Update: Sarah Thompson Nahar left the Christian Peacemaker Teams after a four-year tenure to pursue a Ph.D. in the department of religion at Syracuse University.
Christian leaders who seek to combat violence and hatred can do more than debate tactics and post to Facebook, says the executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams.
She said those actions can range from making public statements to training in non-violent direct action -- skills as specific as how to dodge bullets. Church leaders also should work to connect with vulnerable people in their communities.
“We believe in the power of resurrection, so we need to not have fear of death. Bring to the communities that are so impacted by this the message to not be afraid,” Sarah Thompson said. “But we need to back up that message of 'Do not be afraid' with actions.”
Christian Peacemaker Teams was created in 1984 by leaders from historic peace churches -- Mennonite and Church of the Brethren -- who wanted to organize and train people to non-violently respond to conflict.
Much of their work has been in countries such as Iraq, Colombia, the West Bank and Mexico, but increasingly they have been called to work in North America. Their organization was invited to Charlottesville to train and prepare people in advance of the neo-Nazi rally there.
Thompson shared her thoughts on the work in Charlottesville with groups such as Deep Abiding Love and Congregate Charlottesville, and offered suggestions for Christian leaders seeking to combat hate in their communities. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What is the basis for the work you do?
Our basic perspective as Christian Peacemaker Teams is, What if those of us who believe in peace and justice are willing to train as hard for it as military is training for war? And what if those of us who believe in peace and justice were willing to give up our lives as much as we expect soldiers to give up theirs? What could happen?
What would happen if we put as many resources into creative, non-violent experiences as we do into violent, destructive ones? What could happen? That’s the vision.
Q: What would you recommend that people of faith do if these situations become more common or if they find themselves in places where demonstrations are happening?
Something that’s really important is to spend less time debating about the tactics that the front lines use and get ourselves closer to the front lines.
Organize with your community. So prepare for political disasters, as well as natural disasters, by talking with your neighbors and forming really your own mini-sanctuary to know how to respond.
Prepare in advance, get some training, some non-violent direct action training on how to stay strong in the face of violence.
Q: What do you mean when you say get closer to the front lines?
A lot of energy has been spent on like whether the antifascists were right in escalating the conflict [in Charlottesville] or not. Should we just ignore them and hope they’ll go away?
People are debating if it’s smart to be out there or not to be out there, when these things are going on. And people are debating that from a position of comfort, often, rather than training to see where you can find your place in the movement.
How to get close to the front lines? Prepare and do trainings and organize for how you want to lock arms, for what you want to do, for how you can build bridges. If you’re in the faith community, how you can build bridges with activists in your community who are not in the faith community?
What they did really well in Charlottesville was they worked hard to bring secular activists and activists of faith together in conversation about the different tactics that they were going to use in facing white supremacy and neo-Nazis.
And the fact that they were going to use different tactics didn’t stop them from working together and talking about how they could support each other in the actions they decided to take.
Q: When you say support each other, you mean the faith community and the antifa, or anti-fascists, who are being criticized for escalating the conflict?
Instead of criticizing what people decided to do, get closer to the realities that we’re living in under the pressure of white supremacy and learn from that.
Because what antifa did was actually smart. They escalated the conflict, not intending to do harm, but they escalated conflict just enough so that the actual rally couldn’t happen, and that’s really important and it’s strategic because it’s significant that there was no platform given to white supremacy in Charlottesville. The white supremacists were there, but the rally did not happen.
And they were strategic enough to only do enough to get it canceled; once it was canceled they left.
Q: What specific actions would you recommend for Christian leaders?
Here’s one thing you can do: Use your platform to make sure that you denounce white supremacy and its impact on our faith and how it’s captured so much of the imagination of Christians -- our purity politics, our patriarchy, our nationalism.
It’s really important if people personally don’t stand for [white supremacy], that they make a statement and they deal with the potential backlash. It’s important that people make their own statements. It doesn’t need to be long, it doesn’t need to add to the clamor.
There’s no such thing as a passive ally. The direction and pressure of society is to support white racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, so it’s important to be an active ally.
And they can say, too, not only what they denounce but what they’re for, and the steps that they’re personally taking to build that type of society. That’s welcome in the statement, which anyone in leadership can make.
Q: And you think that’s meaningful? I could see someone perceiving that as an empty gesture.
Well, I would prefer if it wasn’t on Facebook and that they did speak about it from the pulpit and in Sunday schools and in other public spaces.
They can join fellow allies and make friends there and build real relationships with people who are different than them. But some of that starts with this statement, so that people know that you’re a faith person that they can turn to with their questions and their frustrations.
Q: What would you advise people who see debates on Facebook but aren’t sure what to actually do?
I would convey to the Christian leaders who have privilege in any way, shape or form, that Jesus is calling us to pick up our cross and to spend time with those who are being crucified.
We believe in the power of resurrection, so we need to not have fear of death. Bring to the communities that are so impacted by this the message to not be afraid.
But we need to back up that message of “Do not be afraid” with actions. We need to recognize that our Christianity calls us to align with the poor and repressed and to challenge a state and the 1 percent that continues to make money off the backs of everyone.
What we’re partially seeing is white folks are now even being affected in the ways that blacks and brown people have been affected and they’re mad -- it’s just that their anger’s not directed towards the state, it’s directed towards more vulnerable people.
As faith leaders, it’s our job to help people direct their anger well and to build the communities that we want to see as an alternative. To recognize that limitless growth is not OK, limitless growth promoted by corporate businesses and these ways of being is not possible.
And so a deepening of our theology that accepts limits, that makes non-violence central, and that reaches across these divides to speak to people’s pain and helping to direct it in really healthy ways is what we can do.
It’s a time for us to count the costs and to move forward in boldness.
Q: Your work primarily is in other countries, but you were on the ground in Charlottesville. Talk about your organization and the work it does.
Our role was to support the work of local clergy in Charlottesville and their mobilization, and support the Deep Abiding Love Project, who called us in to do trainings with regards to dealing with multiple armed actors.
Because a lot of our non-violence trainings up until this point in the U.S. were about how to deal with the state as a violent actor.
However, we have learned from the wisdom from people around the world for the last 30 years is what to do when there are multiple violent actors in the mix: What to be aware of, how to protect yourselves and others, how to work across different sectors of a population in order to mobilize -- so that’s why we were there.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve taken experience learned overseas and brought it to bear in the U.S.?
We’ve been doing this since Ferguson. But actually even before, in anti-war stuff. We’ve always been about this exchange of ideas. We have lot to learn from brothers and sisters who are resisting everywhere.
So we’ve been doing it for a while, but it’s just being more popular and known right now. We train people in Chicago every year in a month-long peacemaker training, and then we also do these short-term trainings.
Q: And your trainings are about non-violent response to potentially violent actors?
Non-violent direct action is what we train, because that’s our area of expertise. Non-violent direct action for us is what flows out of our faith, because we don’t see any justification for violence in the life of Jesus, and so in the life of his followers is also one of a renunciation of violence.
Q: When you say “direct action,” what do you mean?
Direct action is going to be a disciplined, public approach to addressing a social harm. In this case, the social harm was the gathering of neo-Nazis, the white supremacists.
It is a coordinated and disciplined public witness resisting violence and proclaiming another way, another path.
Q: And you teach specific techniques and skills?
We teach techniques and skills, but we also work together on how to debrief and how to prepare and how to work with medics, and teach the history of social struggle and resistance.
We teach theology -- we look at our theology and see where the basis for this is and then build on that.
Q: How did you get involved in Charlottesville?
We were invited by Congregate Charlottesville, which was training local clergy to be ready for an action that was potentially arrest-able.
They were going to block the entrance to the park where the rally was to be held. And because their action was technically unpermitted, the state was going to remove them. The neo-Nazis arrived before the state could really react, and so things started popping off earlier.
Q: If people saw pictures or video of those folks, what would we have seen that reflect your training?
We worked with local clergy -- not as much for others who came in nationally -- but the local clergy who led the action understood the risks that they were taking. So we walked through the risks.
We walked through helping people figure out how to observe a lot of things and notice them and speak to them, where they move around. They used the power of song, they knew what their plan was and they knew who was leading the action, so they knew who to defer to and debrief later. There’s just a lot of little things.
The choice of tactics was already in place before I got there this time, but otherwise we would’ve developed together a plan for the action to make the strongest statement and to have the optics that are really important.
It’s about dramatizing the contrast between the world as it is and the world that we want to see, so I think the clergy did a great job of showing that they were standing on the side of love.
We practice our messaging; we talk about what we’re willing to risk; we practice bullet dodging. We practice zigzag running, we practice how to vacate an area safely, we practice how to yell if there’s a knife in the crowd, how to use body language, how to use our voices, and other things to reclaim the space for those who are seeking to resist injustice.
We practice thinking ahead of time about what our death would mean to our families and communities and to getting our advanced medical directives together and having our own statements written out about why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Q: And when you say bullet dodging, you mean literal bullet dodging?
Yes. We practice running, ducking, hitting the ground, zigzagging, finding safe spaces. We practice some community security tactics, knowing how to move two by two.
See, with the dynamics that are changing is that it’s not just the state that we’re up against, that people are facing, in terms of violence right now.
Q: And when say the state, you mean in the past it would’ve been violence potentially coming just from police -- law enforcement?
That’s correct. And it still does, but now we have another dynamic of it, the level of vigilante violence.
Q: Did you ever imagine that you would have to train people in the U.S. the way you train people abroad?
I’m not surprised, personally. A lot of people did feel that this was surreal, but we have seen levels of deterioration everywhere.