Today I want to tell you a little bit about my ambivalence towards my pacifist upbringing. From my vantage point, I would think that anyone who understands the experience of sexual abuse on the part of the victim at all, would likely understand the goodness and necessity of boundaries. And if you value boundaries, then you have to address the issue of self-defense or self-protection. And if you acknowledge the correctness or healthful-ness of self-defense, then you have to contend with what it means to “turn the other cheek” and all the other teachings of Christ on which the Anabaptist stance of Pacifism was formed.
It might be helpful to give you historical background on the Anabaptist formulation of Pacifism. But I’m not going to do that. It’s a huge topic. You can research that for yourself if you’re really interested. You might also wonder what Mennonites and other Anabaptists believe and teach on that topic today. I don’t pretend to know that; I’m no longer Mennonite; I’m not a spokesperson for those groups. What is pertinent here is what I was taught by word and by example, mostly by my parents, and by the local Mennonite community of my childhood.
To be fair, I can’t even really say what others intended to teach me; I can only tell you what I learned, what I absorbed. The point of this is not to assign blame (or credit). My purpose is to articulate what it is I observed, learned, absorbed, and what is now an “issue” for me. To begin, I will say that most of what I observed of my parents, I framed in my mind as positive, to be emulated. Their behavior tended to exemplify what they taught. Given the apparent agreement between their words and deeds, their teaching was potent. My memory of my impression of the teaching/ example of other Mennonites in my childhood community (as individuals and as a group) is that others were mostly conformed to the official teaching of the Mennonite Church, but weren’t quite as powerful an example to me of how to live it. I viewed my parents as mostly heroic in their discipleship.
I saw my parents give not only out of their bounty, but also sacrificially. I saw them give their time, talent, and treasure to others in need, out of their love for and obedience to Christ. I’m not saying they were perfect people. Yet, although I know I idealized them as a young child, their actual characters and behaviors were genuinely and consistently Christ-like enough that even when I began to see them as real people (in all their wondrously flawed complexity), I continued to respect and admire their choices. They were living their beliefs as well or better than anyone else I’ve ever known.
So, naturally, I have long admired the pacifist ideal and wanted to be a pacifist. Sometimes I’ve even said “I AM a Pacifist; I’m just not very good at it!” But the crux of the matter is: what do I really believe about self-defense?
Let me back up a bit. My parents did indeed teach me to “turn the other cheek,” and I understood that to mean: 1) If some-one strikes you, don’t attempt to stop them with any sort of violent force, and 2) Don’t retaliate. They also taught me that “living in peace with others so far as it is up to you” meant 1) Look out for others’ needs, and if you can contribute to their well-being it’s a good thing to do so; 2) Intervene for the under-dog; try to help others resolve conflict if you’re in a position to do so; 3) Be just with everyone and if the balance of cost has to fall one way or another, let it fall on you; 4) Root your sense of security in Christ; 5) Value living fully in God and relationships and experiences, not so much things and acquisition.
Whether my parents intended it or not, I also absorbed a distrust of military, police, and government in general. I got the idea that what gives those institutions power is force, and often violent force, sometimes even lethal; and the fact that those entities considered lethal force a legitimate option made them for me “wordly” which meant not godly, not of Christ’s Kingdom. All “worldliness” was to be avoided; I was not to “yoke” myself with people who had made “worldly” allegiances.
I remember having many discussions in our family about hypothetical scenarios where one would have to choose between using force to stop an attacker or accepting their actions. The message I always got was three-fold: 1) It’s okay to explore ways to avoid harm (run, hide, stop the attacker with less-than-lethal actions); 2) But never ever kill another human-being, no matter what; 3) Pray the Lord keep us safe from such situations. I don’t remember ever being counseled to call the police.
As a young child, this teaching of how one should face danger contributed to my sense of being a minority (I saw Mennonites as a minority even though my town was a mini Menno-mecca because I knew that our teachings were not popular in the general public.) It also greatly enlarged my sense of vulnerability. I knew I didn’t have the normal protections which I thought most of the world had available to them. To some extent this made me even more vulnerable to victimization in any situation or relationship.
However, I was also taught courage. Not only did I hear my parents tell stories of past experiences when they were spared harm (either by divine intervention or by their creative maneuverings), but I also witnessed their peace-making in real-time.
Read in my next post of a time my dad consoled an angry, armed man.