weak and numb and distracted. We suffer due to our forgetfulness and lack of mindfulness. It is often said that the church thrives in places where she is persecuted. It is in these places of pain and persecution where she most intimately remembers the Gospel story, and it is in these places where we are most inspired to live out even the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings.

Jason Storbakken is cofounder of the Radical Living Christian community in Brooklyn, New York, and Chapel Director of The Bowery Mission. Jason’s first book, “Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, Revolution” (Orbis) is now available.

Early Anabaptism as Social Movement, Part 4: Conclusion

March 29th, 2014 by KaterinaF

This post is the final part of an essay looking at the Anabaptist movement through the lens of social movement theory. See Part III in the series here, which compares the early Anabaptist movement with four stages of social movements.

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Photo by Rachel Friesen

Gaps, Tensions and Overlaps

Though there are apparent overlaps, it is clear by now that there are also gaps where the phases of social movements inadequately describe or leave out elements of the Anabaptist movement. Sociologist Charles Tilly writes, “The employment of invariant models…assumes a political world in which whole structures and sequences repeat themselves time after time in essentially the same form. That would be a convenient world for theorists, but it does not exist.”[1]

One shortcoming of social movement theories is that they sometimes fail to capture the many complex, different stories within an observed movement. They tend to look at movements as a whole, and the four phases are very linear in their approach. While this progress-oriented “bird’s eye view” is often helpful, it misses the contradictions present on the ground. C. Arnold Snyder offers a more nuanced understanding in his way of describing the Anabaptist movement as a polygenesis rather than monogenesis. He highlights the similarities and differences in how Swiss, South German-Austrian, and North German-Dutch Anabaptisms developed, conversed and converged. The polygenesis approach does not lend well to the homogenizing categorization implicit in social movement theories. For example, one may argue that Anabaptism did in fact experience the fourth phase of decline due to eradication by the sword in Austria and many parts of South Germany, though in other places it survived. read more »

Early Anabaptism as Social Movement, part 3: The Four Stages of Social Movements

March 27th, 2014 by KaterinaF

This post is the third part of an essay looking at the early Anabaptist movement through the lens of social movement theory. See Part II in the series here, which looks at definitions of social movements.

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Photo by Katerina Friesen, Sainte-Chapelle

The four generally recognized stages of a social movement are emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline.(1) Some social movements never evolve beyond the first two or three stages, and others continue in new forms if they are adapted into mainstream society. The model of four stages of social movements sheds light on elements of the Anabaptist movement, though it has limitations, since, as I have argued, the Anabaptist movement was not a social movement according to modern definitions.

Emergence

The first stage of social movements, emergence, is seen as the time when consciousness of a problem or societal ill is just forming. Collective action has not yet grown out of the discontent that is felt by many people, and organized leadership has not yet emerged though “agitators” may be at work at the grassroots. I believe that both the Peasants’ Revolt and the Protestant Reformation were crucial in this first stage of emergence.

The Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) laid the groundwork for widespread social unrest, and raised issues of unjust rulers and the need for social reform. Snyder writes that many early Anabaptists, especially in South German regions, were closely involved with the peasant movement for social reform and shared many of their egalitarian ideals. Hubmaier, for example, started his evangelical reform teachings in Waldshut, which greatly supported the peasants. Snyder also cites other early Anabaptist leaders’ connection or collaboration with the peasants; these leaders included Reublin, Brötli, Krüsi, Grüningen, Hut and Rinck. He writes, “Many of the same religious, social and economic impulses that fueled the so-called Peasants’ War remained issues within the Anabaptist movement well after the peasant uprising had been suppressed. Many of the first Anabaptists were active in these protest movements ‘from below.’”(2) read more »

Early Anabaptism as social movement, part 2: Understanding the Lens

March 16th, 2014 by KaterinaF

See part 1 in the series here.

Was the 16th century Anabaptist movement a social movement? There are many parallels between modern social movements and the Anabaptist movement; some writers actually use the term “social movement” to describe early Anabaptism. However, I argue that the Anabaptist movement was not a social movement by definition, though social movement theory can still provide a helpful lens with which to understand the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century. This paper examines the stages and elements of the Anabaptist movement using social movement theory as well as the textbook by C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology. I conclude with reflections on the tensions and opportunities that interacting with social movements offers Anabaptism today, as well as the relationship between movement and mission.

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Photo by Katerina Friesen

Defining Social Movements

It is important to begin with a definition of social movements and a brief survey of theories of social movements. One broadly sweeping definition is, “[Social movements] are voluntary collectivities that people support in order to effect changes in society.” The sociologists behind this definition, McCarthy and Zald, formulated a foundational way of looking at social movements for the discipline, the resource mobilization perspective, which was a response to theories that too-narrowly saw general mass discontent and ideology behind protest activities. The resource mobilization perspective moved away from analyzing the social psychology of the masses toward an emphasis on the resources, such as money, labor, costs and rewards, as well as non-material benefits that draw people into collective action and social movements. Today, some theorists believe that although they laid the groundwork for future theories, resource mobilization perspectives were too scientific and empirical. More recently, sociologists have examined the cultural and emotional elements that drive social movements. This newer, perhaps more inclusive, imagination of the forces behind social movements recognizes that emotions such as moral intuition or “the joy of imagining a new better society” are part of social movements, thus blurring the distinction between rational and emotional motivations for movements.

read more »

Early Anabaptism as social movement, part 1: Movement of the Word, 1525-1535

March 15th, 2014 by KaterinaF

This is the first in a four part series from my essay entitled, “The Early Anabaptist Movement through the Lens of Social Movement Theory.”

By way of introduction to my piece, I wrote the following poem. I invite you to read it as an exercise of imagining what the emerging Anabaptist movement must have felt like to a new believer.

Dappled Sunlight in Highgate Wood

Movement of the Word, 1525-1535

The word spreads on farms,
in taverns and barns, in sewing circles
the fold grows, stitch by stitch.
Behind the looms we whisper
good news and now dozens come to sit
on stumps and stone, our forest pews.

We dare not learn our leaders’ names,
for fear that tortured tongues might speak;
we know the brothers when they say,
“The Lord’s peace remain with thee.”
‘Til He returns to vanquish our foes,
many join Christ’s agony. read more »