Friday, December 12, 2014

Your scapegoat "pacifism": A response to Matthew Schmitz

"The Fog of War"
Matt Hinsta via Flickr/CC license
Yesterday, a deputy editor of First Things, Matthew Schmitz, posted a rather unusual piece...

Our Partial Pacifism - Which starts out with the bold statement, "I am inclined to blame pacifism for our embrace of torture."

I say it's an unusual piece because it took me numerous readings and conversations with a number of (pacifist) friends to figure out just what Schmitz was trying to get at in his brief post. My initial reaction was confusion. Granted, it was early this morning when I started reading it so my coffee hadn't perhaps kicked in yet. But I was profoundly bewildered as to how one could connect the dots of a claim like that, i.e. blaming pacifism for "our" embrace of torture. (The collective "we" obviously being the entire United States of America, which was my first red flag.)

So here's what my friends and I came up with on Schmitz's reasoning:

  • There is a utilitarian "ends justify the means" frame being used to discuss torture in the post-9/11, GWOT context, especially now in light of the recent senate report on CIA torture released this week.
  • We need a different moral vocabulary to make better judgments about what is and is not just conduct in war. (Implication being that torture is morally wrong, at all times everywhere. Which I of course agree!)
  • The Christian just war tradition is one such vocabulary about making sound moral judgments, including that torture is wrong.
  • Christian pacifism is a form of moral absolutism ("all war is evil—that it is hell, so we must stay the hell out of it") and is therefore unable to make nuanced moral judgments about action in war.
  • While many/most may not embrace pacifism, "we" seem to have generally embraced the "pacifist conclusion" that "all war is we must stay the hell out of it," including in any and all attempts to make moral judgments about conduct in war.
Therefore, pacifism (albeit a partial one) is to blame for our inability to make nuanced moral judgments about conduct in war. Pardon me for being colloquial and crude, but WTF?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My race/police story

This is a Google Maps snapshot of the north side and east side of Des Moines, separated by I-235. See E University Ave there on the right? If you follow that east you'd hit my hometown of Prairie City in about 20 minutes. My folks worked in downtown Des Moines when I was growing up and I worked at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in high school, so I spent a lot of time on the east side.

Last year at a football game tailgate, I met a Des Moines cop through a mutual friend. I asked him about where he worked and he said the east side. He then proceeded to talk about how he likes the east side because people there seem to be more laid back and easier to work with than people on the other side of I-235. He said he did not like that "genre" of people.

As he walked away to another conversation, my friend leaned over to me and asked, "Did that guy just use the word 'genre' as a way to avoid saying he doesn't like black people?"

Indeed. Check out the census data on race for the same piece of territory...

Source: The Racial Dot Map,

Monday, December 8, 2014

Economics and spiritual calling

(This is a kind of part 2 to my last post...)

As I said in my previous post, we live in an age of stagnant wages and widening economic inequality, and more and more intelligent people are starting to point out that this isn't some kind of technical glitch in the global capitalist system, but it is rather this way by design. The old "rich get richer/poor get poorer" line is what makes this whole thing tick. Or to use Thomas Piketty's recent formula: r > g. Return on revenue (r) will always outpace economic growth (g) in the current system, or at least that's how it's worked in the past few hundred years of the current system.

So the middle class in the US today is getting pinched harder than ever. People have to work harder and harder just to get by. A pretty standard middle class lifestyle is now incredibly difficult to finance. Professional clergy have traditionally been members of the middle class.

We've been hearing in recent years that "bi-vocational ministry" is going to be the wave of the future, and my denomination says they want to plant a crazy high number of churches in coming years, so we've got the church planting bug. Not that that's a bad thing, but...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book release: A Living Alternative

From Toledo, IA

Over the past year, a group of Anabaptist-minded folks, mostly culled from the ranks of the MennoNerds, collaborated on a book project. I was honored to be part of that project and now our book is out! Check it out on Amazon...
A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

My chapter will sound familiar to anyone who's read my blog posts over the past two years. It's called "Seeking the Peace of the Farm Town: Anabaptist Mission and Ministry in the Rural Midwest." In fact, the chapter is collected and edited from blog posts and sermons that I wrote over the first year of living back in rural Iowa. As I say at the start of the chapter:
Don't let the subtitle fool you: I am not a seasoned expert on Anabaptist mission and ministry in the rural Midwest. This is not a reflection written after many years of experience, trial and error, and critical assessment. I will not be offering advice, sage-like or otherwise. Rather, this piece is best thought of as being in the genre of theological memoir, and constitutes a kind of “preliminary field notes” document. It is memoir in that it sketches the story of how my family and I ended up in the small farm town of Toledo, Iowa, where we have been taking root for the past year. It is theological in that our mindset and practices, before and throughout our time here, have emerged out of a place of intense and sometimes (often?) painful spiritual discernment.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Which (Brethren) church to come?

The day brings...
(With apologies to Peter Blum for riffing on the title of his book...)

Stan Noffsinger, the top executive of my denomination, the Church of the Brethren, asked an interesting question on Facebook this week, and one that stimulated some interesting responses. He asked: "What is your vision for the Church of the Brethren in 2065?" and invited people to cast their visions.

On the one hand, it's kind of ridiculous to ask people to think that far ahead into the future. No one can do it. On the other hand, though, it's a good exercise at thinking creatively and imagining things as they could be down the road. So here's what I said:
A church that can educate and equip all its members to take more seriously its "priesthood of all believers" commitment. A radical commitment to place. A church that can say "No" to a world hellbent on speed, ease, self-seeking profit and pleasure, and violence - and "Yes" to the Prince of Peace and his way, truth, and life.

An institutional structure and processes that are adaptive, lightweight, networked, creative, nurturing, and representative.

Oh, and a way more global church with global representative governance. A church for the farm town, the city, the barrio, the plains, the savannahs, the deserts, the jungles, and to the ends of the earth in all its multi-splendored beauty.
Here's what was sitting behind some of my remarks...

Friday, November 7, 2014

Opting out of the church+car culture: A cautionary tale

From Toledo, IA
Our neighborhood church
(Not a megachurch)
Adam Graber has a great piece up, called:
How Cars Created the Megachurch

His main point is that over the past century, the technology of the automobile has re-shaped our cultural habits and thinking to that which illustrates a high degree of selfishness. With the automobile - and the whole raft of societal and cultural shifts that have followed in its wake; e.g. shopping malls, Wal-Marts, and yes megachurches - many (not all) Americans have unprecedented levels of choice when it comes to any number of things: places to eat and buy stuff, sights to see, and houses of worship. The world is our parking lot (or landing strip, if necessary). Mass automotive transportation has thrown off the supposed constraints of geography and distance, and we have become a different kind of people as a result. Namely, more selfish ones.

Yes, of course selfishness has always been part of the human condition, but as Graber points out "(c)ars made selfish habits much easier to indulge, and now for many of us, selfishness is simply necessary." At the end of the piece, Graber only briefly mentions the digital age we've only recently entered, whose societal and cultural effects are only now starting to become noticeable, studied, and reflected on. (I just finished reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and whoa...) The cultural logic and habits of the 21st digital age only build upon and amplify the consumeristic, selfish tendencies ushered in by the 20th century's major technology innovations: the automobile and the television.

What this means for churches is that they're all now "subject to forces beyond any one pastor's control," and "even pastors of the smallest churches are subject to the church shopping culture" (not just the megachurches singled out in the title).

Are all these technologies purely negative? By no means! (I'm on a Internet-connected computer typing this blog post, after all, and have been a technology worker my entire professional life.) But neither are they purely good. In an age where technological optimism seems dominant, there needs to be an emphasis on discernment with a critical eye, and coming up with alternatives if necessary.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Building a case for restorative justice in Tama-Toledo

From Toledo, IA
Building bridges in the wild
(Rural east Marshall Co.)
In my ongoing work for Eastern Mennonite University, I've helped coordinate the technology aspects of the "Real World Restorative Justice" webinar series, and this past spring I taught a 3-week course on restorative justice at Grinnell College. These have helped keep alive my passion for restorative justice.

(For a primer on the field of restorative justice, see here.)

Meanwhile, over the past two years of living in Toledo, Iowa, I've been looking for opportunities to plant seeds, spread the word, and maybe even get some small restorative justice project started. But when it comes to institutional settings where restorative justice is often employed - criminal justice and public schools, for instance - I haven't found an opening. That's been frustrating at times, particularly when incidents that come up in the local community could be, in my estimation, better handled with a restorative approach.