An Anabaptist response to gun violence

Nov 14, 2017 by

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There is a gap in Mennonite response to mass shootings. After a shooting, when secular headlines buzz with gory details and harrowing survivals, Mennonite news outlets often continue posting business-as-usual news. Over the past few years, as shootings occur, I’ve begun Googling the location + “Anabaptist” or “Mennonite.” When I did it three days after the Sutherland Springs shooting, the first page of search results all read “Missing: Anabaptist.”

Occasionally, a Mennonite publication will carry a call to prayer or brief opinion that restates a general commitment to pacifism, but most often, we are left with the distinct, lonely feeling that pacifism means existing above the fray, and existing above the fray means pretending the violence didn’t happen.

Congregations in the same state or region may respond by attending a vigil, but often Anabaptist response is based on proximity and the coverage is a summary of the reactive response. It is not a churchwide, proactive movement but a rippling in one corner of the fabric.

Days after the shooting in Las Vegas, Chicagoland Mennonite pastors met for our monthly pastors’ meeting. For months, we’d planned to have a speaker from Mennonite Central Committee facilitate a conversation about gun violence. Most of the pastors admitted we’d never talked with our congregations about gun violence. We didn’t know how.

Why are our pacifist pastors so ill-equipped to respond to what has become commonplace violence?

Every shooting demands not aloof pacifist whispers, but vocal pacifist witness. If a shooting happens in America and the pacifists have a moment of silence, does anyone hear them? Of course not. Our pacifism is a stale farce if it is never articulated to the broader culture. Just as we were vocal, visible conscientious objectors during the world wars, we ought to be conscientious objectors to the epidemic of gun violence. We ought to be at the forefront of proclaiming “this is wrong and it is sin.” We ought to be on the front pages of the internet exclaiming, “If this is troubling to you, you are not the only one.”

For every mass shooting, there should be a denominational press release condemning the violence and calling for an understanding of Jesus as a healer and peacemaker. For every mass shooting, there should be a response and ritual in our Sunday services. We should invite RawTools to every convention; we should be banging on MCC Washington’s office door to speak against gun legislation.

And we ought to respond not just in public, but in worship, too. Perhaps we should make a commitment, as peace churches, to acknowledge and mourn every shooting. Every week that a shooting happens, we ought to begin our services all around the country by lighting candles for each victim, calling their memory into our worship recalling that each person was created by God and intended for peace and flourishing. We ought to open each service reading out loud together Matthew 5, from “Blessed are the poor in spirit” all the way to “if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others… be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete.”* We should repeat Matthew 5 until we memorize it, since it is the chapter we often say is the key to understanding the Christian life.

As I prepare for Sunday services the week after a shooting, I am often frustrated that we have no ritual of lament or prophetic call for peacemaking. It means that in my congregation, we simply don’t acknowledge the shooting. In four years, only once (after Pulse), did we include a ritual of mourning in our worship. I lament that I, as a pastor, have failed to teach my congregation to address gun violence as pacifists. In doing so, I have allowed my congregation to falter in their pacifism. I wish I was bold enough to arrive at church after the next shooting (there will be a next one) and declare a new ritual for these awful occasions — a ritual that affirms our call to peace, just as we regularly affirm our baptismal vows. Perhaps our call to worship should be an affirmation of the posted “no conceal carry” sign on our door.

As a pacifist denomination, we ought to be among the first and the loudest voices proclaiming to be American does not mean owning a gun. That guns do not make us safer; what makes us safer is faith and hope and embrace of the neighbor.

It is not only pacifism that calls us to oppose gun violence. It is also the Anabaptist conviction to love our neighbor and our enemy. Who commits gun violence and mass shootings? Those with nothing to lose. Those who have lost a grasp on the sacredness of life and who feel unvalued, unvalidated, and utterly alone. If we are properly loving our neighbor, if we are properly reaching out and integrating the lonely and depressed and hurting neighbor, we are doing gun violence prevention. We are making our communities safer.

And we ought to remember a lesson from our own history of the Russian Mennonite migration to North and South America. In the early 20th century, Russian Mennonites hurried out of the country, persecuted by the Red and White armies as well as local militias. Mennonite communities were targeted for a reason: generations of good farming practice, strong communities, and mutual aid had created tight-knit, wealthy, well-fed communities, while Russian peasants across the region suffered and starved. In the name of being “in the world but not of the world,” the Mennonites ignored their neighbors’ suffering and built bigger fences. Our communities may be thriving and flush with peace, but if we cannot speak to the violence our neighbors’ experience, it will someday bleed into our own lives. And our own record of inaction will leave us ill-prepared to respond.

When the fray bursts with violence, we cannot be above it — we must be in it, among it, with it. But not of it.

*Matt. 5:48 is more often translated “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” but the Greek word teleios is better represented as a sense of completeness or a finished, fully formed, mature thing.

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

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  • Berry Friesen

    In my congregation the worship service almost always includes public prayer for the victims of a mass shooting, sometimes for the shooter too. This is particularly true if the shooting has a prominent element related to racial, gender, or sexual identity. But yes, pastor Watson, we need better liturgies to deepen our reflection. Thank you! Not so convinced, however, about your suggestion that we should be out in the streets proclaiming our opposition to mass shootings.

    John K. Stoner suggests another approach in his post at I recomend John’s approach; he encourages reflection and then action in response to the forces driving these shootings.

    Then there is the possibility that some mass shootings are part of a manipulative scheme by the covert elements of the US-led empire. My point isn’t that we should spend our time as the church trying to figure out which fit that description, but that it’s vital to remain rooted in an identity that is inherently resistant to imperial manipulation.

    • Greg Murray

      I agree Berry Friesen “there is the possibility that some mass shootings are part of a manipulative scheme by the covert elements of the US-led empire.” I have been called a conspiracy theorist to suggest such a thing, however Jesus in his day choose not to resist the evil corrupt civil authorities so I’m not really sure what our response should be. Taking up arms to resist a government as has been suggested by some even if criminal sounds like madness to me.

      • Berry Friesen

        Greg, Jesus is quoted in Mark 8 warning his disciples: “Beware, be on your guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” I see in these words a call to “resist the evil corrupt, civil authorities,” don’t you? But how resist? By regarding with skepticism their words reagarding what happened, how we should respond, what our larger strategy should be.

        Herod represented the collorationist impuse among 1st century Jews. The Pharisees preferred a public face of exclusivity, isolation and purity, but it was often combined with behind-the-scenes collaboration to heighten the social tension and keep the people distracted from what Jesus was saying.

        Thank you for taking the time to offer brief comments on recent mass shootings and recent appeals to weaponry to save us. If we embrace those approaches, we will be weakened in our witness and in our communal resources. I am convinced we are being manipulated by the elite to engage in reactive behavior, thereby squandering our witness and our solidarity. Like the Herodians and the Pharisees, todays “leaders” want us to be a confused, fearful and disoriented population because then we are truly powerless.