Thursday, August 22, 2013

What the Mennonite Church Can Learn from Chelsea Manning

One of my biggest, living peacemaking heroes sits in a prison cell tonight. And she identifies as transgender. What she does not identify as is "pacifist." But her bravery (on many levels) and her story could be--and I hope will be--a powerful catalyst for many more conversations and actions within broader peace communities, including my own, Mennonite Church USA. 

“As I transition into this new phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley) stated through a letter released on the Today show. She is just beginning what could be up to a 35-year jail sentence for leaking classified military documents to the public. She has already been tortured in a U.S. prison. Her trial was a military one, where reporters were harassed and ignored. Well, you might be thinking, this is a theft, a crime. And we're facing terrorists. 

But I wonder how much more Chelsea Manning has done for today's peace movement compared to many Mennonite pastors I've known. For starters, she's made me think more about the Mennonite motto and calling "Pray for Peace, Act for Peace" than I have in a long time. 

As a soldier, Manning released documents revealing U.S. military torture and abuse--including a chilling video of our soldiers' reactions as they kill civilians-- in the hopes that the American public would realize only some of the true costs of the wars we've been fighting for over a decade--costs that are physical, psychological, cultural, financial. The list goes on. 

 “If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?” --Chelsea Manning

She wanted us to know. She wanted us to react.  And this is where the opportunity for the Mennonite church comes in. 

Manning broadly represents three groups Mennonites have generally struggled to relate to and fully welcome: 1) members of the military, 2) non-heterosexual identities, and 3) unconventional peacekeepers who truly rock the boat, making many of us uncomfortable.

Even as an historic peace church, today's American Mennonites have, on the whole, remained at a safe distance from calling attention to ourselves as Anabaptists within a nation that revolves around its military industrial complex. If this weren't the case, many more of us would be arrested for acts of nonviolent resistance, serving Christian Peacemaker Teams, or at least protesting how much of our annual taxes fund military action. And perhaps more young people would be drawn to our churches, seeking an alternative Christian community that believes God blesses everyone. (It's telling that we've recently developed a Peace and Justice Support Network to rile up a peace church about....well, peace.)

So: As members of an historic peace church, how will Mennonites react to whistleblowers such as Manning? How many of us have already spoken to friends, family, youth groups, small groups, or congregations about Manning's actions and sentencing in relation to our own peace traditions? And how will we respond now, knowing more of her sexual identity? 

As far as I'm concerned, we have a genuine peace heroine on our hands, and she happens to be a soldier. And she happens to be embracing a transgender identity. How Mennonites publicly respond to her evolving story will tell the world a lot about who we aim to be in today's international and national communities. "I want everyone to know the real me," Manning said. When it comes down to living out and teaching nonviolence during the ongoing War on Terror, what does "the real" Mennonite Church USA look like? Does our commitment to nonviolence encompass our daily interactions and relationships with everyone, even our fellow LGBTQ Mennonites? Or is it easier to pretend they don't exist or will go away, hoping no one blows the whistle on the various limits to peacemaking in our own faith communities? 

I admit that talking about LGBTQ issues still makes me feel like a fish out of water--I don't want to offend or seem awkward in that "Hi, I grew up in a rural, homogenous, religious town of a 1000 people" kind of way. I've been hurt in the past when dating gay or bi-sexual men trying their best to live out a heterosexual identity because they thought they had to. But I am here, saying I want to listen. To borrow an idea from trans activist and minister Rev. Malcolm Himschoot, "You can't say the word transgender and people really know what you're talking about. But anybody who says the word transgender means something different by it anyway, so it really is a story and not just a label."  I'm willing to admit that "This is where I am in my story, Chelsea. I'm a stumbling Anabaptist and a straight, married woman-- and I want to know you as you."  

If we let her, Chelsea Manning has quite a sermon to give Mennonite Church USA. It's not an easy everything-is-OK kind of message, and its complexity will leave many of us with more questions than answers. But we can decide to actively listen--perhaps next discussing how this important story impacts our own. 

In all things, love. In all people--Mennonite, Muslim, soldier, CPT-er, transgender prisoner--love. 


  1. Thank you, Becca, for your courage in writing this blog post. The questions you posed are the right ones for the Mennonite Church, and it's exciting to find people like you who continue to work at opening up the conversation. Keep asking uncomfortable questions!

  2. What a powerful and meaningful reflection! Thank you for saying what you did, for making us aware--and uncomfortable. Reading Mark 14 this morning, about a woman spends at least $15,288 (minimum wage x 1 year)to honor Jesus publically. Most, if not all present are scandalized. What a waste of money and energy, they screamed. Jesus reminded them, and us, that the when moment to honor God overtly and publically arise, we should seize the moment above the cost. You choose the moment, Manning chose the opportunity. Thank you to both of you!

  3. Challenging, thoughtful, and encouraging!

    Thank you!

  4. Thanks for your brave post. Well said!

  5. Thanks Becca for shining a light on this story and person who is calling us to our better - and more radical - selves.
    Joel Miller

  6. Wonderful. Are you going to try to get this to her? I have a friend who's been working on her defense, and I was asking for her address, so I could send a card.

  7. Oh, previous comment written by Kathleen Kern

  8. Thank you for your courage to share.



  9. Becca, thank you for this blog. I will had my students in my warriors and peacemakers class read it this fall.