Trump never saw a Christian protester coming
Shocking videos of police misconduct at protests over the death of George Floyd are a dime a dozen, but the graphic clip of 75-year-old Martin Gugino being shoved to the ground by cops in Buffalo, New York, drew unusual attention. In a sickening fall, Gugino's head is seen striking the concrete and blood pools from his ear. The Buffalo Police Department's initial handling of the case layered injustice on injustice, and dozens of officers objected to even meager accountability measures for the officers who assaulted the elderly man who posed them no threat.
Then President Trump tweeted. Gugino could be "an Antifa provocateur," he erroneously suggested. "Could be a set up?"
As baseless conspiracy theories often do, this one reveals more about its wielder than about reality. The assumption undergirding Trump's post is that Gugino could not possibly be protesting at such great cost to himself, and, if he were, he must be under the sway of some strange radicalism. The truth is Gugino was protesting despite the risks. And he isn't Antifa, but he is a different sort of radical — albeit a kind we may have to forgive Trump for failing to recognize, as he likely has not personally encountered many examples, if any at all.
Gugino is a Christian who takes seriously Jesus' command to peacemaking. Specifically, he is a devout Catholic peace activist, Religion News Service reports. For Gugino, this has meant spending his retirement years protesting police brutality, torture, and drone warfare. He prepares and serves meals for the poor and supports organizations working on health care and affordable housing. Asked why he donates to a community health clinic, Gugino said he is merely following the direction Jesus gave "to clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty."
Gugino isn't alone in this commitment to radical peacemaking. As a Catholic involved in the Catholic Worker Movement, he's working in the tradition of Dorothy Day. A Catholic writer and activist who died in 1980, Day's advocacy for the "least of these" included direct aid, journalism, and civil disobedience.
Her vision for protest was nonviolent to the point of self-sacrifice: "So many in these days have taken violent steps to gain the things of this world — war to achieve peace; coercion to achieve freedom; striving to gain what slips through the fingers," she wrote in 1957. "We might as well give up our great desires, at least our hopes of doing great things toward achieving them, right at the beginning. In a way it is like the paradox of the Gospel, of giving up one's life in order to save it."
After the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Day added strident opposition to nuclear warfare to her activism. "Ban the bomb," said one flyer she distributed in New York City. "God is our father, and all men are our brothers," it added. "We are willing to die for this belief."
Day's work in turn inspired the Plowshares Movement, named for the scriptural passage that speaks of people enjoying God's final accomplishment of peace by "beat[ing] their swords into plowshares." Perhaps the best-known Plowshares member is Sister Ardeth Platte, who inspired the nun character in the early seasons of Orange Is the New Black. Platte is a Dominican nun whose anti-nuclear activism has included breaking into military sites and defacing them with her own blood. The goal is not only to protest nuclear armament but to show the insecurity of nuclear weapons storage, which is sometimes quite close to residential areas: If elderly nuns can break in, so can people who don't share their pacifist scruples.
The Plowshares strand of the Catholic left is unusual in its dramatic activism, which is controversial even among the likeminded, but not its Christian commitment to peace and the welfare of the disadvantaged. Anabaptist traditions like the Amish and my own church, the Mennonites, have long histories of difficult choices borne out of Christian convictions about peace, violence, and care for the poor. Quakers were among the earliest and most vocal abolitionists in the United States. They worked on the Underground Railroad, and in states where it was illegal to free the enslaved, Quakers created church-owned trusts to get around anti-emancipation laws. Beyond these historic peace churches, many Christians, including many evangelicals, who may not claim the pacifist label are nevertheless deeply committed to peacemaking.
If this is unfathomable to the point of suspicion to Trump, perhaps it is because of the company he keeps. Many observers of pro-Trump evangelicals have noted how central his belligerence is to their willingness to adorn his court. They have discarded decades of insistence that character and faithfulness are necessary to good leadership in order to embrace a gleefully immoral champion who will fight dirty on their behalf.
Thus, with occasional exceptions Trump easily rejects, the people the president most often encounters acting in Christ's name are people who endorse or at least excuse his own violence and self-centeredness. No wonder Martin Gugino's peaceful, self-sacrificial protest struck him as so very strange.