When I got back to my congregation after the arrest, someone asked me an interesting question that has stuck with me - “Do your non-Mennonite friends know how much of a radical you are?” This may come as a surprise to many people, but being an activist and a radical isn’t a core part of my identity. I blame that on being an Anabaptist, but also this protest being a natural response to how my life has flowed out.
My antiracism journey though began with the Palestinian and Jewish communities in Denver, Colorado. The way they interacted with one another shifted how I understood what was going on in the Middle East. None of the stereotypes lined up. I heard from both Jewish and Palestinian communities, in depth, about their experiences of the States and how it’s affected them.
I don't have an exact solution to the Middle East's problems (because it's not up to me as a white American guy how things are solved, and it shouldn't be), but I know all the ways I have been inherently complicit as a western Christian and all the baggage that comes with that. I know that colonialism is a western Christian problem, and it needs to be addressed.
After my delegation to northern Iraq/Iraqi Kurdistan with Community Peacemaker Teams in 2017, Middle Eastern issues have been close to my heart for the past six years. Also, for the past six years, I have actively pushed for dialogue within the wider Christian church to openly repent of the colonialism and theology that helped lead to situations like Gaza. American Christian theology has been complicit in colonizing entire groups of people.
I realize that for all those years, I have been sharing these issues that were close to my heart to social justice-minded western Christians. If they weren’t associated already with Anabaptists and Quakers, they usually fell silent or didn’t know how to react. Many times I’ve made conversations uncomfortable by shifting the antiracism conversations to anti-Arabism and Islamophobia. Most of the time, it was brushed under the rug - so the underwhelming response from the majority of the American church when Gaza broke out wasn’t a shock to me.
What it really came down to, though, was a quote from a Claire Keegan novella named Small Things Like These. I read my Bible and fiction every day, and when Gaza broke out I started reading Claire Keegan’s work. The synopsis of Small Things Like These reads: "It is 1985 in a small Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man, faces into his busiest season. Early one morning, while delivering an order to the local convent, Bill makes a discovery which forces him to confront both his past and the complicit silences of a town controlled by the church." I can’t give too much away because it is a powerful story that needs to be experienced, but the whole premise of the story rests on the main character’s wrestling with what the right thing is when the church is doing wrong. It’s an hour-long read, or you can wait for the movie that will come out this year.
Bill is at a Christmas party as he is thinking about what to do in response to corruption. The quote reads, “As they carried along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?”
I reflected on this quote while watching the news and participating in the actions I could. One evangelical pastor finally confided in me one day that they were scared to touch anything to do with the Middle East because it could affect their reputation and career possibilities. I couldn’t help but think of Palestinians and other Middle Eastern folks who couldn’t get access to jobs because of their nationality and religion. I realized, for the most part, if I want to see a change in how the church is responding, then I need to be that change.
My hope and prayer was that my witness would push them just a little bit more towards justice and speaking out - just a little bit more towards renouncing evil. So, I went and sang hymns in the rotunda, expecting negative flak. I knew there would be some friendships potentially ruptured, some publishing opportunities in the fiction world turned down. But I really didn’t care about that as much because I’m already out in support for Palestine.
As someone on the board of Community Peacemaker Teams, I’m tied directly to the team on the ground in the West Bank and the stress/horrors they’re facing. Getting arrested to me felt like the least I could do. And the CPT Palestine team watched me get arrested, and they were inspired more in their work.
As I was getting arrested, I could tell it was a new officer - so I was laughing a bit as he fumbling the search. The other cops were confused looking at me, so it felt more comedic at times. We continued singing hymns as they rounded us up one by one, and then put us into police vans. They struggled to put me in because of my height, which was also pretty funny.
The entire time during the action and while I was being processed, I felt a very serene sense of calm. I knew I had done what was right, and that I could face myself in the mirror after this. My conscience was clear.
The biggest reason I believe we got so much coverage is because Marjorie Green Taylor tweeted a video of us and called us Hamas Insurrectionists. It reminded me of Paul’s words about those who preach the Gospel ironically. We had 350k views on Twitter alone because of her tweet. And in the video, it clearly says things like, “Release all the hostages,” and “Send food not bombs,” on our quilts. So, clearly, we weren’t terrorists.
Soon we got on Tiktok and found videos close to a million views, then we were covered by the Washington Post, Fox News (both local and national), Yahoo News UK, Middle East Monitor, and Al Jazeera. There are still more stories rolling out. There’s even a folk song now that you can find on the website, which is also a surreal, bizarre experience for me to see my face in a folky tune.
About twelve pastors have reached out to me after this and asked me how they can get involved. These were pastors who were terrified of doing and saying the right thing beforehand, and they’re risking their careers by finding ways to speak out. The feedback that’s been given directly to me has been overwhelmingly positive. My sister, who is more conservative, was shocked a bit because she didn’t know you could get arrested for singing hymns and sitting in the Rotunda.
But even if those pastors don’t end up doing anything, the very fact that I helped Palestinians feel hope in their context even for just a day or two made it worthwhile. And if participating in this influences more Christian groups to speak out and start their own demonstrations, then that will be a beautiful thing.
So I go back to that congregant's question he asked me a while back. I wouldn’t still say I’m a radical or an activist, even after getting arrested on national TV and hanging around mostly activist folks. But I would call myself a Christian, and I think that’s what I’m always going to rest in to. The right thing is always the right thing, no matter what label you give it.