Forsaking Power and Violence: How Radical-Reformers Lived the Politics of Jesus

As our society becomes more secular and cynical of the institutional church, the nonviolent way of Jesus will become one of few entry points for those who don’t yet know Christ.   I suggest that this conviction coupled with a suspicion towards nationalism, which Anabaptist Christ-followers are tempted to dismiss as impractical, relates to many people who think the church is hungry for power and supportive of war.   We Anabaptists, have the opportunity to leverage our distinct perspective on violence and power as a catalyst to draw people to the resurrected Christ. Not through merely talking theoretically about these issues, but by humbly living these values in the raw realities of the real world.

These two themes (suspicion of power and nonviolence) are reflected in Alister McGrath’s description of the “radical reformers.”  He states that common elements of this movement include: “… a general distrust of external authority; the rejection of infant baptism in favor of the baptism of adult believers; the common ownership of property; and an emphasis upon pacifism and non-resistance.”[1] McGrath later adds an important point: “For the radicals, such as Sebastian Franck and Menno Simons, the apostolic church had been totally compromised through its close links with the state, dating back to the conversion the Emperor Constantine… the church was corrupted by human power struggles…”[2]

As was already pointed out above, the Anabaptist movement (which all Mennonite related denominations trace their origins to) historically had a strong suspicion to power structures, especially those related to the government.  Much of this distrust had to do with the union of the church with the Roman Empire (and other national identities to follow).  One of the earliest spokespersons for the “left wing of the Reformation,” Sebastian Franck, went as far as claiming that “…for fourteen hundred years now there has existed no gathered Church nor any sacrament.”[3] Although most modern Anabaptists would not go to this extreme, the point remains that when the church and state are married, the church becomes corrupted.  For this reason, the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 could claim: “The sword is ordained of God outside of the perfection of Christ.”[4]

The Schleitheim Confession clearly communicates a belief that God did in fact appoint the government to maintain justice of the earthly realm, but that Christians ought not be associated with any role that would connect them to power or the sword.  This makes sense in light of the fact that the Anabaptists were known for forsaking violence (which will be discussed in the next article of faith).  However, it would be wrong to suggest that this sort of separation from the state means that an authentic Anabaptist stance toward political affairs is withdrawal.  Rather, many of the radical reformers joined in prophetic actions toward governments that oppressed the poor, such as the peasant movements of the mid-1520’s.  They were willing to be prophetic unto death, for both doctrinal issues and practical concerns like social justice, economics, and community transformation.[5]

For these radicals, following Jesus meant being so suspicious of power that they chose to live sacrificially as an alternative to mainstream society. They modeled ways to take care of the poor and vulnerable in their midst, believing that the Kingdom of God actualizes as the people of God cultivate a counter-culture of love. At the same time, they reminded the power-brokers of the government of their responsibility to create systems where the poor can be lifted out of the margins. This is a glimpse into the politics of Jesus – be an alternative culture of justice and peace while simultaneously speaking truth to power.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE EARLY ANABAPTIST APPROACH TO POWER, PEACE, AND JUSTICE?


[1]. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 65.

[2]. Ibid., 485.

[3]. As quoted in: Ibid.

[4]. Ibid., 486.

[5]. Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith, 39.

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  • http://twitter.com/CauserTech Causer Technology

    These kind of things are what drew me to Anabaptism. Now I’m actually writing a research paper to finish my M.Div. which essentially argues that the emerging church is essentially this generation’s Radical Reformation and is echoing almost all of the same themes, including these of church-state separation and sometimes but not always non-violence.

    Sorry, logged in as company Twitter. Meant to log in as @Ryan_LR. This comment in no way reflects the views of Causer Technology.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

       What a great comment. I’d love to have a sample of that paper as a blog article. could you get somethign to me under 850 words on the subject???? Sounds like we think alike on this stuff. Peace.

    • Marcel Redling

      I would also love to read it. Greetings from Germany, Marcel 

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/GaryFPatton GaryFPatton

    Hi Kurt;

    On referral from an English Friend, this Canadian is just finishing Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical” at http://is.gd/JZHyJO . Researching some of his references and meditating on social action and non-violence, I was lead to the article, “What is Anabaptism?”, at http://diigo.com/0r78w .

    Your Blog-posted study on Mark 13 caught my eye via some research I’ve been doing on “Hell”. (I’m intrigued by some of your interesting thoughts in the study. I also appreciate your eschewing absolutism.)

    I was intrigued to discover that in spirit, after 42 years of liberal Christianity, followed by salvation via the Christian Business Men’s Committee, and then, several Charismatic Churches over the last 2o years, I am an Anabaptist at heart. And that feels comfortable as a quick descriptor which I’ll wear with pride when a label-loving Christian insists on more than my normal: “I’m a Jesus Follower.”

    I’ve discussed Jesus’ commands of non-violence with a only a very few of my charismatic and evangelical friends. I’ve done so by sharing my public e-Sticky Notes which I’ve attached to Matthew 5:38-45 on Bible Gateway at http://diigo.com/0kmlr . (I find that too many Christians don’t want to have discussions that can shake what they believe. So, )

    So far, those I’ve raised this Anabaptist position with all have chosen to stick with their belief in “The Just War Doctrine”. As I understand it’s history and as you and some of your readers know, Kurt, this is the original myth which the Bishop of Hippo, Augustine, used to get the early Church to forego Jesus’ non-violence that had been followed since the cross. (He promulgated his myth so that the Roman Emperor could recruit Church “laity” but not his and other bishop’s “clergy” as soldiers. {Sarcasm intended!} )

    Although my Friends still love me, they’re now convinced I’m a “Don Quixotic radical” to beware. (Given Jesus was one of those too, which they know,  I’m OK with that! Conviction is Holy Spirit’s job …not mine.)

    I’m intrigued by the prospect of your  suggestion that my lifestyle plus words of non-violence and “waging peace” may support my sharing the love of the real Jesus, not the Islamic Isa, with my Muslim neighbours. I look forward to reading more about your thinking on this issue.

    Blessings,
    Gary in Toronto

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Wow Gary,

      What a Great story to read. Thanks for sharing.

      I”m not sure if you have read my “NonViolence 101″ series, but it may be helpful to you.
      Also, If you would be interested, I link “hell” to Mark 13 in my recent Hell series called “Hell Yes. Hell No! And Who The Hell Cares”.
      finally, I understand how friends respond to you when your ideas shift this direction. Hang in there. Interestingly, when the charismatic movement began about 100yrs ago, it was almost entirely pacifist. Heres a book on that: http://www.amazon.com/Peace-War-Shifting-Allegiances-Assemblies/dp/1931038589/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339717129&sr=8-1&keywords=pacifism+assemblies
      Peace.

      Kurt

  • CORKY RILEY

    Some very fair points and no doubt the debate on non violence and issues such as social justice will continue for sometime. I continue to struggle with non violence and when we see some of the wars and battles our country is now jumping in an out of, I personally feel greater pressure to call for a complete end to the violence of war. I think of the possibilities of what can happen with the weapons that so call bad men have and are building and then I look over at my little boy and think maybe our government should just kill all the bad guys but who will judge the good and bad.  History has shown us we will always have more bad guys. I will keep asking God to helping with this one.
    I support social justice as I understand it but our government cannot manage or implement this concept. If there is to be social justice it has to come through the Church.

  • http://twitter.com/JimPuntney Jim Puntney

    Very good post Kurt,  I do recognize the call to stepping away from the man driven political/power machine. In Christ we see and experience a way of life that is contrary to violence and the “just war”.

    Although not technically an Anabaptist, my heart is in alignment with their stance. Their history is coming more and more into view, this seems to be a sterling example for the body today to reflect upon. 

    For the record I do believe in fighting, yet with a different perspective to quote John M. Perkins “Love is the final fight”.

  • richard

    A friend pointed me to this article but I am a bit confused in content and application.
    The “non-violent way of Jesus”? John 2:15, Acts 5:1-11, Rev 2:20-27, Rev 19:1,2. 11-16. 
    While corruption often manifests itself in forms of violence, does it follow that violence (using physical force) is always corrupt? Sparing the rod (violence) and spoiling the child? The State is God’s minister for good, and bears not the sword in vain, Rom 13:1-7. If Jesus is King of Kings would not His rule and reign include BOTH church and state? The metaphor is not that church and state are wed, but rather both are under the rule of Christ the King.You write: “The Schleitheim Confession clearly communicates a belief that God did in fact appoint the government to maintain justice of the earthly realm, but that Christians ought not be associated with any role that would connect them to power or the sword.” If “Christians ought not be associated with any role that would connect them to power or the sword,” do we conclude that the civil state government, appointed by God to maintain justice (Romans 13:1-7), should be filled with non-christians? Should one conclude that if you are Caesar and became a Christian, you should resign your office and get out of working in State government because Christians ought not be associated with any role that would connect them to power or the sword? Or do you think the Caeser who becomes a Christian should reform the state to pure pacifism and non-violence?  
     What about the police officer in Florida, bearing arms, shooting and killing a man while eating the face off of another man? Cannot a christian be a police officer and do these sorts of violent actions with a clean conscience before God? If someone breaks into my home and threatens my wife and children, can I, in godly righteousness, using violence – maybe even having to end the life of the intruder – defend the helpless and oppressed in the name of Jesus?peace,~ richard


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