‘Self-restraint’ in North Korea

Dear Rebecca:

This has been stuck in my craw for the last day or so.

The unusually blunt warning, from Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of American troops based in Seoul, came as South Korea’s defense minister indicated that the North’s missile, Hwasong-14, had the potential to reach Hawaii.

“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” General Brooks said, referring to the 1953 cease-fire that halted but never officially ended the Korean War. “As this alliance missile live-fire shows, we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance national leaders.

“It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”

You know what else is a choice? Making war.

There’s something awful and dangerous about the idea that war is a default position, that it takes an act of will not to send thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen into combat to inflict death on a widespread scale.

This is particularly true in North Korea, where it seems likely the regime is developing nuclear weapons as a means of protecting itself from interference from superpowers like the United States. The likelihood they’ll actually start a war? Pretty low.

Which means we’d be starting a war for the purpose of … making sure they can’t retaliate if we decide to go to war with them. That seems like a terrible squandering of life in order to prevent an unlikely outcome.

Listen, the North Korean regime is — as George W. Bush once said — loathsome. But if our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved this century, going to war against loathsome regimes doesn’t necessarily result in a net improvement.

But their provocations do not require an armed response. Anybody who tells you differently might have an itchy trigger finger.

Worriedly, Joel

The Nothing We Learned from the Death of Philando Castille

Hi Joel,

Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of Philando Castille.

That’s 365 days that his fiancée and her young daughter, who watched him die after police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot him at point blank range, have had to live with this memory.

That’s a whole school year since the children he mentored at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School have had to show up to school, knowing that nothing will keep them safe.

A year later, we have heard only the same thing we white people should have known all along if we have been listening to African Americans, believing their stories, and studying history: because black bodies are themselves a threat to white supremacy, they are always in danger.

In the last year, nothing significant has changed in the culture of policing, which is simply a part of a larger, longer project of fear and control of black bodies. Some of us learned this history in school, others in our family histories, others from the news, others from our neighborhoods.

Left to right, Louima, Diallo, and Castille. 

(Who is the first point on your timeline of white police violence against black bodies? If you skip subway “vigilante” Bernie Goetz, mine was Abner Louima, who , then Amadou Diallo.)

The same forces that allowed Yanez to go free are the ones that allowed him to shoot anyway. If he were going to be found guilty, he wouldn’t have done it—not that fear of sentencing keeps officers from firing their guns but that our common (I say “our common” because everything about American culture works to train us all to see black men as violent.) investment in violence against African Americans both justifies and excuses violence. I was afraid, you understand. Yes, we understand what it means to be afraid of a black man. It means when you kill him, we will feel empathy, because we have been afraid too. And we will not punish you, because we, too, want to reserve the right to kill the black men we fear.

A year after Castille’s death, what do the jurors think about his killing? What do the two African Americans on the jury think? Are they thinking, as the juror in Audre Lorde’s “Power” was thinking:

“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

What did former officer Yanez learn? Does he continue to allow his fear to outweigh others’ lives?

What can white people learn? Nothing that we did not already know, because we are the ones who invented this system.

  • That black respectability is not protection from white fear.
  • That black compliance does not guarantee safety from white violence.
  • That the safety of black children is not a priority for white people.
  • That guns rights are white rights.
  • That conceal and carry does not keep black people safe.
  • That implicit bias continues to be the lethal—and excusable.


If you want to learn more about implicit bias and to test whether you (and especially you, dear white readers) have implicit racism, visit the Harvard’s Implicit Project.

There are many ways you can work for racial justice. One is by donating directly to Black Lives Matter, which works to combat police brutality against black people.



Love, gays, Mennonites, and me

Dear Rebecca:

You mention the Mennonite gathering at Orlando this week. As it happens, I was at the 2001 conference in Nashville that created the Mennonite Church USA. Tough to believe there’s a whole generation of high school students with no memories of “GCs” and “MCs.” We’ve been a united (ahem) church for a little while now.

The shirt from the 2001 Nashville conference.

That trip to Nashville affected me two ways:

•It made me love Mennonites more than ever.

•It helped drive me out of the church.

The reason for the first is simple: It’s difficult — for me, anyway — to spend days with Mennonites from across the country, much of that time spend in fellowship and worship and prayer with them, and not come away inspired by the breadth and sweep of the faith. Simply: I met a lot of good people at Nashville — including a few with whom I was in disagreement.

But yes: It helped drive me out, too. Why?

That year, the organization of gay and lesbian Mennonites were not allowed to have a display or official presence in the conference’s main hall. So they set up shop in hotel across the street, instead. I went over, to listen and to talk, and ultimately to worship with those folks.

I met a middle-aged Mennonite couple. I don’t remember their names at this point. But one of the men had had a heart attack a few years before. The other had nursed him back to health. And it was inhering their story that any ambivalence that remained in my heart was washed away: This was love. It was a good thing. And I decided in that moment the onus was not on them to prove they belonged in a faith community, but on a faith community that could look at that love and call it evil.

My faith was tenuous anyway, admittedly. But between that and other events, I decided a couple of things:

•I didn’t believe that God wanted me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community.

•If God DID want me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community, that was not a god worthy of my worship.

•In any case, I wasn’t going to participate in a faith community where I had to argue for the simple, lovely humanity of people who loved each other.

I’ve been slowly stepping back into the church of late. It helps that I have a congregation here in Lawrence where I don’t have to have these arguments. (Though the congregation’s history is imperfect on such matters.) But I confess to not being sure how to address the arguments that remain in the broader Mennonite Church. I know that my friends who love each other also love God and I’m pretty sure God loves them too. I don’t know what else to say about it.

Respectfully, Joel

$16M to House Congress? Why not just stop suppressing voters?


Did you see Jason Chaffetz’s parting gift to the American people? Just before jumping ship just halfway through his term, the snake oil salesman from Utah suggested that taxpayers provide a housing allowance for members of Congress. (This is immediately following a failed effort to reduce the housing allowance of those in the military, who, presumably, also don’t get to choose where they work and earn a lot less than Chaffet’s $174,000 salary—which he says can’t support his mortgage in Utah, an apartment in DC, and college tuition for his three children, including one at law school at the private and very expensive University of Virginia.) The legislation would provide each member of the House and Senate $2500 (or 3.8 iPhones) per month to pay for the cost of living in the Washington DC area, where rents are the fourth-highest in the nation. That is a quite modest amount and would secure just an average one bedroom apartment, with utilities.   It’s almost $7000 more per year than a person working full time in a minimum wage job in DC (which now pays $11.50) earns in a year. So I bet a lot of the poor in DC are really sympathetic to Chaffetz’s argument!

Chaffetz, who has lived in his office for 1500 days of service to Congress, justified the effort by saying that you shouldn’t have to be a millionaire to serve in government. I agree (and, in fact, I think that being a millionaire probably makes it harder to responsive to voters’ needs and concerns because being rich very often makes you unable to attend to other people)—and I think that a housing allowance is preferable to a pay raise because it gives voters a sense of control over our money.

Above, ironworker and army veteran Randy Bryce campaigns against Wisconsin Senator and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Watch it and remember why our nation is best served by people who believe that “[i]f somebody falls behind, we are so much stronger if we carry them with us.” Explains Bryce in the ad, “That’s the way I was raised. You look out for each other.”  

He’s right to be concerned. The traditional avenues of serving are extraordinarily expensive. Who can afford an unpaid government internship? Only the children of the wealthy.

Campaigns cost a lot of money, and that cuts regular folks out of the democratic process. The race for the Georgia seat recently set a new record for a House race. And it’s not just seats in Congress: a recent school board race in California cost over almost FIFTEEN MILLION dollars, and, of course, it is these local contests where talent is cultivated for state- and national-level office.

How has this much money been spent on something so many people hate? Unless you are political consultant (and if you are, you should re-evaluate your life choices, because as those billboards say, we’re all gonna die and face God one days), you get nothing but a headache and a deep disgust for your fellow Americans from the constant barrage of marketing during campaign season, which is now year-round.

The risks are high, too—sometimes prohibitively so. In Iowa, the early Democratic challenger to white nationalist Rep. Steve King dropped out of the race in part because she was facing consistent death threats from King supporters and in part because she simply could not afford to leave paid employment (and, in particular, her health care benefits) to run. Even if she won, her leave of absence prior to taking office was unsustainable.

Others of us can’t even afford to vote.

In many states, legislatures work hard to make voting difficult for vulnerable populations: in North Carolina, the state has reduced the number of places where you can secure the ID required to vote and reduced the number of hours polls were open, targeting majority African American areas, in an effort to suppress votes. The consequence is that voters now have to take time off from work to travel greater distances to find a place to get an ID and to vote.

What is the consequence of these barriers? Fewer poor people—which also means fewer people of color—run for office or vote. In a system that designed to weigh white votes heavily than the votes of people of color, people of color need to vote in higher numbers to be heard at all. Fewer people come to office from poor, working, and middle class backgrounds. Few have experienced poverty or economic struggle. They have not worked in jobs that require physical labor, and the few have served in the military. They are not teachers, pastors, nurses, or social workers. They have not worked in jobs where they were helping people but in jobs where they were making money for someone else. Chaffetz, whose background is in multilevel marketing, is a prime example.  Just over half of those in Congress are millionaires, and the median wealth of Congress continues to climb.

I’ll believe that members of Congress really intend to widen participation in democracy when I see them support public funding for elections, caps on donations to campaigns, a national holiday on election day, education grants to support students pursuing careers in government, affordable health care that isn’t linked to employment status, and zero barriers to the voting booth.  In the meantime, the call to provide housing in order to insure that “we the people” can get into office feels a little disingenuous. .



The spiritual danger of exclusion


MCUSA, the US’s largest Mennonite denomination, meets in Orlando this week. Since the last national conference, in Kansas City, more of my friends have left the denomination, almost all over the church’s failure to honor the dignity of LGBTQ+ people, including LGBTQ+ Mennonites.


Above, the logo for the MCUSA national convention: a red heart with a white banner through it that says, “Love is a Verb,” the theme of this year’s event. But for many of us, the theme is, year after year, Can we hold it—the denomination, our sadness, and our frustration–together?

MCUSA continues to appease factions that refuse to honor the dignity of LGBTQ+ people/”endorse sin” (depending on how you look at it), some of whom have already made good on the threat to pack up and leave the denomination. In the meantime, the compromises continue to cause queer members to lose faith. Unlike the LGBTQ+ excluding churches (Sorry, Romans 1:28-29 fans—I don’t know a nicer way to say it), who have a process for exiting, they wander away, often unsupported (though this doesn’t have to be the way. If you are a LGBTQ+ Mennonite or an LGBTQ+ person drawn to the Anabaptist faith tradition who can’t or doesn’t want to “hold it together” anymore, know that you aren’t alone—and that those who have not welcomed you do not define Anabaptism, even if they’d like to.). This is the consequence of what Mennonite pastor Joanna Harader calls “false equivalencies of harm.” At her blog Spacious Faith, she writes:

The current narrative from denominational leaders is that the harm done to two particular groups of people in the church is equivalent:
  • people who hold “traditional” views of sexuality and marriage are harmed when people disagree with their theology, when people tell them they are wrong, when they have to be church with LGBTQ people and their allies
  • LGBTQ people are harmed when they are denied full inclusion in the church, when they must defend themselves and their relationships if they want to participate in the church at all, when they are told that part of their essential identity is unacceptable to God.
Please look over these two lists again and here me very clearly: These harms are not equal.

Some people leave with churches, and some people are discarded or give up. When non-welcoming Mennonites “lose,” more people know the mercy of God’s grace and the kindness of God’s justice. When they “win,” the wideness of God’s mercy is diminished.

After months of observing and participating in conversations with Mennonites who would exclude LGBTQ+ (by sexual orientation, by identity, by behavior—however you want to define it) people, I have drawn this unpleasant conclusion: Those who would exclude LGBTQ+ Mennonites from the faith are a danger to others, to the church, and to themselves.

They are a danger to others because they fail to show unconditional love. Once others understand that there are boundaries to your love, they know that they may stumble over them. And then, instead of being vulnerable and honest with you, they feel shame, and they lie in order to stay in relationship with you because you have made it clear that they cannot be honest. They don’t change—they just don’t share themselves with you. They lose the opportunity to be loved by you. You lose authentic relationships and the opportunity to grow in friendship. And others miss the opportunity to love and be loved by you—all because you cannot or will not decide that love can be limitless.

They are a danger to the peace witness of the larger Mennonite faith. According to “Mission and Identity Report: Discerning the Mind of Christ in Conservative Mennonite Conference,” a report by Conrad Kanagy and Jacob Kanagy, 98.1% of CMC respondents to Kanagy and Kanagy’s poll said that same-sex relationships were wrong (slightly more people than those who said abortion was wrong and slightly fewer than who said viewing pornography is wrong), but just 58.1% of the members of those polled felt that Christians should not fight in wars. While it’s true that Mennonites have never perfectly rejected military violence, this peace-church distinctive has perhaps drawn more people to the faith than any other. People come to the Mennonite church not just because it is anti-war but because being anti-war, at its best, stands for so much more: the religious freedom not to support death through taxation; an optimism about peacemaking; a focus on heavenly, not national, citizenship; stewardship of the planet; an affirmation of Jesus’ reconciling ministry. Likewise, an anti-gay position tells us much. In her work on evangelical sex advice websites, sociologist Kelsy Burke argues that religious teachings on sex do more than teach about sex: they teach about gender, reproduction, marriage, and more—and conservative teachings on same-sex sexuality correspond with political conservativism.

Mennonites who choose to exclude LGBTQ+ people espouse a message that increasingly aligns with the militaristic Religious Right. As more churches abandon their Mennonite identities to evangelical ones, they compete with conservative evangelical churches. CCM leaders are aware of the temptations of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and MCUSA needs to stay alert, too. If Mennonite churches become just another kind of politically, socially, and theologically conservative churches, here, they will lose—both to those other churches (who have had decades of practice and who, frankly, are almost always snazzier than your average Mennonite church) and to the rising tide of irreligion. (One million people have left the Southern Baptist Convention in the last 10 years.) If you are attracted to a church with an anti-LGBTQ+ message, you’re probably not looking for one with an anti-war one. On the other hand, if you are looking for a reconciling church that takes Jesus’ call to nonviolence seriously, you are also likely looking for a church that includes, not excludes, queer people. Anti-war, anti-LGBTQ+ Mennonites have few potential consumers in this religious marketplace.

These may be unfair lines to draw, and they are certainly inaccurate in some cases. (The Amish are doing a fine job, entirely through a high birth rate and rate of adult retention, of being both pacifists and anti-gay.) But the broad pattern—that Mennonites who want purity rather than hospitality are going to have to figure out how to distinguish themselves among the many anti-LGBTQ+ churches out there—is true.

When I look into the world, where Mennonites are called to “go and make disciples,” I see a lot of people earning for a faith that opposes military violence as much as they yearn for a faith that embraces LGBTQ+ people. The harvest is ready, but the workers are few.

And they are a danger to themselves. The most “compassionate” justification that LGBTQ+ excluding Mennonites have is that they “love the sinner but hate the sin” of same-sex sexual intimacy. It is because you love gay people that you must preach against them, exclude them from fellowship, shame them, and denigrate their loving relationships. The real tragedy, you say, is that this is such lonely work—and you get called “hateful” and “intolerant” for it! LGBTQ+ people don’t even appreciate your efforts to save their souls! Still, though “this will hurt me more than it hurts you,” you soldier on, doing your duty to tell LGBTQ+ people how unacceptable their love is. Because you love them, you must tell them! Because you love them, you mustn’t let them continue to walk in darkness! Because you love them, you must intervene to let them know of God’s coming wrath!

LGBTQ+ excluding Mennonites who adopt this strategy, though, are putting themselves in spiritual danger. Very often, their drive to intervene isn’t born from love by from fear that if they don’t say something, God will be angry at them. Their own identity is tied up in being a “defender” of “what the Bible says,” and their need to bolster that identity controls them. Conveniently for them, the place where they can bolster that identity is on someone who is more vulnerable than they are. (They are far more likely to scold and shame a person they know who is gay than, say, someone who is in the military.) This, ultimately, then, is an act of fear and anxiety (that your identity will falter if you don’t speak against LGBTQ+ intimacy), not love, a self-centered/self-preserving act, not one of Jesus’ unsettling hospitality.


The Easy Patriotism of July 4th


Thank you for telling your story–about your journalism work in the wake of September 11, and about your mother’s passing, too.

My story is simpler. July 4th is an easy holiday for me to ignore, for an entirely earthly reason: the food is terrible. Hot dogs, mayonnaise-based salads, and cake topped with Cool-Whip violate the most important rules of holidays: they should taste good. Also, the music is so, so bad, and growing up, I lived in state where fireworks were illegal. So there wasn’t much too lose by ignoring it.


Above, a picture of what Jell-O calls “Easy Patriotic Flag Dessert.” I love dessert, but easy patriotism makes me queasy. 

Things got more complicated when I married a Mennonite man with a family history of military service–including people who are still part of the army. Even though I’d been to a military wedding in his family, it didn’t occur to me that 4th of July would treated like a meaningful holiday. So I didn’t even think about it when we drove up to the family 4th of July picnic with “Fuck War” bumper sticker. (This was in maybe 2003? 2004? The young ‘uns here might not remember it, but we were really still at the start of a long and pointless war back then.)

Being a pacifist is countercultural, and sometimes that culture is as close as home.

The funny part, for me, is that I’m a total romantic about the founding period. Now, I also know that the founders were racist and sexist and classist and violent, but the key idea still takes my breath away in its boldness: that a person (okay, a property-owning white man) has rights not based on the notion of “blood” but on the fact that they occupy an individual human body, that bodies have rights.

There are problems with it, I know. Here is what Michel Foucault has to say:

“We are used to thinking that the expression of individuality, for example, or the exaltation of individuality is one of the forms of man’s liberation… But I wonder if the opposite is true. I have tried to show that humanism was a kind of form, was this sort of fabrication of the human being according to a certain model, and that humanism does not work at all as a liberation of man, but on the contrary works as an imprisonment of man inside certain types of moulds that are all controlled by the sovereignty of the subject.” 

But I’m not there. (My husband is a post-humanist. Academically speaking, it’s a mixed marriage.)  That founder’s dissolution between king and God means that our family histories aren’t our futures, which is an incredibly useful message for people who grow up in dysfunctional homes to here. It means that whatever status our bodies have been assigned by those in power is is not true about us, no matter how many times the bodies of women or people of color or people with disabilities are demeaned.

Sadly, this isn’t the message of July 4th in the US.

And, as a family, we are critically minded about displays of patriotism. So, no–no pledge. No national anthem; when the school band plays it, my son, who is in the brass section, sits out. No flags–not flying from the house, not on t-shirts, not even on Forever Stamps. We love America, but we think those things are symbols of its worst parts: coercion, militarism, imperialism, the idolization of violence.

So, what will we be doing on July 4? My children will probably watch the city fireworks from our porch, a safe distance from the sounds of Lee Greenwood. I think that the association with militarism is distant enough not to be meaningful for them; they probably think of marching bands and football as more of a symbol of nationalist violence.

I will be in the UK, participating in a conference on the emotions that inform backlash politics in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. They include patriotism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, anger, rage, hate, fear, anxiety. I’ll be working as part of a larger team of scholars trying to diminish the harmful effects of hate, and my focus is on those who hate. I hope it’s an act of patriotism.




July 4 and Mennonites

Dear Rebecca:

Do you celebrate July 4?

That’s a question I don’t think will compute for many of our non-Mennonite readers. But our church has a long history of eschewing patriotism, particularly where it curdled into militarism — the folks I grew up with in Central Kansas were descended from people who (in the popular telling) had fled from Germany to Russia to avoid fighting in German wars, then Russia to America to avoid being conscripted into Russian wars. Back in World Wars I and II, those folks had grown extremely unpopular: People with German names — a lot of them still spoke the language, assimilating slowly — wouldn’t take up arms against the Krauts! It wasn’t a popular position.

The manifestations of that theology remain unpopular in the broader culture. A few years ago, a conservative talk show host aroused popular anger against Goshen College because it didn’t play the national anthem prior to sporting events. “It is, after all, about a military battle (“bombs bursting in air,” etc.), and some Mennonites believe that any expression of patriotism, placing love of country above love of God, risks idolatry,” the New York Times reported. “Countries rise and fall; the message of Jesus is supposed to be eternal.” Goshen briefly backed down, but ultimately settled on playing a different, less bombastic song, “America the Beautiful.”

(Editor’s note: The second verse of “America the Beautiful” might sound familiar, thematically, in a lot of Mennonite churches:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

Mennonites have that pilgrim heritage, after all. And oh, how they love self-control!)

Anyway: Independence Day, when this country’s leaders decided to launch a rebel war against their British masters, is unavoidably militaristic. The fireworks!

So: Do you celebrate?

Me? Yes. Ish.

Let me tell a story. It’s one I’ve told publicly before, but it’s kind of a touchstone for me, and so it is here.

Within a few weeks of 9/11, I got in my car and started driving to New York. History was happening, and I’d become a journalist because I wanted to see history with my own eyes. So I drove cross-country on my own. I stopped to talk with people who live outside Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where B-2 bombers were flying attack missions to Afghanistan; I stopped at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana to visit friends and write a story about how pacifists were dealing with events; I visited the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed, and sat in a mortuary with the overwhelmed county coroner, sitting in his socks as he dazedly recounted his efforts of recent weeks.

And then I ended up in the city. I saw what was left of the Twin Towers, saw smoke still rising from the wreckage, and … smelled it.

More importantly, I talked with people who’d experienced the day. Most importantly, I was taken to meet a Puerto Rican family in their home – a tiny apartment where they’d raised their family, and was given lime-flavored coffee to drink while we talked, while the mother of the family talked about watching the Towers come down.

The trip made me love America, but not in a defensive how dare they attack us! way. Driving by myself and covering only the northeast quarter of the country, I’d gotten a taste of how much bigger and more diverse this country is than my Kansas upbringing had allowed me to see. Within a few years, I’d be raising a family in a tiny Philadelphia apartment, even smaller than the place I’d been hosted.

July 4 is problematic for Mennonites for reasons I listed before, and for liberals who don’t hate America, but do want to temper pride with humility, a recognition that the good things we have were often obtained through sinful, destructive means like slavery and Jim Crow and theft of the land from its original owners. And this year, let’s face it, for a lot of us this country seems a bit uglier and meaner than it did a year ago. It’s hard to feel celebratory.

But Mennonites also do community very well. It’s one reason I love them. (And they don’t do it without problems of their own either, as you well know.)

So on July 4, I will go and spend time with friends. We will eat food and my kid will play with their kids. I will enjoy the community I’ve created, and love that America contains so many different kinds of communities, and I will celebrate that as our strength.

We are large. We contain multitudes. That is my July 4.

Sincerely, Joel

P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that July 4 is also the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. It makes the day more complicated for me,  the need to spend time in community even more precious. FWIW.