The Anabaptists: Why they got in trouble

The Anabaptist faith: a living tradition

Ted Grimsrud

Originally published in The Mennonite (May 2, 2006), 10-12.


The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.–William Faulkner, “Requiem for a Nun”

Our Anabaptist tradition lives on with us.  We do not create our rituals and beliefs out of nothing.  We inherit them, even as they continue to evolve.  We sing because those who came before us sang.  We praise God, question God and pray in ways shaped by those who precede us.

At the same time, we carry wounds and scars from the past.  The therapist Alice Miller has written that much of the emotional pain, violence-dealing and general distress in our world dates to the pain young children experience.  She believes it is a tragic and destructive myth that it’s okay to hurt young children in order to “whip them into shape” with the rationale that “they won’t remember it anyway.”  She believes our bodies store up the pain, and it festers in our hearts with a great likelihood of wreaking havoc later on.

The impact of wounds from the past ripples through the generations.  In the 16th century, a group of highly idealistic people in Europe known as Anabaptists discovered something precious and exciting when they began to live a radically Jesus-oriented gospel.  They were big on loving each other and even their enemies, on sharing possessions with those in need, on experiencing the Holy Spirit as a direct presence in their lives. And they wanted to tell others about this.  So they did–for awhile.  But then they were almost overwhelmed by a tidal wave of the most violent opposition imaginable.

The people in power in Europe simply could not abide with the spirituality of the Anabaptists, calling them “enthusiasts,” as if that were a cussword.  This hostility boggles the mind.  Imagine Christians burning, hanging, and drowning thousands of other Christians.

Somehow the Anabaptist movement survived.  But survival came at a cost.  Let’s consider the impact of those deep-seated wounds on our tradition.

To survive, the Anabaptists transformed themselves from “enthusiasts,” eager to spread their message, to “the quiet in the land.”  Down to the present, many peace-loving Mennonites have avoided taking chances in making their peace convictions known, fearing criticism or stronger from the powers that be.

As often happens in cases of abuse, an ironic fruit of the old wounds seems to be a tendency to identify with and meekly defer to the abusers, to people in authority.  Rather than eliciting a strong suspicion of the authorities, the opposite often happens.  We uncritically defer to authority–from outside and within our communities.

Another consequence of the wounds also may be the desire to avoid conflict in general.  Some new Mennonites are attracted by the inspirational stories of the 16th-century Anabaptist radicals and martyrs who followed Jesus into profound conflicts with the forces of violence and oppression.  Yet today we find within many Mennonite communities a serious avoidance of conflict.

Likewise, some accept the personal message of Jesus to “take up your cross and follow me,” step out from the crowd and seek the truth.  Then we discover these amazing Anabaptists, who made such personal commitments at great cost.  Yet in their descendants we often see a powerful sense of conformity, a disrespect for personal expressions of faith that challenge the majority, a tendency to stifle dissent and creative thinking.

All these characteristics–a reluctance to engage the wider society with our peace message, a tendency to defer to authority, a desire to avoid conflict, a push toward conformity within our communities–may well at least to some degree come from the wounds the early Anabaptists suffered.  They were survival techniques but with a significant cost.  The past is not even past.  It shapes our current practices, our current language.  It still shapes us through the wounds visited on our forebears.

Another, much more positive, sense in which the past is not even past is with our ideals.  We learn the most from Anabaptist ideals when we are self-conscious about the questions and issues that matter to us today and link us back to them.  The Anabaptists asked how their lives took part in the story Jesus lived in.  Today we ask, How do we learn from being part of this same, continuing story?

Our best entry into the 16th-century Anabaptist part of our story (as well as into the Jesus part of our story) is to ask, What got them into trouble?  Why were they persecuted and even killed (as were Jesus and the early Christians)?  Asking such questions means facing our wounds, mentioned earlier, and going back into the issues that caused those wounds.

Here are four embodied ideals that got Anabaptist communities into trouble:

(1) Their break from the state-church system.  Their practice of believer’s baptism shattered the iron-clad linking of church membership and citizenship in the state and the state’ dominance of the church.  A church free from state control undermined social unity.  Thus believer’s baptism (and the refusal to baptize infants) was a crime punishable by death.  It was so not mainly because it was heresy but because it was sedition; a crime not so much against correct doctrine as a crime against the state.

(2) Their refusal to participate in or support wars.  The problem with Anabaptist pacifism was not so much that it deprived the state of soldiers but that by publicly insisting that war was unchristian, Anabaptists again threatened the social order.

(3) Their rejection of hierarchies.  They believed in upside-down power.  They believed Jesus’ statement that the rulers of the nations lord it over people and that his followers are not to imitate that pattern.  Anabaptists got into trouble for their disrespect for leadership structures of the established church and for their refusal to submit to government hierarchies.

(4) Their belief in an alternative economics, based on sharing and simplicity.  This stood out as countercultural in the context of the beginnings of western capitalism and colonialism in Europe.  Europe’s insatiable quest for gold and other riches led to the destruction of countless lives and cultures throughout the world.

These four core ideals, perhaps the main factors that got Anabaptists into so much trouble, remain alive today.

For example, we live in a time of trumpet-blowing nationalism that underwrites world domination as a “Christian” duty.  For Anabaptists to insist on a reading of the Jesus story that names nationalism as idolatry certainly may lead to trouble.

This trumpet-blowing nationalism now rallies behind the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Outspoken witness to a faith that rejects warfare may well seem just as seditious today as it did in the 16th century.

Our national political culture–through leaders grasping for dominating power, closely guarding the secrecy of policy deliberations, working to institute one-party rule, seeking to intimidate and thereby silent media scrutiny–moves ever closer to authoritarianism.  To insist that genuine power flows from the bottom up goes against this grain.

And our economic system continues to extract wealth from the world’s people and put it into the hands of the already wealthy and powerful in the name of “free trade” and “privatization.”  Our economic system empowers corporations to seek the lowest possible labor costs and exploit nature with impunity.  For Anabaptist Christians to practice economic sharing and simplicity, care for the earth and point out the evils of hoarding wealth is to witness against some of the most tenaciously “religious” beliefs in our culture.

Core Anabaptist convictions are relevant and potent today.  The past of Anabaptist ideals is not dead; it is not even past.  As in the 16th century, people today who seek to live according to these ideals need strength to do so.  May God grant us such strength, and may we share it with each other.

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