“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.

Is it Time to Stop Watching the NFL?

Last month when NFL owners approved a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem, many activists on the left cried game over. (Activists on the right cried boycott last fall when the protests continued for a second season.) If owners regulate their players’ behavior—in the name of regulating their love of country—it’s time for the populace to tune out. In the words of Chris Long, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl winning team in the 2017 season, “This is not patriotism… These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”

With this declaration from the NFL owners, the ball is in the spectators’ court. Should we stop watching football in 2018? Should these regulations become the straw that broke the camel’s back? After lukewarm responses to domestic violence, after minimizing the risk of brain injury, how many bitter pills will we keep swallowing? Continue reading

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

‘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

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

Privilege is not Solidarity: Mennonites and the Anthem

As the national anthem began to play and all activity stopped in the stands, I became acutely aware that I was the only one not facing the flag with my hand over my heart. I hadn’t been to a sports game in months, but as I stood, refusing to pay homage to the flag, for the first time, I realized the way conscientious objection can feel like drowning.

Like many Mennonites, as a child, I was applauded when I didn’t stand for the anthem or say the pledge. Even in high school pep assemblies, when my silence drowned out by my peers’ dutiful pledges, I could hear the voice of my church community encouraging this separation between worship and worship of country.

I was slow to “get” the Colin Kaepernick controversy. I was stumped by the idea that the thing I’d done since childhood and been widely ignored for, was noteworthy, much less offensive. I’d spent a lifetime sitting in Kaepernick’s figurative shoes, and couldn’t remember ever being ridiculed by my peers. Then again, I was 21 before I saw my first football game, and it took years after that before I realized the sport was a religion in its own right. Continue reading

Polaroid Pictures, Pokemon Go, and Failed Recipes

My plan was to run up to each tree and shake it vigorously, as one would a Polaroid picture. Or, as my friend Eden said on Saturday as she passed me a film from her vintage Polaroid camera, “No! You don’t shake your Polaroid picture!”

It wasn’t a very good plan. The alternative was to use a very long stick but (1) the mere thought of it had me humming “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and (2) required walking a mile in 90 degree weather with a very long stick. So I propped my bike against a streetlight, spread my blanket, and shook as vigorously as I could muster. Nothing happened. Continue reading

The Kingdom of Heaven is where Everyone Knows the Lyrics to Trap Queen

Someone asked me what the highlight of my weekend at youth retreat was. I had an answer. It was not a very pastoral answer. I thought about lying, but that didn’t seem very pastoral, either. So I said, “When they stayed up past curfew so they could keep singing ‘Trap Queen,’ using nothing but a piano, a single drum, and their voices.” 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