Before you punch a Nazi: A new Anabaptist response to white supremacy

Aug 15, 2017 by

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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.

But how do we respond, when it seems that all the dynamics have shifted? Unlike riots in 2014, or 2015, we no longer have a president who will say something conciliatory and empathetic in a slow, steady tone. The alt-right has successfully shifted the Overton Window, “the universe of ideas that are palatable and therefore viable as policy.”

We have to do something that accounts for the cultural shifts of the past 18 months. If the Trump era has given the discontented right a new template for bigotry, the left needs a new template for conscience-ization — one with Anabaptist flavor.

Much of the “do something” appearing on Facebook feed is friendly reassurance that “it’s always okay to punch a Nazi.” (Maybe my Facebook friends are different than yours.)

As a pacifist, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable punching Nazis (yes, even Nazis). The past week has reinforced my belief that it’s not only unethical to punch Nazis, but also ineffective. Punching a Nazi — literally or in effigy — may be satisfying, but if anything, it reduces the number of people who are empathetic to progressive causes. It’s a reactionary doubling-down on rhetoric that indicates that Nazis are so far beyond the general population that we — in the moderate-to-radical left — would not welcome them even if they tried to re-integrate them. One of the most chilling developments among post-Trump activism is the way liberals cling to the Nazi-punching rhetoric inspired by the protestor who punched Richard Spencer on Inauguration Day. It isolates neo-Nazis even more deeply in their narrow, self-justifying ideology, and it isolates anti-racist activists from their moral high ground, which was, “we’re all seeking to be recognized as human.” If you want your enemy to love you (or at least respect you), you have to illustrate that you are willing to love (or at least respect) your enemy.

In the cathartic Google searches that often accompany incomprehensible violence, I found myself rereading a eulogy for Michael (MJ) Sharp, the Mennonite United Nations worker killed in the Congo in early 2017. The journalist quoted MJ Sharp, “rebels love talking about the past.”

MJ understood that the violent rebels he approached “were nostalgic for a mythical home and aimed to rewind history to a time that never really existed in the first place.” MJ described this as a sense of “dreaming of home” — and those who dream of home are deeply homesick.

Neo-Nazis and white nationalists are homesick. For all their violence and their rallies, they don’t really know how to get home, aren’t even sure what home they’re trying to get to; they just know this moment doesn’t feel like home. The stability of this country relies on the mainstream envisioning a future white supremacists can come home to. The vast majority of Americans must remind white supremacists that the past is not the only place to find comfort.

This is why I believe the left must rely on its pacifist branch. Pacifists must speak up and invigorate activism.

Anabaptists are uniquely situated activists — they have the legacy of pacifism, but also the legacy of ostracism, shunning and doubled-down factionalism. And they have the legacy of white supremacy. And the historical memory of homesickness. Anabaptism in America has all the tools to be bridge-people, to be allies and peacemakers. America needs Anabaptists to interpret its current reality, and it needs Anabaptists to envision a creative nonviolent path toward deescalation.

We’ve tried to dismantle racism in our own lives, and we haven’t always done that very well, but as we continue to do that work we also need to try something new: rewriting the story that legitimizes white supremacy for those around us. We need to create a way for white supremacists to come home without violence. We need to envision and offer de-radicalization.

Our peace and forward motion depend on its being possible. We have to peel back the violent and abusive parts of white supremacy until we find what the scared humans underneath are digging for: reassurance that they won’t be left behind; that they have an economic future; that rural America still has value; that they can love Christmas without hating Hanukkah; that the places they come from are distinct and beautiful and the geography of them can be cared for without drawing boundaries on who is allowed in that geography.

The journalist writing about Michael Sharp recalls the message that MJ and his Congolese companions tried to deliver to rebel leaders:

“You.. you’re over 50 years old, it’s too late for you to take over Rwanda. But your children are growing up uneducated in the bush. Don’t you see that your children, who are the future of Rwanda, when they go back they’ll be the slaves of those who are there! Because they are illiterate!”

This message persuaded at least 1,600 Congolese rebels to lay down weapons. The left — the mainstream — has to use every pacifist bone it can muster to create a message like this, a message white supremacists can hear. To the older ones: “It’s too late for you to get what you dream of, but if you want your children to get that dream, you have to teach them something different.” And to the younger ones: “You can get back home, but the road you’re on now will not lead you there.”

It’s tempting to respond to white supremacy in reactionary ways. But pacifism — true creative nonviolence — is proactive. It sees what violence dreams of, and morphs that dream into something nonviolent, thriving and interdependent. For Anabaptists to be allied with anti-racism, we must do the work of building exit-ramps from white supremacy. We have to develop the template for re-integration.

At the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, Fla., this summer, Michael Sharp’s parents spoke to the youth via Skype.

They asked us, “Who will step up and continue MJ’s work? We hope you will.” At the time, I thought: Oh no; these poor teenagers will think they aren’t serving God unless they’re in Africa. After this past Saturday, I remember their words and think: Oh yes, any time we respond to extremism with creative nonviolence, we are continuing MJ Sharp’s work.

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

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  • Alexandre Gonçalves

    Dear Hillary,

    Thank you so much for bringing us this reflection. I ask your permission to translate your article into Portuguese (my native language) and publish it on my blog and Facebook page.
    I am a pastor of a congregation of the Church of the Brethren in Brazil.


    Alexandre Gonçalves

    • Hillary Watson

      Hi Alexandre,

      I’d be honored! I did some revising/clarifying of the article today where it first appeared, so I’d appreciate if you translated the version there:

      Blessings as you hold this conversation and dismantle hatred in your congregation,

      • Alexandre Gonçalves

        Thank you so much, Hillary.

        Here’s the link of yoor articule translated into Portuguese.

        Thank you for your moving and inspiring words.

      • Berry Friesen

        “Blessings as you hold this conversation and dismantle hatred in your congregation.” Pastor Watson, these words don’t sound at all like you, but they effectively parody the liberal orthodoxy that apparently has entered your life with a vengeance in recent days.

        Thank you for letting us know. Keep the faith, keep your edge, and keep writing without regard to their shopworn analysis, which has given us nothing but grief. You have something infinitely more valuable to offer.

  • Rainer Moeller

    I’m really impressed. This has been the most “Mennonite” commentary I’ve read for years.

  • Bruce Dyck

    I grew up in the pacifist culture my first 25 years of and the last almost 40 years away from it. First of all I 100% believe what the Alt right did or is doing is wrong. But also believe the Alt left is equally wrong in their handling of the situation. I do jail ministry and have learned a lot by how you confront people and the last thing you do is get in their face and say they are wrong. You present the truth in love and respect and treat them as humans even though you despise their stance. You gain their respect and trust by being there listening before you assume and preach to them and put them all in one box. It can’t happen in a group setting it has to be a one on one by investing in time with them before explaining what you believe. You then show them the “Truth” (word of God) and that is all you can do.

    • Evan Knappenberger

      I prayed the other night for these enemies. One thing: there is no “alt left” — the real left has always been alternative, has never held real power in this country.

      At least the Antifascists are explicit in their violence — unlike many of the “crusaders” in the church today who embrace hegemonic tactics and strategies that are implicitly violent.

      evan knappenberger

    • Joseph Penner

      I’m concerned about this term “alt left.”

      Let’s keep in mind that when we say “alt right” we are using the term chosen by people who openly embrace that identity. It’s not a slur, it’s calling people what they have asked to be called. One of the traits of people who identify as “alt right” include, at worst, a belief in white supremacy and, at best, a skepticism of multi-culturalism. They aren’t shy about that.

      If you choose to use the phrase “alt left,” your are calling people names that they didn’t ask to be called. It’s a bit mean, I feel. It seems like a slur. If you’re point is that some people on the left are especially radical or “on the fringe,” I think it would be polite to use words that don’t equate them with unapologetic racists.

      • Bruce Leichty

        Joseph, I would say it’s even more complex than that. The left-dominated media don’t shy away from portraying all “alt-right” groups or individuals as “neo-Nazis” and “white supremacists” –just watch CNN for a few minutes– but that has never been true. So yes, there are groups and people who may choose to be called alt-right, but they do not necessarily choose to be labeled supremacists or haters.

        For readily understandable reasons, many of the alt-right are defensive and believe they are resisting their replacement (in the workforce, in the centers of decision-making and influence, etc.). This is not a racist impulse so much as it is a survival impulse. Now we can debate the basis for this sense of desperation on the part of many young white men in this country (it is mostly that profile), but let’s not do them the additional disservice of dismissing them for traits they (at least some of them) would not claim, similar to what you are seeking on behalf of young leftists. And I will concede in turn that not all antiracist leftists are part of the “Antifa” movement, although many are, or will defend Antifa which brought its own largely overlooked self-righteous hate and supremacism to Charlottesville. Leftists may have some common cause with Antifa just as rightists sometimes have common cause with extremists.

        And I hope we don’t fall back on the idea that the supremacists among the alt-right are worse than the haters on the left because “they started it.” The world is a complex place and it is a particularly Christian thing to do to listen to the aggrieved whatever their color or ideology, and find out how they feel they are being displaced by an indifferent or hostile elite and stand with them and advocate peaceably for them.

        There seems to be little will or ability on the left to distinguish a white supremacist ideology from a white nationalist or white rights ideology, or to be willing to identify and address religious ideology where there is indeed sacred text promoting supremacy of the few or the elect. I personally know several individuals who are either alt-right or have those sympathies who are emphatically not racists. Nor is it racist to be properly skeptical of multiculturalism, or perhaps better said the leftist fixation on multiculturalism as the defining feature of the good community, which is a construct designed to perpetuate the power of an elite often hostile to the many other values that are in fact better tests for a good community.

        • Joseph Penner

          Not sure I want to engage with much of this. I believe that racism is the most obvious characteristic of the alt right and nobody who is concerned about racial equality would identify with it.

          Regardless, my point stands: “alt left” is a slur. Use different language to describe leftist radicals.

          • Rainer Moeller

            I always wonder about people who are “concerned about racial equality”. What exactly do you mean?

            1. Races are factually equal (e.g. have the same average IQ etc.) 2. Inequalities between races exist, but are unimportant. 3. Races are to be made equal (by which means, please).

          • Joseph Penner

            4. A person’s race should give them neither an advantage nor disadvantage towards achieving success, feeling like they belong, or feeling safe in America.

      • Lynn Miller

        Joseph Penner You’re kidding.

  • Pandea Smith

    I appreciate this article very much. I would appreciate even more some very real recommendations of ‘true creative nonviolence’ that will make a difference, and please don’t say participate in a march.