Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp. By Marshall V. King. Harrisonburg, Virginia: Herald Press. 2022. $17.99.
The first words we read in Chapter One of Marshall King’s tribute to MJ Sharp are disarming: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe” (16). We are introduced to MJ’s peace-making story with the disarming words of World War II martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who took a radical, unsafe path to peace-making. Many readers would know that Bonhoeffer’s path to assassinate Hitler did not lead to the death of the one driving war and terror in Europe, but rather to his own death. Just so, most readers of King’s book know that MJ’s path took him, along with his Swedish colleague, Zaida Catalán, to death at the hands of terrorists. Two young people—unarmed—miles from their homelands, on a mission to promote peace and understanding, were brutally murdered in the bush of the Congo. Disarming!
Yes, King gets right to the heart of the disarming mission that cost MJ and Zaida their lives. The reader quickly realizes that the opening chapter describing a ‘Sunday walk’ of MJ and Zaida is describing the final walk that will end their mission. Their mission is ended, but King’s story will go on as family and friends, government officials, local and national, UN colleagues and officials begin to try to learn what lead to the death these two peacemakers on a Sunday walk.
Presentation and Book Signing by Marshall King on Disarmed
Sunday, June 19 2:00 to 3:30 p.m.
In Disarmed, Marshall V. King explores what compelled Sharp to travel the world working for peace and the ongoing impact of his life and death in the continuing story of Christian peacemaking in a war-torn world. King is a writer and journalist based in Goshen, Indiana. For more than twenty years he worked at the Elkhart Truth as a reporter and eventually managing editor. He and his spouse are members of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen.
For Marshall King, there is much more to the story than what happened on March 12, 2017. He tells us at the outset, “I never felt that I would be the one to unravel this international murder mystery, and I did not attempt it in this book” (14). He does some information and speculation gathered from others as to what happened and references a gruesome video of the murders was released by the Congolese government, but his task is to tell us about one of those two young peacemakers, MJ Sharp. MJ believed he was being led on that Sunday to talks that could help bring peace among warring parties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). King wants to help the reader understand why MJ Sharp felt a call to be in “the country that remains one of the world’s poorest and most dangerous places to live” (21).
King takes us on a journey—through time and place—following this young man, Michael Sharp, raised in a Mennonite home in Indiana, raised with Mennonite pacifist values, raised with ethics grounded in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is hardly unique to be raised as a Mennonite with Mennonite values, but there was something unique, and as King says in his title, “radical” about MJ. For non-Mennonite readers, King provides some history of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists and shares an incident when MJ and his father visit the site in Zurich where early Anabaptist Felix Manz was martyred. The story and Manz’ final words, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit” (38-39), seemed to have had a disarming impact on young MJ. King’s book is a journey to learn how this particular Mennonite ‘boy’ would grow to become a remarkable peacemaker.
There was much about MJ’s upbringing that was not ‘remarkable’—he attended a Christian high school (Bethany) and a Mennonite college (Eastern Mennonite University). He had friends and girlfriends. He was a good student; he was a good athlete. However, sprinkled in MJ’s traditional Mennonite upbringing were a flare for flashy cars (Porsche) and over-the-top pranks, an attraction for cards and gambling, and a restlessness with the safe and traditional. When he was young, he was tabbed with the moniker, Schnickelfritz (Pennsylvania Dutch for a cute, rambunctious kid). A professor and advisor at EMU would say that MJ “thrived on risks”. His growing up experiences gave him and his friends confidence that MJ ‘could talk his way into or out of everything.’
MJ’s untraditional journey took him to Costa Rica—he finished high school a semester early—where he was able to work with his aunt and uncle who were missionaries there. It led him to write his senior college paper on closet Confederates among Shenandoah Valley Mennonites. It led him to postpone law school and begin working in a Mennonite ministry in Germany—the Military Counseling Network. This was in the post-9/11 era, and MJ and his colleague, David Stutzman, were speaking with American GIs stationed in Germany about their rights, particularly about applying for conscientious objector status. The two developed trusting relationships with members in the military, making them effective counselors as well as ‘specialists on military hardware,’ which was, by no means a traditional area of Mennonite expertise. Disarming.
We know that MJ is going to land in the DRC as a peace maker, part of the UN’s Group of Experts. In his forward, Professor John Paul Lederach speaks of the ‘thread of vocation’ in MJ’s life. King’s book lets us see this thread as MJ comes of age with friends and girlfriends, experiences and interests, travels and adventures, time of exuberance, times of depression, always ‘following’ a thread of peace-making – daring, disarming peacemaking. King tells us that during his time with the Network, MJ did peace-making stints in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine. King tells us how MJ would stay in Germany after his work with the Network to pursue a master’s degree in peace studies at Marburg University. The reader is not surprised to read that MJ accepts the invitation of MCC reps, Suzanne and Tim Lind, to go to the eastern part of the DRC to teach nonviolent ways of peacemaking. The reader knows by this point that MJ had the confidence and the smarts to get up to speed: learning about the DRC and learning the French language.
The peace-making thread leads MJ to the place where he will serve and learn and die– the Democratic Republic of the Congo. King provides a bit of Congolese history going back to King Leopold of Brussels and the colonial times (he makes reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). King’s understanding of the DRC and situation in which MJ operated – layers of grievance and violence and corruption and distrust among groups – was pessimistic. In contrast, King presents MJ’s optimistic approach to engaging combatants, government officials, rebel leaders, with his working belief: “you can always listen.” MJ’s approach included: arriving on a motorcycle, not in a motorcade; speaking French along with self-taught Swahili, not just English, respecting each person with whom he talks – listening to them; speaking up and speaking out when he saw injustice and unjust treatment. MJ proved to be disarmingly effective. King follows MJ’s successes in the DRC that will lead him deeper into conversations and investigations, eventually deeper into the bush for his final walk.
Although MJ is the focus of King’s book, King fills out the picture by including many people who were part of MJ’s thread of vocation. This includes his UN colleague, Zaida Catalán, who was also murdered on that Sunday walk. King provides the reader a bit of the life story of Zaida, who like MJ, had a vocation for peace-making and justice that also brought her to the DRC, and also brought her to an untimely death.
John and Michele Sharp, MJ’s parents have a place in King’s narrative. He offers a poignant account of John and Michele seeking answers about MJ and Zaida from officials as high up as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. King also allows MJ’s family and friends to have their part in this retelling of MJ’s journey, as he describes their gathering to remember and celebrate his life. They remembered funny stories—told by MJ or featuring MJ. They remembered how they laughed and lived with MJ, how they marveled at his combination of wit and intellect, humor and humility. They remembered how he lived on the edge but did not lose sight of caring for others.
As he brings the story of MJ to a close, King cannot help himself – he probes the question of what happened. Despite telling the reader that he did not intend to unravel this international murder mystery, he includes a chapter, ‘Seeking Justice’ with information gathered and disinformation circulated about MJ’s last mission. The reader will surely indulge King in this: Who can meet this young man – so concerned with justice and just treatment of others—and not want to ‘seek justice’ for his and Zaida’s deaths?
King’s concluding chapter is a question, “What’s a Hero?” It is an homage to a film that was significant for MJ and his high school friends, The Big Lebowski. King’s question connects the Dude, the movie character whom some might call a hero, with MJ. King. King will not directly answer the question, “What’s a hero?,” for us, but his final question in the last paragraph might just be his answer: “Will we be bold enough to live fully engaged and courageously? As MJ did” (242).
King’s book invites full engagement with this twenty-first-century Mennonite peacemaker who ended up in one of the world’s challenging places to make peace. King’s book invites us to consider our place in the world of peacemaking and to find our place to be peacemakers. I would invite those interested in Mennonite values, Central African geopolitics, twenty-first-century international peacemaking; those who want to wrestle with finding a thread of vocation in their lives; those who want to consider what engaged and bold living could be for them; to read Marshall King’s book about MJ Sharp.
[NOTE: The book contains a glossary of people, places and groups – put a tab in this for easy reference – it is very helpful. The book does not contain a map of the DRC or Central Africa, a reader would be advised to have such a map available for reference as well.]
Reviewed by Stephen Godsall-Myers, May 31, 2022, Harleysville, PA