An Anabaptist Response to Gun Violence

There is a gap in Mennonite response to mass shootings. After a  shooting, when secular headlines buzz with gory details and harrowing survivals, Mennonite news outlets often continue posting business-as-usual news. Over the past few years, as shootings occur, I’ve begun Googling the location + “Anabaptist” or “Mennonite.” When I did it three days after the Sutherland Springs shooting, the first page of search results all read “Missing: Anabaptist.”

Occasionally, a Mennonite publication will carry a call to prayer or brief opinion that restates a general commitment to pacifism, but most often, we are left with the distinct, lonely feeling that pacifism means existing above the fray, and existing above the fray means pretending the violence didn’t happen.

Google Anabaptist mass shooting

A typical Google search after a mass shooting. (The second hit is a newspaper summarizing local headlines, which included coverage of the shooting on the same page where Anabaptists were given a nod during Reformation Day celebrations.)

Congregations in the same state or region may respond by attending a vigil, but often Anabaptist response is based on proximity and the coverage is a summary of the reactive response. It is not a churchwide, proactive movement but a rippling in one corner of the fabric.

Days after the shooting in Las Vegas, Chicagoland Mennonite pastors met for our monthly pastors’ meeting. For months, we’d planned to have a speaker from Mennonite Central Committee facilitate a conversation about gun violence. Most of the pastors admitted we’d never talked with our congregations about gun violence. We didn’t know how.

Why are our pacifist pastors so ill-equipped to respond to what has become commonplace violence?

Every shooting demands not aloof pacifist whispers, but vocal pacifist witness. If a shooting happens in America and the pacifists have a moment of silence, does anyone hear them? Of course not. Our pacifism is a stale farce if it is never articulated to the broader culture. Just as we were vocal, visible conscientious objectors during the world wars, we ought to be conscientious objectors to the epidemic of gun violence. We ought to be at the forefront of proclaiming “this is wrong and it is sin.” We ought to be on the front pages of the Internet exclaiming, “If this is troubling to you, you are not the only one.”

For every mass shooting, there should be a denominational press release condemning the violence and calling for an understanding of Jesus as a healer and peacemaker. For every mass shooting, there should be a response and ritual in our Sunday services. We should invite RawTools to every convention, we should be banging on MCC Washington’s office door to speak against gun legislation.

Pulse Victim Shooting Ritual of Remembrance

One of the prayer cards we used during a ritual of mourning for gun violence in June 2016.

And we ought to respond not just in public, but in worship, too. Perhaps we should make a commitment, as peace churches, to acknowledge and mourn every shooting. Every week that a shooting happens, we ought to begin our services all around the country by lighting candles for each victim, calling their memory into our worship recalling that each person was created by God and intended for peace and flourishing. We ought to open each service reading out loud together Matthew 5, from “Blessed are the poor in spirit” all the way to “if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others… be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete.”** We should repeat Matthew 5 until we memorize it, since it is the chapter we often say is the key to understanding the Christian life.

As I prepare for Sunday services the week after a shooting, I am often frustrated that we have no ritual of lament or prophetic call for peacemaking. It means that in my congregation, we simply don’t acknowledge the shooting. In four years, only once (after Pulse), did we include a ritual of mourning in our worship. I lament that I, as a pastor, have failed to teach my congregation to address gun violence as pacifists. In doing so, I have allowed my congregation to falter in their pacifism. I wish I was bold enough to arrive at church after the next shooting (there will be a next one) and declare a new ritual for these awful occasions—a ritual that affirms our call to peace, just as we regularly affirm our baptismal vows.Perhaps our call to worship should be an affirmation the posted “no conceal carry” sign on our door.

As a pacifist denomination, we ought to be among the first and the loudest voices proclaiming to be American does not mean owning a gun. That guns do not make us safer; what makes us safer is faith and hope and embrace of the neighbor.

It is not only pacifism that calls us to oppose gun violence. It is also the Anabaptist conviction to love our neighbor and our enemy. Who commits gun violence and mass shootings? Those with nothing to lose. Those who have lost a grasp on the sacredness of life and who feel unvalued, unvalidated, and utterly alone. If we are properly loving our neighbor, if we are properly reaching out and integrating the lonely and depressed and hurting neighbor, we are doing gun violence prevention. We are making our communities safer.

And we ought to remember a lesson from our own history of the Russian Mennonite migration to North and South America. In the early 20th century, Russian Mennonites hurried out of the country, persecuted by the Red and White armies as well as local militias. Mennonite communities were targeted for a reason: generations of good farming practice, strong communities, and mutual aid had created tight-knit, wealthy, well-fed communities, while Russian peasants across the region suffered and starved. In the name of being “in the world but not of the world,” the Mennonites ignored their neighbors’ suffering and built bigger fences. Our communities may be thriving and flush with peace, but if we cannot speak to the violence our neighbors’ experience, it will someday bleed into our own lives. And our own record of inaction will leave us ill-prepared to respond.

When the fray bursts with violence, we cannot be above it—we must be in it, among it, with it. But not of it.

 

 

 

 

*I’ve written a second piece on other ways churches can respond to gun violence, which will appear soon in the Gathering the Stones column at Mennonite World Review.

 

** Matthew 5:48 is more often translated “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” but the Greek word teleios is better represented as a sense of completeness or a finished, fully formed, mature thing.

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Can You Love the Enemy Who is Trying to Kill You?

In the wake of Charlottesville, the Internet can be divided into two (three) people: the people crying that we should all “love our enemy;” the people shouting “They are literally trying to kill me;” (and the neo-Nazi defenders, who promote killing the aforementioned people; don’t even go down that rabbit hole).

The crux of the argument between the first two groups: Can You Love the Enemy who is Trying to Kill You?

Can You Love the Enemy Who is Trying to Kill You?

Spoiler Alert: if you’re Christian, you have to find a way from here to there. Jesus himself says the problematic phrase “Love your enemies.” But there are some twists and turns before we get there.

The problem with the enemy-loving question, especially on the Internet, is that most people argue from a Kantian perspective. To be perfectly objective, Immanuel Kant is a German philosopher who tried to universalize his own privilege as a mechanism for ethical discernment. Those calling for enemy-loving are often trying to universalize a moral claim in order to apply it to someone else. More pointedly, they tend to be privileged people suggesting that because I am white and I have been your enemy, you must love me. People who have done wrong have a vested interest in convincing the wronged to love their enemies. This is why Kant is insufficient.

Taking Kant out of the equation, we have two other starting points.

Immanuel Kant Birthday

John Stuart Mill at Kant’s Birthday (from Existential Comics).

Continue reading

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

Protest is Education: The Dakota Access Pipeline

There’s something crazy that happens when you’re standing in a crowd of hundreds listening to a fiery activist on a crackling portable microphone: you learn something. Often, I talk to people who say: “I don’t feel like I can go to the rally because I don’t know enough about [insert cause]. My response is: “That’s exactly why I go!”

we-are-water

My first impression on entering Daly Plaza was the sage I smelled half a block away. But this was my second impression.

The best education is showing up. I barely skimmed Mennonite Central Committee Central States’ statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline this morning. Mostly what I knew about the something-something-dog-bites-children-newsfeed and big-oil-destroying-hundred-year-old-native-burial-sites. Best believe I was image-searching #NoDAPL protest signs because I wasn’t sure “Sacred Sites are Not for Sale” was on-message enough (I went with “No More Broken Treaties” instead).  I went to march against the Dakota Access Pipeline because I believed I could learn more from being with the people affected than Googling articles from a distance.

water-is-life

I learned that Water is Life. And Water is reason enough to defend something.

When I stand in the middle of a rally, I often feel like I’m somewhere inside the pages of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of America, gathered in an unlikely diverse crowd, students and retirees, Muslims and Catholic workers, indigenous people representing tribes across the continent… and it floors me that in a 6-minute speech I learn more than in a 50-minute classroom lecture. A rally is an educational tool–to hear half-dozen indigenous people who have been to the Sacred Stone Camp is learning. To hear a 14-year-old Lakota boy from Chicago talk about watching  private security forces harass children is education. Protest is education. Continue reading

Militants and the Definition of Martyrdom

Until this morning, I found the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge baffling and mildly disruptive, like a pot of poorly brewed green tea. But this morning,  when I heard the one of the young militants responding to LaVoy Finicum’s death, something clicked for me. The man said, in an eerily even voice, “They straight up–they straight up killed him. You think I’m gonna leave? No. They can kill me, too.” The reporter’s voice tried to explain his stance, describing the sense of martyrdom surrounding Finicum’s death. Martyrdom?

Once in college, a student asked a professor to explain the logic of Westboro Baptist Church. The professor, a theologian and devout Christian, said “I can’t do that. There is no logic. There’s no way to understand it,” unless you buy into the whole extremist worldview all at once. The same is true of the Wildlife Refuge’s occupiers, leaving the media in the unfortunate position of explaining crazy to the mainstream. No wonder we’re all still confused. Continue reading

What Do We Want?: Deciding what Justice Means in Chicago

Some of my friends don’t like going to protests. They say, “I believe in this one thing, but when I get there, all of these other causes are there and I don’t want anyone to think I’m marching as a communist or an anarchist or saying we should get rid of the police.” Protests have a tendency to swell–to begin with one issue and then cascade into a pounding waterfall of grievances. What do we want? Justice? That’s such a big, abstract word.

Every protest is a little bit different. Some of the people are the same–Lamon Reccord, staring down police and running up and down the protest line; or the guy with the communist newspaper–but every protest is different. The first protest I went to this fall, the hearing where activist Malcolm London’s charges were dropped, was a celebration. A crowd of young black protesters gathered in a circle, singing a song of their own rhythm, dancing and shouting, “I love being black! I said, I love being black!” That protest felt like a party. What did we want? Justice. A very narrow, specific justice–for the judicial system to admit the felony charges against Malcolm London were trumped up and targeted. Continue reading