Before You Punch a Nazi: A New Anabaptist Response to White Supremacy

There isn’t much to be surprised by in Charlottesville. There’s much to grieve, but none of it should be a surprise. All the elements of Saturday’s events have been in headlines for months, or years, and they are quintessential to this time: cars swerving into crowds; statues of Confederate warriors being removed; white nationalist rallies; Black Lives Matter; pedestrians injured. As if someone scrambled up bits of headlines until it yielded this.

What do we do now? Grief wants comfort. Comfort is action. We want to do something. We have to do something.

[Edit: The original draft of this post faced valid criticism for a why-can’t-we-all-get-along, syrup-y vision of white-Anabaptist heroism. A revised post, with this feedback in mind, is forthcoming in the Mennonite World Review. White Anabaptists have their own history of racism. Critiques of anti-oppression work are meaningless if they are veiled excuses for our own racism. This is not the moment—it is never the moment—for armchair calls for peace-in-order-to-avoid-examining-white-privilege. This column is not a critique of anti-oppression work–I have many non-pacifist friends doing valuable anti-oppression work and I will not criticize them for their effective, difficult work. This is a proposal for how white Anabaptists, because of their pacifist claims, can do uncomfortable, enemy-loving, transformative peacemaking at a theoretical and practical level.]

How do we respond, when it seems that all the dynamics have shifted? Unlike riots in 2014, or 2015, we no longer have a president who will say something conciliatory and empathetic in a slow, steady tone. The alt-right has successfully shifted the Overton Window, “the universe of ideas that are palatable and therefore viable as policy.”

We have to do something that accounts for the cultural shifts of the last 18 months. If the Trump era has given the discontented right a new template for bigotry, the left needs a new template for conscientization–one with Anabaptist flavor.

Much of the “do something” appearing on Facebook feed is friendly reassurance that “it’s always okay to punch a Nazi.” (Maybe my Facebook friends are different than yours.)

As a pacifist, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable punching Nazis (yes, even Nazis). This week has reinforced my belief that it’s not only unethical to punch Nazis, but also ineffective. Punching a Nazi–literally or in effigy–may be satisfying, but if anything, it reduces the number of people who are empathetic to progressive causes. It’s a reactionary doubling-down on rhetoric that indicates that Nazis are so far beyond the general population that we–in the moderate-to-radical left–would not welcome them even if they tried to re-integrate themselves. One of the most chilling developments among post-Trump activism is the way liberals cling to the Nazi-punching rhetoric inspired by the protestor who punched Richard Spencer on Inauguration Day. It isolates neo-Nazis even more deeply in their narrow, self-justifying ideology–and it isolates anti-racist activists from their moral high ground, which was, “we’re all seeking to be recognized as human.” If you want your enemy to love you (or at least respect you), you have to illustrate that you are willing to love (or at least respect) your enemy.

In the cathartic Google searches that often accompany incomprehensible violence, I found myself rereading a eulogy for Michael (MJ) Sharp, the Mennonite United Nations worker killed in the Congo in early 2017. The journalist quoted MJ Sharp, “rebels love talking about the past.”

MJ understood that the violent rebels he approached “were nostalgic for a mythical home and aimed to rewind history to a time that never really existed in the first place.” MJ described this as a sense of “dreaming of home”–and those who dream of home are deeply homesick.

Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, are homesick. For all their violence and their rallies, they don’t really know how to get home, aren’t even sure what home they’re trying to get to, they just know this moment doesn’t feel like home. The stability of this country relies on the mainstream envisioning a future white supremacists can come home to. The vast majority of Americans must remind white supremacists that the past is not the only place to find comfort.

This is why I believe the left must rely on its pacifist branch. Pacifists must speak up, and invigorate activism.

Anabaptists are uniquely situated activists–they have the legacy of pacifism, but also the legacy of ostracism, shunning, and doubled-down factionalism. And they have the legacy of white supremacy. And the historical memory of homesickness. Anabaptism in America has all the tools to be bridge-people, to be allies and peacemakers. America needs Anabaptists to interpret its current reality, and it needs Anabaptists to envision a creative nonviolent path toward deescalation.

We’ve tried to dismantle racism in our own lives, and we haven’t always done that very well, but as we continue to do that work we also need to try something new: rewriting the story that legitimizes white supremacy for those around us. We need to create a way for white supremacists to come home without violence. We need to envision and offer de-radicalization.

Our peace and forward motion depend on its being possible. We have to peel back the violent and abusive parts of white supremacy until we find what the scared humans underneath are digging for: reassurance that they won’t be left behind; that they have an economic future; that rural America still has value; that they can love Christmas without hating Hanukkah; that the places they come from are distinct and beautiful and the geography of them can be cared for without drawing boundaries on who is allowed in that geography.

The journalist writing about Michael Sharp recalls the message that MJ and his Congolese companions tried to deliver to rebel leaders:

“You… you’re over 50 years old, it’s too late for you to take over Rwanda. But your children are growing up uneducated in the bush. Don’t you see that your children, who are the future of Rwanda, when they go back they’ll be the slaves of those who are there! Because they are illiterate!”

As MJ and his Congolese colleagues spread this message, they persuaded at least 1,600 rebels to lay down weapons. The left–the mainstream–has to use every pacifist bone it can muster to create a message like this, a message white supremacists can hear. To the older ones: it’s too late for you to get what you dream of, but if you want your children to get that dream, you have to teach them something different. And to the younger ones: You can get back home, but this road will not lead you there.

It’s tempting to respond to white supremacy in reactionary ways. But pacifism–true creative nonviolence–is proactive. It sees what violence dreams of, and morphs that dream into something nonviolent, thriving, and interdependent. For Anabaptists to be allied with anti-racism, we must do the work of building exit-ramps from white supremacy. We have to develop the template for re-integration.

At Mennonite convention this summer, Michael Sharp’s parents spoke to the youth via Skype.

MJ Sharp Parents convention

The parents of MJ Sharp speaking to Mennonite Youth Convention, July 2017.

They asked us, “Who will step up and continue MJ’s work? We hope you will.” At the time, I thought: oh no, these poor teenagers will think they aren’t serving God unless they’re in Africa. After Saturday, I remember their words and think: oh yes, anytime we respond to extremism with creative nonviolence, we are continuing MJ Sharp’s work.

FCS Recap: You Can’t Love What You Can’t Imagine

There’s this saying among environmentalists: we won’t save a place we don’t love; we can’t love a place we don’t know; and we can’t know a place we haven’t learned.

With regards to Future Church Summit, conventions in general, and whether or not Mennonite Church USA has any future relevant to anyone outside ourselves, I’ve come to a similar proverb: we won’t create a future we don’t love, we can’t love a future we can’t imagine, and we can’t imagine a future if we need to control it. Continue reading

What to Watch in Orlando: An Unofficial Guide

Ahhh, Orlando. With a biennial convention, it’s easy to lose track of the details. If reading two years of The Mennonite is TL;DR for you, here’s a overview of what will really matter in Orlando. I’m calling it the Gossip Girl Guide because it covers the gap between the institutional view and the ground-level view (also because xoxo, you know you love church polity).

Orlando sunglasses

 

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There’s Always Something Wrong with Your Generation

The older generation always thinks the younger generation is going to pot.

I hear this statement regularly in the church, repeated by the older generation who dedicated their lives to the church. I also hear it from the teenagers I work with, weighing whether or not to stay in the church.

Everyone knows generational conflict is a tired song. All our complaints — about both the older and younger generations — are reruns of those who came before us.

It’s a self-aware statement: I know my views reflect my cultural context. But often it’s used as a resigned statement at the end of an exhausting conversation about sexuality or communion or baptism. Young or old church members express their view, then qualify it with, “but people like me always disagree with people like them.”

It may be broadly true, but it isn’t relevant. Continue reading

Our First 100 Days

There was a blizzard of headlines last week about Donald Trump’s First 100 Days in office. As an ethicist and a pastor, I’m less interested in Trump’s attitudes and actions (which the media is analyzing nonstop, from all angles, as rapidly as they can). I’m more interested in the question: What Did you Do with Your First 100 Days?

Many of us, in the weeks after November 8, tried to vision these First 100 Days. Who we are and who we’d become in the shift of power. Many of us, like the media, are still in reactive mode, treading through headlines to stay afloat.

But time has passed, and we have changed. Who have we become? In my own congregation, the election jolted us to life. When I think of the first 100 days, I think of what we’ve done together. Continue reading

No More Palms, Please

Most Christians never question where the palms on Palm Sunday come from. It never occurred to me, until my first year pastoring, that someone had to get the palms (and order them well in advance).  But as we approach Palm Sunday, we ought to reexamine our theology of palms.

Traditional (read: conventionally harvested) palms are shipped from a handful of countries including Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. But because palm harvesters are paid by the number of palms, not the quality of them, the most efficient way to get palms is also the most destructive. Cutting as many leaves as possible from each tree damages the trees and the long-term sustainability of palm trees. Not only that, but palm trees grow in the shade of forests, and so sustainably-harvested palms support both the palms and the wider forest preservation efforts. Such noble organizations as the Rainforest Alliance have promoted the eco-palm movement.

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‘Get Out’ as Apocalypse Story

Director/writer Jordan Peele calls his film Get Out a “social thriller,” and if you’re like me, your newsfeed has been saturated with tasteful Vaguebooking about the film. But Get Out can be described, with equal accuracy and without spoilers, as a “contemporary apocalypse.” Apocalypse has become Hollywood shorthand for the highest possible stakes of an action sequence–any film that uses the destruction of all human life as a plot device. But in the traditional sense, apocalypse represents an entirely different genre of literature.

Classical apocalypse has less to do with annihilation than regime change. The Greek word apokalypsis means revelation, or uncovering. it’s a genre of literature–much like horror.

Get Out 3

I was terrified at “meet my parents.”

Get Out is a social thriller in the sense that it uses social evil (racism) to heighten an otherwise traditional horror film. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend 15 minutes with my hands over my eyes (but I only see four movies a year and have a low tolerance for visual violence so don’t listen to my definition of scary). A black man accompanies his white girlfriend’s family in the suburbs (a terrifying enough premise on its own), and everything you know (and don’t know) about horror film ensues. I’m not a fan of spoilers, though, so what follows is fairly obtuse on plot details.

Get Out is apocalyptic the same way that Revelation–and other books of the Bible–are social thrillers. The plot hinges on a systemic oppression, laden with specific and symbolic details, reaching a low point and with the hope that a protagonist can interrupt the systemic oppression, regardless of personal cost or total efficacy.

In a sense, apocalypse is a Quentin Tarantino-esque fantasy about future or past envision the triumph of the oppressed over the oppressor, resulting in the total collapse of the oppressor’s social structure. This is where our contemporary view of apocalypse comes from: the collapse of the oppressor’s social structure and all the fear that comes with losing the social order. Continue reading