Police brutality and Christian pacifist silence

Jul 29, 2015 by

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When it comes right down to it, Anabaptist Christians can never justify siding with the police over a civilian. We are pacifist. It is a fundamental tenet of our faith that there is always an alternative to violence and that, as people of faith, we ought to seek it. When it comes to police ethics, we begin with a hermeneutic of suspicion. That is, theologically — as pacifists — it is in our outlook to approach every officer-involved shooting with a healthy skepticism to doubt whether the officer was justified. If what we know of the situation is that the officer used a gun, it is morally consistent for us to assume the officer should not have.

If, in reading a media report, we ever find ourselves sympathizing with a shooter — whether it is a documented fanatic or an officer of the state — at that point, we ought to reexamine our assumptions. If you find yourself wanting to sympathize with law enforcement consistently, perhaps you ought to consider a different tradition.

Theologically, Anabaptists are committed to questioning any ethic of violence. We are consistently in the position of questioning any use of police force: whether or not Michael Brown stole cigars, whether or not Eric Garner was selling illegal cigarettes, whether or not Trayvon Martin smoked weed, whether or not Sandra Bland kicked an officer. It does not mean that we always take the side of the victim, automatically — it means that we question any narrative which justifies violence and approach a situation with more nuance than the media suggests.

As I watch reactions around me to Sandra Bland’s death, I ask myself: If this is the case, why are Mennonites sleeping on God’s justice? Why are Mennonites as a church body so slow to show up when the African-American community calls for a Department of Justice investigation? Why did we pass such a weak resolution on racial justice, titled “Expressions of Lament and Hope” in Kansas City? Why is Executive Board not working overtime to send a letter of support to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who have suffered the death of nine members in Charleston and of Sandra Bland in Texas? The delegate body should have named their document the “Black Lives Matter Resolution” and resolved to approach every police shooting of an African-American with a hermeneutic of suspicion.

It is not radical to assume Black Lives Matter. It is not radical to assume that Israelites who died under Egyptian authority in Exodus were victims of violence. And yet, the Mennonite church has been nothing but ambiguous in our support for the third-wave civil rights movement, as you might call it.

There are two theories in Mennonite theology of pacifism. The first is passive nonresistance, a principled stand against government violence that tries to disentangle from that violence by avoidance and withdrawal. The second is active nonviolence, an attitude that calls us not just to resist violence but to create peace, to get in the way of violence and creatively redirect toward reconciliation. On the topic of police brutality, we have too often opted for the former.

As Mennonites, we are used to identifying as conscientious objectors. At what point will we realize it’s not enough to have a conscience, we also have to object? It’s not enough to be a historic peace church, we have to be a contemporary peace church.

I wonder what it will take for us to react as a denomination with stronger language. Why are we so afraid of strong language, when even back to the Schleitheim Confession we decided to let our yes be our yes, and our no be our no? Are we waiting for a racially-charged police shooting in Holmes County, Ohio, or in Lancaster, Pa., or in Harrisonburg, Va., or all three? Is that what it will take for us to speak with one voice in the name of pacifism?

It is time for us to look in the mirror for a long moment of “check yourself.” And then it’s time for us to move into this conversation, as a denomination, in a public way. To condemn police shootings, to go beyond “pray[ing] for victims’ families” and “build[ing] awareness,” as our flimsy resolution said, to accompanying victims’ families, showing up for the families, both in virtual and material worlds, to put not just our words but our wills and our bodies in front of the officers who are given tools of violence with the assumption that in their hands the violence will always be justified.

Let’s consider how shallow our Resolution of Lament and Hope sounds when what we lament is having our lives disrupted and what we hope for is to be able to ignore the systematic violence police officers inflict.

Hillary Watson is a full-time Mennonite pastor in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com where this first appeared.

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