“Defund the Police” is Deeply Anabaptist

From its origins, Anabaptism was a movement that questioned the belief that the state was worthy of wielding violence. So it surprised me, at first, that Anabaptist churches were even debating about defunding the police. This is a religious tradition that champions war tax resistance. We literally believe that religious freedom entitles us not to pay for our country’s military. It’s a hop, skip, and less than a jump to move from withholding military dollars to reducing police funding.

Anabaptist theology has no room for police, any more than it has room for soldiers, kings, or governments who claim to have God’s blessing. In 1527 in the Schleitheim Confession, Anabaptists made the bold statement that Christians should not carry weapons, but instead be “armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God.”  

But over time, this ability to critique violence morphed into a desire to avoid violence at all costs. The logic went like this: Jesus calls us to peace; therefore, we cannot exhibit signs of violence; therefore, violence simply does not exist in Christian community. There’s no need to create a vocabulary for something that does not exist. The Anabaptist legacy is one that silences violence because there are no words for it.

And so, most of our churches simply function as though police don’t exist. People like us would never be police officers. People like us would never call the police on a fellow church member. And, it must be said, people like us are rarely policed because, until three or four generations ago, Anabaptists were almost exclusively white. The message in most Anabaptist churches today is that Anabaptists should not be police officers—but police officers are also permissible when necessary to quash any violence we witness since, of course, violence is immoral. Police are unnecessary to our daily lives because we are Christian pacifists; but we understand police are needed respond to the harm committed by other, more violent people in the world. Ah, the sweet, sweet moral high ground.

Anabaptists cannot be police officers, it’s often said, because they would have to carry a gun. This is the most obvious observation we make policing, and one that fails to mention that tear gas, pepper spray, riot gear, and rubber bullets are also tools of violence.

Our historically flat critique of violence—a critique that washes over race, power, socioeconomic disparity, and gender—no longer serves us. Most likely, it never served us.

“We believe that peace is the will of God. God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is our peace and the peace of the whole world,” begins Article 22 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

There is no way to get from “God created the world in peace” to “I’m okay with paying taxes to the government so that police have access to riot gear.” To be pacifist is to maintain that for every social problem, there are better places to put our money than police departments. Any government representative who is required to carry a gun is less effective at creating peace than a government employee who does not have “exercising violence when necessary” as part of their job description. Because, in the Anabaptist tradition, violence is never necessary.

The phrase “Defund the Police” is the most Anabaptist term to enter popular American social discourse in decades. As pacifists, we ought to be rushing full speed to join the movement. And if we are not, we ought to pull out our Confession of Faith and ask ourselves, “Why does this phrase make me uncomfortable?”

It is, most likely, because of our commitments to our own privilege, and not our commitments to God.

How Purity Culture Ruins Sex for Everyone

Even if you’ve never had the misfortune of being invited to a purity ball, it’s likely purity culture  still has an outsized impact on the way you think about sexuality. Think of Coach Carr’s awkward speech, “Don’t have sex—‘cause you will get pregnant. And die”: it’s unforgettable because it’s familiar. Evangelicals get the most flak for purity ethics, but from Disney Princesses and Hollywood romcoms, the purity myth flourishes beyond church walls. From an early age, we eat, sleep, and breathe subtle messages that the best way to evaluate ourselves and our relationships—the best way to determine if they’re good or bad—is to rank them on a scale of dirty to clean. Or mostly just dirty. Continue reading

Anabaptists, Abortions, and Moral Ambivalence

Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.

Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-to arguments about why the other side is wrong.

There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?

However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views. Continue reading

Are Self-Driving Cars Even Ethical?

It’s time to talk about self-driving cars. Many technological innovations–Amazon Echo, an iPhone without headphone port, Sarahah–catch us by surprise. But self-driving cars have been under development since the 1980s, and shot into public view in 2009, when Google announced its hope to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2020.

Conversations about automated vehicles are so focused on the technology itself that they do not ask how that technology will affect our lives. Several concerns should be part of congregational conversation:

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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.] 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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Global Capitalism, Part 2: How Capitalism Killed American Christianity

This post first appeared at Mennonite World Review.

Capitalism is killing Christianity. When a seminary friend first suggested this theory to me a year ago, I thought it was overblown. I have no affinity for capitalism as an economic system. I’m as much an Acts 2 socialist as the next millennial. But it seemed far-fetched to blame an economic system for church attendance.

Until I began to notice the patterns in my own congregation. About a third of the teenagers in the youth group are employed; they regularly turn down youth trips and even Sunday school because of work. The freelancing and part-timing adults do it too, running to their service-based jobs early on Sunday mornings or right after church. At the same time, I watch families walk into the sanctuary with Starbucks coffee; Dunkin Donuts; bagels; pastries. They duck out before Sunday school to catch an early lunch with friends and out-of-town relatives. Continue reading

Our Generation Didn’t Ruin the Institution of Marriage

I considered titling this post “Everything I Know about Marriage I Learned from Beyonce”–but I don’t even have space to explain how true that is.

Last week, I fell into a conversation with several seniors in the church about how the younger generation–my generation–had ruined the institution of marriage: cohabitation, quick divorces, and promiscuity had eroded an important and valuable way of life. With none too much politeness, but perhaps the most politeness you will see in the next 800 words, I cut the conversation: “We didn’t ruin marriage. We have a deep respect for it. And that’s why we’re not doing it as often or as quickly as your generation did.”

It’s easy, in our cultural environment, to stay generationally segregated–in college dorms, retirement communities, day care centers. It’s equally easy to create a generational echo chamber around particular issues. But the idea that my generation–or the one before it–ruined the institution of marriage is shortsighted and destructive. Continue reading

Your Body is Mural: A Christian Case for Body Modification

For a single moment, in the waiting room of the tattoo parlor, I thought: “you can un-do this. There’s still time to take it all back.” And then it passed. I lay down. A whooping crane began to emerge somewhere on the back of my calf, still invisible to me at the angle I lay, and I thought: “Paul was wrong. The body isn’t a temple after all. It’s a mural.”

When Christians say bodies are temples, usually it’s a warning. It’s shorthand for all the negatives that will lead to destruction. We’re told it until it becomes a shock collar, and any time we treat our bodies as anything less than a static empty building, we’re filled with fear of our own destruction. When grown ups told us “your body is a temple,” usually what they meant was “your body is a house that’s been on the market for three months.” They mean: Don’t leave crumbs in the kitchen; keep the floors swept; erase the fingerprints and furniture marks; make it look like no one lives here so that when Jesus returns he can have his run of the place because he needs a vacation home.

We mean, “return your body to God the way it arrived to you. Don’t mess it up; don’t spend too much time in the sun; don’t run so fast you fall and get scarred.” When they say, “your body is a temple,” they mean “your body is a library book, don’t get fined when you return it.” But the body is not a temple, not literally; the body is mobile, it’s a vehicle, it puts on the miles. It’s built to carry a load, set it down, pick up another one.It’s not Paul who was wrong, it’s us who misinterpreted him. Continue reading

Global Economics, Part 1: Amazon Prime as Devil

“Amazon Prime is the devil,” I said to a friend this week. The poor friend, the son of a preacher, was confused by my vehement rebuke, since Amazon Prime was only tangential to the story he was telling.

As a pastor, I try not to go around calling things the devil just because I dislike them. But if Amazon Prime isn’t the devil, it’s certainly something close to it. It amazes me how quickly Christians latched on to Amazon Prime as if their freshly arrived toilet paper is heaven-sent. How quickly we’ve let Amazon be our source not only for products, but invited Amazon to take over the whole supply chain, edging out competitors and creating functional monopolies on more and more products. How quickly we’ve bought into the idea that faster is better.

I waited three days for Jesus to resurrect; surely I can wait three days for my toilet paper (or at least, use my roommate’s bathroom until it arrives; although I should apologize to my roommate that I went through almost a whole roll of her toilet paper before I found the time to get my own; sorry, Stacy). Continue reading