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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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

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

What’s the Difference between a Safety Pin and a Bonnet?

The safety pins came and went quicker than the ice bucket challenge, and were laughed off the internet stage with vitriol usually reserved for, well… Donald Trump. On Sunday morning, I saw several safety pins at church. On Sunday afternoon, my newsfeed was filled with enthusiastic condemnation of the same.

Most of my queer, trans, nonwhite friends have been vocal and insultingly bitter about safety pins. They’ve also been witty and angry. I know their response was too aggressive for the mainstream moderate (at times, abrasive to me), but I can’t help but admire them. They’re my friends, after all, I feel where their pain comes from. I admire their focused anger, all their anger, how can I fault anyone for their anger at the triumph of sociopathy, racism, et. al, you know the list by now? Let us have our anger, in social networks and in the streets, in safe and democratic and uncomfortable ways. Perhaps the source of their anger, in part, is years of being told to “be less angry” by the same people who voted for Trump. Continue reading

Lady Gaga Might be the Closest We Get to Uniting Rural and Urban America

Among the celebrities with whom I share an irrational sense of intimacy–Russell Wilson, Jonathan Toews, Chance the Rapper, Macklemore (we all have our flaws, okay?)–Lady Gaga comes closest to being a frenemy. She’s like a high school acquaintance who, you find out a decade later, is now dating your high school male BFF (with apologies for the heteronormative analogy). So I was surprised as anyone to find myself fawning over the release of “Joanne” this weekend.

In 2008, my 20-year-old self (always a lyricist at heart) was horrified at Gaga’s single, “Just Dance.” New to the dizziness of alcohol and straight-laced by nature, the thought of losing my phone and keys seemed dire enough to scare me sober from any level of drunkenness. I was astounded by the thought of a woman who could not see straight and still accepted another drink, believing she would get home safe at the end of the night. 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

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