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What My Amish and Mennonite Forefathers Would Think About My Job in Congress (and Why I Left)

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If my Amish-Mennonite forefathers could see me now, I wonder what they would say. If I sat down with America's first Amish bishop (my 6th great-grandfather) or the first Mennonite bishop in Virginia (my 5th great-grandfather), how would they feel about my working in Congress these last three years as a senior policy advisor to a U.S. congressman, or even my media commentary on TV, given the whole "no graven images" thing. How would my deceased father and grandfathers -- who were prominent preachers in the church but who never stepped foot in Washington D.C.'s political arena -- feel about my pursuits in political punditry?

I'm guessing I'd get a mouthful, something about needing to stay clear of this nexus of national nefariousness. No surprise there. Having grown up in a small Amish-Mennonite town in Ohio, I've witnessed how the community has traditionally stuck to the land, to living simply, to nonviolence, to voluntary service -- all principles I support. Engaging Washington has never been their focus. You will never see an Amish-Mennonite lobby office open on K Street, for example.

I came to Washington hoping to change some of that, seizing opportunities to speak to Mennonites about the importance of political engagement. Speaking truth to power is not easy, I'd tell them. It wasn't for Jesus, early Anabaptists, or WWII conscientious objectors, and it won't be now, but if we don't speak up, who will? I strongly believed, and still do, that we must do everything within our power to help those who are marginalized, malnourished, or mistreated, not unlike Jesus helped, in his words, "the least of these," all the while deeply committed to nonviolence, justice, and mercy.

That's why I tried Congress. In serving as a congressional staffer I was test running a bid for congressional office -- i.e. would I have the moral and political stomach for it. My test run apparently failed because I've since retired these plans. I found the majority in Congress to be out of touch with America's growing unequal and the increasingly impoverished publics and more in touch with campaign contributions, industry interests and reelections. There are exceptions, of course, but they are the minority.

Living in Anacostia, but a stone's throw from Capitol Hill, it is painfully clear to me how little Washington's policymakers care about poverty reduction, educational opportunity, affordable health care and social mobility. Recent growth in race and class achievement gaps confirms this.

That's why I left the Hill to take a job at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Since Washington is so responsive to money, I wanted to make the economic argument for the values underpinning my Amish-Mennonite roots. It was time to quantify the economic benefits of peace and the true cost of violence. If financial incentives are what motivate politicos, then let's put some numbers on those dividends available from reducing violence.

With all the money America spends on incarceration, homicide and violent crime -- which are the highest rates in the rich world, costing hundreds of billions, and which ultimately undermine economic productivity -- what policies could prevent this violence? According to our Global and U.S. Peace Indexes' data, the more peaceful environments have the greatest educational opportunity, the best perceived access to basic services (e.g. clean water, medicine, etc.), the least amount of poverty, the least inequality among all household incomes, the highest population percentages with health insurance, and equal distribution of resources. That means that peaceful states are saving serious amounts of cash because they are not spending it cleaning up violence. At a time of belt-tightening, any mustering of extra monies must be welcomed.

Despite overwhelming data, policymakers are not in hot pursuit of the very policies that would increase the peacefulness, improve economic productivity, and cut costs across the board as we concurrently cut violence levels in this country.

We need a peace industry, then, that lobbies as effectively as the defense industry; and I'm not talking primarily about the myriad Amish and Mennonites who are not pounding Washington's pavement in search of more peaceful policy. I'm talking about the majority of businesses that perform better when poverty and violence is not prevalent. For example, if a country increases it's ranking on our Global Peace Index by 10 slots (e.g. if U.S., ranked 83rd, increases its peacefulness and ranks 73rd), the GDP per capita increases well over $3,000 and consumer spending increases dramatically. Yet businesses, which will undoubtedly benefit from a boon like this, remain relatively quiet when it comes to policy promotion in Washington that can improve the peace.

My mission now is to change that dynamic and while I'm not sure how my Amish and Mennonite bishop ancestors would feel about my work in media, markets, and with Members of Congress, I feel strongly that if their Jesus were alive today, this relentless lobbyist for the poor and for peace would pound Washington's pavement with patience and persistence, overturning today's modern money tables and blessing the peacemakers and the meek among us. I look forward to that day.

Michael Shank is the U.S. Vice President at the Institute for Economics and Peace. Follow Michael on Twitter. Follow the IEP on Twitter.

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