Marshall King, author of Disarmed: the life and legacy of MJ Sharp

“Disarming” Part 1, with Marshall King and Michelle and John Sharp

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 6
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 6: “Disarming” with Marshall King and Michelle and John Sharp was released on February 15, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

Welcome to a special miniseries focusing on the life and legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp. This is part of a crossover episode which began at Peacebuilder Podcast from The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. We’re introduced to this crossover conversation by Peacebuilder host, Patience Kamau, which is followed by two conversations hosted by ~ing Podcast producer Ben Wideman. We’ll be starting with the first part of a conversation with Marshall King, author of the recent book, Disarmed: The Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp, and then transition to talk with MJ’s parents, Michelle and John Sharp. Our hope is that this series provides more depth to this powerful story of one man’s radical commitment to peacemaking.

Michael “MJ” Sharp was a modern Mennonite armed with wit and intellect, but not a gun. The son of a Mennonite pastor, he demonstrated a gift for listening and persuading early in life. His efforts to approach others with acknowledgement rather than judgement gave him the ability to connect on a level very few managed. He also honed a deep commitment to peace, and after college he joined the Mennonite Mission Network and moved to Germany, where he persuaded soldiers to choose peace and free them of their violent systems. Disarmed: The Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp is available now from Herald Press.

Patience Kamau, Michele Sharp, Marshall King, John Sharp, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome friends, to ~ing Podcast. I’m really excited today to have a couple of guests here with me to kick off a podcast miniseries. This is actually a conversation that has already begun, believe it or not. We just finished recording a conversation over at the Peacebuilder Podcast. I’m going to start by having one of our guests introduce herself and that podcast project and what we did at the first part of this conversation.

Patience Kamau  00:28
Thank you, Ben. My name is Patience Kamau. I’m happy to be here. I am the host of the Peacebuilder Podcast, which is a podcast by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. We just had the first portion of this conversation with Marshall, that will air on the Peacebuilder. It is a crossover episode. So if you haven’t listened to that, before you listen to this, we encourage you to go and listen to that first and then come back and finish the conversation here. It is season three of Peacebuilder, episode two.

Ben Wideman  01:01
Thanks, Patience! It was a joy to be able to listen to the two of you have your conversation and I’m hoping that I can do justice to continue the solid interview skills that you started with here as we continue this conversation with Marshall. Thanks so much for the crossover and thanks for connecting in this way.

Patience Kamau  01:18
Indeed. Thank you.

Ben Wideman  01:21
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine. What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being… people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world. Over the next few weeks, ~ing Podcast will be spending some time remembering MJ sharp, a Mennonite peacebuilder, who was kidnapped and killed on a UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today we’ll begin a conversation with Marshall King, author of the recent book Disarmed: The Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp. We’ll then talk with MJ’s parents, Michelle and John Sharp.  Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together. Marshall, thanks so much for starting the conversation over at Peacebuilder Podcast and now being with us here on ~ing Podcast.

Marshall King  02:27
Thanks, Ben. It’s delightful to to have gotten to this point and to be able to talk with you about it today.

Ben Wideman  02:34
We always ask our guests to introduce themselves. How are you introducing yourself today?

Marshall King  02:39
I’m Marshall King, I am the author of Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp, which was published in January by Herald Press, which is part of MennoMedia.

Ben Wideman  02:52
So good to have you here. I’m excited not only to have this conversation today, but to continue the conversation beyond both the crossover episode. And then the next two weeks here on ~ing Podcast, we will hear other people from MJ’s life and to talk about what his journey means for the rest of us. I thought we could start just by hearing you reflect a little bit on something that we talked about with Patience in the, I’ll say, the prequel to this conversation. How did you get tied into this story? To be the one to author this very significant book.

Marshall King  03:30
I was just kind of drawn to the story I felt I feel like the story chose me as much as I chose it. I mean, it wasn’t very long after MJ’s death. I was talking with one of his good friends whom I knew here in Goshen and and I reached out to his dad and said, You know, I’m really kind of interested in, in doing some more work on the story. I think there are a lot of fascinating aspects to it. And it was I kind of I’d been in the newspaper business where I would you would do the story about a death or, you know, we can read the articles about MJ and I would have been the one who maybe did those stories or assigned them. And then you move on, you kind of forget about it and you move on, you’re on to the next. And and rather than on to the next this was I was at a place in my life where I had an interest and time to kind of do this larger project. And overtime earned the trust of the family and friends to to be the one to do it and took a lot longer than I expected. But four and a half years later, here we are. So actually, as we approach the fifth anniversary of MJ’s death, the book enters the world about kind of his life and some of his work in the world.

Ben Wideman  04:41
How close to his death did you begin this process of interviewing all these people and starting to put words on a page?

Marshall King  04:49
I mean, it wasn’t very long after his death. I mean, to be honest, I did some of the first interviews in April or May and I was at I was actually working on a book proposal for Herald Press on the day that the Congolese government called the press conference to show the video of Zaida and MJ’s death. And, and then this government, the Congolese government in Kinshasa, showed this video to reporters, and said, “See, it wasn’t the government, it was this tribal group.”  The UN didn’t know the video existed, the families didn’t know the video existed. And here’s the Congolese government, showing it to reporters. And I was working on the book proposal for Herald Press, then series of events happened, and both Herald Press and I backed away at that time, but I kept working on the book, and that summer, and did some travel to interview friends and family, and then just kind of kept doing interviews over a period of years would work on the book proposal. Trying to hone it a little bit… I saw an agent, the pandemic hit. And inevitably Herald Press, was still very interested in the story. And I ended up signing a contract with them in July 2020, to do the book and turned it in to them the first draft in July of 2021.

Ben Wideman  06:15
We often wrap up conversations here on a podcast by asking our guests what this means for the future of the church. And I wonder if you, Marshall, after working on this book might might say to a question like that… What does Disarmed mean for, for people in the church who might read it? What are your hopes for the future of people of faith who might bump into MJ’s story in this way?

Marshall King  06:43
The goal all along was writing a book not just for Mennonites, certainly, you know, amenable to the Mennonites who knew MJ’s story or who would like me felt some of the emotion of it and wanted to learn more. But also making it available to the non Mennonites who, who might pick it up, who might… so that they could understand us a bit better and understand we’re not just one thing, we’re diverse and disparate and messy and don’t always agree and come at the world in a variety of ways. But also share some commonalities and MJ was emblematic of many of those. And so, some of the I’ve gotten some lovely comments from some non Mennonites who have read this book and said, You know, I figured that he was like a do-gooder, proselytizing, you know, and I was willing to write him off. And then I read the book, and I went, oh, so hold on. There’s a whole lot more here. And so that that’s what I hope for from this book, that perhaps Mennonites understand… Mennonites and non Mennonites, understand our own complexity more. But one of the amazing things you put at work in the world, and that became the goal, like, let’s just get this into the world, and see what happens, you know, you know, finishing a book, as is a big task. And so, but all along, I didn’t feel like I was running, writing a young adult book. But even in its early weeks of being in the world, there are some young people reading this book. I mean, one of the first people that I know of to finish the book after, after it landed publicly in December was a 10 year old kid, who’s the that’s the son of somebody I go to church with. And the kid tore through the book in two days.

Ben Wideman  08:36

Marshall King  08:37
And I’m like… and I warned the parent… Like, there’s some there’s some stuff here. Like it’s, there’s some rough stuff in this book, like, you know, and, but this kid read this book, and other young people are reading this book. And so it’s like, Well, great. Yeah, great. I think, I think you know, that we need these kinds of stories, we need some of these modern stories. And here’s one about a Mennonite guy who lived an amazing life, and died tragically, as he worked for justice in the world. And so I hope that people can somehow take something from that.

Ben Wideman  09:17
Well, it’s definitely sparking an ongoing conversation as well, not just here on ~ing Podcast, but beyond. Well, Marshall, thanks again for taking the time with me today. We’ll hear more from you in the next couple of weeks.  After the break, we’ll sit down with MJ’s parents, Michelle and John Sharp. John, Michelle, thank you so much, first of all, for your willingness to participate in a conversation like this.

John Sharp  09:42
Glad to

Ben Wideman  09:43
Welcome to the podcast. For those who don’t know you. How do you introduce yourself these days?

John Sharp  09:49
As MJ’s dad!

Ben Wideman  09:53
That’s a good claim. Yeah.

Michele Sharp  09:54
That’s a good question. That’s a good question. A lot has changed in my role. Since MJ died on nearly five years ago, I’m no longer in family practice as a PA. I am however, working at testing college and compliance. So I am surrounded by a community supporting community who knows our story, and has been a yes has been a very good place to be these these last years.

John Sharp  10:26
And I’m a freelance writer and househusband. My life is good as I hit retirement.

Michele Sharp  10:32
We’re also grandparents and they’ve brought us, the children have brought us a lot of joy. These last five years.

Ben Wideman  10:39
I imagine so! Well, you had said off mic, “I’m not sure what else there is to say.” You have been somewhat under the microscope, especially since MJ’s passing, and… and I’m sure that there is a sense of boy, we have told this story over and over again. But the first thing that I was curious to ask you about is… I know for me, I didn’t expect as someone whose class recently had their 15 year alumni anniversary to have a book published about one of our classmates and I imagine it feels even stranger to be parents and having a book published about your child in memory. What has it felt like in the the week since this book has been released for you? How has that changed your your memories, your grieving process, your healing process, having kind of something in written form like this?

Michele Sharp  11:37
It’s a mixed experience. It’s, it’s difficult sharing someone that you are intimately involved with that we are so close to, we were so close to it sort of brings raw, again, the pain of the loss. What I would say that has been helpful to us has been the responses of people who as they read it, and the message that each person gets out of it, and how they’re applying it to their own lives. To me that that’s encouraging. That’s encouraging. If it has something to say to people, then I I’m glad that it’s out there. But the personal end of it is still very difficult.

John Sharp  12:34
So we experienced this push and pull of our MJ, family MJ, and the public sphere.

Ben Wideman  12:43

John Sharp  12:44
But I’ve discovered that storytelling, telling his history is therapeutic for me. And so the book is another form of that.

Ben Wideman  12:54
There’s something somewhat limiting when we try and put words to paper. I know even in talking with Marshall, there were things that he had written that didn’t make the final edit. And I would imagine there there are times where it feels somewhat restrictive to think about your child, you know, bound in a cover, like MJ was so much more than the words that Marshall has penned. I imagine that must be a strange feeling as well.

Michele Sharp  13:26
That was my, my problem from the very beginning when a book was talked about. My phrase was this. “No one can capture the essence of who MJ was between covers of a book.” He was a very complicated, multifaceted individual. And, and so I was really dubious about… I, yeah, I was just very cautious about it.

John Sharp  13:55
My response was, that’s what an author does. That’s what Marshall has to do.

Michele Sharp  14:01
But I think I really appreciate what John… how John has summed it up as a themed biography, and why don’t you explain that.

John Sharp  14:09
Yeah, a themed biography, there’s a thread of peacemaking and justice, and MJ giving his life’s work to that, losing his life, in the midst of that. And that’s one thread of his life. There are other threads also, that are not, which

Ben Wideman  14:28

John Sharp  14:29
is the way it goes, so you can’t include it. So there’s plenty of room for family stuff and other people who might want to write on it.

Ben Wideman  14:40
Were there points along the way where you thought, perhaps a book is not what our family needs? Let’s, let’s not go down this pathway. Or has it felt like this is an appropriate step from from the beginning?

Michele Sharp  14:54
It’s been difficult. Marshall has been incredibly respectful through the whole process, very sensitive to what we want included what we don’t. And the feelings that must be going through, you know, that we must be experiencing. So I want to say that right away, but that doesn’t, that doesn’t protect you from what you go through when you start reading different drafts. It was very painful for me to read, but it’s because it’s still… because everything about his loss is still very raw and painful for me. So of course, the book is going to be painful for me. It’s hard for one of his sisters who was extremely close to him. You know, she’s hardly mentioned in the book. But, you know, on the other end of things, you know, those close ties and those stories are hers.

Ben Wideman  15:55

Michele Sharp  15:55
They’re ours.

Ben Wideman  15:56

Michele Sharp  15:57
And and, and so those are the kinds of things too, that we hold on to, and I think of his friends who are extremely close to him or even you, Ben who and the, you know, the experiences you had with him? Those are yours.

Ben Wideman  16:12

Michele Sharp  16:13
Those are yours to keep. And, and I think that’s, that’s how I come to peace with what’s there and what’s not there.

Ben Wideman  16:22
Is there a thread, as you called them, that you really wish would have been included in the pages here, or one of MJ’s flavors that you think would have been really lovely to see?

John Sharp  16:36
Those would be among the 30,000 words that Marshall was ordered to cut. So we could have “Disarmed 2” with those words

Ben Wideman  16:50
We’ll save it for the sequel.

John Sharp  16:53
Part of Michelle’s comment about Marshall’s sensitivity is that we got to see everything he was writing… every draft. And we got to correct and add things, except the problem is when the book came out, there were corrections that we had made, that Marshall had sent in, that didn’t make the time cut. You know, those those you live with. They are… They are what they are.

Ben Wideman  17:18

Michele Sharp  17:18
But I don’t know that I would say there’s anything specific other than I want people to know, as, as John said, this is one thread of who MJ was. He was many, many things. He was, you know, a lot of fun. He was crazy, you know? As I’m sure you experienced. He loved humor. Anyway, yeah. He there’s, there are a lot of parts of him. But but this is one thread. And as we said, Marshall did an excellent job.

John Sharp  17:55
And I think he caught a lot of attention, his personality, his drive, his passion, his wit, with what he wrote. So

Michele Sharp  18:02
Yeah, we’re pleased.

John Sharp  18:03
Yeah. So themed biography is how we choose to look at it.

Ben Wideman  18:10
I like that. There’s something that a book also does. And that sort of elevates a person, has a power to elevate people. And there’s been a few things published asking questions about what word might be applicable to, to MJ. In some ways, I feel like you lose some humanity, if you start calling him a martyr or something like that. I wonder if there are thoughts that you have around hero, martyr… those sorts of things that are tried to applied retrospectively?

Michele Sharp  18:43
Yeah, no, I do not think that’s helpful, personally. And he would hate it. He would hate it. But no, I I just don’t go there. I don’t I don’t think it’s helpful.

Ben Wideman  18:54

Michele Sharp  18:55
He was just, he was just a young guy who took the gifts that he had seriously in using them. And as I’ve told many people, he thought he was the luckiest guy in the world, because the doors kept opening. But what I say to people is he also chose to walk through those doors that opened

John Sharp  19:18
And he was happy with his choices. We saw that just so clearly.

Michele Sharp  19:24
I think he would just say I did best with what I had. And I was happy.

Ben Wideman  19:29
Yeah, he may chuckle that people would find him an inspiration. I would imagine he’d get a kick out of out of that. But I think that was true even in college. You know, he always seemed to have something else on the horizon. And as a peer, it always felt like how? This guy always says something else cooking… like I don’t fully understand how, how you can be that cool to have all of these different things going on in your life.  You

John Sharp  20:02
He had enough imagination for a lot of things, which made it harder for him to find his calling, and mission, because so many interests,

Ben Wideman  20:11
I think that that’s probably a really helpful thing to be reflecting with, again, during this season of pandemic. I mean, I think we hear this theme over and over again that the pandemic has caused us to reevaluate life to reimagine what what is meaningful for us. And for whatever reason, I think MJ had that gift and ability to to be challenging what came next. I, I think this book is timely, strangely, I hadn’t really thought about it a whole lot, but that it comes out amid a pandemic, when so many of us are also asking this question of how do I live in the world? What doors do I go through, as you said, when they open up to me and that’s an interesting kind of gift, I guess, in the midst of this to have MJ’s voice continue to ask that for us in our in our lives as we try and move through the world. What do you think a book like this has to offer the the Church? I know MJ had a… words you said are complicated in terms of lots of aspects of his life. And I think faith was one of those things that he had lots of feelings about. What do you think a book like what Marshall has put together here means for people who are engaging faith?

John Sharp  21:32
What we hope is that they will not only remember him, but see him as an example of a place their passion, can be used, wherever in the world it is. So if if young people. And I’ve, we’ve heard a good bit of this, or inspired by this, to do something to make peace in the world. That is the primary thing. The second one would be a focus on the people of the DRC. Part of what the name hero or martyr does is distract from those two things.

Ben Wideman  22:14

Michele Sharp  22:16
And he would also, you know, talk, I mean, he would be the first to say I’m a completely flawed individual. I’m a flawed individual, doing the best I can with what I have, and trying to live life to the fullest. Not that, no, he would not set himself up otherwise.Other than that, yeah.

John Sharp  22:47
And it wasn’t about him. It was about his mission. And that became clear again and again.

Ben Wideman  22:54

John Sharp  22:54
And when he came home for Christmas, or whenever he came home, we always looked forward to his storytelling. He had stories like nobody else had. But he always told us as faux pas, not his successes, we learned that always.

Michele Sharp  23:09
His oldest sister, Erin, was driving on the interstate in Denver, where she lives and had NPR on and all of a sudden, she heard her MJ being interviewed and this NPR journal is talking about how he was leading in this demobilization of this militia group. And she’s like, “AAAAHHH!” and she got off side of the road and she starts texting all of us MJ’s on NPR! you know, we… that’s how we found out things, okay.

John Sharp  23:43
And what people shared during his memorial service, we learned a lot. We also learned a lot from Marshall’s book. There were things we didn’t know.

Michele Sharp  23:52
The people that he interviewed, and, and he did an excellent job and that, he traveled all over the world, interviewing people that were a part of MJ’s life.

Ben Wideman  24:01
On a personal note, I’m deeply grateful for the way that you two have modeled your, your grief, your mourning your celebration of your child. I had the opportunity of being in your home, very briefly with a group of campus pastors and you showed me memories, mementos and things that continue to arrive, celebrating this individual, but also things that are, were deeply important to him. I felt very sacred to hold his passport, this thing that he treasured that allowed him to, to navigate the world. Um, and your willingness to, to not shut off the world but to hold those stories up as gift as offering to say yes to Marshall in writing this book. It feels like something that I want to aspire to to be in my own life too. So thank you both for for your willingness and for this. This posture, the way you move about about the world. Thank you for that

Michele Sharp  25:01
I would be the first to to say to people, we’ve learned a lot about grieving. But number one is, is that make use of all the support systems that are out there for you. We have and we’re quick to talk about trauma counseling, how helpful that is. And the support systems at the church and the community – all of that – continuing to talk about the the loved one who has has died is not something that makes us sad, even though we may cry when we talk about it. We try to educate people and let them know you’re asking about my loved one, or how we’re doing, helps me to know that you have not forgotten our pain, nor have you forgotten our loved one. So never – don’t stop asking.

John Sharp  25:59
It’s a way for MJS voice to continue,

Ben Wideman  26:03

John Sharp  26:04
Keep his voice alive.

Ben Wideman  26:06
Absolutely. And will continue to be. Yeah.

John Sharp  26:09
One of the greatest fears parents have for the child, about a child who has died, is they will be forgotten. I don’t think that’s going to happen here.

Ben Wideman  26:22
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It never ends, either. I mean, I think in our consumer-driven world, we think that there’s a solution to every emotion or problem. And it is a journey, right? It is an ongoing process of grief and celebration and recovery. Andthose things continue. Continue on. Thank you. Thank you both so much for your willingness to share. And thank you for taking the time to be with us here on ~ing Podcast. It’s been a real gift to me. Thank you.

John Sharp  26:58
And thank you.

Michele Sharp  26:59
Thank you.

Ben Wideman  27:02
The new book Disarmed: The Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp is available now wherever you order books. And our journey continues next week. We’ll continue the conversation with Marshall King and talk with Jason Garber, Rachel Jenner and Clinton Miller, three of MJ’s friends and classmates from Eastern Mennonite University. As always, we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review and your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at