My “antifa” conundrum

Dear Rebecca:


One thing about being Mennonite: It offers clarity. Violence is the wrong answer, always, no matter the question.

I’m a quasi-lapsed, quasi-worshipful Mennonite these days. It’s complicated. And it complicates how I’m viewing the events in Charlottesville and its aftermath.

See, I’m not a fan of the billy-club wielding “antifa” crews. And I strongly suspect that folks who rely on violence to advance their ideology are in pretty big danger of becoming “fa” sooner or later, no matter how they describe themselves.


I’m also having a hard time getting as angry about the antifa folks as I am about the Nazis who used lethal violence in the name of white supremacy.

Motives matter. We have a billion different ways of judging wrongful deaths based on the motivations of the killer. (Neglect will get you a few years in prison; heat of the moment anger a few years more; something judged a “hate” crime can get you sent away even longer.) But … they don’t for Mennonites.

Violence is violence is violence, and violence is wrong. But I’m having trouble condemning all of it with equal fervor.

This troubles me.

With anguish,

Anger, and the present moment

Dear Rebecca:

I don’t trust my anger. I don’t trust it to help me be wise or to act with love or even, really, to be just. I think it’s why Mennonite pacifism appeals to me so: Violence is the most natural response to anger, and eliminating it from your toolbox forces you to consider other ways of channeling it.

You know that scene in The Avengers? Let’s say I understand it better than I prefer to admit:

Here’s the thing: I think my distrust of my anger might also be a luxury. There’s lots to be righteously angry about. A president who can’t quite condemn racism, for example.

And let’s face it, Jesus — well, he never killed or injured anyone. It’s impossible for me to imagine doing so in his name.

But… he could get pissed once in awhile, couldn’t he?

(What I love about that scene: The 80s action-movie horns.)

I don’t have a grand conclusion I’m drifting towards here: I am constantly enraged these days, depressed when the rage wears off, and I don’t really know the best way to make it something productive.

So I find myself lingering on these verses. I hope you’ll forgive the sexism of the King James Version here, Rebecca, because except for that, this is my favorite version of this passage:

He hath shown thee, O man, what is good:
and what doth the Lord require of thee
but to do justly
and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with thy God?

Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

I’ve got a long way to go.

With respect, Joel

Nazis, Republicans, and Donald Trump

Dear Rebecca:

Here’s what I wanted to say yesterday, but a technical error prevented it:

When conservatives complain about the horrors of Nazi authoritarianism, they’re referring to universal health care.

When liberals complain about the horrors of Nazi authoritarians, they’re referring to … Nazi authoritarians.

Pithy. Clever. But, frankly, cheap.

In the last 24 hours, we’ve seen Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain both call out the evil in Charlottesville for what it is: The work of white supremacists at odds with what’s best in American culture. Good for them.

Don’t get me wrong: Both have enabled Donald Trump at various times. And that enabling led to yesterday’s shameful equivocating by the president. But it’s not so easy to say Republicans = Nazis and leave it at that. So let’s not make this so easy on ourselves.

What we can say, however, is this: Donald Trump, in his inability to ever denounce the David Dukes of the world — or to do it grudgingly on the rare occasion he has — has revealed to us who he is. Racist? I don’t know that man’s heart. But his actions say this: He is reluctant to denounce the clearest examples of racism that exist in American society. And the people he is reluctant to denounce proclaim him their leader.

We know how such silence would be met if, say, left-wing eco-terrorists proclaimed themselves to be acting in the name of Barack Obama.

I have been reluctant to say that Trump supporters are objectively racist, though many of my friends on the left have felt no such compunction. But at this point, again, Trump has revealed who he is. If you endorse him, you endorse racism.

And because, again, this seems to come down to religion and abortion for so many of the president’s supporters: To be silent or neutral or equivocating on racism is not pro-life. You cannot lament the black babies killed by abortion, suggest that it is racism, then stand silent when clear racism declares some lives — black lives, Latino lives — less valuable than others. This president does not deserve your support. Your continued backing of him will be your witness.

We know who Donald Trump is. Who are you?

Respectfully, Joel


Dear Rebecca,

I assume by now you’ve heard the news:

CHARLOTTESVILLE — This picturesque college town devolved into a chaotic and violent state on Saturday as hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members — planning to stage what they described as their largest rally in decades to “take America back” — clashed with counterprotesters in the streets.

Despite the decision to quash the rally, clashes continued on side streets and throughout the downtown. In the early afternoon, three cars collided in a pedestrian mall packed with people, injuring at least 10 and sending bystanders running and screaming. It was unclear if it was accidental or intentional.

    There was at least one death,

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer indicated in a tweet. The Post could not confirm the death.

I have no wisdom to offer here.

I know that evil must be resisted. I know that racism is evil. And I know that overt David Duke-style racists feel suddenly empowered to parade their evil through American public life.

And so I know this, from President Trump, is insufficient: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” he said.

Nope. Liberals have many, many flaws. And we aren’t always as right on race as we should be.

But this is not a “many sides” kind of issue. There is good and there is racism. There is good and there is bigotry. The two reside on opposite sides of the spectrum. President Trump’s equivocation is wrong.

This feels like a good moment for repentance. And that’s just to start.


Nuclear war isn’t pro-life

Dear Rebecca:

I’m not, strictly speaking, “pro-life,” but I have a lot of sympathy for my pro-life friends. I understand why they think abortion is murder, and while I’ve decided there are also real and important issues of women’s freedom and health to be considered as well, I’ve never really had it in my heart to fight about this. For somebody who considers themself, ultimately, “pro-choice,” I’m about as sympathetic to pro-life folks as you can possibly get.

I even understood why evangelicals were big fans of Donald Trump, despite the fact his life and habits appear ignorant of Christianity at best and hostile to its moral precepts at, well, also best. It was abortion. And the Supreme Court. Everything else zeroed out for such folks. OK. I get it. I’m not going to persuade you to vote for Hillary.


To my mind, the problem with Donald Trump was never merely ideological. I don’t like his stances on many issues, but we’ve survived Republican governance before. What troubled me was his temperament. He’s a narcissist verging on nihilism — I see no public evidence that he’s interested in the existence of a universe that doesn’t center around him.

Before the election I wrote this:

Understand: Probably all politicians (and writers) are narcissistic to an embarrassing degree. The smart ones put that self-regard to the service of a broader agenda, one that benefits the people that they represent.

The, uh, less smart politicians have a two-year-old’s sense of object permanence, unable to see past the irritation in front of them to take the long view. And that leads to trouble.

With Trump, we know. We know exactly what we’re getting and … we know exactly how that story ends.

And, separately, this:

Trump has shown little evidence that he knows much about the issues facing American policymakers and doesn’t seem to care to know. His instincts are not just dangerous but perhaps catastrophic: Joe Scarborough reported this week that Trump had asked a foreign policy expert why America doesn’t use its nuclear weapons to solve international problems.

“And three times (Trump) asked about the use of nuclear weapons,” Scarborough said. “Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can’t we use them.”

There’s a reason the United States doesn’t use nukes so cavalierly: They are genocidally lethal. Using them would make other nuclear powers nervous and angry, increasing the likelihood of a war that could destroy this country — and a good portion of the world. Donald Trump should understand this. It is frightening that he doesn’t.

Which leads us to today:

President Trump threatened on Tuesday to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea if it endangers the United States as tensions with the isolated nuclear-armed state grow into perhaps the most serious foreign policy challenge yet in his young administration.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Let’s review:

I believe the North Korean regime is evil. It inflicts suffering on its own people, and on occasion spreads violence to its neighbors. I do not wish it to possess a nuclear weapon and a rocket capable of delivering that weapon to the United States.


The North Korean regime is regularly given to bombastic statements. The job of U.S. presidents has traditionally been to ratchet down the rhetoric, and thus the likelihood of devastating war.

Donald Trump, who never met a dick-measuring contest he didn’t elbow his way into, would rather satisfy that particular itch rather than be the adult and ratchet down the rhetoric.

I do not feel safer tonight.

And to bring this full-circle: Donald Trump may appoint the “right” justices for my conservative friends, but I have no reason to believe he possesses any ethic that is reasonably called “pro-life.” It is not pro-life to threaten nuclear genocide. And if you think abortion kills babies, you should see what a nuclear bomb can do.

This was foreseeable. Donald Trump was always going to be a horror show as president. Let us hope he doesn’t show his toughness all the way into helping create some of the worst horrors ever seen.

Related: National Interest, delete your account.

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Riding the rails (This is not a post about Donald Trump)

Dear Rebecca:

Sorry for my recent absence. As you know, I took a few days to take a real vacation with my family — the first time we’d taken a trip with my almost-9-year-old son that didn’t involve going to see family for one reason or another. We went to Chicago. And we took the train to get there.

Let me tell you, this is the only way to travel.

Sunset in Missouri, as seen from the Southwest Chief.

The trip happened to coincide with the first anniversary of our return to Kansas after eight years in Philadelphia. The return has brought me a renewed appreciation of the overlooked beauty of “flyover country” — the Flint Hills are as fine as any of God’s creations, and an evening spent on the back patio watching rabbits is probably one of the easier ways I find contentment these days.

My trip on the Southwest Chief added to that sense. We rolled through the rural parts of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois — over verdant rolling hills, crossing the Mississippi River, past the cornrows and wind generators, through tiny brick towns that didn’t look much different from how they appeared 100 years ago.

And you haven’t seen a sunset until you’ve sat in the observation car and watched all 90 minutes of it, from the first pinkening of the skies to the last sliver of red on the horizon, all of it with Masonic cemeteries and backyard fire pits passing through your line of sight on the way.

Best of all: You can get up and stretch your legs without stopping, take a nap while still traveling, and the legroom is far in excess of what you’d get on an airline.

Maybe I’m romantic about the railroad because my dad and grandfather both worked on railroads during their lives. I wonder if I should’ve gotten my hands dirtier. Oh well.

What does this have to do with politics or religion? Nothing. (Unless we want to argue about Amtrak funding, I guess, but let’s save that for another day.) Sometimes it’s just good to reflect on the things that make life a little better lived. For me, a trip across the Midwest on a train in one of those things.

Sincerely, Joel