What does witness look like now?
By Janna L. Hunter-Bowman, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Peace Studies and Christian Social Ethics
The morning after I watched police officer Derek Chauvin dispassionately murder George Floyd, I felt at sea. In the silence and darkness, I asked, “What shall I do?” Then I received a new question, an answer to a prayer I didn’t know I had formed: “What shall we do?”
“What shall we do” is the question. I have felt called to help equip and embolden our “peace church” communities as anti-violence agents of change that participate in movements for justice and cultivate a more participatory democracy. In the dynamic and diverse Anabaptist tradition, the church is to be a refuge from the violence of the state. The church must also identify and reject subtler forms of violence suffered, within and outside of it, in order to participate more fully in God’s work of justice and reconciliation. So being “good news” requires responding to concrete needs and concerns with discernment, training, cooperation, and civic engagement. It places Jesus-following Anabaptists alongside fellow travelers of different backgrounds in a risky struggle against violence and for liberation from unjust systems.
My congregation responds
The work began in July in my home congregation. Kern Road Mennonite Church (KRMC) in South Bend, Indiana, held a series of conversations on anti-racism and economic justice with some external input. We began with a brief history of Whiteness: the political and economic origins of race and Whiteness in the United States of America. A discussion of organizing and power building for structural change in biblical and theological perspective followed. Then we examined economic disparity between White and Black communities in the U.S. and why it exists, which made the case for reparations, in view of a commitment to restorative justice. Following that, Catholic, Jewish, and Seventh Day Adventist leaders shared about their work with Faith in St. Joseph County (a multi-racial and multi-faith network of 17 congregations working for racial and economic justice), and KRMC deepened its engagement in the movement for racial and economic justice. We still have a long way to go, from my personal perspective.
Our Mennonite congregation is predominantly White. Many members were formed in a tradition of pacifism that thinks about violence in terms of the direct (“bloody”) violence of war rather than structural or systemic violence and that emphasizes faithfulness over and against effectiveness in social change. The story of 16th-century persecution of Anabaptists and Mennonites that has been passed down through the centuries has led to a perception of the corporate self as victim and the theological notion of being a peace church “without spot or wrinkle” that is “in but not of” the world. These are among many factors that work against our recognition and repentance for participation in racialized systems of oppression and other forms of oppression. So I’m heartened that 35-50 people showed up each week to participate in the conversations and that even more are doing hard work to change themselves and partner with others for justice.
Our institutions respond
Broadening the “we” was imperative — not by Anabaptizing or Christianizing efforts for justice, but by honoring the different traditions of nonviolence and diverse peoples that are converging in movements for justice. The summer of 2020 laid bare inequalities that have long plagued the U.S. and the global community. The intersections of the pandemic, ongoing racialized violence, and hate-filled political rhetoric, combined with the volatility of the U.S. presidential elections, exposed the costs of maintaining the status quo and pushed each of us to examine our role in advocating for justice. Sharing these concerns, leaders of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame partnered with us at AMBS to offer a four-part online series in September and October to advocate for nonviolence as an effective strategy to resist violence and support movements for justice. We incorporated this series into a one-credit-hour AMBS course I teach each semester, Witness Colloquium, along with Jason Shenk, a Quaker minister and organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign.
Amidst great uncertainty and volatility, it was incredibly heartening to gather for these sessions with hundreds of people “hungry” — in the words of one participant — for analysis, nourishment, and practical resources for these times. Voices from different streams of nonviolence — including communal, liberationist, and strategic — spoke as witnesses to the power of nonviolence in action.
In the first session, Sarah Nahar (MDiv 2011), a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religion at Syracuse (New York) University, presented tactics and strategies for nonviolent direct action and movement building. Her insights drew on both Anabaptist and Black feminist perspectives on action for justice, peacebuilding, and change processes. For example, she invited participants to develop and share new ways of worshiping in these times. She urged participants to consider the different levels of risk that people of different racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds are taking while standing side by side in love and protest for justice. Speaking as what religious studies scholar Atalia Omer, Ph.D., calls a “critical caretaker” of one’s religious tradition, Sarah invited participants to prepare to affirm, with attention to power and awareness of those around them: “If there must be violence, let me absorb it.”
In the second session, strategic nonviolence experts Maria Stephan, Ph.D,, and David Cortright, Ph.D. (also a co-conspirator in the joint series!), reflected on anti-democratic actions around the upcoming U.S. elections and ways to prepare for a sustained struggle that can carry movements for justice through outbreaks of violence. Energy was high, with discussion of the “10 things you need to know to stop a coup,” which carried forward Sarah Nahar’s suggestion to identity five key people with whom to discern and act on other election-related mobilization ideas. Stephan introduced us to Choose Democracy (choosedemocracy.us)
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