Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"Like Entering an Armed Camp": Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Language of Violent-Toy Protests

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"Like Entering an Armed Camp": Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Language of Violent-Toy Protests

Article excerpt

Abstract: Beginning in 1992, a nonviolent social justice organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, engaged in demonstrations at Toys "R" Us and other stores to publicize concerns about the effects of violent toys and games on children. The organization's periodic protests across the U.S. and Canada served as a training mechanism for its growing corps of volunteers and reservists. In creative engagement with news media and the public, Christian Peacemaker Teams urged consumers to view toy weapons as dangerous and linked the marketing of violent toys to U.S. military recruitment efforts. Building on the legacies of twentieth-century peace groups offering faith-based nonviolent witness in the public sphere, C.P.T.'s campaign provided a grassroots focus for Mennonite, Brethren, Quaker, Catholic, and other activists promoting peace education and antimilitarism.

On New Year's Day, 2008, Chicagoans near the corner of Western and Belmont avenues witnessed a spectacle at the busy Toys "R" Us store: a dramatization of Mary and Joseph shopping with their 10-year-old son Jesus. Camera crews and journalists recorded the theatrics and music that had been well-publicized: carolers singing Christmas and Epiphany tunes with altered words, enjoining consumers not to buy toys and games with violent content. The somber message of the event--that violence in commercial toys and games is harmful to children and to society at large--was tempered with light-hearted images, including Jesus on a skateboard. (1) The sponsor of the event, Christian Peacemaker Teams, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago and focused on social justice, employed the rhetorical question "Would Mary buy Jesus a toy gun?" to prick the conscience of any consumer within earshot. (2)

While this drama offered an unusual twist on religious imagery, the message was familiar to corporate executives, local retailers, and the media. Exactly one year earlier on New Year's Day, fifteen members of a C.P.T. training group in Chicago had risked arrest by enacting a surreal Nativity scene inside the Toys "R" Us store. Demonstrators dressed as the Magi had appeared to Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, bearing nonviolent gifts. But soon, actors dressed as military recruiters and video game characters arrived on the scene, presenting violent toys to the infant. Robed choir members stood nearby, singing adapted lyrics to "Angels We Have Heard on High":

  Hear our message from on high,
  Who will pay the consequence?
  Parents, think before you buy:
  Violent toys teach violence. (3)

C.P.T. demonstrators sang other pseudo-carols and distributed leaflets to an audience of shoppers and store employees. The demonstrators quoted video-game packaging that touted "killing without mercy" and linked the games to U.S. military training for the ongoing Iraq war. (4)


These annual events in Chicago, well-choreographed and savvy in attracting media attention, illustrate the ritualized and highly symbolic but also ephemeral nature of the organization's public witness against violent toys. Beginning in the early 1990s, Christian Peacemaker Teams engaged in a two-decade-long campaign to protest the manufacture, promotion, and sale of toy weapons, toy military figures and vehicles, and video, board, and fantasy games based on violent intent. Participants in this multifaceted campaign--involving an estimated one thousand volunteers, mostly Mennonites, Brethren, Friends, and Catholics--protested at retail stores in more than twenty cities across the U.S. and Canada. Often these actions took place on New Year's, a notoriously slow news day for media outlets, with C.P.T. organizers contacting journalists in advance and promising a story with good visuals. (5) Store managers, employees, and local police officers as well as passersby watched these lively demonstrations, and reporters covered the action. Beyond the store protests, the C. …

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