Jesus and Memorial Day



I’m not one of those pacifist Christians who pooh-poohs the idea of Memorial Day. Though my own inclinations are dovish, I have friends who have served honorably in the military — I care very much for and about those friends — and I know that people who served in our military have almost always done so with the best of intentions. Live and let live, I say.

On the other hand, I have to admit being skeptical of this:

Every year there are the usual Christian bloggers denouncing the supposedly idolatrous nationalism of patriotic holidays like Memorial Day and July 4. Any display of the flag in proximity to the church or congregational reverence for fallen soldiers is ostensibly a grievous rebuke to the Gospel.

This globalist mindset for Western secular elites is increasingly true for many American church elites, including some Evangelicals, whose elitism recoils at populist patriotic spirituality in Christian and especially evangelical subculture. It’s part of a larger spiritual universalism that rejects or minimizes particular loyalties. Although it nobly aspires to love for all humanity, it fails to appreciate that love meaningfully can only begin with relations in proximity, with family, friends, neighborhood and country. Loving everybody everywhere abstractly is unlikely without first loving nearby persons.

And that’s why Jesus was the Messiah *just for the Jews.*

Forgive the snark.

Loving the people around you is easy, but Jesus rarely preached the virtue of easy attachments. He spoke of loving your enemies, of visiting the prisoner. He offered parables about good Samaritans — Samaritans being outside of Jesus’s circle of “nearby persons.” John 3:16 speaks of a God who loves *the world.*

I am very much against Christianity as nationalistic tribalism. It’s one reason I’ve not found a place in the church. Living the way that Jesus speaks, with a kind of universal love, is damn hard. It doesn’t preclude your nearby attachments. It does suggest that killing for those attachments … might be unwise.

Which might be read as a criticism of Memorial Day, after all. Nah. I suspect some of us are called differently. Life is complicated.




I’ve often wondered if I would have the courage to confront racial or religious harassment in a public setting.

I wonder that even more now:

The suspect is currently in Portland police custody. The stabbing occurred at about 4:30 this afternoon as the light-rail train pulled into the Hollywood Transit Center.

Details of the triple stabbing, which killed two men, are still emerging. But eyewitness reports to KATU and The Oregonian indicate it was an anti-immigrant hate crime.

What is there to say? These dead passengers are heroes. They are martyrs. They stuck up for somebody who needed their help — and they paid price for it. Let us forever be thankful for them.

And let us pray we have the courage to defend the people who need defending, even if it comes with a personal cost.

— Joel

Sticking with Moral Complexity


It’s been a hard week for moral complexity, huh?

The Democratic Republic of Congo found footage (note that this link takes you to a story in The Guardian, not footage) of the murder of Michael (MJ) Sharp, a Mennonite who was working with the UN to investigate violence in the DRC, and his colleagues.

Fourteen people were hurt in a hit-and-run in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most of the injured–including two people critically hurt–were children riding a bus to a local Mennonite school. The driver of the car has not yet been found.

The KKK apparently had a rally in my hometown. The thought that people I grew up with are participating in a cross burning makes me ill.

Times SquareTampa..Bangkok... The Philippines... Manchester… Close to home and far away, people are awful.

We talked this week about Nazi punching–narrowly, the ethics of cheering on attacks on Richard Spencer and, more broadly, what we lose when we lose faith in debating ideas. As you wrote, “I’d rather keep testing ideas and debating them than see which side has the best set of punchers.” I agree–just not to the extent of bringing Richard Spencer an ice pack, at least not when there are many, many other people who are facing violence or government-led restrictions on their First Amendment rights.

At least some of our readers would go farther: that it’s perfectly ok to hurt modern-day Nazis because Nazism killed perhaps as many as 20 million people. 

Of course, there are ways to oppose hate that don’t involve fists, and they tend to work better anyway. So there is a pragmatic reason to not punch Nazis. It could be that if we suppress such speech, it just goes underground–where it is much harder to track. It could be that when we allow people space to say hateful things, we reduce the likelihood that they will act on that hate, seeing their speech as sufficient proof of their loyalty to their racist ideas. (I say, “It could be” because these are things we are still studying.) On occasion, when we talk instead of hit, we are heard.

There is another problem with punching Nazis: there are just too many of them.

Not Nazis narrowly, though even one of them is too many. On the hierarchy of who is the worst, we tend to put Nazis as the top. They were our enemies, after all! It’s much harder to put, say, Christopher Columbus, on that list. But let’s be nuanced: modern-day Nazis don’t deserve to be punched because they admire a movement that systematically killed millions of people. They deserve it because they admire a movement that killed even one. And even if none had died, they advocated for the inferiority of Jews, non-whites, people with disabilities, and gay people. That itself deserves a punch.

And if that is the criteria–that we should be able to whup on the alt-right because they are taking up an ideology that is cruel–then we have to consider who else deserves to get it. The list is long: defenders of slavery and Indian removal, those who carted Japanese Americans off to camps, murderers, rapists, child pornographers…

Don’t get me wrong: I wish that the Holy Spirit would sweep down over the US like in Egypt and kill every single person who has deliberately harmed a child. (Remember, I’m not a natural-born pacifist.)  That’s just one of the many reasons why it’s good that I’m not God.

Your call for us to us to rest in and wrestle with moral complexity is a good one. There is too much evil in the world for us to punch its lights out–and, anyway, that strategy doesn’t work.

So let’s not be discouraged in doing good.

***Update: The driver of the car that caused the bus accident has been identified and charged with a felony. The last child remaining in the hospital is now breathing on his own and speaking..






Pregnant Graduate Won’t Grace Christian School’s Commencement Events

It’s high school graduation season, which means it’s time for private Christian schools to show the love of Jesus to their students by refusing to allow pregnant students (but very often, not their boyfriends) to walk at commencement.

This year’s big story is out of Boonsboro, Maryland, where class president and 4.0 student Maddi Runkles isn’t being permitted to join in the festivities because she’s pregnant.  She initially faced a short suspension from her conservative Protestant school (where her father led the school board at the time) for breaking the “no sex until (heterosexual) marriage,” but the school also elected to do what so many other school boards do in these situations: kicked her off school leadership positions and refuse to let her don her cap and gown.

The logic behind this decision is that graduation is a celebration, and if the school celebrates Maddi Runkles, it communicates to other girls in the school that if they get pregnant, they, too, will be celebrated. And the school thinks that would be bad because it would lead to more teen pregnancies.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense.  It is, though, just about the only way that conservative Christians can address the inherent tension between their “sexual purity” and anti-abortion stances.

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 10.41.05 AM

Above, a pledge card from True Love Waits, an abstinence-only movement. Similar pledges appear in public schools without the religious language, though the public school abstinence-only effort is still tightly tied to conservative churches. In public school, the language may focus on “freedom”–to be free from worry about STDs, STIs, and pregnancy. 

Teen girls do or do not get pregnant irrelevant of their desire to participate in graduation ceremonies. I can 100% guarantee you that the last moment before a teen has sex is not spent thinking about the school board. Also, the real risks of sex–STDs, STIs, and, pregnancy and its huge social costs, are far more meaningful “punishments” for sex than not being able to toss your mortar board in the air. If the fear of having a baby (or the fear of the chronic judgment of people like the good folks at Heritage Academy) doesn’t dissuade you from having sex, no school board’s decision is going to do it.

And no one decides to have unprotected sex because they saw a girl the year ahead of them in school wear a graduation gown while pregnant.

Teen girls get pregnant because they have sex without accurately using reliable contraception. And THAT happens because they are not provided with comprehensive, factual sex ed that makes the risks of sex clear and also explains how to lower them. It happens because their sex ed focuses on their promise not to have sex, not on how to negotiate not having sex when you might really really really want to, how to make the decision to have sex a mindful one, or how to have safe sex if you choose to have sex. It happens because they have no adults to ask honest questions of and no one to help them secure contraceptives if they want them. It happens because they lie to their parents because they know that being honest with them will mean they are shunned. It happens because girls’ value is reduced to an unbroken hymen (not a real thing!) and once they have sex, they told they are worthless, damaged, and broken. And it actually makes marital sex difficult for a lot of people who stick with their promises to be sexually abstinent. These messages are sometimes overt and sometimes signaled more quietly, but they are the core messages of Christian purity culture.

Above, conservative Christian sex educator Shelly Donahue talks to students about “God’s purposes for sex.” Her techniques include asking a student to tape a piece of Scotch tape on their arm, then pull it off and then stick it to another teen’s arm. As the tape gets passed along from teen to teen, it loses its stickiness. Her point is that sex bonds us together, and each time you have sex with a person who isn’t your spouse, you weaken your ability to have a permanent bond with your future husband or wife. Tape that isn’t sticky is useless–and no one wants it. 

The result isn’t impressive: teens who take purity pledges delay the onset of sexual intercourse by a bit compared to their peers, but not by much. More worryingly, they are less prepared for it, which means that they are less likely to use birth control or condoms. And the sex they have is often infused with guilt, shame, and loneliness as they are unable to speak to their parents about it. They are more likely to get pregnant.  And, on a longer timeline, these teachings are spiritually destructive. 

If shaming Maddi Runkles doesn’t prevent teens from having sex, why do it? Perhaps out of a concern for the Heritage Academy brand, which the school fears will be tainted by a pregnant girl wearing the school colors. Her pregnant body tells all the friends and family gathered that the tuition dollars didn’t do their job: Heritage wasn’t able to bring a chaste, straight girl to the Christian marriage market.

Heritage Academy writes it right into school policies that students’ failures are theirs, not the schools. In enrolling their children, parents are asked to sign a parental pledge that states, in part,

We pledge that, if, for any reason, our child does not respond favorably to the school, we will not try to change the school to fit their individual needs, but will quietly withdraw him/her.

In short, Heritage Academy imposes its standards on your child, and if your child is defective in meeting that standard (for example, gets pregnant), it cannot possibly be because the school’s purity culture is the problem. It must be because your child was not following the dictates of the student pledge, which demand that students associate “with people of high moral character” (that is, the high quality boys Christian private schools make available to them).

The shaming of Maddi Runkles is part of an effort to insure that conservative Christians came shame women for having sex, shame them for getting pregnant, and shame them for having an abortion while doing everything possible to also undermine their ability to choose abstinence (because abstinence is not a choice for these girls; it is part of a transactional relationship, a promise to their future husbands and they are getting a “pure” girl), their ability to have good sex, their ability to avoid unwanted pregnancy, and their ability to provide for their children as single mothers.

Shaming pregnant girls is a way that conservative Christians can discharge their duty to be outraged by abortion without having to do a single thing that would actually prevent it.  

Heritage Academy won’t let Maddi Runkles grace the stage at her own graduation. I am not even sure that the good Christian folks there could offer space for her or receive the grace she could extend to them. That’s a sin and a shame for them, not her.

The Nazi Punch

Hi Joel:

This week, a professor from George Washington University saw alt-right loudmouth Richard Spencer at her gym, where he is a member, and confronted him. After she asked if he was who she suspected he was and he (apparently wanting a little piece and quiet while working out) said he wasn’t, she called him a coward. She ranted until Spencer asked an employee of the gym to intervene. It did–revoking his membership, despite, he said, his behavior as a “model” member of the gym. Unsurprisingly, the fight spilled over into Twitter, where anti-Semitic insults were directed toward the woman. Spencer may yet sue over the terminated membership.

In light of that incident and in light of your own recent remarks on Spencer, I’m sharing a post I wrote back in January.


Okay, so SOME people (my spouse) have been a little worried that I’ve so much enjoyed watching Richard Spencer get punched in the face. Over and over again. Set to music. Especially to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Over and over again.
They’re worried because I’m not a  person who supports violence. And that position is because I’m… well, a naturally violent person. I say that as a confession. My fight-or-flight instinct is mostly just an instinct to fight. I have a way bigger sense of my own strength than is reasonable, which, as you might imagine, has caused some problems in my life. And because I know that this is a life-ruining trait, I’ve been committed now for over 20 years to pacifism and nonviolent resistance. This doesn’t mean I’m good at it, but I’m deliberate about cultivating the inner peacethat makes peaceful nonresistance a reflex. I practice it daily so it’s ready when needed. As a family, we organize our choices around peaceful nonresistance so that we won’t find ourselves tempted into violence. We invest our identity in a religious denomination that holds up the ideals of peaceful intervention to prevent and end violence in all its forms. So all of that helps.

But, c’mon! This is RICHARD SPENCER, getting socked in the kisser. One might even say it wasn’t a punch but an “alt-high five.”  He said that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he got hit because he’s the leader of the “intellectual” arm of the white supremacy movement. I have more mixed feelings about letting my kids watch Captain America, who is not real, punch comic book Nazis.

Cap punches Hitler color.jpg

Above, Captain American punches Hitler. 

But, Rebecca, you worry. Isn’t it always wrong to hit? Isn’t violence never the answer? Did Rosa Parks punch Nazis? Did Ghandi? Didn’t the heroes of your faith themselves refuse to punch Nazis during ACTUAL WORLD WAR II?


Above, conscientious objectors to WWII served to help war victims by undergoing experiments in starvation. The participants were starved, then provided with controlled diets so that researchers could learn how the human body could best be repaired after concentration camp-like diets. 

Okay, I get your point. We’re all devalued when the dignity of one is devalued, even if that one is Richard Spencer. God made Richard Spencer, too. If today I’m cheering for Richard Spencer’s attacker, tomorrow I’ll be cheering for someone who punches a Klansman. (It’s true. You can find some videos of an attack on the KKK here.)

Thankfully, the appeal to nonviolent resistance isn’t an appeal to my better nature, because that nature isn’t always very good. It’s an appeal to what works. And nonviolent resistance often works. In terms of hate groups, it works pretty well. When Derek White, whose father, Don, is the leader of Stormfront, the largest white supremacy website out there, left white supremacy, it wasn’t because he’d been violently attacked or because some screamed at him or even called him a racist. It was because a patient group of people chose to be friends with him despite his racismand to open doors through which he could exit. His story is beautiful and remarkable, but it is not entirely atypical (though Derek’s prominence in the white supremacy movement was). What brings people into–and out of–hate groups is their relationships to others. This is why the work of groups like Life After Hate, which supports those exiting organized hate groups, is so important.

But that doesn’t mean that I am arguing against smacking Richard Spencer; I’ve got better things to do than hang-wring over whether it’s okay to punch a Nazi. Every day, the very people Spencer would like to “peacefully ethnically cleanse” from the US–nonwhites–are subject to interpersonal violence and to aggression ranging from the micro to the environmental, from police harassment to actual war, and they need our collective support. Richard Spencer can fetch his own ice pack.

Know Who Likes Nazi-Punching? The Nazi.


There’s been a bit of talk the last few months about “Nazi-punching,” whether there are forms of politics so evil that the correct response is not debate but, rather, pre-emptive violence. I’ve not been comfortable with that line of thought — I think as liberals we should lean to the “talk” side of politics than the war, and as folks with Mennonite leanings and heritages, we should be more cautious yet.

But there’s one person, it turns out, who really likes Nazi-punching: Richard Spencer.

You know, the Nazi-punchee*.

He’s profiled in the latest Atlantic by a former high school classmate. Toward the end of the article, he reflects on the punching incident.

He sounded vulnerable, for the first time since he’d said the St. Mark’s campaign had wounded him. “I have a right as a citizen to walk the streets and not be attacked, and I have the right to be protected,” he complained.

Spencer was obviously right when he said he should not be assaulted. But we both could taste the irony in the situation. If he hadn’t caught himself, he might have started talking about his “human right” not to be brutalized with impunity. Instead he recovered, and used the irony to his advantage. “The fact that they are excusing violence against Richard Spencer inherently means that they believe that there’s a state of exception, where we can use violence,” he said. “I think they’re actually kind of right.”

“War is politics by other means and politics is war by other means,” he said. “We don’t all want the same thing. And that’s why I think there is a kind of state of war going on.”

Not to put too fine a point on it: The Nazi-puncher accepts Spencer’s idea that liberalism has failed, and our politics is now eat-or-be-eaten. He makes this idea clear elsewhere in the article:

The other German forerunner Spencer claims is Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), who was, for a time, the court political philosopher of the Third Reich. Schmitt’s work has enjoyed a renaissance recently, and even liberals have found it useful, in part as a worthy oppositional philosophy that has forced them to improve their own. Spencer is hardly Schmitt’s heir. But his reading of Schmitt is fair and reasonably nuanced.

“There’s this notion of parliament as an ‘endless debate,’ ” Spencer explained over lunch. Liberalism accepts that disagreement is part of the political process, and that people who disagree profoundly can live together. [Emphasis added: Joel] But eventually, Schmitt argued, the parliamentary debate does end, and someone gets his way while someone else does not. The state’s job is to provide not the coffeehouse for the debate, but the threat of a beating to compel the loser to accept the result. “Politics is inherently brutal,” Spencer told me. “It’s nonconsensual by its very nature. The state is crystallized violence.”

If he’s right, if the Nazi-punchers who have accepted that logic is right, then we’ve already lost a great deal of what we’re supposedly trying to preserve in this country.

And listen: He might be right. We seem to have lost our ability to disagree profoundly and live together. Maybe that ability was an illusion that served the power and control of the people in charge. Probably.

If so, I can’t help but think it was a slightly useful illusion. Not always, and not for everybody, but we’ve survived some cataclysmic politics over the centuries and have only one Civil War to show for it. Me? I’d rather keep testing ideas and debating them than see which side has the best set of punchers. The best ideas don’t win that fight, just the best punchers.

We can’t let the Spencers of the world take charge. The danger – the danger I keep railing against – is that in resisting that prospect, we become the thing we said we hate. In this case, it couldn’t be more true: When you punch Richard Spencer, you’re acting in accordance with his philosophy. Not the race part, certainly, but the rest of it.

That would give me pause.


* He doesn’t like to be called a Nazi, but as The Atlantic notes, his ideas are pretty Nazi-ish. And Jesus, that haircut.