“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.

A New Magnificat

And why should I not be smiling,
knowing what I know now
about what comes after all this
when all the evil falls down,
when justice bursts like a sweet flood through the streets
and all the pennies thrown into all wishing wells
rise up like miracles?

Let me tell you the Good News:
There is Good News.
That’s it:
goodness, somewhere, rushing toward us Continue reading

Keeping the ‘Baptism’ in Anabaptism

 When I applied for the pastoral position at my current congregation, during one interview, I asked the Search Committee when they’d last celebrated a baptism. They thought for a moment. “Years,” they answered.

Many Anabaptist congregations are like my current one, celebrating baptisms only rarely. In five years of ministry, I’ve presided at about one baptism per year, which is more than some of my pastoral peers.

Anabaptist churches are defined by their relationship with baptism: a symbol of voluntary participation, where individuals request a ritual of commitment instead of having one thrust upon them at a mandatory age. Baptism must be a choice, and is only made once, for life. During the Radical Reformation that birthed Anabaptism, many believers made this choice, renouncing the priest’s baptism they’d received at birth and requesting, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, to be baptized by another believer.

The declining popularity of baptism is linked to the word choice, an almost sacred word in secular Western culture. Everyone wants to choose, to decide, to have control over what and how they consume. Choice is one of the highest cultural values—evident in the many advertisements appealing to customizable products that give you what you want, when you want it.

As choice meets pluralism, baptism becomes a weightier decision. 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

A New Litany for Ordination

Ordination is a big deal. It only happens once in a lifetime. There is a standard litany for ordination. But, being a writer, as I prepared for my ordination last month, I couldn’t help rewriting the litany.

The standard Mennonite ordination comes from the Minister’s Manual, a handy little book published in 1998. The pocket-sized manual contains the words of institution for all our critical rituals and life transitions.

I believe in the power of a standardized litany, the power of all pastors reciting the same words of commitment at ordination. I also believe in low church, that each of our ordination reflects each of our journeys, and after all as a low church, ordination doesn’t set us spiritually “above” the congregation, but alongside of it in a particular way. Each candidate for ordination can adjust the words and be faithful to the ritual itself.

When I read Form 1 and Form 2 in the Minister’s Manual, neither one fit me well. The words were dry and formal, without imagery, the gospel commitments had no edge, no risk. It asked me to reaffirm the vows of my baptism, but didn’t say what those vows were. The repeated use of “brothers/sisters” excluded my gender nonconforming friends. There was an optional insert for the candidate’s spouse, but no insert for a single pastor to acknowledge the relationships that hold them in ministering work. Even more, the insert called the spouse to deeper commitment of their gifts without acknowledging the stress pastoral work (and helping professions) can put on a relationship and the importance of sabbatical, sabbath, and self-care. All of these seemed like very solvable problems, with a few substitutions and rephrasings. Continue reading

What to Watch in Orlando: An Unofficial Guide

Ahhh, Orlando. With a biennial convention, it’s easy to lose track of the details. If reading two years of The Mennonite is TL;DR for you, here’s a overview of what will really matter in Orlando. I’m calling it the Gossip Girl Guide because it covers the gap between the institutional view and the ground-level view (also because xoxo, you know you love church polity).

Orlando sunglasses

 

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