(1) Anabaptism for the 21st Century

Ted Grimsrud
[Slightly different versions of this essay were published in Mennonite Quarterly Review 80.3 (June 2006), 371-90, and in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21st Century (Wipf and Stock Publications, 2007), 9-22.]

In contemporary North American culture, religious labels have become increasingly imprecise. Our dominant religion remains Christianity, but what does “Christian” mean?

Until very recently, many observers of America have spoken of moving into a post-Christian era. However, clearly we have not yet arrived at such a state. Currently, we are in the midst of a revival (of sorts) of the public expression of overt Christian religiosity. High-profile politicians use explicitly Christian language as much as, if not more than, ever.[1] Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians such as James Dobson exercise extraordinary influence over public policy makers.[2]

For those Christians who find their faith calling them to Jesus’ way of peace,[3] of resistance to injustice, of exercising strong support for addressing the needs of vulnerable people, of a desire for more mercy and less retribution, the current scene is profoundly challenging. Such Christians see the very basis for their core convictions – the Bible (which they read as centered on Jesus’ message) – being associated in the public eye with policies and rhetoric and values that they abhor.

What is presented as the “biblical” or “Christian” view, by common popular agreement among people who both agree and disagree with it, seems to include support for the wars and militarism of the United States[4] and for capital punishment and a harshly retributive criminal justice system.[5]

So, what do Jesus-oriented Christians do? If they cede Christianity to those who are pro-military and pro-death penalty, they cut themselves off from the taproot of their own meaning system and spiritual empowerment. If they explicitly affirm their Christian convictions, they run the risk of being lumped in the public eye with these prominent expressions of “Christianity” that so contradict their reading of the gospel message.

The relevance of Anabaptism

Our time of anxiety, uncertainty, and contention concerning the viability of Jesus-oriented Christian faith actually may provide those who follow after the Radical Reformation tradition an important opportunity. Now may be an opportune time to present Anabaptism as an important resource for articulating an alternative style of Christianity in a culture that too-often associates Christian faith with domination.[6]

What do I mean by “Anabaptist”? I will not equate the term “Anabaptist” with “Mennonite,” though they are closely related. The Mennonite tradition evolved directly from the first Anabaptists of the 16th century and remains the most visible and widespread embodiment of the fruits of the Radical Reformation. However, “Mennonite” seems too narrow a term for a perspective that will help a wide range of Jesus-oriented Christians to affirm and witness to their faith in contrast to imperial Christianity.[7]

“Mennonite” refers to a specific denomination with limited relevance for those not part of that denomination. I seek a label with broader appeal, that in some sense might encompass people with similar convictions from other traditions – be they near “relations” to Mennonites such as Church of the Brethren, more distant “cousins” such as Baptists or Disciples of Christ, or even more distant “cousins” such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics.

The term “Anabaptist” may be closely linked with a concrete embodiment (which is important for my purposes, showing how a set of convictions work on the ground) in the Mennonite tradition, yet also may speak more of vision and ideals and be freer from being reduced to denominational specificity than “Mennonite.” “Anabaptist” may be seen as more amenable to being linked directly to the way of Jesus, having a sense of transcendent ideals combined with concrete embodiment.

So what is “Anabaptism” and how might it contribute to a renewal of peace-oriented Christianity in the 21st century?

Though the term “Anabaptist” (literally meaning “re-baptizer”) dates back to the 16th century, only in the past sixty years has it gained wide currency as a positive, self-affirming label. Mennonite historian Harold Bender, in his famous 1943 presidential address to the American Society of Church History, entitled “The Anabaptist Vision,” almost single-handedly transformed the term.[8]

Certainly, the study of “Anabaptists” occurred long before Bender. His contribution was most of all rhetorical, providing a language to help present-day descendants of the “Anabaptists” affirm that term and thereby affirm their heritage (and its core theme of discipleship).[9]

After Bender’s essay, self-identified Anabaptists began to use the term as an affirming identifier – and as a perspective meant to stand in contrast not only with mainstream Catholicism and Protestantism but also with Mennonitism insofar as this latter was seen to be straying from its originating ideals. Of course, negative associations have continued in some circles, but after Bender such associations have diminished greatly.[10]

Bender crystallized his thoughts on the significance of Anabaptism in this essay.[11] As Bender’s biographer Al Keim writes: “It was Bender’s calling to articulate a new interpretation of history which influenced how historians understood the Anabaptists. Only after the fact did he come to understand that he had also provided his fellow Mennonites with a new self-definition of who they were and whence they had come. He gave Mennonites a ‘usuable past’.”[12]

Bender boiled the Anabaptist vision down to three basic convictions. “First and fundamental in the Anabaptist vision was the conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship.”[13] Anabaptists saw Christian faith as requiring outward expression, the response to God’s grace with the “application of that grace to all human conduct and the consequent Christianization of all human relationships.”[14] While this first point certainly reflected traditional Mennonite self-understandings, Bender’s use of the rubric “discipleship” actually was new – he himself had previously used the term “holiness of life.”[15] The language of “discipleship” now added rhetorical force to the vision.

“A second major element in the Anabaptist vision [was] voluntary church membership based upon true conversion and involving a commitment to holy living and discipleship.”[16] Bender saw the rejection of infant baptism that gave the movement its name as stemming from this view of the church. In the Anabaptist view, the church is to be made up people self-consciously seeking to follow Jesus in all areas of life. The Anabaptists vision for transformed life at its heart was a vision for a new kind of church, in which all members lived lives of deeply committed discipleship.

“The third great element in the Anabaptist vision was the ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships.”[17] Bender supports this point with quotes from Anabaptist leaders representing Mennonite and Hutterite streams, and from all three geographical centers of early Anabaptism – Switzerland, Holland, and South Germany/Austria. He goes on to make what came in time to be a controversial assertion, that “Biblical pacifism…was thoroughly believed and resolutely practiced by all the original Anabaptist Brethren and their descendants throughout Europe from the beginning until the last century.”[18]

In time, Bender’s portrayal of Anabaptism came to be challenged. Most famously, a 1975 article, published in Mennonite Quarterly Review but written by three non-Mennonite historians, James Stayer, Werner Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” sharply critiqued Bender’s delineation of one normative Anabaptism dating from the first baptisms among the Swiss Brethren in Zurich in 1525 that cohered closely with his three core points.

While granting that the Swiss Brethren were the first Anabaptists, and that later leaders of what they argue were separate Anabaptist movements certainly knew of the Swiss Brethren, the three authors argue that the movement was way more diverse than Bender allowed for. “A number of Anabaptist movements arose that were independent of the Swiss Brethren….They had basically different memberships and theologies.”[19]

As it turned out, the polygenesis thesis gained almost the immediate assent of many Mennonite historians. Likely, the article did not so much effect a paradigm shift as reflect what had already happened in Anabaptist historiography – though it appears to have been necessary in the Mennonite context for non-Mennonites to be the first explicitly to raise the critique.

James Stayer himself wrote later of his surprise at this assent. “I expected an impassioned defense by Mennonites of the idealized Anabaptist vision of Harold S. Bender…. The last thing I could have imagined was that the Mennonites would have abandoned Bender’s conception of evangelical Anabaptism without a determined critical defense. The unexpected was precisely what happened.”[20]

Surely a major factor in the acceptance of the polygenesis critique by professionally trained Mennonite historians was their conviction that Bender’s argument was inadequate historically; it did not fit with the evidence of what actually happened. In his desire to provide warrant for his vision of the core convictions of Anabaptism, Bender may have been too quick to impose his own present-day assumptions on the 16th century and to use these assumptions to define too strictly who truly was Anabaptist and who was not. Bender’s conclusions about “authentic Anabaptists” would seem to follow more from to his 20th-century definition of what is “authentic” than an inductive examination of the 16th-century evidence. The 16th-century Anabaptist experience was much more complicated and dynamic than reflected in Bender’s simplistic distinction between authentic and aberrant Anabaptists.[21]

A consequence of the demise of Bender’s “monogenesis” assumption, however, might possibly have included an increased reluctance to speak in terms of the relevance of 16th-century Anabaptism for today’s Christians. Discussions of Anabaptism in Mennonite academic circles tend often to be oriented more toward fairly technical historical details with relatively little attention to an Anabaptist vision for today.

For example, the most detailed recent history of Anabaptism produced in a Mennonite context, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction, by C. Arnold Snyder, professor of history at the Mennonite school, Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario,[22] limits reflections on present-day relevance of Anabaptism to an 18-page “Epilogue” set off from the rest of the 400-plus page book, with the clear implication that such efforts at application are to be kept separate from the historical work proper.

It would appear that many Mennonite historians believe Anabaptism must be approached primarily as a 16th-century historical phenomenon – in contrast to Bender, who they seem to be saying distorted the historical record in his preoccupation with present-day concerns.[23]

Mennonite historians of Anabaptism such as Snyder and those referred to in note 23 appear to have a goal of writing history that would be no different than that of non-Mennonites. However, history in this mode focuses much more on questions of factuality than questions of meaning. And, as a consequence, the results are more oriented toward “what happened then” and are not so much of direct interest to present-day Anabaptists seeking resources for today’s faithfulness. This focus reduces the usability of this historical research for present-day faith communities.

Present-Day “Anabaptists”

The spirit of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement, following on the spirit of the 1st-century Jesus movement, inspires those who would understand themselves as Anabaptists today. James McClendon provides a helpful perspective on what links these three moments (and many others). We have to do with one on-going story. When we participate now in the story of Jesus, in some sense we are present with him, “this is that,” it is the same story (e.g., Jesus challenging the temple-merchants, the 16th-century Anabaptists refusing to take up arms against the Turk, our own resistance to widespread violence in 21st-century America).[24] So we cannot, should not want to, separate ourselves from past expressions of the story or bracket our own participation in the story as we study its past manifestations.

Hence, present-day Anabaptists are in sync with the spirit of the 16th century Anabaptist movement when they consider the movement as participants in the same story, recognizing that they do not stand outside of it as “neutral” observers whose account of its history should seek to be indistinguishable from the accounts of those outside the story. The kinds of questions participants will ask of the story by definition will be at least somewhat different from non-participants’ questions. And the questions asked will inevitably shape how the story is retold – even if most of the evidence that is considered is the same.

At the same time, present-day appropriation of the 16th-century Anabaptist story is not served by airbrushing objectionable elements out of the story. Balthasar Hubmaier, for example, played a major role in the early development of Anabaptism. He was the only person in the first generation to have earned a doctorate in theology, and his writings especially on baptism exerted profound influence on the Anabaptist tradition. Bender’s easy dismissal – apparently stemming from Hubmaier’s rejection of pacifism, “it is obvious that Hubmaier…represent[s] a transient aberration from original, and authentic Anabaptism”[25] – by so obviously distorting the actual historical situation, does not serve an authentic joining with the Anabaptist story.

A third path for present-day Anabaptists, an alternative to a narrow, ideological reading that mainly serves to reinforce our biases, and an alternative to a neutral, objectivist reading that by blinding us to our own biases actually also serves to reinforce them, may be found through the affirmation of a hermeneutical-circle type of approach. I will describe this third path with reference to the thought of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer,[26] though various other ways of describing the participatory interpretive process would also be appropriate.

We may think of the 16th-century Anabaptist materials as one horizon, or one particular perspective with its own concerns and biases. A second horizon is ours in the present, our perspective with our own concerns and biases. We will only be able to access the voice of the distant horizon by bringing it into conversation with our own horizon. We will only be able to gain understanding from the 16th-century horizon by being conscious of our own biases. We recognize that our questions – which are required in order to hear the other story at all – cannot help but reflect our biases, our agenda that arises out of our own particular life-setting.[27]

Gadamer insists, though, that to recognize and affirm our biases need not lead us down the path of only seeing that which reinforces those biases. The key is truly to be attentive to what the other is actually saying. When we genuinely listen, we will find ourselves revising our assumptions in light of what we hear. True understanding happens when we walk a fine line, use our particularity to provide access to the particularity of the other and then transcend our particularity to hear the other as other.[28]

The historians, in their uncovering and describing the materials that give us access to the Anabaptists, provide an absolutely necessary service for our contemporary appropriation and application of the 16th-century Anabaptist story. However, all historians too have biases (their own questions that guide their research) shaping which materials they describe and how they describe them. And, when historians’ questions are different than ours in Anabaptist communities, we must beware of letting them distort our agenda. Ultimately, present-day Anabaptists are not accountable to the historians’ definitions of meaning and relevance nearly so much as to the needs and interests of present-day Anabaptist communities. At the same time, the historians do serve to help us avoid mistaking our biases for 16th-century Anabaptists’ (even when these biases overlap a great deal).

In light of the foregoing, let us return to Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision.” Recognizing the validity of the polygenesis-oriented critique of Bender’s too narrow definition of “authentic Anabaptism,” I suggest nonetheless that we may helpfully separate this supposedly historical definition of Bender’s from his constructive proposal for how to summarize the core values of the Anabaptists in a way usable for present-day Anabaptists.

We may forego Bender’s apparent desire to set up boundary lines for determining valid expressions of Anabaptism (past and present) while still valuing his summary of the vision. If we think of such a summary more as a basis for conversation, inspiration, and guidance, an aid for fostering clarity of self-identification, and a provisional definition for interested seekers, we may see value in trying to emulate his efforts.[29]

Bender’s own three-point summary retains much that is commendable,[30] and the suggestions I will make below overlap with his in significant ways (even though I did not consciously have his three points in mind when I formulated my points). However, what he most of all offers is simply a model for an on-going task – the constructing of a new “vision” for a living faith tradition in light of an ever-dynamic world.

We learn from previous articulations, but are responsible for our own in light of our contexts. This also means, given the complexity and dynamism of the 16th-century Anabaptists, we will always have new and at least slightly different questions that we ask of that story. So, we also acknowledge that the 16th century (and the years in between with their own embodiments of the tradition) will in a genuine sense always be changing – and this “change” is to be desired.

I am proposing, then, that we are best suited to think of “Anabaptism” as a hermeneutic. By “hermeneutic” here I mean an interpretive framework, a set of values and convictions that guide how we see our world.[31]

The content of this framework, the source of these convictions, emerges initially and most formatively from the story of Jesus. The 16th-century Anabaptists and their successors sought to embody Jesus’ way and certainly understood themselves to be subject to the Jesus story. Consequently, those who draw on the 16th-century Anabaptists appropriately value that from the 16th century most closely linked with the Jesus story.[32]

The category “Anabaptist” has in some sense always been a construct, a kind of heuristic device. From 1525 on, no concrete entity existed with the self-identity of “Anabaptist” and clear markers of who belonged to this entity “Anabaptist” or not. In fact, in many ways up until Bender’s rehabilitation work, “Anabaptism” was a negative term for the Catholics’ and mainstream Protestants’ most hated enemies – and not a term Mennonites, Amish, or their close spiritual relatives commonly used of themselves. Since 1943, as reflected in Bender’s own essay and in myriads of different definitions of “Anabaptist” by historians and theologians, the term has been fluid. So, there is no historically-objective entity “Anabaptist” that has ever existed as such. All there ever has been are various attempts to apply a modern definition to a variety of people with no formal over-arching unity.

Because of the fluid nature of the category “Anabaptist,” we are free to recognize that it is an appropriate term for phenomena that extend beyond the first half of the 16th century. It is an ideal type, a creation of the interpreter meant to foster understanding. We seek to correlate our “type” as closely as possible to the actual events of history, but recognize that we must always hold it lightly, guarding constantly against the tendency to reify the type and mistake it for actual reality. The ideal type is meant to serve understanding, to an aid in interpretation, not to define actual reality.

Thinking of Anabaptism as a hermeneutic, shaped by the 16th-century story but dynamically and continually applicable to present reality, for the purpose of perceiving and practicing how to live in the context of the on-going story of Jesus’ way of peace fits with how the term has actually always functioned.[33]

Anabaptism for 21st-Century Americans

We do well to follow Bender’s lead in formulating a perspective we may appropriately refer to as a contemporary Anabaptist Vision (or, better, Visions, emerging from the work of many of us engaging in the process of reflection and application). We best see such visions as aids for on-going conversation and discernment, a process that never ends – not for issuing statements that serve as instruments meant to establish boundaries, enforce conformity, and exclude dissent. The hope in articulating contemporary Anabaptist Visions is not so much to “get it right” in a scientifically historical sense once and for all. Nor is it to construct boundary lines, separating “true” Anabaptists from “inauthentic” Anabaptists. Rather, we hope to speak meaningfully to our present in order to encourage, instruct, inspire, and empower.

As we work at articulating an Anabaptist Vision applicable for early 21st-century Americans, we start with reflections on our situation. What kinds of guidance do we need? What issues shape the questions we ask of the Anabaptist tradition? To ask what is relevant for us from the Anabaptist tradition is to ask: what resources might we find in the tradition to help us face creatively and faithfully the challenges, even crises, of our day?

And we certainly have plenty of crises demanding our attention. The following examples are not suggested with the assumption that Anabaptism promises to solve them. Nor should we think that Anabaptism should be seen primarily as a tool for determine public policy in secular nations such as the United States and Canada. It is in the spirit of the biblical prophets that we may see Anabaptist convictions as providing bases for critiquing social currents that contradict God’s intentions for shalom-shaped human living.

The world’s ecological balance has been profoundly upset, as seen in problems such as global warming, air and water pollution, toxic wastes, extinction of ever-increasing numbers of species, depletion of wildlife populations. Millions upon millions of people are living in abject poverty in a world increasingly becoming a “planet of slums” as neoliberal economics continues to drive formerly subsistence farm families off the land.[34]

Our nation expands its militarism as the world’s only superpower, reaching the point of spending roughly as much on the military as the whole rest of the world combined – a shocking outcome following “victory” in the Cold War and the elimination of any major military rivals. Such militarism requires expression, and the United States’ in the winter of 2005-6 is centered on the invasion and occupation of Iraq – an excursion that surely has reached the “quagmire” state.[35]

Within the United State, we have in recent years seen the myth of secularism shattered with the stunning emergence of right-wing Christianity as a major political and cultural force. Many Anabaptist Christians (and Christians of various other stripes) worry that right-wing Christianity is dealing the Christian faith a serious body blow in its linking of Christianity so closely with what seem to be anti-democratic public policies and governmental policies.

As traced in Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,[36] politicians beholden to the powers of wealth and militarism have exploited the vulnerability of right-wing Christians to be manipulated based on their religiously based views. Such politicians use issues such as abortion and homosexuality to gain support from conservative, working-class Christians, and then proceed to enact policies that undermine the livelihoods and communities of these same Christians.

What kinds of questions for the Anabaptist tradition emerge from our present context? How may these crises I have mentioned, and others unmentioned, shape our appropriation of the resources of our faith story?[37]

Modern-day American Anabaptists should see themselves as, to some degree at least, sharing the 16th-century Anabaptists’ sense both (1) of separating themselves from many of the basic values of the wider society, especially those that under gird violence and domination and are underwritten by Christian rhetoric, and (2) of witnessing against that violence and domination, making known as widely as possible the peaceable message of Jesus.[38]

In sharing such a sense of separation and call to witness, modern-day Anabaptists might focus first of all on the elements of the early Anabaptist movement that led to their getting in trouble with the established churches and governments of Western Europe. Such a starting point is not an anachronistic imposing of a 21st-century agenda onto a 16th-century context. In fact, perhaps the main commonality of the various groups of Anabaptists, with all their polygenetic differences, beyond practicing adult baptism was that they almost all got into trouble, almost all were persecuted, almost all faced the genuine possibility of martyrdom.

This tendency to get into trouble for their faith was one of the main “this-is-that” elements of their own self-perception. By getting into trouble they linked back with Jesus. Scholars today are recognizing that one of our keys to understanding Jesus and his ministry is to ask what it was that he did to get into so much trouble.[39] Consequently, in considering the Anabaptists as continuing in the story of Jesus, we will understand that this is a logical question to ask of them as well. If we consider what kinds of things got the Anabaptists in trouble we might actually find both important elements of commonality among the groups of the 16th century and direction concerning their relevance for us today.[40]

A big issue for present-day Mennonites and other Anabaptists is if in our comfort and prosperity we are more reluctant to risk “getting in trouble” than our rhetoric of “radical discipleship” would suggest. One troubling manifestation of this issue may be a tendency to label prophetic-like critique as “politically-partisan” and hence something to be avoided. It is hard to imagine Amos, Jeremiah, Jesus, or Paul being constrained by such inhibition.

Four central characteristics of the 16th-century Anabaptists may be seen as directly linked to their being attacked by the powers-that-be and as potentially constituting the core of an Anabaptist Vision for 21st-century America. Interestingly, these four characteristics overlap a great deal with Bender’s three core characteristics from 1943.[41]

(1) The Anabaptists established themselves as a church free from state control and from the dominance of the state churches. In the debates that led to the first Anabaptist baptisms in January, 1525, the issue was framed as one of whether they would accept the state’s demand that they limit their push for reform by continuing to baptize infants. The Anabaptists saw infant baptism linked with the lifelong membership of all citizens in the state church, signaling to them the subordination of the faith community to the political structures. Such subordination would, in their view, compete with their highest priority on following Jesus’ way.

By breaking with the state-church and refusing to submit to the state’s domination expressed through infant baptism, Anabaptists were not simply guilty of heresy; they committed sedition, rebellion, a capital offense. They were executed by both Catholics and Protestants; to all of Western Europe they were rebels.

(2) A second and closely related reason the Anabaptists got into trouble was their refusal to participate in or even support the state’s wars – especially in the 16th century, wars with the Muslim Turks invading from the south. For the first 15 years or so following 1525, the Anabaptists were not universally pacifist.[42] However, though the debates continue in our day among historians, the evidence does point to strong support for pacifism among most Anabaptists following the Schleitheim Confession’s explicit rejection of the sword in 1527 and the martyrdom of the one overtly non-pacifist Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier, in 1528.[43]

The other main context for Anabaptists using violence was the infamous incident in the city of Münster in 1534-35. The devolution of the Anabaptist rule of that city following their nonviolent gaining of power, when in the face of a brutal siege from Catholic forces the desperate and increasingly deranged people in the city resorted to violent self-defense, stood as an unique event in the entire Anabaptist movement. The events at Münster actually served to push the movement as a whole even more in the direction of pacifism. On the heals of Münster, a former Catholic priest named Menno Simons, ascended to leadership among the Dutch Anabaptists and overtly guided them in pacifist directions.

A common complaint against the Anabaptists was that they were refusing to take up arms to defend their nations – especially to defend Christian Europe from the Turks. In doing so, they threatened the security and well being of their societies. As Walter Klaassen writes, “Refusal to fight meant that one was ready to let the infidel conquer Christian Europe.”[44]

(3) A third characteristic indicative of a counter-cultural sensibility that posed a threat to the cultural consensus was the Anabaptists’ upside-down sense of social power and hierarchy.

German Mennonite historian Hans-Jürgen Goertz argues that the main commonality for the various Anabaptist groups was their anticlericalism, their rejection of church hierarchies and top-down leadership.[45] This stance of deep suspicion towards established power dynamics was a source of conflict between the Anabaptists and their society. Though, before long, Anabaptists established their own internal hierarchies and suffered under authoritarian leadership (witness the “banning wars” in mid-16th-century Holland), they remained suspicious toward the powers-that-be in the state-church and government.

(4) A fourth characteristic is the alternative economics that characterized Anabaptist communities. They valued economic sharing, supporting people in need in their communities rather than the accumulating of wealth that at the same time was driving nascent capitalism and the emergence of European empire building with the “discovery” of the New World.

While only the Hutterites self-consciously instituted thoroughgoing community of goods, all Anabaptist groups worked at mutual aid and wide-ranging sharing of wealth.[46] These practices ran against the grain of the broader society and occasioned much scorn and criticism from those outside the Anabaptist movement.

All four of these core characteristics remain of great relevance for the articulation of an Anabaptist Vision for today’s American Anabaptists. In what follows, my intention is mainly to speak to the calling of Jesus-oriented Christians to witness to the way of restorative justice and transformative peace and to resist the dehumanizing dynamics of the “spirit of our age” in 21st-century North America. I am not advocating an attempt to impose Christian values from the top down on an unbelieving society. I write in a spirit meant to reflect A.J. Muste’s response to being questioned about whether he undertook his political protests because he truly thought he could change governmental policies. He said he protested not so much because he expected to change those policies but because he did not want those policies to change him.[47]

In a time of trumpet-blowing nationalism that underwrites imperialism as a “Christian” duty, for Anabaptists to insist on a reading of the Jesus story that names nationalism as idolatry certainly might lead to trouble. When this trumpet-blowing nationalism rallies behind the invasion and violent occupation of another nation (in our present case, Iraq), outspoken witness to a faith that rejects warfare might well seem seditious.[48]

In face of a national political culture that through absolutist assertions of power by leaders, closely-guarded secrecy of policy deliberations, strong efforts to institute one-party rule, and seeking to intimidate and thereby silent media scrutiny,[49] moves ever-closer to authoritarianism, to insist that genuine power flows from the bottom up goes strongly against the grain.

As our economic system continues to extract wealth from the world’s poor that flows into the hands of the wealthy and powerful in the name of “free trade,” and “privatization,” and to empower corporations to seek the lowest possible labor costs, for Anabaptist Christians to reiterate their convictions concerning economic sharing, simplicity, and accumulating wealth is to witness against some of the most tenaciously “religious” beliefs in our culture.[50]

These examples illustrate that the core Anabaptist convictions maintain an undiminished relevance. Communities seeking to embody this vision may also face at least some of the same kinds of hostility from the dominant culture that 16th-century Anabaptists did. Hence, to consider following this path also requires taking seriously the need to cultivate various sources of encouragement, solidarity, and hopefulness. These sources certainly include at their heart a critical mass of similarly-committed people to stand with one another.

The calling to live in the Anabaptist tradition is a rigorous calling. If “Anabaptism” is linked with Anabaptists of 16th-century history, it will never be used simply to evoke some vague positive feelings. The historical specificity of actual Anabaptism is a specificity of genuine commitments that generally required a self-conscious counting the costs of living out convictions seen as heretical and treasonous by the people with power to arrest, to injure, even to execute.

The Contemporary Challenge

Many different kinds of Christians may draw guidance, inspiration, and hope from the witness of the Anabaptist tradition. In the 16th century, as in the first century, various political, cultural, and religious dynamics coalesced creatively to say “no!” to religion linked with political authoritarianism. In both settings, courageous and far-sighted peaceable communities emerged – amidst great suffering – to witness to an alternative to domination and power politics.

The early years of the 21st century call for nothing less. American Anabaptists have a responsibility not only to witness of Jesus’ gospel of peace to the wider “secular” world, but also to their fellow Christians. Such a witness may both challenge easy generalizations that link Christianity with U.S. imperialism and retributive justice and provide a rallying point of encouragement for other Christians who share Anabaptists’ convictions concerning peace, freedom from state domination, and upside-down views of power and economics.

In drawing overtly on Anabaptism, present-day Jesus-oriented Christians may bring together both a set of ideals clearly connected with prophetic biblical faith (especially as taught and lived by Jesus) and an actual embodied tradition that has sought to live in the real world based on those ideals.

Certainly, the living out of Anabaptist convictions since the 16th century in Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish communities (and those of related groups) has reflected some faithfulness and some unfaithfulness to gospel ideals. Those ideals are not negated by the unfaithfulness of actual Anabaptists. The ideals remain a living challenge – always calling those who profess them to greater faithfulness. Nonetheless, that these ideals are livable (if only partially) is borne out by the many examples of faithfulness across the generations.

The 21st century American heirs of 16th-century Anabaptism face great opportunities and responsibilities. A creative, living relationship with their tradition remains necessary to their calling.[51]


  1. For example, see the evangelical faith of various U.S. governmental leaders described in various laudatory articles in the prominent evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, including: Sheryl Henderson Blunt, “The Unflappable Condi Rice,” 47.9 (September 2003); Tony Carnes, “The Bush Doctrine,” 47.5 (May 2003); and Tony Carnes, “Bush’s Defining Moment,” 45.11 (November 12, 2001).
  2. See Michael Crowley, “James Dobson: The Religious Right’s New Kingmaker,” Slate (November 12, 2004) [http://www.slate.com/id/2109621/] and Brian MacQuarrie, “Dobson’s spiritual empire wields political clout,” Boston Globe (October 9, 2005) [http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2005/10/09/dobson_spiritual_empire_wields_political_clout/].
  3. This essay depends heavily upon John Howard Yoder’s articulation of a modern Anabaptist understanding of the message of Jesus and its normative relevance for Christian social ethics. When in the paragraphs that follow, I used terms such as “Jesus-oriented” what I have mind is “Jesus-oriented” along the lines Yoder defines in The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994). Yoder asserted at the beginning of his classic text that he intended to pursue “the hypothesis that the ministry and the claims of Jesus are best understood as presenting to hearers and readers not the avoidance of political options, but one particular social-political-ethical option” (11). In a nutshell, Yoder characterized the option Jesus presented as “an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life” (53).
  4. For a pro-militarist America critique of Christians who reject militarism see Keith J. Pavlischek, “Can the Vital Center Hold? A Critique of the Evangelical Pacifist Left,” The Brandywine Review of Faith & International Affairs 31 (Spring 2005), 31-37; and James W. Skillen and Keith J. Pavlischek, “Political Responsibility and the Use of Force: A Critique of Richard Hays,” Philosophia Christi 3 (2001), 421-445.
  5. See Bruce W. Ballard, “The Death Penalty: God’s Timeless Standard for the Nations?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43.3 (September 2000), 471-487.
  6. See Arthur G. Gish, The New Left and Christian Radicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970) for a perceptive attempt to link the Anabaptist tradition with the countercultural politics of the 1960s. John Howard Yoder cited Gish approvingly in The Politics of Jesus (page one, footnote one), and I see my argument being somewhat parallel to Gish’s perspective. As Yoder does, though, I too mostly seek to draw on the message of Jesus as the basis of my proposal – and Anabaptism as an important application of Jesus’ message. That is, my concerns are not intended so much to be reduced to “leftist” partisan politics as to be an attempt to apply the perennially normative “politics of Jesus” to early 21st-century North America.
  7. J. Denny Weaver, in the introduction to the revised edition of Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2005), 22-26, also writes about how Anabaptism is not just for the lineal descendants of the 16th-century Anabaptists.
  8. This essay was published in Church History 13 (March 1944), 3-24; Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (April 1944), 67-88, and Guy F. Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1957), 29-54. In what follows, I will be citing the printing in the Hershberger book.
  9. On Bender’s rhetoric, see Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2006), 44-59.
  10. For example, Willem Bakke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), largely defends the continuing validity of John Calvin’s hostility toward the 16th-century Anabaptists.
  11. For the story of Bender’s remarkable speech, see Albert N. Keim, Harold Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331.
  12. Keim, Bender, 327.
  13. Bender, “Anabaptist,” 42.
  14. Bender, “Anabaptist,” 43.
  15. Keim, Bender, 326.
  16. Bender, “Anabaptist,” 47.
  17. Bender, “Anabaptist,” 51.
  18. Bender, “Anabaptist,” 52 [emphasis added].
  19. James M.Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins” Mennonite Quarterly Review 49.2 (April 1975), 85.
  20. James M. Stayer, “The Easy Demise of a Normative Vision of Anabaptism,” in Calvin Wall Redekop, ed., Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), 109. Along with the “Monogensis to Polygenesis” essay, Stayer also has in mind his earlier book, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1972).
  21. For example, Bender defined the early Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier as outside the pale in this way: “Not all Anabaptists were completely nonresistant. Balthasar Hubmaier for instance for a brief period [1526-28] led a group of Anabaptists at Nikolsburg in Moravia who agreed to carry the sword against the Turk and pay special war taxes for this purpose. This group, which became extinct in a short time, was known as the ‘Schwertler’ in distinction from other Moravian Anabaptists called the ‘Stäbler,’ who later became the Hutterites and have continued to the present. It is obvious that Hubmaier and the ‘Schwertler’ represent a transient aberration from original and authentic Anabaptism” (Bender, “Anabaptist,” 51).
  22. Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 1995.
  23. Other recent examples of the academic approach may be seen Walter Klaassen, ed., Anabaptism Revisited (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992) and H.Wayne Pipkin, ed., Essays in Anabaptist Theology (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1994). Pipkin’s book does include, notably, an essay from Arnold Snyder that makes some present-day connections, but the overall thrust of the collection is toward “objective” description of the past, not interaction with the present. See also German Mennonite historian Hans-Jürgen Goertz’s historical survey, The Anabaptists, second edition, translated by Trevor Johnson (New York: Routledge, 1996).On the other hand, see J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist, which includes an important 62-page essay, “The Meaning of Anabaptism,” that perceptively seeks to reflect on the present-day relevance of the 16th-century ferment. See also John Driver, Radical Faith: An Alternative History of the Christian Church (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1999), a survey of various “radical” movements throughout the past 2,000 years that makes an overt link between these movements and present-day discipleship.Snyder has written in a somewhat testy response to a critique of his book for not serving a present-day peace agenda adequately that such an agenda should play no role in his historical work. “What does my personal commitment to peace have to do with Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction? In fact, not very much at all.” C. Arnold Snyder, “Anabaptist History and Theology: History or Heresy? A reply to J. Denny Weaver,” Conrad Grebel Review 16.1 (Winter 1998), 53. Certainly the debate within the field of Anabaptist studies about how best to understand the events of the 16th century remains active. See John D. Roth, “Recent Currents in the Historiography of the Radical Reformation,” Church History 71.3 (September 2002), 523-535, for a most helpful survey of this debate. Roth, however, focuses strictly on discussion of the 16th century, not on any attempts to apply that research to the present. Thomas Heilke, a University of Kansas political scientist who is an Episcopalian with deep interests in the present-day relevance of the Anabaptists, in “Theological and Secular Meta-Narratives of Politics: Anabaptist Origins Revisited (Again),” Modern Theology 13.2 (April 1997), 227-252, offers a perceptive critique of “value-free” interpretations of Anabaptism, focusing his concern on the work of James Stayer and other “profane” or “social-scientific” scholars. Heilke argues that Stayer and the others bring their own ideological blinders to the task of interpreting Anabaptism and hence have no basis for dismissing as too ideological “evangelical” interpretations of Anabaptism that seek to recover some of the Anabaptists’ prophetic critique for present-day believers. Heilke, however, does not discuss the reluctance of many Mennonite historians to seek directly to connect early Anabaptist faith with the present. In fact, he somewhat misleadingly treats the German Mennonite historian Hans-Jürgen Goertz as a “profane” historian.
  24. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology, volume one (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), 33. “The…‘is’ in ‘this is that’ is…neither developmental nor successionist, but mystical and immediate.”
  25. Bender, “Anabaptist,” 51.
  26. In particular, I draw on, Truth and Method, second revised edition (New York: Crossroad, 1990). For an interesting contemporary Mennonite engagement with Gadamer’s philosophy, see Michael A. King, Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict Over Homosexuality (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2001). However, in contrast to my use of Gadamer here as providing a perspective to foster engagement, King reads Gadamer more as underwriting an “above-the-fray” kind of stance.
  27. To be clear about my own biases, I write as a committed pacifist who seeks to follow Jesus’ model of resistance to the powers of death and violence.
  28. For more on Gadamer, see Ted Grimsrud, “Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist Theology and Recent Hermeneutics,” in Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions For the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 57-72.
  29. See an example of such a useful presentation of the 16th-century Anabaptists in John Howard Yoder’s chapter, “A Summary of the Anabaptist Vision,” in C. J. Dyck, ed., An Introduction to Mennonite History, second edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 136-145.
  30. For example, J. Denny Weaver, in the conclusion to Becoming Anabaptist, second edition, “The Meaning of Anabaptism,” 161-222, uses Bender’s outline in articulating his own synthesis of the present-day relevance of the 16th-century Anabaptist story – a synthesis with which I generally concur.
  31. In this statement I follow John Howard Yoder in a well-known essay, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality.” He wrote, “what is meant here by the label ‘Anabaptist’ is not a century but a hermeneutic. It is represented for certain types of discussion by the 16th-century movement, but it can be valid apart from that particular period” (in A.J. Klassen, ed., Consultation on Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology [Fresno, CA: Council on Mennonite Seminaries, 1970], 5).
  32. Again, see Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist, 161-222, for a similar understanding. For instance, on the issue of pacifism, present-day Anabaptists are not bound by “loyalty” to historical objectivity to argue that Anabaptism was not pacifist due to the existence of scattered non-pacifist 16th-century Anabaptists. To a large (and, given the context, quite impressive) extent, the Anabaptist movement as a whole in its early years did embody Jesus’ way of peace. The affirmation of pacifism as central to Anabaptism, then, is a synthesis of evaluating the Anabaptists in light of the Jesus story, recognizing the impressive (though not universal) embodiment of pacifism in those early years, and a conviction that both in the years since 1540 and in our present, pacifism stands as an extraordinarily high priority. See John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), chapter 12, “Anabaptism in the Continental Reformation.”
  33. The main difference between what I do here and what I criticized Bender for doing with regard to Hubmaier above is that I am not trying to define a normative Anabaptism so much as suggest what is most usable for us from the Anabaptist tradition.
  34. See Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso Books, 2006).
  35. See several examples from across the political spectrum: from a former member of the United States foreign policy establishment, Chalmers Johnson, Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004); from a long-time critique of U.S. foreign policy, Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003); and from a self-described conservative Republican, Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  36. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.
  37. Simultaneously with these social problems, the largest present American embodiment of the Anabaptist tradition, the Mennonite Church USA, seems bogged down in a struggle to establish its identity and institutional viability following a time- and resource-consuming merger of North America’s two largest Mennonite denominations. See the report by James Nofziger, “The People in the Pew: Perceptions of Mennonite Church USA” (Mennonite Church Communication Audit, January 28, 2004). According to this report, “only one in five [Mennonite Church USA members] feels connected to the denomination.” This is compared to two in five who felt connected just prior to the merger (3). Such a struggle for identity and viability surely, at the least, diverts valuable energy from guiding creative Anabaptist responses to the above-named challenges.
  38. See Ray C. Gingerich, “The Mission Impulse of Early Swiss and South German-Austrian Anabaptism.” Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1980, for a presentation of this passion for such witness on the part of the first Anabaptists.
  39. See N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996) and William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).
  40. For an example of such concern about “political partisanship” see John D. Roth, “Called to One Peace: Christian Faith and Political Witness in a Divided Culture,” Mennonite Life 60.2 (June 2005), along with various responses.
  41. These characteristics are also similar to points highlighted in two recent works on Anabaptism that parallel my perspective a great deal, Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword and Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist, second edition.
  42. As documented by Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword.
  43. See John Yoder, Christians Attitudes, chapter 12.
  44. Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant, second edition (Waterloo, Ont.: Conrad Press, 1981), 50.
  45. Goertz, The Anabaptists.
  46. James M. Stayer, The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Buffalo, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 8-9.
  47. See David McNair, “War is not an accident: A profile of radical pacifist A.J. Muste,” Oldspeak: An Online Journal Devoted to Intellectual Freedom (October 21, 2002) [http://www.rutherford.org/oldspeak/articles/politics/oldspeak_muste.asp].
  48. Witness the inflammatory post-9/11 statement by Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly that pacifism is “objectively evil,” “Pacifist Claptrap,” Washington Post, September 26, 2001.
  49. On the media, see Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, revised edition (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
  50. See David Loy, “The Religion of the Market,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65.2 (Summer 1997), 275-290 and Harvey Cox, “The Market as God,” The Atlantic Monthly (March 1999), 18-23.
  51. I want to thank several colleagues who responded to earlier drafts of this essay: Ray Gingerich, Kathleen Temple, Denny Weaver, Earl Zimmerman, and three anonymous MQR referees.


1 thought on “(1) Anabaptism for the 21st Century

  1. Daryl Davis

    I think this explanation is accurate historically and I learned a lot from it. But the problem discussed seems to be off on the tangent of discipleship rather than how we are to view God’s revelation as a whole. Baptism, in a phrase, is Jewish, and so are the explanations written by Paul and Peter. That’s why baptism, as well as the Lord’s supper, are linked to covenant promises, and why foot-washing is not. One’s about the unity of God’s saving humans, the other is about evidence of discipleship.


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