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.” 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…”
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.” 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.”
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.
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?