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.
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.