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), a collaborative effort of election monitors and veteran nonviolence scholars and trainers, and a group to watch for analysis of a possible undemocratic power grab (a coup) and to discern the need for nonviolent mass protests. “Cultivate the joyful and unexpected,” Maria encouraged her listeners. (The tactics concocted by my students who were inspired by this point have been a source of delight for me in these days.) Coordinate with “movements of movements,” including the Poor People’s Campaign, she said, and train in nonviolence.
In the third session, Rev. Liz Theoharis, Ph.D, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, discussed biblical and constitutional foundations for organizing for justice and movement building; strategies for unleashing the power of people with lower incomes in the lead-up to the election; and the imperative of building a movement during the current moment when we’re faced with multiple interlocking crises. By this point in the series, participants were fired up and ready to talk about building movements. Energy grew with an animated discussion of power and crescendoed with Liz’s response to the question: “How do you and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, two Christian ministers, understand your role as leaders of a broad-based movement in a pluralistic society?” (The question, posed by Katerina Friesen [MDiv 2016] of the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, wasn’t accusatory but communicated concern and curiosity.) Liz focused her response on undoing Christian nationalism and White Christianity.
The series culminated in a three-hour nonviolence training on Oct. 10 with more than 40 participants under the leadership of activists and nonviolent direct action trainers Ashley Bohrer and Nate Cohen.
How to connect
Recordings of the three sessions described above and accompanying resources are accessible on our Witness Colloquium webpage.
While the joint series with the Kroc Institute has concluded, you are still warmly invited to participate in the remaining online sessions of our weekly Witness Colloquium on “Understanding and Engaging Movements for Justice in 2020” through Dec. 9. We will meet via Zoom each Wednesday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time. There is no cost to participate, but registration is required.
Register at this link for the following upcoming sessions:
- Nov. 4: Elections, Anabaptism, and Where We Are Now
- Nov. 18: International Student Panel on Elections
- Nov. 25: Patricia Gorostieta of Movimiento Cosecha
- Dec. 2: People’s History of Elkhart
“What shall we do?” Count every vote. Take to the streets if not all votes are counted. Prepare and pray. Nonviolence is our strategic advantage — as Rose Marie Berger of Sojourners said, “Don’t blow it!”
- A companion piece: To defend democracy and advance racial justice, a post by David Cortright and Janna Hunter-Bowman as part of a Dignity and Development blog series published by the Keough School of Global Affairs
- The Choose Democracy Action Center, which provides the latest actions to prevent a coup or stop one that starts