Introduction: Jonathan Matthew Smucker (right) is a Mennonite political organizer and author who recently published Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. He is currently working in his home town of Lancaster Pennsylvania with Lancaster Stands Up to support Jess King, a Mennonite candidate for US House of Representatives. In our conversation we explored his relationship with his Mennonite faith and how his work relates to loving our enemies.
Note: A shorter version of this interview curated by Tim Nafziger was published in the October 2018 print edition of The Mennonite.
Tim Nafziger: How would you introduce yourself to Mennonites who aren’t familiar with your work?
Jonathan Matthew Smucker: I grew up Mennonite in Lancaster County in a rural, working class pretty conservative area. We went to Bart Mennonite Church until I was nine and then we went to Ridgeview Mennonite Church.
I currently attend Community Mennonite in Lancaster city, but I’m not the best attendee. My work besides my Mennonite faith is in politics. As I’ve gotten older I have come to embrace that my work for my whole adult life has been in politics, even if it’s been in social movements that are politics by other means.
I’ve been involved in a lot of different social movements from the time I was in high school and I became politicized when I went to Lancaster Mennonite. It was a combination of two things that politicized me: racism that was happening in my high school and reading the Bible for the first time for myself.
I’d been given Bible memory verses my whole childhood in church and in school. But I was shocked at how much social and economic justice were central themes that I hadn’t really been taught. It had been deemphasized. And that raised a lot of questions and it is what really got me interested in the global economy and in political matters.
After high school I dove into social movements. I got involved with a lot of different things,from policing issues, anti-death penalty, economic justice, community issues. I’m currently the executive director of Beyond the Choir.
Faithfulness and Effectiveness
TN: One of the things that has really been useful about your work to me is the way that it It talks about the importance of bonding for groups. Or, to use a favorite Mennonite verse, being in the world, not of it. And you’re not saying that’s wrong, you’re just saying bridging to others is also important.
JMS: I found a contradiction or tension when I read the Bible, basically between the idea of being faithful and of being concerned with impact and effectiveness. When I came to all these conclusions about the injustice of our economic system, of imperialism and Empire, I felt called to speak out against these injustices. My reference point was the righteous person who stands up for what is right and dies on a cross. And so I had something of a martyr mentality. I figured I would stand up for what’s right, and I would likely go to jail or get killed. I expected to be persecuted, because that was the story that I had.
I discuss in my book how I gave a talk in chapel my senior year of high school; it was about the global economy and the Biblical imperative to stand with the oppressed. I encountered that negative reaction I had anticipated: students walked out; later that week somebody swerved their truck at me; I was threatened. But what I hadn’t anticipated was a much bigger positive reaction from people who wanted to do something. So that shifted my thinking. It gave me hope and a sense of political agency. The story didn’t have to end with the righteous people losing.
TN: This tension between faithfulness and effectiveness is one of the points of conversation between many Mennonite theologians and the tradition represented by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr critiqued the pacifism of Mennonites as being naive in the face of realpolitik because they were refusing the use of force. How do you reconcile love of enemy with the reality that the nation state uses the threat of force to maintain itself?
JMS: I don’t know if I can fully reconcile pacifism with politics. I have probably for myself come to accept being 99% pacifist because I can imagine [exceptional] scenarios.
My interest in loving our enemies is not only moral, it’s also strategic. On a personal level, I find that allowing myself to hate my enemies actually impacts me negatively. I find there to be a spiritual practice and kind of a redemption in cultivating forgiveness, even for people who aren’t asking for forgiveness and empathy; even for people who are still causing harm. Forgiveness here does not mean that you are excusing harmful action or allowing it to continue. It’s not giving people a pass; not making any excuses for oppression or harmful, evil behavior. Being empathetic toward the people who are committing harm can help us to engage with them more strategically; trying to understand what happened to them? What are the structures constraining them, or acting upon them? What is their situation that is contributing to them making the choices that they’re making?
When I was in high school, I said that I was politicized partly by racism at my high school. That racism was perpetuated against the people of color I’d become friends with in high school by people who I had been friends with in elementary school and junior high. We grew up on farms in the country. [I knew] that that could have been me being the perpetrator, if things had gone a little differently for me. I had shifted social circles because I joined a band and I was hanging out with musicians and artists instead of the farm kids. It always struck me: the consequences of accidental junctures, and how profoundly at our core human beings are so very much alike.
So I always have had that awareness that I’m not so different from the people whose behavior was absolutely unacceptable. So intuitively, I extended that kind of empathy for enemies from the start of my political life.
Loving your enemies doesn’t mean thinking that their behavior is acceptable. And it doesn’t mean not fighting your enemies politically. Loving your enemies and having compassion and having empathy and trying to understand where they’re coming from makes you smarter at defeating them politically, because you’re not making them into a caricature. You’re not underestimating them either. I think, for example, right now, a lot of people have underestimated Trump because they can’t grant that he’s smart at anything, because he has to be stupid in their narrative. Because he’s their enemy.
Trump may be reprehensible morally and politically. But trying to understand him—his psychology and where he’s coming from—gives me insights into how he has navigated political terrain to gain power. I want to stop him and making him into a caricature doesn’t help me stop him.
Narrative insurgency and unconditional love
TN: In your book, you talk about the difference between narrative attack and narrative insurgency (p 192). It reminds me of some of what Jesus says about how to inspire change in those who persecute us or oppose us. One way to frame narrative insurgency is that the spirit rises up within people and within institutions to change them. It connects with the humanization of our opponents. There are so many distortions of turning the other cheek that are there in popular culture, but Walter wink, (a theologian drawing heavily on William Stringfellow) says what Jesus is talking about in turning the other cheek is an action that changes that relationship between the two and addresses the power difference. Would you talk a little bit more about how your understanding of Jesus relates to that narrative insurgency for you as a Mennonite?
JMS: I like Walter Wink. He talks about [how turning the other cheek] forces them to punch you as an equal rather than slap you with the back of their hand.
It’s hard for me to separate the moral in the strategic because I really do think that the nonviolence pioneered by Gandhi and Martin Luther King and by other movements is remarkably effective. I’m not going to claim that it’s possible in all situations, but we in social movements are underdog movements. We are outgunned. They have more money. The people that we’re up against have a lot more power and money, including military power.
So escalating on a front where we have a severe disadvantage, in terms of physical violence or even escalating in terms of like interpersonal animosity, is not a game that we win.
Obviously I’m very concerned about the upsurge of white supremacist groups, self-identifying Nazi groups, hate groups in this country and I am thankful for people speaking out and standing up against it. But I think we have to affirm the humanity of our opponents, even when our opponents are vile. I think it’s good for us to do it strategically, in terms of it helping us to understand them and maybe win some of them over, but that’s not the main game in politics.
The main game [in politics] is to build movements that can win. It far more appealing to a popular base of people when we’re out there affirming the humanity of our opponents. I think Dr. King showed this in an incredible way in this country. And I think there’s still a lot to learn from him on this front. I also think it’s one of the biggest things that attracts me to church still today and to the Mennonite community. The idea of unconditional love is, for me personally, very attractive. It’s something that a lot of people long for, because we can all think of things that make us undeserving of love.
With unconditional love, people are not expendable, no matter what they’ve done, and people are deserving of love. There’s something enormously healing about it for those of us who would carry hatred of others, even justified hatred for people. That hatred can become a prison.
The fundamental thing for me on this is that, if you want to make change, you have to have an invitation for people to be able to step into change; to be able to step into a better version of themselves. [You want them to] not be in a corner but to have a way forward: a path that they see themselves in, in an aspirational way. And if you attack people, [focusing on] the thing that you hate about them, you don’t allow that. I think loving our enemies allows us to imagine that path of transformation.
Jesus’ orientation to those on the edges
TN: Jesus makes a clear invitation to the tax collector, both Jesus’ disciple Matthew and later Zaccheus, both men with considerable power and part of an oppressive system. Jesus loved them as opponents and also called them to repent from their participation in oppression. He had a heartfelt conversation with Nicodemus as well as the Samaritan woman, but very different conversations. Jesus’ took into account people’s social occasion. I think that’s something that’s been so erased from our reading of the Gospels.
JMS: This is the thing I love about Jesus’ example throughout the gospels. He challenges ‘elbowing in’ kind of culture, where people are tuned to the center of the group instead of the periphery, right? He rejects the game of trying to advance social status. You see it in politics and the church where this is happening. When a meeting is over, leaders, and the people with the most status in the room too often huddle and they talk to themselves. It creates a culture where everybody’s trying to elbow their way into the center.
The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus flipping that on its head: Jesus talking to the prostitute, talking to the woman who was hemorrhaging, talking to lepers and tax collectors and despised people. And they were despised by different groups—like the tax collector and the soldier that Jesus talked to—they were despised by the zealots, who were his disciples. Other people Jesus spent time with were despised by the religious authorities. So he constantly was subverting the social capital system. Because here is this person who has all this esteem. And he’s making time for children. And Peter says: “Why are you talking to these kids, get these kids out of here.” And Jesus says, “No, they’re important.”
Jesus uses this phrase in the gospels “Whoever wants to be greatest among you must be a servant.” He has this orientation towards serving and toward connecting to the periphery. I think about it in terms of leadership and social movements: don’t go huddle with the other important people after the meeting. Go talk to the person who looked visibly uncomfortable. Go talk to the person that you haven’t seen before, who came by themselves, find out what brought them there, ask them questions, be warm, be inviting. And there are things from faith communities that are helpful here. Some have a tradition when a new family shows up at church and there’s a family who is going to invite them home for a meal. That idea is powerful.
This is related to enemy loving. One way of moving toward the center of your own insular group is to exaggerate both what you love and what you hate. One way that groups bond is by common enemies, and so exaggerating your hatred of enemies is a means of asserting status within your group.
There’s this story of a leader during the civil rights movement: James Forman, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). People would show up to the office looking for him, because he was important. When he knew somebody was coming, he would be sweeping or cleaning the toilet or doing something seen as menial. And they’d ask him where James Forman was, and he would get up from that work and introduce himself. So he was always sending the signal that it doesn’t matter how important you are, you are always doing the undesirable work. There’s no work that’s below you, there’s no conversation that’s below you. And it makes groups smarter. Like groups that are oriented toward the periphery are just much more in touch, they’re going to be more effective, and they’re going to be bringing in more of a base. So politically, it’s incredibly important.
TN: So the opposite of loving your enemy isn’t just hating them, but seeking to dominate and control them. And that’s true in the internal life of a group: wanting to control and dominate those that we disagree with inside our community as well.
JMS: Yes, I agree. Right now, I’m helping run the independent expenditure side with Lancaster Stands Up to elect Jess King who may be the first Mennonite who is running for Congress as a Mennonite. We have the opponent, Lloyd Smucker, who is my cousin. We have a whole campaign about ‘Where’s Lloyd’ because he’s not showing up for town hall meetings, so we’re calling him out and using satire. But there’s not a dehumanization of him. He’s probably a nice guy, but that’s not really the point.
TN: What’s crosses that line into dehumanization?
JMS: The principle for me is: is there a path to redemption for your opponent?
Curiosity, self-doubt and learning from your opponents
TN: There’s this really interesting moment in your book, you talk about this one moment in your life when you heard this still quiet voice from God when you were a teenager. You’re looking for truth. You’re really wrestling with the question and you are hitchhiking across the country, trying to find yourself. And God says, “If I answer you will stop asking.” How has that sense gone with you over the last 20 years?
JMS: Great question, because as I have grown older, I’ve developed a lot of frameworks. I’ve developed a lot of confidence. I have a lot of faith that I’m right. So I think as you get older, it is hard to maintain curiosity and self-doubt.
I remember the first demonstrations I went to when I was 16 and the various Socialist Workers of the World and different Trotskyist groups and the Revolutionary Communist Party and all these fringe groups would come up to me and I would be like “Oh, tell me more about that.” I want to know everything. Now I see them coming from a mile away; I know what they’re about. [As you get older] you have more experience and you prejudge things earlier.
So cultivating curiosity is something that I actually work on consciously, but the thing that that experience ingrained in me even more and that I’ve cultivated and maintained is a practice of self doubt. That doesn’t mean indecision. It doesn’t mean [not] fighting hard on things, but it does mean maintaining the lens that you could be wrong. That’s tactically, strategically and morally all sorts of right.
TN: My friend Sarah Thompson says that also involved with that lens is a commitment to not kill off your opponents.
JMS: Right. And to listen. One practice I cultivate is that, when I’m talking to people who I disagree with profoundly, I think: “Is there something I have to learn from this?” It might not even be the thing that the person is consciously trying to teach me at all. In fact, often it’s not: it’s just learning from their experience and their perspective, and having that inform where I come from. It is never being too proud to learn from your opponents; from your enemies, from people whose behavior you find reprehensible.
I think that really does go along with loving your enemies, right? I’m listening to them learning from them.
TN: Even if it’s not learning from them what they want you to learn from them. I like that.
JMS: In politics, you can’t be too proud to learn from your opponents. And you see it on the right. The Tea Party read Rules for Radicals [by Saul Alinsky], the Neocons study [Antonio] Gramsci
There are opponents who are reading my book and it doesn’t make me happy. And the Christian Right, studied the civil rights movement.
I remember having this insight when I was very entrenched in left organizing, and coming back home and spending an evening with somebody I went to high school with who I really disagree with politically in lots of ways. I found myself a bit judgmental [as I was] spending an evening with him and his family. [But] I really learned from him as a father by just seeing him parenting. I was so impressed. I realized that I had a lot to learn from him just as a person being a good person, even though we disagree profoundly on a lot of things. So that’s some of how it influences me.
TN: Thank you very much.