It Takes Something Seismic to Get This Group Protesting
The Mennonites are out in the street.
BY CHARLES P. PIERCE
MAR 8, 2017
Give the current administration credit. It's managed to energize American politics in the most unlikely places. And as I know from personal experience, and from a campaign a long time ago in an election far, far away, one of the hardest places to energize secular politics is in among the Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania. That takes a master's hand, as we can see from this report from McClatchy, courtesy of The Wichita Eagle.
"Hey Smucker," said the sign, written in red, green, and blue marker. "300 years ago our Mennonite family took sanctuary in PA, just like yours did. "Lancaster values immigrants." The anger might have been directed at Smucker, but Martin and Corbo were really there – like 100 others – because of President Donald Trump.The two women were among a hundred newly engaged activists assembled in Republican-heavy Lancaster County – an area that went to Trump in November by 57 percent – braving toe-freezing temperatures to protest Trump and the lawmaker, who was 200 yards away at a chamber of commerce breakfast. That Martin and Corbo were protesters was – by their own admission – a remarkable development. Both are members of the Mennonite Church, a religion that encourages its members to stay away from politics just as it asks them to shun the wider culture. For most of their lives Martin, 57, and her daughter, 30, did just that, occasionally voting for Democrats but rarely paying attention to politics outside the polling booth. "I've never been politically active . . . because we have a really strong belief in separation of church and state," Martin said. "Mennonites have always felt our allegiance is to Christ, and not to our state."
The Mennonites are the kind of stubborn people of faith for whom the First Amendment was designed and for whom the American principles of religious freedom was a beacon—namely, those against whom the power of the state was exercised in a fashion more direct than having to provide birth control to their heathen employees.
The first of them fled to America to avoid persecution in Europe at the invitation of William Penn. In 1688, the Mennonites wrote the first formal protest against American slavery. They declined to serve in the military in any American wars, including the Revolution itself. (This became particularly acute during the Civil War, when the Mennonite opposition to slavery collided with their opposition to military service. In Pennsylvania, their great patron was abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens.) Their idea of a separation of church and state is ironclad, but it's the product of centuries of debate and serious contemplation. Being apolitical during a war is a very political act.
So, while it's unusual to see Mennonites as active as they are today, it's hardly inconsistent with their history.
And maybe the most unexpected members of that movement are Mennonites such as Martin and Corbo. Interviews with on-the-ground liberal activists and leaders of Mennonite churches reveal that many in the community have seen Trump's inauguration as a call to action, in some cases reversing a lifetime of political reclusiveness to oppose the president's policies. Two of the four organizers, in fact, of the morning's protest were Mennonites. Organizations connected to the church have written in opposition to the immigration ban, decrying it as contrary to the church's values. Maybe most famously, it was a Mennonite pastor from Harrisonburg, Virginia, who conceived of a sign with the words, "No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor," written in English, Spanish and Arabic. The signs have become a nationwide phenomenon, sold even on Amazon. "For Mennonites, a lot of times the standard is you're supposed to turn the other cheek," Corbo said. "But it also is not meaning to turn a blind eye, you know?"
The Mennonites are in the street. Something's building out there.
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