This post was co-written by Tim Nafziger and Mark van Steenwyk in 2017 (see original) in response to the backlash against anti-fascists actions in Charlottesville, Virginian in August 2017. We’re reposting it with a new title because it feels even more relevant today as we watch the white liberal response to the burning of the police precinct building in Minneapolis last night. If you’re not a pacifist, see what happens when you substitute the word “liberal” for “pacifist.” If you aren’t Mennonite, consider what our message might look like to your own community.
In the last two months, in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, we’ve read many white people in my Mennonite community and others committed to nonviolence reiterating their commitment to peace. In a recent article for Anabaptist historians, Tobin Miller-Sherer describes these “smug and satisfied declarations about the superiority of nonviolence” as “bumptious.” This is a good word because Mennonites are extremely skilled at being proud in a humble way.
Last week a sweet, white woman asked me to pray for her because she was struggling to love her enemies, the ethno-nationalists who paraded through the University of Virginia campus. “Your enemies? I doubt they think of themselves as your enemy,” I replied. “They are your defenders, marching to protect the dominance of your race—of your life and your children’s lives.”
An exemplar of this framing and perspective from outside the Mennonite church comes from Harry Boyte’s essay, “Nonviolence after Charlottesville” which makes no attempt to look at the broader issues of systemic racism at work in Charlottesville (let alone in the United States). Instead, Boye complains that activists today are too polarizing. He refuses to acknowledge social location, offer any analysis of oppression or privilege and seems to reject the idea that one might have enemies at all: “One way power leads to polarization is based on the notion that opponents are enemies who must be defeated.”
The problem is that the starting point for these narratives is convincing audience of value of nonviolence, rather than challenging the white moderate, which Martin Luther King identified as the a key need in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963. The intransigence of white moderates continues to be a major barrier to undermining white supremacy today. As Chantelle Todman Moore put it in an article in The Mennonite in July:
“When we neglect those existing on the margins of our churches, communities and country instead of centering them in the life of the church, our claim to being a peace church becomes simply an intellectual exercise. We can tell you the tenets of nonviolent resistance, pacifism, avoiding war taxes and even why the idea of “just war” is just wrong. But when you take a closer look at our lives, congregations and church structures, you see cycles of physical, social and psychological violence being played out that mostly impact the “least of these” among us.”
Todman Moore highlights the proposed new definition of a peace church that came out of the Hope for the Future gathering. What if white Mennonites used that new definition as a starting point when talking about Charlottesville and the rising visibility of white supremacy for white US Americans?
Being a pacifist shouldn’t be like playing a game of violence whack-a-mole, where we react to every expression of violence as though it were the same. Such a posture usually ends up reinforcing the status quo, because structural oppression almost always “appears” less violent than revolutionary violence.
Instead, being a pacifist should cause us to invest time learning nonviolent ways of responding to oppression and committing ourselves to direct action and fiercely loving acts of solidarity. (more…)
In the wake of the shootings of police and civilians in Dallas, many voices are blaming the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing opposition to police violence and white supremacy. But now more than ever we need movements of committed, militant nonviolence.
Grievances about these injustices become corrosive when people feel powerless and unheard. In his blog post yesterday Mennonite activist theologian Ched Myers reminded us of John F. Kennedy’s observation along these lines 55 years ago: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
I originally published this review in with the Anabaptist Network in November of 2005 while working with them in London, England. I’ve been surprised how often the themes in this book have come back to me over the years and its one of the few books that made its way with me all the way from London to Chicago and then to Oak View.
Loving without Giving in: Christian Responses to Terrorism and Tyranny
Ron Mock (Telford: Cascadia Publishing House, 2004) £14.50
In the wake of the 7 July bombings and the response of the British Government, Christians in the United Kingdom would do well to consider this book. Ron Mock begins by working through five aspects of terrorism: violence, lawlessness, political motivation, targeting of civilians and operation through fear. In each area he looks at examples of terrorism that fall within his criteria and case studies that do not.
“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.
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. (more…)
MENNONITE CHURCH USA CHURCHWIDE STATEMENT ON LGBTQ COMMUNITIES, DIVERSITY, POWER, OPPRESSION & PRIVILEGE*
Mennonite Church USA has roots in seventeenth-century churches planted by what today we might call “radicals” and “social justice activists” from Europe. Our church continues to grow and be enlivened by people who join us from many countries, backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, as well as other diversities and differences. As Christians, we believe we are called to welcome these seekers of church community in our congregations and communities, especially as our government fails to serve all but a privileged few, with harsh laws frequently punishing difference. Assumptions about identity make some people more vulnerable to political biases and discrimination than others. Our concerns about the status of peace and justice in this country and in this world relate to how people are treated based on race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability status, citizen status, religious identity as well as other statuses.
We reject our country’s mistreatment of people, repent of our silence, and commit ourselves to act with and on behalf of all our community members regardless of any status.(more…)
In reaction to this, Kurt Willems wrote a response showing where he disagrees. Kurt, in classical Anabaptist fashion, believes that Christians should be nonviolent, but that the state still serves a purpose. There is a separation of church and state, and the state is a necessary evil. (more…)
There was one text in the Bible that has been the most influential on my life. It was this text that really helped convince me to become a Christian, and it was this text that brought me into radical politics. The passage I am referring to is the Sermon on the Mount.
It was when I was in middle school that I was first introduced to this famous sermon, and it ignited my interest in the gospel. By reading its words, I fell in love with the man who spoke them, and I wanted to apply the sermon to all aspects of my life. It was a big reason that I became interested in left-wing and anti-war movements as well. It would be years later, when I read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, that I really started to realize just how much was packed into Matthew 5-7. Recently, a friend of mine who I know from both Young Anabaptist Radicals and MennoNerds, said, ”The Sermon on the Mount or Plain is the Christian’s constitution.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. (more…)
These last few days have been exciting, but not necessarily in a good way. On the one hand, we have had a celebration of Martin Luther King’s legacy, but on the other hand, the dogs of war are snarling again, this time for Syria. Our politicians are simultaneously celebrating one of Christianity’s greatest prophets, while also considering military action abroad (again). Considering this interesting coincidence, I think it can be helpful to consider what Martin Luther King would have thought about the current military actions of the United States.
There is an episode of The Boondocks called “Return of the King” that actually tackles this exact question. In this episode, instead of being killed, King slips into a coma after being shot, and he wakes up in the year 2000. King learns that not as much has changed as he would have wished, and he becomes greatly disillusioned. There is one part of the episode, however, that is really relevant to our current wars and our inevitable involvement in Syria. (more…)
An energetic mix of excitement and anxiety hung in the air. It was 10 pm on July 4, the second-to-last night of the Mennonite Church USA convention in the Pink Menno space. I was sitting with 40 others as we talked through the following morning. We planned to enter the national delegate assembly of Mennonite Church USA and use our bodies to make a visible, silent witness challenging the church to repent from its treatment of LGBTQ people. We didn’t know what would happen, but we knew that we had to take a stand.
Only 24 hours earlier, seven Pink Menno planners had developed the vision for the witness. It was our third convention organizing Pink Menno hymn sings and they had become a fun, familiar presence outside the worship spaces. We had our space a block and a half from the convention center. We had hundreds of people coming to seminars we hosted. However, we were a known quantity that could be too easily ignored. It was a situation that has been faced by many social change movements over the years.
Tension and MLK
Tension is a crucial part of nonviolent social change work, whether in the church or in broader society. (more…)
Occasionally, I end up going to one of those “Christian” stores, or I get some sort of advertisement from them. Where I live, they are called “Family Christian Stores” with an emphasis on the family part. In other parts of the country, such stores also exist, but with different names. We have all been to those kinds of places. When I was an evangelical, that was where you went to get a Bible or some accessory for it, but I still occasionally end up going there for one reason or another. These stores have books by Sarah Palin and Joel Osteen, and entire walls devoted to American flags and New International Versions. We all know the type.
A couple of weeks ago, I received an advertisement catalog from one of those stores, and for some reason I looked through it. First, there was a bunch of customized Bibles. Sort of like some sort of collector’s item, there was a bunch of needless varieties of Bibles for purchasing. I always see this whenever I go to any bookstore – people treating the Bible like some sort of fashion statement. What really annoyed me was when I saw this. They have this line of patriotic clothing, but it is not just patriotic. They mix Christianity into their patriotism in an amazing way. They even have a “Jesus Saves” shirt stylized to read “JesUSAves.” They literally made Jesus an American and linked Christian salvation to Americanism. They are mixing Christianity, capitalism, and the American state into one single chimera. Now, this is not new. I have known that they were doing this for a long time, but this example proved to be the ideal opportunity to bring up the issue. (more…)
Occupy Love is an ambitious documentary. In an hour and 30 minutes, it attempts to offer a short history of Occupy Wall Street. It traces the roots of the movement back to the streets of Tunisia in December 2010 and through the plazas in Spain in the summer of 2011. In parallel to these clips from recent history, its interviews plumb the big ideas that undergird the Occupy movement. Interviews with activists, writers and thinkers run the gamut from the gift economy to western civilization’s estrangement from the natural world.
Through this eccentric tapestry, the film traces the thread of love. The filmmaker, Velcrow Ripper, asks everyone he interviews, “How could the crisis we’re facing be a love story?”
Ripper’s question brings unexpected responses. Clayton Thomas-Muller, a First Nations leader and an environmental activist, pulls aside his shirt to reveal a tattoo that says, “Love is a Movement.”
“When you are born in a community that has been completely devastated by the energy infrastructure that’s been built on the back of our people all across continental North America,” Thomas-Muller says, “you don’t choose to get involved in this work. You’re born to it.”
There is a group from England that many people do not know of, but more people should — the True Levellers or Diggers. As Anabaptists or other radical Christians, I think that this short-lived group of English radicals has a lot to offer us, and it is a shame that they have been largely forgotten. So, I wanted to write a short blog on here so that people can get to know this wonderful group.
The Diggers were one of the many nonconformist Christian groups that arose in seventeenth century England (like the Baptists, Puritans, or Quakers). They were largely centered around Gerrard Winstanley, who also went on to become one of the first Quakers and Universalists.
What makes the Diggers so interesting is their radical economic polices. The Diggers strongly emphasized the Christian ethic expressed in the Book of Acts, and building off of Acts 2:44 and 4:32, they practiced communism. Specifically, they sought to do as modern Marxist and anarchist communists do, and eliminate private ownership of real property (what Marxists and anarchists call “private property in the means of production”). In many ways, the Diggers were a sort of precursor for the Catholic Worker Movement or Bruderhof Communities, because they hoped to achieve their vision by using pacifism, charity, and working of the land (hence the name “Diggers”). (more…)
As I am sure we all know, there was a tragic shooting in an elementary school up in Connecticut. This is not the first shooting in this country either — not at all. It seems like every week or so that there is a major shooting in the United States. Not all of them make national news, but they always make it to the local news. I have heard many different reactions to these tragedies, but I feel that I must address the typical reaction that I see from Christians, especially conservative ones.
I know this particular approach well because it is the view of my father. He feels that all of life’s evils can be solved by violence. He says we should bomb the Middle East, bomb China, reinforce Israel, and increase private ownership of guns. To put some icing on the cake, he also works for the Department of Homeland Security/Transportation Security Administration.
In addition to my father, a classmate of mine, who sits behind me in English, often talks about guns with another classmate of mine. He feels that all of these massacres could just be stopped if people carried guns. His logic is that if someone starts shooting, everyone else can just fire back and kill him. I am sure that we can all agree how flawed this logic is, but it nevertheless makes sense to him.