Examine motivations

It all began with a squash plant, a Pennsylvania Dutch crookneck, to be exact. Like all winter squash, it needs room to grow and many weeks to mature. Too late, I realized I had only ever grown winter squash in patches, and I couldn’t have told you where each plant started and stopped.

Knowing the truth about ourselves begins with being honest about our innermost thoughts and motivations.

Foolishly, I thought if we only planted one we’d have room in our small garden. The plant took over our entire lawn, producing 50 pounds of squash we harvested and ate all winter long.

But we are paying the price of not mowing or weeding our small lawn. The dandelions ran amok, covering almost as much ground as the grass. So this spring and summer we had to mount a dandelion eradication campaign.

We got the best garden tool possible for the job: a cobrahead cultivator. It’s a weapon, really, ready to strike at the roots of a dandelion with deadly force.

Such language is uncomfortable among peace-loving people. “How hard it is to down the violence in our own natures,” wrote Dorothy Day, one of the greatest nonviolent activists and thinkers of the 20th century.

Gardening forces me to face the violence in my own nature, whether it’s dandelions or the pests I kill with organic substances like neem oil and diatomaceous earth—or sometimes with my own hands.

The recent rally in Charlottesville, Va., compelled me to confront violence committed by white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis: threatening to burn down a synagogue, beating and trampling people, driving a car into a crowd, killing a woman and more. I cannot turn away from the fact that these acts of domestic terrorism were carried out and supported by people who say they are defending me and other white Americans.

Russell Johnson, a scholar who belongs to the same congregation I do, wrote a reflection, “Behind Blue Eyes,” after realizing that he shared a physical description with Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

White Americans, Johnson wrote, have a variety of strategies, though we don’t recognize them, to separate ourselves from those who commit violence. For example, assuming the motivations of terrorists are completely strange to us and not rooted in some of what we have in common as human beings.

“We repress the possibility that acts of terrible violence emerge from urges, fears or commitments that we share,” he wrote.

Anabaptists may be especially prone to this. “All too often pacifism, or even a broader Christian social justice identification, serves as a way of disidentifying with aggressors,” Johnson wrote. “If we refuse to acknowledge what we have in common with others, we shut ourselves off, not only from understanding them but from understanding ourselves.”

We can examine ourselves without feeling guilty for the actions of others.

“What is needed instead is to face the fact that people with bodies like mine have committed injustices and to let that fact call into question my own actions and motivations,” Johnson wrote.

Christian discipleship requires engaging in the hard work of self-reflection. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, we will know the truth, and it will set us free. But knowing the truth about ourselves begins with being honest about our innermost thoughts and motivations. From that ground, we can do the work of transforming our communities into places for all to know both the truth and the grace of God.

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