Rethinking the Land in Jeremiah 12

My first encounter with climate change came through Bad Religion’s “Kyoto Now!” At 12 or 13 years old, these lyrics rang in my in head: “In your dreams/You saw a steady state a bounty for eternity/Silent screams/but now the wisdom that sustains us is in full retreat/….Alien/We need a fresh and new religion to run our lives/Hand in hand/the arid torpor of inaction will be our demise.”[1]

As ice melts, forests burn, and the planet swelters, it is easy for many Christians to think that we need a fresh, new religion. We’ve been seduced by the “mythological, hopeful beast,” as evidenced by an addiction to fossil fuels.[2] The careless exploitation of the environment has long been couched in Christian platitudes. The Western Church’s empty expressions which extol the environment merely as our dominion demonstrate an underdeveloped view of the world. Despite that, perhaps what believers needs is not a new religion, but old wisdom.

A common perspective in Christian theology is the subordination of land to human and spiritual forces, which is rooted in Greek philosophies.[3] The natural is denigrated for our own benefit, on the assumption that people and acts can be understood in an intelligible manner when abstracted from the natural world. I believe the necessary corrective to this perspective is to understand that land as an entity we are in relationship with. This is a corrective that Indigenous theologians are already offering the Church, if only more believers would listen. Land is not just soil, but land includes all that live in it, on it, and above it. Indigenous theologians Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, and George E. “Tink” Tinker are unambiguous in their affirmation that land is alive (“both in a literal and figurative sense”) and “[is] the embodiment of spiritual power;” consequently, all of the earth is a gift, unable to be truly possessed.[4] Creation is to be treated respectfully and with a sense of responsibility to it.[5] Humanity occupies a niche in a cosmos that is “sacred and alive,” a cosmos which reacts to human activity, and (perhaps most importantly) a cosmos which broadly demands reciprocity.[6] Reciprocity assumes agency – the land gives not because it is required to, but because it has agreed to do so. Humanity’s unique position in this cosmos is not one of superiority, but typically one of befuddlement as people appear to be the one element on the land which is unsure of their place in the world.[7]

In comparison, it’s more likely to see land discussed in a way in keeping with capitalistic understandings of land as a resource. It’s not uncommon to see Western theologians speak of the environment as an inert blessing owned by God and rented out to peoples: land is understood merely as a blessing to people or as a possession which God allows people to use. Even when seemingly grounded in theism, this is fundamentally an anthropocentric understanding of land. The relationship is akin to a landlord and renter, while the land is simply a good in such a transaction. Theological language needs to be reworked to ensure that we are understood as being part of the created order and that we are in relationship with the rest of creation.

The natural reply one might expect, though, is that to read the Bible with Indigenous views of land in mind might bring animism into Biblical faith or that such an effort would be tantamount to paganism. But that assumes that the canon is devoid of such perspectives and, indeed, that the Bible predominately mirrors our own beliefs. However, the Bible preserves prophetic voices that more resemble the Indigenous perspective than the perspective of the mainstream Church. And Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry is one such instance.

In Jeremiah there are strong emphases on “knowing and clinging to God” and the importance of being on the land.[8] Broadly speaking, the failings of the people had a direct effect on whether or not they will continue to have place on “their God-given land.”[9] However it would be a mistake to assume that the land is without a role in this. Within Jeremiah “Earth is portrayed as having emotions” as it “suffer[s] and mourn[s]” while being obedient to “God’s commands.”[10] For the prophet, the earth mourns because it is deprived of “the creative order of the covenantal relationship between the people and Yhwh” which causes the land to “raise its voice in grief due to its separation from the people.”[11] These are themes that are present in Jeremiah 12, and special attention will be given Jeremiah and God’s discourse in that chapter.  

Jeremiah starts the conversation by simply asking: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (v. 1, English Standard Version). God is accused of “planting” a sinful people who are far from God (v. 2). Jeremiah implores Them to “set [the unjust] apart for the day of slaughter” (v. 3), and offers a plea on behalf of the land: “How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the evil of those who dwell in it the beasts and the birds are swept away, because they said ‘He will not see our latter end’” (v. 4).

It doesn’t take long for us to see an issue with how this verse is commonly interpreted. There is a tendency to assume that Jeremiah is actually speaking about his own situation or this is actually a prayer for the people. Verse 4 is too commonly treated as a non sequitur. But I don’t believe it’s an intuitive reading to regard Jeremiah’s closing statement as unrelated. My objections can be summarized quite briefly. First, if Jeremiah 12:1-4 continues the narrative of the previous chapter, there is no need for Jeremiah to pray for his own deliverance because he has been promised deliverance (11:21-23); he also knows that praying for the people will be fruitless (v. 11:14).  Second, if these verses are not related to the narrative found in the previous chapter, there is no need for Jeremiah to be obtuse and he could frame his concerns in a more straightforward manner. Thirdly, as God speaks to Jeremiah, the focus does not shift to speak of the prophet or the poor. Instead, as God speaks, They focus largely on how the wicked will be brought to submission by both the nations and nature.

Because it is commonly assumed that Jeremiah’s subject is not actually the land itself, God’s response to Jeremiah is often framed as if the Lord is dodging the question (or, at best, offering an extremely glib response). One commentator summarizes God’s response simply: “Cheer up, Jeremiah. The worst is yet to come!”[12] But if readers assume that Jeremiah’s concern for the land is genuine, that Jeremiah legitimately hears the sorrows of the land, then the chapter is much more cohesive and less ambiguous than commonly assumed. Throughout the entire chapter, there is “concern for a land that mourns (12.4, 11), and for the land as heritage (12.7-9, 14-15)” which form “interlocking themes across the chapter.”[13] If the land is excluded from discussions on God’s justice, then the result is a narrow understanding of how God’s presence is felt in the land. Throughout the chapter God speaks of both people and land as Their own inheritance – both are God’s possessions to be passed down. This brings to the forefront the brutal tragedy of Jeremiah’s ministry: God’s treasured possessions will be ravished. 

God’s inheritance, in this case God’s people, is given up to judgement. The judgement against Judah is abandonment, which causes the kingdom to fall into enemy hands. However, Judah has become like a lion against God. The kingdom is like an untamed bird that will be attacked by birds of prey. As God’s rebuke to the nation develops, the reader begins to see that creation will also judge the rebellious kingdom: the land itself is invited to be part of attack against Judah (vv. 10-13). The kingdom is surrounded as the nations, animals, and land itself all prepare to besiege God’s people.

Just as Jeremiah had brought forth a complaint about God’s justice on behalf of the land, God offers a response for the land. What is noteworthy is that Jeremiah and God have both heard the land’s cries loud and clear. That the land cries out is not in dispute. What is disputed is what the cries mean. When Jeremiah hears the land cry, he interprets that to mean that its helpless and in need of his intercession; God’s reply highlights that the land is empowered. God points out that the land has the good sense to mourn its plight: “Desolate, the whole land, because no one takes it to heart” (v. 11, New American Bible Revised Edition). The cries do not mean the land is weak, it means the land is dismayed that the people ignore it. Likewise, who is to blame for the degradation of the land is contested. Jeremiah blames the unjust – their sins had brought about the present condition – while God compares the desolation of the land to “the sword of the Lord” (v. 12, ESV). The sorry state of the land is God’s proof that the land is fighting back. Terence Fretheim concludes that “this grieving, angry God bears some responsibility for the wasted land.”[14]

God’s role in the land’s desolation is a contrasted to how the sinful people react. While sinners “deny any connection between [the plight of the land and creature] and their sin…. God does take some responsibility for the land.”[15] In fact, God will use the situation to correct the people’s sin. In this respect, the land and the creatures on the land are not different from the nations in other prophetic contexts: agents of God’s judgement. However, while the nations God employs to judge God’s people are typically treated as sinful creatures which inevitably overstep their bounds; the land and the animals are obedient agents. As a result, the land is no mere victim: “the land is depicted as resisting the destruction resulting from human activities” while being “caught in the middle.”[16] The land is shaped by its relationship to both God and people, but it has a distinct relationship with both. God appears to affirm that the land will become an active partner in bringing about justice.

God’s plan for justice reaches its fullness in verses 14-17. The nations and creation will mete out justice for God and the land has an opportunity to exact some measure of restitution. Yet, Elmer Martens notes that these verses complicate God’s answer to Jeremiah “by changing the agenda to a discussion of compassion.”[17] God will have compassion on Judah. Even more shocking, God will have compassion on the nations on those “who touch the heritage that I have given my people Israel to inherit” (v. 14). This also marks a shift in the meaning of heritage/inheritance. Previously in the chapter, inheritance had referred to Israel and God’s rejection of it. God abandoned God’s inheritance, it roared at God like a lion, and the inheritance was surrounded by birds of prey seeking its life; but in verses 14-15, the land is God’s inheritance that will be returned to the people. In short: God will give God’s inheritance to God’s inheritance. Inheritance here refers to a gift which is passed on from generation to generation.

Just as God had planted the unjust ones whom had taken root (v. 2), God promises that Judah will be “plucked” from exile and returned to the land (v. 15). The surrounding nations are also included in this oracle. The nations had taught God’s people how to worship other gods, but God’s inheritance will bless the nations as they teach them to worship Yahweh, and if they keep their Baals they will be plucked just as Israel had been – though their fate seems to be destruction, rather than exile (v.16-17). This further emphasizes the shift in meaning for God’s inheritance: in vv. 5-13, God’s inheritance (people) has been designated for judgement; in vv. 14-17, God’s inheritance (land) becomes the designated locus of God’s justice and compassion.

Rethinking how the Bible is to be contextualized as we consider the state of the planet does not require a complete abandonment of the theologies that came before. But we are required to rethink the assumptions we carry with us. Rethinking how we read Scripture is an important step in learning to see the world in a new light.  

[1]. Bad Religion, “Kyoto Now!,” by Greg Graffin, recorded 2001, track 7 on The Process of Belief, Epitaph.
[2]. Ibid. 
[3].  Vine Deloria Jr., The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1979. Reprint, Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2012), 55.
[4]. Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, George E. “Tink” Tinker, A Native American Theology, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 126-7.
[5]. Ibid., 33. 
[6]. Ibid., 41.
[7]. Ibid., 39. 
[8]. Elmer A. Martens, Jeremiah, Believers Church Bible Commentary, (Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 1986), 21.
[9]. Ibid., 24.
[10]. The Earth Bible Team, “The Voice of Earth: More than Metaphor?” 23-8, The Earth Story in the Psalms and the Prophets, vol. 4 of The Earth Bible, ed. Norman C. Habel, (Cleveland, OH: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 27.
[11]. Val Billingham, “Some Ecological Perspectives on Jeremiah and Exile.” Colloquium 45, no. 1 (May 2013): 19.
[12]. F. B. Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, vol. 16 of The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1993), 140.
[13]. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12,” 97.
[14]. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12,” 101.
[15]. Ibid., 104.
[16]. Ibid., 107.
[17]. Elmer A. Martens, Jeremiah, 100.

Mennonite Identity, Nazism, and Colonialism

For many Mennonites the concept of “Mennonite as an ethnicity” is one that’s found import. The idea has presumably gained traction because it adequately communicates a self-understanding of separation from the world: despite being citizens of a nation-state, many Mennonites feel they have a distinct identity apart from that state. As a Mennonite living in Canadian, I might be Canadian by nationality but culturally identify as a Mennonite. With this identification there’s an assumption of a shared Mennonite history, one that is shaped by a historiography that emphasizes “victimization, martyrdom, and nonresistance.”[1] These assumptions can be problematic, as recent questions about Mennonites and National Socialism are demonstrating. However, I also believe that the issues raised around Mennonites’ relationship to Nazism have wider implications.

The body of research on the Russian Mennonite link to National Socialism is growing. And it is a topic that will need to be wrestled with earnestly. Recent scholarship on this comes from a variety of circles within Mennonite scholarship. In 2007, I attended a lecture given by Gerhard Ratzlaff in which he discussed the rifts in churches caused during and after World War II between Paraguayan Mennonites on the topic of National Socialism.[2] In 2012, Gerhard Rempel had an article appear in The Mennonite entitled “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” which was itself based off an earlier peer-reviewed article from 2010. This piece offered snapshots of what Mennonite complicity with and active participation in the Holocaust looked like. In 2013, Hans Werner published a memoir of his grandfather, entitled The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War, which explores the relationship between his faither’s military service and how his Mennonite identity was constructed and articulated through those stories. The April 2018 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review, which included “The War Diary of Jakob Guenther, Bendsburg, Upper Silesia, Germany” offered insight in how some Russian Mennonites viewed their role in the war effort when conscripted by the Germans.[3] Ben Goossen has explored this topic in books and articles (Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era being a notable work); recently he wrote a piece in the Boston Review which looked at the intersection of white supremacy and Mennonite identity in North America.

This is naturally a sensitive topic. Anecdotally, it is one that causes people people to adopt a defensive posture in conversations. Waldemar Janzen, an Old Testament scholar, objected Goossen’s characterization of how Ukrainian Mennonites responded to the Nazi regime in an article that appeared in Canadian Mennonite. Janzen’s critique draws upon his experience from when he was a ten-year-old child and characterized Goossen’s historiography as being shaped by “a hermeneutic of suspicion” that attempts to shape all “connections with Germans… as complicity with Nazism.”[4] Volker Horsch’s critique of an article published in an issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review does convincingly demonstrate that sometimes our readings of historical documents can be shaped by our own bias and that these biases have real consequences. Horsch pens a response to Thomas Nauerth’s article “Michael Horsch and the Rhön Bruderhof, 1936–1937: From Friend to Hostile Witness to Historical Eyewitness” (from April 2017) which attempts to temper Nauerth’s own analysis. Volker Horsch’s response offers insight into the difficulty of speaking about subjects who still have living relatives with first-hand knowledge of how these individuals understood their own actions.[5] Horsch acknowledges his grandfather’s mistakes, but also details how he believes sinister motives have been read into the senior Horsch’s bad judgement and political naivety. Horsch’s approach involves reading the same texts that Nauerth works from and demonstrating ways in which bias might have negatively coloured his interpretations.

Even those who don’t display quite the same “hermeneutic of suspicion” recognize that the Mennonite connection to the racist political regime, by necessity, complexifies how history should be told. John D. Roth, in Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be, writes that:

“Mennonites generally celebrated the advance of German storm troopers into the Ukraine and Crimea as liberators from Stalin’s tyranny…. Given the horror of their recent experiences under Communist rule, the impulse of Russian Mennonites to identify with the German cause is understandable. Yet the support that many expressed for National Socialism and their general willingness to fight in Hitler’s army adds another layer of complexity to an already painful story.”[6]

Roth’s account speaks to a sort of radicalization that happened to Mennonites under harsh Soviet rule – in the name of self-interest, it was easy for Mennonites to side with oppressors that shared the same common enemy. This is akin to radicalization that might be discussed when exploring the impact of modern foreign policy and military involvement. But, Roth’s approach in Stories is still problematic. The Soviet persecution of Mennonites is briefly discussed but the persecution carried out by Mennonites collaborating with the Nazi regime is not. Mennonites are portrayed in a passive light – they express support for Nazism, but do not participate in it. Yet, even with passive portrayal of Russian Mennonites, it’s clear that the story needs to be complexified.[7]

Dirk Willems saving his pursuer from drowning. A popular image of Mennonite identity and history,

These historical reading are often tied to a conception of identity rooted in an essentialist reading of what it means to be an Anabaptist, broadly, and a Mennonite, more specifically. This leads to a messy relationship between theology and historiography. History does not inform readers about what one’s ancestors believed theologically; rather, history tended to be read in a way that conformed to expectations to what one’s ancestors should have believed theologically. Historian Harold Bender and theologian John Howard Yoder both articulated readings of essentialist readings of history. These readings emphasize two elements. First, that there was a stark duality between church and world which led to a theology of separation from the world; second, Anabaptists following the tradition of the radical Reformation in Zürich, were pacifist. Neither of these assumptions can be held to be universal: not among the early Anabaptist reformers, nor among the inheritors of the various Anabaptist traditions.    

As acceptance for dissident Christian sects grew throughout Europe, many Mennonite leaders were educated abroad. Russian Mennonites proved to be savvy negotiators when dealing with governments. They continually negotiated and renegotiated with the Tsarist regime to ensure their special privileges were respected; when groups emigrated to Canada, special privileges were negotiated there, too. In World War II, some Mennonites were in contact with the Nazis to portray themselves as good German peoples, rather than a possibly divisive sectarian religious minority that might endanger the homogeneity of the Third Reich.[8] This same political savviness helped Nazi collaborators flee Europe after the Second World War. In the post-war era, there was a fluidity where national identity was concerned. Mennonites, who were once proudly German and even collaborated with the Nazis, suddenly identified as Ukrainian or Polish when trying to emigrate.[9] In fact, Steve Schroeder contends that Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) “went to great lengths to prove that the Ukrainians [Mennonites] were forced [participate in the Nazi regime] against their will…. even though many Ukrainian Mennonites, motivated to avenge the deaths of loved ones under Soviet rule, had volunteered for the Wehrmacht.”[10] Mennonites knew perhaps more astute and less concerned with a strict separation from the world than figures like Bender and Yoder might have assumed.

This aspect of how Mennonites worked to craft this identity is one that seems to have happened because Mennonites were, and still are, the main purveyors of Mennonite history. Ben Goossen comments that Cornelius Krahn, “a leading figure of twentieth-century Mennonitism,” had an important role in fostering a reading of Mennonite history that favours the category of ethnicity. As a historian, he helped articulate a narrative that depicted Mennonites as “an ‘ethnically’ bound denomination, whose cultural integrity and theological purity had for centuries withstood intrusions by more transient political ideologies.”[11] Nazism was an inconvenient “irritation, now past” and irrelevant against the “more immediate danger of communism;” yet, the emphasis on purity has obvious similarities to National Socialist and white supremacist understands of history and identity. In the post-war era, Krahn “helped craft a campaign that depicted Mennonites as a peaceful and persecuted ‘ethnic’ minority. The purpose of this narrative was to allege that Mennonites in Europe could not have collaborated with Hitler’s racist regime.”[12]

Yet, Krahn seems to have known this was not the case. Based on audio recording of Walter Quiring, “a Nazi propagandist [who] had worked for the SS,” and Krahn, Goosen notes that Krahn would have known about the atrocities that some Mennonites carried out during World War II. Goossen writes that in these recordings “Quiring candidly recounts his own enthusiastic participation in wartime ethnic cleansing.” Ultimately, Quiring, like many Mennonites, managed to emigrate after the war because they “obscured their war records and received UN refugee assistance by invoking the concept of ‘ethnic’ Mennonitism devised by Krahn and his [MCC] coworkers.”[13] It is also worth noting the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online has an article on Walter Quiring which appears to be written to alleviate any potential controversy around Quiring. It paradoxically acknowledges Quiring’s writings in favour of National Socialism and claims that any writings have been discredited, it makes special note that Quiring taught in schools owned by wealthy Jews, and suggests that there’s no record of Quiring’s wartime activity.[14]

How Mennonites came to understand their identity when groups left Russia to emigrate to Canada demonstrate the implications of how Mennonites read their own history. Hans Werner, whose father served in the Soviet military before defecting to the German military during the Second World War, notes that his father never told stories in which he was directly involved in the death of another. Werner speculates that the “context of the pacifist Mennonite social milieu in which he told his stories” likely made any such stories taboo.[15] Even in these sanitized war stories it seemed that the elder Werner had knowledge of Nazi activities concerning treatment of Jews and only told stories in which he looked out for the welfare of Jewish friends or acquaintances.[16] The fact that one’s social setting dictates the appropriateness of certain stories leads to a situation in which communities believe they cannot perpetrate such hate and confirm it by scrubbing contradictory stories from their own biographies.

This tendency to whitewash our own stories, but also the stories of our ancestors and their communities has potential issues with how Mennonite communities today understand their role as settlers in the North American context.

There have been multiple waves of Mennonite migration to North America. I will briefly discuss the emigration of Russia Mennonites to Manitoba to illustrates some concerns. Russian Mennonites, and other groups, came to North America to inspect prospective sites to found new colonies as it became harder to acquire new land in Russia. Upon arriving in Manitoba to inspect the land they were being offered by the Canadian government it seems to be that there was no doubt that they were being offered land that was claimed by the Métis. On June 5, 1873, the Hutterite Paul Tschetter wrote in his diary, upon arriving in Winnipeg to inspect potential farm land, that the land was currently being cultivated by “lazy farmers of mixed Indian blood,” noting at a later date that the land around Winnipeg is “owned” and settled by the “half-breed Indians.”[17] One night, the guide for the Russian delegation had to stand guard with his rifle all night out of fear that the Métis would attack the prospective settlers after he got into a “quarrel” with some Métis.[18] While it is not necessarily clear what the quarrel was about, I have heard speculation that the quarrel was about the delegations of settlers inspecting Métis land. While it is not clear that the delegations would have known about the Red River Rebellion, it is clear the the prospective settlers were aware that they were being offered lands which were already claimed by groups of people. This was seemingly justified by their view that the Métis were lazy.

Delegates at the East Reserve

After Mennonites had settled in Manitoba, members of my own family fled Soviet persecution. I am reminded by my parents that these were traumatized individuals fleeing for their own safety. They likely did not understand that they were benefiting from government policies which had dispossessed nations from their own land. They were not necessarily ignorant of such facts (though, they might have been), but how they understood race and their relationship to the state is bound to be fundamentally different from my own perspectives. Additionally, they were people desperate to leave a troubled area of the world. From my own vantage point, I can identify how their descendants benefited from government policies that valued Mennonites more than Indigenous peoples. Later, when Jews tried to flee Europe and find asylum in Canada, they did not receive the same hospitality that my family received. I cannot fault my family for fleeing Soviet persecution, nor can I pretend that I would not have made the same choices they made. But, the theological aspect of Mennonite identity and history warrants more attention. Earlier, it was discussed as problematic due to essentialist readings. It is important to note, though, that Mennonite most clearly names an identity that is entangled with a certain religious affiliation. This religious affiliation need not be used to offer whitewashed narrations of history.

Mennonite faith assumes a world in which evil exists and that all people are susceptible to be influenced by evil. Mennonite identity cannot be used to try to deflect guilt from one’s ancestors because Mennonite identity likely assumes Christian understandings of sin. The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective notes that sin is the result of choices made by both individuals and communities while salvation involves “reconciliation with others.”[19] The Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith likewise affirms the power of sin is at “work through political, economic, social and even religious systems” and characterized the human response to salvation as a call to “love one another and live at peace with their neighbor.”[20] Both of these confessions of faith note that the Mennonite understanding of sin and salvation involves our engagement in social processes. The refusal to acknowledge the wrongs of one’s ancestors furthers one’s enslavement to sin: one cannot be extricated from evils unless they are identified.

An understandable desire to not besmirch one’s forebearers presents a common stumbling block. This is a stumbling block not unique to Mennonites, of course. It is, perhaps, natural to want to avoid speaking ill of one’s family, religious community, or nation. Yet if sin is an assumed reality, the necessity of repentance and reconciliation is an essential response to the realization of one’s sin. The fact that sin can encompass groups, and is not just personal, necessitates that groups continue to evaluate their own history to look where sin has occurred in the past. This is done not to slander ancestors, but to reconcile for the sins that groups have benefitted from and continue to benefit from.

[1]. Steve Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms With the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945-1950,” The Conrad Grebel Review, January, 2003: 8 

[2]. While Ratzlaff is not a contributor in Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XCII(92),  April 2018, No. 2, this issue has a particular focus on Latin American Mennonites and their own struggles with National Socialism.

[3]. Guenther, Jakob, “The War Diary of Jakob Guenther, Bendsburg, Upper Silesia, Germany,” trans. Jack Thiessen, ed. James Urry, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XCII(92),  April 2018, No. 2: 207-24.

[4]. Waldemar Janzen, “An eye-witness account of Nazi occupation,” Canadian Mennonite, April 4, 2018, (accessed May 4, 2019).

[5]. Volker Horsch, “Michael Horsch: A Victim of His Nationalist Sympathies? A Response to Thomas Nauerth,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XCII(92),  April 2018, No. 2: 299-306.

[6]. John D. Roth, Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be, (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2006), 134-5.

[7]. Despite Roth’s tepid phrasing in this particular text, it is important to note that Roth has played a role in making this history more widely known in his role as editor for Mennonite Quarterly Review.

[8]. See: Benjamin Goossen, “‘A Small World Power’: How the Nazi Regime Viewed Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XCII(92),  April 2018, No. 2: 173-206. Pp. 193-206 are an English translation of The Culture of the Black Sea Germans: The Mennonites, written by an SS official named Karl Götz. The document demonstrates considerable knowledge of Mennonite history. Furthermore, pp. 200-1 specifically detail his understanding how contemporary Mennonite scholarship demonstrated the perceived purity of their German ethnicity. Goossen, in his introduction to the text, contends that the document shows signs that “several leading Mennonites in the Third Reich had a hand in its composition,”; he also notes that Mennonites were, at times, among those targeted by Nazis. (pp. 175-6)

[9]. Steve Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms With the Past,”7-8. C.f. Guenther, Jakob, “The War Diary of Jakob Guenther,” trans. Jack Thiessen, ed. James Urry, p. 209: Urry speculates Guenther might have “disguise[ed] his place of birth” to avoid returning to the Soviet Union. Likewise, Hans Werner, in The Constructed Mennonite, also references these matters when discussing his father’s attempts to resettle in Canada.

[10]. Ibid., 9.

[11]. Similar claims are made in The Culture of the Black Sea Germans: The Mennonites. However, the veracity of such a statement is questionable, at best. Russian Mennonites had contact with other neighbouring communities, such as Lutheran communities. While the Nazi regime likely would not have viewed this as an influence that lessened their perceived purity, it demonstrates that the strict separation did not necessarily exist. In the 1860s, for example, revival movements in Lutheran communities in Russia would influence some Mennonites to break away from their church communities to become the Mennonite Brethren.

[12]. Ben Goossen, “The Pacifist Roots of an American Nazi,” Boston Review¸ May 2, 2019, (accessed May 4, 2019).

[13]. Ibid., c.f. Steve Schroeder, “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms With the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945-1950,” The Conrad Grebel Review, January 2003: 6-16.

[14]. Ted D. Regehr, “Quiring, Walter (1893-1983),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO),,_Walter_(1893-1983) (accessed May 16, 2019)

[15]. Hans Werner, The Constructed Mennonite: History, Memory, and the Second World War, (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2013), 77.

[16]. Ibid., 84.

[17]. Paul Tschetter, “The Diary of Paul Tschetter, 1873 II,” trans. & ed. J. M. Hofer, The Mennonite Quarterly Review 5, no. 3 (July 1931): 203-4. 

[18]. John J. Friesen, Building Communities: The Changing Face of Manitoba Mennonites, (Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2007), 10.

[19]. Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1995), 31 & 36.

[20]. Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application¸ (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Productions, 2000), 45 & 55.

John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder was a prominent Mennonite theologian whose pacifist theology has been very influential in Anabaptist circles. Unfortunately, it also needs to be stated that Yoder was also a serial sex offender who damaged many lives. An on-going debate is whether or not Yoder should still be used and referenced in light of his history of abuse.

I mention John Howard Yoder due to his theological and historical significance.

Batman and Job

Stories shape how people interact with the world and understand their place within it. We tell stories to provide a sense of order to the world and sometimes we tell stories to name the difficulties and nuances of the world around us. Stanley Hauerwas, a Christian ethicist, posits that societies tell stories to help equip people for the life-long adventure of living the good life. Stories help maintain the courage necessary for us to keep “faithful to the struggle, since by its very nature adventures means that the future is always in doubt. And just to the extent that the future is in doubt, hope is required, as there can be no adventure if we despair our goal. Such hope… involves the simple willingness to take the next step.”[1]

Batman #53[2] is a story that is explicitly about the struggle on how one should best take that next step. This issue is the conclusion to a three-part story called “Cold Days.” In this story, Bruce Wayne is doing jury duty for a case involving Mr. Freeze that he, as Batman, helped solve. Or, so it appears. The reader quickly learns that Bruce is arguing for Mr. Freeze’s innocence with the jury. Bruce thinks his conclusions he made as Batman were based on flawed evidence and had himself put on the jury so that he could try to correct his mistake. As the story reaches its conclusion, the nature of the conversation shifts away from the evidence and toward the nature of justice and hope. The final issue builds upon Job to contrast God’s justice with Batman’s justice, and the inherent fallibility of Batman as a symbol. Bruce Wayne ends up reflecting on the story of Job to help articulate why a not guilty verdict would be the best way for the jurors to move forward.

The biblical story that Bruce reflects on, the story of Job, speaks to the difficult nature of understanding theodicy, or God’s justice. It opens with a description of a man who is “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1, New American Bible Revised Edition) in every sense of the word. Job is a just man who eagerly observes the necessary cultic practices of his faith. He’s blessed with a large family, much wealth, and good health. Job’s piety is so great that Yahweh, or God, takes note of him. One day Yahweh and Satan converse when the conversation turns to Job. God boasts on Job’s behalf, saying “Have you noticed my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him” (1:8). Satan isn’t convinced that Job is so great. In fact, he believes that Job is only faithful because he is prosperous. Satan, as the tempter and tester, proposes that Job’s faith be tried by stripping him of all blessings; God agrees to this. Job’s possessions, family, and even his health are all taken away from him. Job sits by a fire, in mourning and contemplation, when his friends come to offer comfort, which quickly turns into heated debate. Job is admonished and pushed to admit that he sinned, for if he had not sinned he would not face such hardship. But Job is adamant, he has done no wrong! Eventually Job meets God, face-to-face, to engage in a dialogue. Yahweh confirms that Job’s suffering is not the result of wrong-doing. Job is ultimately vindicated and his blessings returned: he’s given a larger family, even more wealth, and is blessed with a long life.

            Tom King’s use of Job in Batman #53 initially seems like a way to flesh the character of Bruce Wayne out. In the story Bruce discusses his loss of faith when his parents died and how he found a god in Batman; the irony, the reader knows, is this is not merely idolatry, but self-deification. King effectively reframes the story to be about idolatry and justice. After all, Batman is not God or even a god (as Bruce reminds the jury). Batman is a man who can make mistakes, thus his justice and his pronouncements of guilt can be wrong. The nature of Batman’s justice is put on trial. In doing so, the comparison between God’s justice in Job and Batman’s justice is made. We cannot assume the justice of our idols; Batman only seems just because the alternative is so cruel – maniacs and “demons” terrorize Gotham on a regular basis – and the citizens have resigned themselves to accept that “his will is our law.”[3]

In presenting a new spin on the classic story of Job, Tom King also recreates a central nuance present in Job. A theme in Job’s speeches, and later in Yahweh’s speech in the story, is that Job is unfit to question the ways of the Creator. Early in the story, Job notes that people “Accept good things from God; should we not accept evil” (2:10). Even when Job does lament his situation, he says that even if one were to “contend” with God, they “could not answer him once in a thousand times,” even if they were “right” (9:3, 15). When God does arrive to take part in the debate, Job refuses to engage in an argument with God, while God’s own arguments mirrors Job’s earlier arguments: can the created understand the ways of the Creator? The closing dialogue with Job and God suggests that “God’s goodness lies beyond justice. This is why the categories of guilt and punishment, true and terrible though they are, can only view human suffering as a consequence of sin, not as an occasion of grace.”[4]

Likewise, Bruce Wayne states he “sought transcendence” in Batman and “thought he was God.” He implies that because so many people have been saved from the grave by Batman’s actions, they view him as a god: who are we to question the world’s greatest detective? This is compared to God’s words in Job. Tom King, like Job’s author, then reframes the question of justice. Batman fails as a god because “he does not provide solace from pain” and “cannot give you hope for the eternal” or “comfort you for the love you lost;” bluntly stated, “God blesses your soul with grace. Batman punches people in the face.”[5]

An undercurrent to the story relates to what type of society is Gotham with Batman as its idol. Bruce, with his own lack of faith, preaches on the meaning of Job to a Christian juror and suggests that everyone in that room has come to see Batman as a god. But questioning the nature of justice is enough to prove that Batman cannot be the basis for the story which allows people to have genuine hope in their own lives. Bruce pushes the other jurors to engage in an argument about which tradition will shape their lives. Hauerwas writes that societies are engaged in “extended argument[s]” involving “living traditions” and “rival interpretations. Good societies enable the argument to continue so that the possibilities and limit of the tradition can be exposed.”[6] In this issue, Bruce Wayne does exactly that. He argues that Batman simply cannot stand up to rival interpretations of reality: once you start asking the tough questions, Batman is revealed to be a mere idol.

Hauerwas notes that “[a]bsorption into most societies is training in self-deception as we conspire with one another to keep death at bay…. Good and just societies require a narrative, therefore, which helps them know the truth about existence and fight the constant temptation to self-deception.”[7] King’s Batman #53 highlights that the common superhero narrative can become a form of self-deception. The story does not just deal with Bruce Wayne’s self-deception, but the self-deception of the larger world. At the conclusion of the issue, Bruce eventually wins the argument and convinces the jury to acquit Mr. Freeze and admit that their false god can err. As the jury leaves the room, they leave with an apparent new-found sense of purpose that they had lacked earlier on the narrative when they assumed their role was to merely rubber stamp the judgements of the Dark Knight; there’s even a sense of joy in the moment as Bruce and his Christian interlocutor appear to warmly converse on their way out. Yet, the reader knows that Bruce/Batman is still engaged in this self-deception, even if he knows that his judgement is fallible. He still lacks a narrative to give him direction when confronted with the larger issues in life.

[1]. Stanley Hauerwas, “A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on Watership Down,” from A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, reprinted 2008, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1981), 13,  

[2]. Tom King, Lee Weeks, Elizabeth Breitweiser, Cold Days, Pt. 3 of 3, Batman #53, (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, October, 2018).  

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Francis I. Andersen, Job: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 14, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 310.

[5]. Tom King, Lee Weeks, Elizabeth Breitweiser, Batman #53.

[6]. Stanley Hauerwas, “A Story-Formed Community,” 14.

[7]. Ibid., 18.

Learning to Read on the Internet

The internet has made the world effectively smaller and made communication almost effortless and nearly instantaneous. This connectivity has done much good, but we are also learning about the ugliness it has helped to usher in. Namely, we are learning that the internet has become the perfect tool for radicalization. This was perhaps first made clear to many in the West when ISIS created an internet presence to radicalize disenfranchised Muslim youth in the West, but in response white supremacy has found a transnational and ephemeral home on the internet as well. The rise of online white supremacy is not new, yet recent events have shown how it has become more refined and sophisticated in recent history.

The role of the internet as a tool to spread white supremacist propaganda and create terrorists has become a way in which some have tried to understand the recent Christchurch terror attack. Kevin Roose, in a New York Times article, writes that the Christchurch shootings were “a first” because it was “an internet-native mass shooting, conceived and produced entirely within the irony-soaked discourse of modern extremism.” Roose notes that “the language used to describe the attack before the fact framed it as an act of internet activism.” The terrorist’s manifesto reflects this. His own language has been characterized by his cynicism and sense of irony, while being intentionally devoid of meaning at times. Intent is deliberately obfuscated and the terrorist challenges us to find a meaning by referencing memes that are, by their nature, empty. As a result, the natural attempts to search for meaning in tragedy becomes a joke that only his sympathizers are in on.[1]

This brings to our attention that the world is a different place with the internet. Platforms which emphasize anonymity have fostered a mode of communication which purposefully defies interpretation. Images and text are reduced to information, digitization strips ambiguity from data, and interpretation is denigrated since the act of interpretation acknowledges nuance and complexity rather than acquiescing straight-forward calculations. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han notes that knowledge is characterized by “inwardness” and is “gained against a resistance.” Said another way, there’s an opacity and natural obscurity to genuine knowledge that requires mastery to understand. However, we tend to favour data over knowledge. But the language of data has “no inside, no flip sides,” it is shallow and seemingly requires no interpretation. Actions, likewise, become “data-driven processes which takes place without any autonomy… of the subject.” Agency is stripped away because data-driven processes are meant to simulate simple and predictable equations of cause-and-effect.[2] In addition, social and political bodies “are stripped of narrativity, direction, and sense.”[3] Context is a vital component to knowledge and accountability in both individuals and groups.

In the irony-soaked discourse of the internet, the acontextuality of extremism is weaponized. Context and interpretation requires insight to discern and effort to communicate, while disinformation is easily spread in just a few words. A moderator from a Reddit community (or subreddit), called AskHistorians, highlights this when discussing the subreddit’s stance toward Holocaust denial. Johannes Breit writes:

“It takes [deniers] little effort to formulate a wrong assertion, but it takes historians a long time and a lot of words to refute one. Our early attempts to engage on these points have shown that length and nuance do not play well on the internet and do not interest the deniers. [Their] point… is not to debate facts. It’s to have an audience hear denialist lies in the first place…. To gauge whether a person is malicious or merely ‘ironic’ is a futile exercise, for to give Holocaust deniers’ positions a platform is to disseminate their propaganda.”

Breit notes that the techniques of Holocaust deniers is informed by tactics used in the early 1990s which targeted university campuses.[4] Yet the technology has also changed how extremists are made because, as Roose writes in his aforementioned article, “[t]here is no offline equivalent of the experience of being algorithmically nudged toward a more strident version of your existing beliefs, or having an invisible hand steer you from gaming videos to neo-Nazism.”[5]

Readers need to adapt to technology and relearn how to read. The terrorist shooting in Christchurch demonstrates that the internet has become a place where white supremacy can ignore borders and find a home anywhere where there is an internet-connected device. It also draws attention to the tools of the trade: irony and memes reduce knowledge to bits of data for easy and quick consumption and encourages readers to turn away from more complex forms of communication. The language demands drastic actions and shuns ambiguity: perceived invasions demand violent responses. Individuals flee like cowards or, perhaps even worse, are herded to echo chambers, where there can be no interpretation and no questioning. Any attempt to reinterpret the presented data, to question its validity, or merely present the wider context is actively policed against. In echo chambers stock phrases and memes become the primary mode of communication because they are vapid. Genuine conversation is the enemy of echo chambers because conversation acknowledge relationality, insight, context, and narrative. Genuine conversation would bring accountability and agency into the simplistic equations which seemingly govern our world.

There is no one way to re-educate ourselves. Conversation, community, and an openness to nuance are good starting points. Yet conversation is scary in a world where disagreement is treated as a personal attack. Community is hard in a social media driven world that focuses on “likes” and “upvotes” rather than meaningful interactions. Nuance requires one to admit that the world might be too complex for the simple equations we have learned to default to when faced with a dilemma. But it’s becoming clear that we need to change our habits if online platforms are designed to profit from and foster our worst traits. In the word of Bad Religion: “we’ve got shiny new tools for ancient impulse we can’t even understand.”[6] The task before us is to learn and understand.

[1]. Kevin Roose, “A Mass Murder of, and for, the Internet,” New York Times, March 15 2019. (Accessed March 22, 2019),

[2]. Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, trans. Daniel Steuer, eBook edition, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018), 8.

[3]. Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society, trans. Erik Butler, eBook edition, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 29.

[4]. Johannes Breit, “How One of the Internet’s Biggest History Forums Deals With Holocaust Deniers: And How Facebook Should, Too,” Slate, July 20, 2018. (accessed March 26, 2019).

[5]. Kevin Roose, “A Mass Murder of, and for, the Internet,”  

[6]. Bad Religion, “The Kids Are Alt-Right,” released June 20, 2018, Epitaph Records.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders Flirts with False Prophecy

Sarah Sanders is making headlines for making a bold claim: God wanted President Donald Trump to be president.[1] If Sanders is right about this, she should be worried. She might even need to take a Biblical literacy course to realize why her comments should be worrying.

A quick look at the history of Israel’s judges and kings prove that being chosen is difficult, at best, and often results in ruin. A quick overview of the Biblical narrative surrounding the transition from Israel being a loose confederation of tribes to a united monarchy is, perhaps, in order.

In 1 Samuel 8, the audience encounters a story in which the people approached their current leader and asked for a new ruler, a king. In the background of this story, Samuel had been chosen by God to be a judge over Israel. With God on his side, Samuel led Israel to military victories, presided over the nation, and settled disputes.  However, Samuel had failed to keep his sons in line. They were corrupt and flagrantly so. In this way, Samuel’s story mirrors the previous God-appointed judge, Eli, who raised Samuel as a boy. Eli, previously Yahweh’s appointed leader, received a prophecy that his lineage would cease to exist – his family would be no more – because his sons were corrupt and he stood by and did nothing (1 Sam. 2:12-17; 2:27-3:18). In 1 Samuel 8, Samuel was confronted by the people who had decided they could no longer tolerate the system of charismatic judges and wanted a king, like the other nations.

Samuel, displeased, left to pray about what should be done. God spoke to the Samuel and told him that it is not Samuel that the people have rejected, but the rather they have rejected Yahweh. The Lord, nevertheless, agreed to give Israel a king. Samuel still tries to dissuade the people, under a monarchy they will trade away their sons, daughters, livestock, land, and wealth to a king in the hope of security when it is God that provides security. The people remained adamant, they wanted a king.

At this point, Sanders should get the inkling that being the leader God picks is a scary prospect. Eli’s family was erased from history, while Samuel was forced to transition the nation to a new political system because people lost faith under his rule.

Samuel is, nevertheless, a faithful judge and a great prophet. Thus, he carried out his duty and anointed Saul as king at the Lord’s behest, making him the first king over the tribes. Saul is initially a successful king. Like Samuel, he led the nation to victory in battle and listened to the people. In fact, Saul’s downfall is he was a bit too worried about what the people thought. On the eve of battle, Samuel was supposed to offer a sacrifice but was running late. Saul felt he could not wait anymore and offered the sacrifice himself so his army would not lose confidence; as king, Saul overstepped his bounds and acted as priest. Samuel saw Saul offer the sacrifice and rebukes Saul. Readers know Saul’s dynasty is doomed from that point on. God had set Their eyes to a new king to succeed Saul (1 Sam. 13:1-14).

God selected David (1 Sam. 16:13). David’s a tricky character and was a thorn in Saul’s side for years. When David finally became king, we know that his failings are memorialized in Scripture. David famously committed adultery and murdered to cover up that sin; yet, due to God’s earlier promise to David, David remained relatively unscathed (2 Sam. 7:8-17; 11:1-26). David has become the one that will finally be able to see their family line continue and one of David’s sons, Solomon, became the first figure in this history to succeed his father to rule the nation. God selected David’s line, the root of Jesse, to lead the people, after all. After David’s death, Solomon built the Temple. History largely remembers him as wise king. But, he too experienced a downfall later in life as he accepted the idolatry of his wives and incurred judgement as a result (1 Kings 11:4-13).

People who know their Old Testament history will know that Solomon’s death led to the fracturing of the Israelite kingdom into Israel, to the north, and Judah, to the south. The people had been heavily taxed to build the Temple and sought relief from a dynastic line that was too callous to care. The first king of the Northern Kingdom was divinely appointed to lead the north away from the Davidic dynasty but was also judged harshly for impiety (1 Kings 11:26-39; 12:26-33). Both kingdoms were crushed by empire; Israel fell to Assyria while David’s line in the south fell Babylon. One can skim through the books of Kings and Chronicles to see that rulers were generally judged harshly, even those chosen by God.

Assyrian warrior on camelback; taken from David S. Dockery, ed., Holman Bible Handbook, Logos edition, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 80.

And, if Sanders wants to continue reading the Bible, she wound find herself reading the prophets. A theme that develops over the prophetic books is that God controls the nations, even the ungodly nations: pious and impious. This is perhaps best illustrated by the prophet Isaiah. In a prophecy against Assyria, God affirms that They had chosen Assyria to be a tool of judgement against wicked nations, but the empire had been too eager in carrying out that duty, too unjust in execution, and had thus set itself up to be punished by the same God who wielded an empire as “a rod of My wrath” (Is. 10:1-12, New American Bible Revised Edition).

Of course, it is alarmist to compare the Trump administration the leaders of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was doomed to fall to the Assyrians, or to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which was subjected to the Babylonian Exile. But if Sanders firmly believes that that God chose Trump to be president, she should realize that being chosen by God can be a blessing or a curse; being elected is a call to righteousness. The failings of God’s appointed leaders resulted in oppression and injustice. The result of judgement were catastrophic upheaval when God intervened. The bad kings of the divided kingdoms were bolstered by false prophets who assured them of success and told them they had been chosen by Yahweh or other gods. Bad rulers were backed by false prophets, impious priests, and sycophant advisors who believed they knew the divine will and believed they were vindicated.

Anyone who proclaims any leader to be God’s chosen should be wary. Those who claim to know the mind of God risk being false prophets. If Sarah Huckabee Sanders has any good, pious bone in her body, she should be worried that she is acting as a false prophet.

[1]. BBC, “Sarah Sanders says ‘God wanted Trump to be president,’” January 31, 2019, (Accessed February 1, 2019).

Historiography and Indigenous Walls

The encounter quickly became viral. An Omaha elder Nathan Phillips standing face-to-face with a young, white, Catholic teenager. The teen is clad in a MAGA hat and armed with a smirk that anyone who has dealt with teenage boys (or, even worse, was once a teenage boy!) will know very well. Phillips beats his drum and chants. It’s a striking image that has left many people trying to understand the proper context and lay claim to the resulting narrative. As the narrative continues to unfold, one statement Phillips made struck my eye.

“This is indigenous lands. You’re not supposed to have walls here; we never did.”[1]

I am interested in how we tell our stories. The act of storytelling is inherently biased: narrators choose which details to include or omit, which ones to emphasize or downplay, and (by their very nature) provide perspective. When the story being told is history, the bias of the source is as interesting as the facts presented. People are storytellers and use rhetoric to further their reading of history. How we choose to tell the story behind the powerful picture is currently up for grabs. But this quote by Phillips suggests a telling of history that needs to be examined.

Historiography around this Indigenous peoples and colonialism is fraught with difficulties. It is easy for well-intentioned individuals trying to give balanced account to fall into the trap of romanticizing and essentializing Indigenous peoples. But our narration of history also needs to be factual and nuanced. The issue with a broad statement like Phillips made is quite simple: those seeking to discredit his message feel they can do so quite easily. Images of Indigenous walled settlements will be posted to “prove” that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (indeed, tweets doing just that are not difficult to find), or snarky comments will be made about how maybe the tribes would better off today if they had built walls (and, again, it isn’t hard to find commenters doing that).

Factually, Phillips is, of course, wrong. Phillip’s claim is quite possibly true for his own people, but it is not true for all Indigenous peoples. It is indisputable that some tribes surrounded their villages with palisades. There were walled villages or forts within the Iroquois Confederacy, for instance.[2] Europeans would equip their Indigenous allies with knowledge and technology necessary to try to beat such technology, such as when Samuel Champlain and his Aboriginal allies (the Wendat and Algonquin) utilized a siege tower in a failed attack on a Onondaga village.[3] But even among peoples who didn’t live in walled villages, Indigenous peoples were not necessarily wall-adverse. Bands and individuals were certainly willing to tie their fortunes to the walled trading forts.[4] These were people who did not necessarily find the construction of walls to be antithetical to their relationship to the land. A nuanced look is essential when dealing with complex people groups with complex relationships to the world around them.

(see [2])

How history is to be properly read is always contested and different groups will try to put forth different orthodoxies about how we ought to understand our history. I agree with the sentiment of Nathan Phillips yet strongly disagree with the reading of history he offers. At the surface an essentialist statement appears to be offered (Indigenous peoples did not build walls) which is, quite simply, incorrect because it’s offered with no nuance (some nations did; walling off villages versus erecting walls across a nation’s borders are not necessarily similar). The most sympathetic way to read his statement is not assume that Nathan Phillips is speaking on behalf of all Indigenous peoples. This also means that Phillips’ context (being an Omaha) should be taken seriously. What Phillips’ said might very well be true, but not true if we assume that all Indigenous people are essentially the same.

The important truth I see communicated in Phillips’ statement is that walls say something about us and how we narrate our history. The Mohawk people of the Iroquois Confederacy who now reside in Quebec and the Omaha people of the American Midwest likely face many of the same issues under different federal governments. Walls, alliances, and treaties have made little difference, it seems. The lesson to be gleaned is not a simple “do walls work?” – the answer is probably the profoundly unsatisfying “of course walls work sometimes.” The question might not even be “what would a border wall say about America?” Rather, the first question might be “what is it about how we tell our story that guides us to these types of positions?”

The Osage theologian George E. “Tink” Tinker writes that a sense of “spatiality and rootedness…. shows up in nearly all aspects of our [North American Indigenous peoples] existence, in our ceremonial structures, our symbols, our architecture, and in the symbolic parameters of a tribe’s universe.”[5] Tinker, speaking of his own people’s villages, notes that “the architectural geography of our spirituality functioned politically to give the village group cohesion; it functions at a deep spiritual level that still pertains for a great many Indian people today.”[6] Stories and physical space are linked. How groups react to and shape the world reflects their values. And I believe that this is the meaning behind Phillips’ words: walls say something about your relationship with the land and people.

In the background of the viral footage is religion. Phillips, with his drum, is armed with his Indigenous religious heritage. In front of him, young Catholic teens. It seems that prior to Nathan Phillips actions, Black Hebrew Israelites had been preaching loudly and attempting to antagonize the young group of Catholic students. A cohesive narrative is hard to pin together at this point. Rather than trying to narrate a clear story of what happened, I think the important task is to first acknowledge our own foundational stories. I turn again to Tinker, who affirms a need for communal theological reflection that “must become an exercise in expressing the self-identity of whole communities…. [W]e need stories rather than treatises, rather than essentialist discourse, problem resolution, or structuralist puzzle solving…. For theology of this magnitude, we must have stories.”[7] Stories brought all of these individuals and groups into each other’s orbit. What are these stories and how do we choose to tell them?

[1]. YouTube video, “Respect,” posted by “KC NOLAND”,, timestamp:0m09s-0m17s; Vincent Schilling, “The whole story: Before and after video of Nathan Phillips, #MAGAyouth and more,”, Indian Country Today, posted January 20, 2019, (accessed January 21, 2019)

[2]. Olive Patricia Dickason with William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, second edition, (Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 2010), 69.

[3]. Adam Shoalts, A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land, trade paperback reprint; 2017, (Toronto, ON: Penguin Random House Canada Limited, 2018), 100-2.

[4]. Olive Patricia Dickason with William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, 81; c.f. Adam Shoalts’ account of Matonabbee, A History of Canada in Ten Maps, 160-78

[5]. George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 72.

[6]. Ibid., 73.

[7]. Ibid., 75.  

Kent Annan’s You Welcomed Me Review

Kent Annan, You Welcome Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God Loved Us, advanced reader copy, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018. Pp. 118.

Kent Annan’s You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God Loved Us is a timely reflection on the refugee crisis facing the West with a particular focus on American politics. Throughout the book Annan mixes anecdotes, statistics, and theological reflection to argue that Christians ought to adopt a more welcoming stance toward both refugees and immigrants. The book is an adult education tool that clearly has small groups in mind while still being an accessible read if you’re reading it on your own . Audiences are directed to a site which features online curriculum and a family toolkit. The book itself includes practices for individuals and groups to engage in to help foster a more welcoming attitude.

Throughout the book Annan seeks to create more nuance in the conversation. The subtitle references both refugees and immigrant but Annan is clear to emphasize that these two different categories of migrants even if political discourse tends to flatten and conflate categories. It becomes clear that Annan believes that theological conversation around such topics need to not only be nuanced, but it should also be evidence based. Theology, at its best, brings Scripture and traditional teachings in dialogue with the situations that people and communities face in their life.

One way he seeks to expand the conversation is to make the narrative bigger than one often sees in the media. Annan acknowledges that how the issues are portrayed in the media are, typically, reductionist. Migrants are reduced to paragons of virtue, valid policy and security concerns are brushed aside, and the role of host nations and peoples are minimized. Rather, the conversation needs to be expanded so that how one understands themselves, their community, and how they relate to their neighbours can be part of that complex conversation.

At the same time, there are instances where Kent Annan is clearly writing in a way that shows his work is a product of that same, problematic discourse. At one point in the book Annan states that the perspective he’s advancing “isn’t a political statement” but that “[w]elcoming refugees and immigrants gives [Americans] a chance to live toward Statue of Liberty ideals” (p. 38). Such a statement is plainly political and pointing to the Statue of Liberty is obviously meant to appeal to the American political imagination – this is clearly political rhetoric. Yet despite that quibble, the source of Annan’s hesitance to acknowledge the political nature of his espoused theology is probably explained when Annan offers an anecdote where he was questioned about a previous project: “I talked with some people who liked the practices and vision in my book [Slow Kingdom Coming]. We had coffee or exchanged emails. They wondered if ‘confessing privilege’ was code for liberal politics” (p. 41). This demonstrates a challenge that the book will face in audiences – many audiences are simply afraid of politics (or, at least, afraid of liberal politics).

Many Christians are wary of being political or identifying with “liberal politics.” They do not see that how faith is expressed often will have a political dimension. Welcoming refugees and immigrants is a Christ-like stance to take, but they does not mean it is not political. I suspect that Annan is trying to ensure the phrasing does not turn away those who believe religion and politics are separate spheres (and never shall the twain meet). Theology need not succumb to partisan politics, but Jesus (and the community that forms in His name) is certainly political. This political nature of Christ perhaps needs to be owned and affirmed by believers even if “politics” is too often seen as a dirty word. To deny the political nature of Christian faith is to limit the conversation in ways that I suspect are counter-productive.

The theology behind the politics is a great strength. It would be easy to attempt to bring a Christian nuance into the conversation by relying on simplistic readings of the Biblical story, but Kent Annan pulls from Old and New Testament sources adeptly. The Parable of the Good Samaritan permeates the book, as one might expect. But, just as importantly, the Old Testament also permeates the discussion because Israel’s history is that of a wandering nation gifted land by Yahweh. A gifted nation which is commanded, in turn, to likewise care for the poor – including resident aliens within the land – precisely because that was the grace God showed Israel. In fact, it’s a grace that continued to be experienced by Israel whenever the people were not in exile and whenever they were assured protection from enemy nations. And this Biblically sound approach to politics permeates the book.

Where there are no direct references to Scripture, it is easy to make Biblical parallels on your own – in the margins of I drew connections to other Scriptural passages outside of the ones being explicitly referenced. While reading, I got the impression that my own Biblical literacy was assumed; at the very least, the reading experience will be heightened if one is familiar with their Bible. This is perfect for a group setting as there is more than enough room left for readers to make their own connections to their spiritual life and their own spiritual readings.

Overall, Kent Annan’s approach to reading the Bible and thinking through the issue theologically highlights the ultimate strength of the book. He can acknowledge that there is a simple imperative we find throughout Scripture – the New Testament vision of God’s community is one that is open. But the Old Testament history also demonstrates that when the community which is supposed to be welcoming and a blessing to the world is also a nation, that vocation is not so simple. As a Canadian, I get the sense that this is will resonate with many American Christians’ political imagination. Annan does not necessarily challenge that vision of Christianity and America, but rather demonstrates the challenges that this worldview brings. Plain imperatives are made complex when the issue is not merely “how can I or my congregation be welcoming to refugees and immigrants?” but “how does my country welcome refugees and immigrants?” While some of the fears people might have are statistically unfounded or not backed by historical precedent, there still are questions that need well-reasoned answers. But this also highlights why Christians should acknowledge that their faith is political – to ignore the politics of faith is to remove faith as a way to interpret policy decisions our governments make on our behalf. Christian theology can provide a framework to understand the information bombarding us. Our story as Christians, as people who are called to be imitators and co-workers with Jesus, should ultimately have precedence over how we engage in political issues. This does not mean that we have easy answers, just a way to navigate complex issues.