Review of Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp by Marshall V. King (Herald Press, 2022)
Stories shape us, and the best ones help shape us into being better people. Disarmed has the potential to be that kind of story.
King, a journalist based in Goshen, Ind., begins his account of Sharp’s life in medias res: “Michael J. Sharp knows he is in trouble as he walks barefoot through the Congolese jungle, guided by men carrying guns.” We are immediately gripped by the story of this remarkable man, even if we know that on that day, March 12, 2017, he and Zaida Catalán, his coworker with the United Nations, were murdered.
How did MJ, as King refers to him throughout, come to be there? What led him to risk his life in order to work for peace in a land far from his home? These are questions King probes as he goes through MJ’s life, interviewing more than 100 people who knew him, including family, friends, coworkers, teachers, acquaintances. He delves into subjects to help supply a context to the story he’s telling, such as the Mennonite way, the U.S. military presence in Germany or the murderous plundering of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium.
Born between two sisters in 1982, MJ was a brilliant child who, already in eighth grade, showed signs of being a reconciler. He also developed close friends, and at Bethany Christian School in Goshen became known for his clever pranks. He showed entrepreneurial tendencies, starting his own business in high school and later owning and overseeing housing properties. In college at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., he served as editor of the Weather Vane, the school’s weekly paper. He also became adept at online poker, and his winnings helped pay his bills.
After college, he signed up with Mennonite Mission Network to work with soldiers seeking conscientious objector status in Germany. By the time MJ had arrived in 2005 to work with the Military Counseling Network (MCN), the U.S. military had invaded Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), and some of the thousands of U.S. soldiers in Germany were interested in seeking CO status. MJ quickly developed relationships with soldiers and helped them fill out the proper forms. He also learned from them about military hardware.
During his years in Germany, MJ traveled to do peacemaking work in various hot spots: Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and Israel/Palestine in 2009. He recorded in his journal that he thought less about his own safety than about others worrying about him: “I don’t want my actions causing anyone pain.”
After his second three-year term with MCN, MJ entered a master’s program in Marburg, Germany, earning a degree in peace studies and conflict resolution, before returning to Indiana and working as a salesman for a company that made a qualitative analysis software package, one he had used in his graduate studies. He was the company’s first salesperson in the United States.
Tim and Suzanne Lind, then country representatives for Mennonite Central Committee in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), approached MJ about doing relief and peacemaking work there. Meanwhile, MJ had realized that “following passion and doing work about which he was enthusiastic was more important to him than money or image.”
In 2012, he headed to Brussels to study French before going to the DRC. While he was part of a team of 11 MCC workers in the Rwanda/Burundi region, he was 1,000 miles from the nearest MCC worker in the DRC, a country nearly double the size of Western Europe and one-fourth the overall size of the United States. Since the DRC doesn’t have many paved roads, MJ bought a motorcycle to get around. “While some expats demanded to move about in Land Cruisers or with escorts,” King writes, “MJ avoided that mindset.”
MJ’s assignment involved supporting the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches and its agencies in their projects responding to the needs of displaced people, supporting victims of violence and encouraging armed groups to demobilize and reintegrate into society. While some expats asked for special food, MJ ate what the locals ate. If his Congolese coworkers had to sleep on the ground, so did MJ. As his French skills increased, he also worked at learning Swahili, spoken among some in Eastern Congo. This went a long way in building trust with local people.
MJ sought to learn creative solutions to intense conflict from the Congolese. In a 2013 publication, he wrote: “I get to work on the front line of Congolese ingenuity and faithfulness in response to violence and hardship.”
During this time, he traveled regularly, unarmed, to meet with leaders of armed groups in North and South Kivu. He told an NPR reporter, “You can always listen to people who want a chance to talk about how they see the world.” He learned from these militia leaders that many wanted peace and to return home, telling him, “We are human beings.”
MJ learned and taught that peacebuilders have to offer alternatives to violence. One women-led organization, which is still a partner of MCC, emerged from this work, using agriculture (growing crops and raising animals) while working at conflict resolution and building peaceful communities.
In 2015, two years to the day before his death, MJ was officially nominated to the United Nations Group of Experts, which the Security Council mandates to gather and submit information on the extent to which sanctions are working and to potentially recommend new sanctions. MJ joined five others to form this group in the DRC.
After 16 months, MJ had become the group coordinator, had named 18 armed groups and had provided information on financing, weapons and other aspects of the conflicts. In the fall of 2016, a new group formed that included human rights expert Zaida Catalán. They investigated growing atrocities by various armed groups and reported that the underlying issue was “the political tension caused by DRC president Joseph Kabila delaying the elections that were to happen in December 2016.”
King details this political tension and names various groups and regions of the DRC, which can feel confusing, though the Glossary of Key People, Places and Groups at the end of the book is helpful in sorting this out.
On March 11, 2017, one day before they were killed, MJ and Zaida met with six men in a guest house. Zaida secretly recorded the meeting on her phone. MJ introduced himself and Zaida in French and asked for assurances for their safety in going to Bunkonde. Their question was translated to Francois Muamba, who told the interpreters in his tribal language, “Do not give guarantees. They will be attacked.” But the interpreters said, “You can go there with no problems.”
The next day, MJ and Zaida traveled by motorcycle with four others. By late afternoon, they were reported missing. The news sparked prayer and concern among MJ’s family and friends. Yet “many of them believed that MJ could talk his way out of this as he had so many times before.” It was not to be. It took until March 27 for MJ’s parents, John and Michele Sharp of Hesston, Kan., to learn that MJ and Zaida’s bodies had been found.
Later, the DRC government showed a video of the two workers being killed by men wearing a militia group’s signature red headbands. However, analysis of the video “led many to believe that the Congolese government, at least at some level, was involved in the deaths.” The truth remains clouded, King writes.
In his concluding chapter, King quotes from a favorite movie of MJ and his friends, The Big Lebowski: “What’s a hero?” It’s an important question as we consider MJ’s life and death.
Given Mennonites’ attention to martyrs, particularly those killed as Anabaptists in 16th-century Europe, many may think of MJ as a martyr, a label he likely would eschew. King notes that “a martyr is classically defined as someone who chooses to die rather than renounce religious principles.” The word itself means “witness,” and MJ certainly bore witness to a life devoted to bringing peace and justice to oppressed people.
Sarah Nahar, a peace activist and friend, compared MJ to Michael Sattler, an early Anabaptist martyr: “They both nonviolently, strategically and passionately pushed the boundaries of what most people think is possible for a just society with accountability.” From another perspective, Kambale Musavuli, a Congolese activist, said labeling someone a martyr tends to praise individuals and not the cause they were working at, that here “it completely erases the story of the Congolese people.”
One good thing about King’s book is his inclusion of quotations at the beginning of each chapter. One by Sheila Cassidy reads in part: “The courage to die for their beliefs is given only to those who have had the courage to live for them.” Another, from Dorothy Day, has her countering talk of her being a saint by saying, “You can’t dismiss me that easily.” Making people heroes can make them unapproachable and, in a sense, leave us off the hook.
King ends the book, appropriately, by pointing out that while we can debate whether to call MJ a hero, “the more important question is whether we will be bold enough to live fully engaged and courageously. As MJ did.”