Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2019
The purpose of this “thought experiment,” as I see it, is to reflect on how “Anabaptist” might work better than “Christian” or “Mennonite” as a descriptor of the radical faith that offers the best possibilities for responding creatively to the challenges of life in North America in the early 21st century. In Part One I described why I have problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” ways of interpreting the Bible and our world and our faith. In what follows, I will describe more what I mean by “Anabaptist” as an alternative way of interpreting.
A way to think about Anabaptism
I believe that in approaching the topic of “Anabaptism” we should be straightforward about the kinds of questions we have in mind in approaching it as well as recognizing the need to be as accurate as possible in discussing the 16th century phenomena themselves. My questions have most of all to do with what resources might we find in the story of the original Anabaptists that might inform our lives today. I also wonder whether we might discern an Anabaptist approach to faith that could serve as a corrective to the interpretive angles we find in what I call the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” approaches.
A key theme for me in taking up this project of discernment is how these various angles relate to how we read the Bible. A central criterion for me is how helpful, accurate, and authentic the angles are to the message of the Bible. In fact, though the 16th century is of great interest in evaluating the Anabaptist take on faith, what matters even more is the first-century in that the truly normative “vision” that followers of Jesus should be concerned with is the one presented in the New Testament (and the Old Testament read in relation to the New). Is it possible that the Anabaptist angle gets us closer to Jesus’s take on things than the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” angles?
I have taken a cue from studies of Jesus for how I want to approach the Anabaptists—and seek for a sense of coherence among the diverse expressions of radical Christianity in the 16th century. It is common among historians of the Jesus movement to suggest that maybe the central question to ask for understanding what happened back then is this: Why was Jesus executed by the Romans? This is the version I ask of the Anabaptists: Why did they get into trouble? One thing that seems clear is that in their various iterations, just about all the Anabaptists got into trouble, and in their various locations they died by the thousands.
I suggest that we do find a sense of commonality when we ask this question. I think we may see four broad themes that were key reasons the large majority of them got into trouble—most of these themes are present in most of the Anabaptist communities, diverse as they might otherwise be.
- They sought a church free from state control and free from the domination of the state churches. They believed the gospel of Jesus was incompatible with the power politics of the Domination System of states and their state-controlled churches. The meaning of baptism is at the heart of this theme. As “Anabaptists,” the radicals rejected the practice of infant baptism into state churches. This rejection followed from their understanding of salvation (something people ultimately must take personal responsibility for; not to be controlled by human institutions) but also of the freedom of the gospel that reaches to all peoples regardless of national borders and ethnic specificity.
- They refused to participate in or even support wars of any kind. They affirmed the teaching of Jesus that calls his followers to radical love for their neighbors (including the neighbors on the other side of the conflicts between states). They understood the gospel to call for human communities shaped by self-giving love and not coercive power.
- They understood social power in a way that was upside-down in relation to the common hierarchies of the kingdoms of the world. They challenged the ideas that kings are on the top, and they also challenged church hierarchies. Their “anticlericalism” signaled their affirmation of the centrality of self-determination among people of faith. They empowered the laity and understood the Holy Spirit to be at work most centrally in the process of communal discernment and the participation of all the people in their communities.
- They taught and practiced an economics of sharing, generosity, non-possessiveness, and sustainability. The most extreme Anabaptists (e.g., the Hutterites) literally practiced the community of goods that rejected personal ownership, but all Anabaptists rejected social stratification, inequality, and economic self-aggrandizement.
In all of these ways, Anabaptists challenged the political and religious status quo. Like Jesus, they accurately were identified as threats to the powers of centralized power and wealth. They were killed as traitors to the particular kingdoms within which they lived. Part of the reason they were seen as so threatening is that they actively shared in their wider communities their insights into the message that Jesus had left with his disciples. They gained sympathetic hearings in many places, and hence the powers-that-be had to act decisively to still their outreach.
These trouble-causing convictions were social and political—but they were also theological and faith-centered. In the Anabaptists’ world (as in the Bible’s), there was no sense of private religiosity and public political realism. To reject infant baptism was a direct affront to the state. To insist on placing the highest priority on love of neighbor was a direct threat to the cultural consensus necessary to take a state to war.
The Anabaptists’ social and political witness directly followed from their theological convictions. Their theology made it inevitable that they would get into trouble. Recognizing that not all Anabaptists shared each theological conviction, we may nonetheless identify several of their key views in general that shaped their practices. They were deeply committed to a direct reading of the Bible where they saw themselves as part of the same story as the biblical people—most centrally, of course, they linked themselves with the Jesus of the gospels. They read the Bible in light of their trust in Jesus as the definitive revelation of God who allowed them to know God and modeled to them the faithful life.
They practiced a prophetic rather than creedal or sacramental approach to the Bible and to the Christian tradition. In their affirmation of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their midst, they practiced a communal hermeneutic where they read the Bible together and listened to each other for insights and directives on the meaning of the text. Tradition for them was a living connection with the biblical message and with those in the years after who sought to follow closely in Jesus’s way.
As the Anabaptists turned from magisterial Christianity with its close ties to the power elite in church and state, and as they suffered mightily as a consequence, they drew power from the immediacy they felt with the risen Jesus and his embodiment of the message of Torah and the Old Testament prophets—welcome to the vulnerable, suspicion of the powers that be, valuing the communities of the Spirit over the coercive states that subjected Europe to several generations of constant war during the 16th and 17th centuries. For the Anabaptists, the practice of resistance to Empire and the practice of embodied worship of the biblical God were two sides of one coin.
Tensions (or why “Mennonitism” ≠ “Anabaptism”)
The costly intensity of the first Anabaptists faced deadly hostility from the official Christianity of their day. Thousands of them, including most of their leaders, were killed and most of the rest were driven from their homes. The trauma of those early years etched itself on the communal identities of the survivors. The descendants of the Anabaptists, mostly Mennonites and Amish, shared a history of struggling to survive on the margins of the kingdoms of the world. These struggles, with the living memories of the early traumas, meant that Mennonites would evolve to be somewhat different from their early Anabaptist ancestors.
That the tradition survived at all is something for which to be thankful. The hundreds of years of Mennonite history since the 16th century show many examples of courage and faithfulness—including the sustenance of the original pacifist inclinations of the first radicals. So it is not a criticism of the Mennonite tradition to note that it moved away from original Anabaptism in many ways. However, after the renewal of interest in the 16th century sparked by Harold Bender and numerous of his contemporaries, Mennonites may too easily have assumed a closer connection than perhaps has been warranted.
Let me list several of the points where the tradition evolved away from the originating experience.
- The immediate hostile and extraordinarily violent reaction from establishment churches and various states caused direct trauma to these radicals and in short order blunted their radicalism. Within a generation or two, the radicals focused their energy more on the quest for tolerance and enough safety to survive than on the transformation-seeking idealism of the first ones.
- In the working out of this quest for toleration, Anabaptist communities, though initially known for their rejection of the top down coercive approach to power in the states and state-churches of their era, developed their own patterns of authoritarian dynamics within their own communities, with strong leaders and coercive boundary maintenance.
- Over time, Mennonite and Amish communities survived as “quiet in the land” enclaves when they did find regions of toleration. They stayed largely to themselves and developed their own communities of “ethnic Mennonites” with distinctive cultural practices. This separatism fostered a kind of tribalism where self-consciousness of being part of their own “tribe” became a powerful identity marker.
- To the extent that the first Anabaptists became “sectarian,” it was more a practical than ideological matter. The distinction they made between the community of faith and the outside world was strategic in the sense that they believed their witness to the world required a coherent sense of identity and strong communal support to allow them to pay the price of confronting the powers. In time, though, the sense of separation became more a matter of principle—the church and the word were truly distinct and faithful Christians do not bear responsibility for what Caesar does. So, for example, you see little public witness against war from Mennonites until that latter part of the 20th Another way to note this development is to consider the Anabaptists’ evangelistic urge. Invitation to outsiders to join their communities was a central part of the early Anabaptist approach to faith and played a major role in the hostility they faced from the state churches. This sense of invitation diminished a great deal as Mennonites became more inward focused and more distinct culturally from their surrounding environments.
- While the first Anabaptists saw themselves as part of the Christian tradition and often cited pre-fourth century writings, they generally placed a clear priority on the biblical vision and only appropriated the tradition insofar as it supported their sense of the Bible’s message. In time, though, while continuing to cite the Bible profusely, Mennonites tended to develop their own traditions that they usually adhered to more rigorously than the radical vision of the Bible.
I recognize that the Mennonite tradition does validly recognize itself as the direct descendant of the first Anabaptists and that that connection remains important. I also recognize that at the heart of the Anabaptist understanding of faith is that what matters most is the concrete embodiment of theological convictions. Any sense of Anabaptism as a disembodied set of ideals misses the core truths of that tradition. At the same, time, though, these ways that the tradition has evolved that I have listed should prevent us from an easy equation of Anabaptism and Mennonitism (including the Mennonitism of Mennonite Church USA).
I believe that the spirit of Anabaptism reminds us that any concretizing of biblical faith runs the risk of calcifying the prophetic sensibility of the Bible’s message. It is always a danger that structures (both actual institutions and sets of beliefs) intended to sustain faith communities may take on a life of their own and become “Powers” that seek to separate people from the living Spirit of Jesus. The MC USA form of Mennonitism has been shaped by many influences that may well be in tension with original Anabaptism (and hence could stand to be corrected by reconsideration of the Anabaptist angle on reading the Bible). The evolution from Anabaptism to Mennonitism I outlined above certainly reflects one kind of influence—we could, say, simply the influence of the desire for communities to survive and find stability and safety.
More recently, MC USA Mennonites have been strongly influenced by various elements of American culture, including elements of the cultures of American Christianity. This includes, from one side of the spectrum, influences from North American fundamentalism and evangelicalism. From the other side of the spectrum, I would point to the influence of the secular academic world. I have seen both of these influences close to hand in my experience in Mennonite higher education as a professor. I have perceived strong reluctance on the part of both evangelical and progressive Mennonites to embrace an Anabaptist type of radical reading and applying of the message of the Bible and key theological convictions that follow from that reading (most notably, what I call “engaged pacifism” [see my article, “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism”]).
How Anabaptism as a hermeneutic might work
I believe that the Anabaptist angle on faith and on how best to read the Bible remains extraordinarily relevant. It might even be that it provides an essential way of seeing that is required for Christianity to actually serve as part of the solution for human wholeness in our world today instead of being part of the problem. At its best, Anabaptism helps us to understanding and embody the way of Jesus.
Let me suggest five ways that Anabaptism might contribute, drawn from my list above of why the 16th century Anabaptists got into trouble. The first and most important contribution of an Anabaptist hermeneutic is to seek to make the message of Jesus and of the Old Testament prophetic expression of Torah central to the life of faith. I believe that this message stands in tension (and at times contradicts) the doctrine-centered approach of mainstream Christianity that reads Jesus Christ through the creeds (and thereby often disembodies his message) rather than vice versa. The message also stands in tension with ways that Christians since the fourth century have developed institutions and created allegiances to state power.
Second, Anabaptist-shaped faith will underwrite a strong suspicion of nations and empires. The dynamics of baptism are no longer points of contention as they were in the 16th century, but the underlying issue back then remains very present today. The vast majority of American Christians have automatically accepted and even amplified the call of the nation-state to go to war with perceived enemies—and to devote untold amounts of financial resources to warism. The unwillingness to baptize infants into the state church for 16th-century Anabaptists is a reminder for us today also to reject over-identification with the nation-state. Just as the Anabaptists practiced a costly form of sedition in rejecting baptism, so those who seek to follow their example should be seditious today insofar as that means refusing to offer allegiance to human empires.
A third element of the Anabaptist framework insists more specifically on refusing the call to participate in or support wars. The biblical and Anabaptist way to articulate this conviction is to make a positive affirmation, not simply a refusal. The call for followers of Jesus is so to love their neighbors that they insist that no demand or loyalty to any institution or ideology or way of setting up boundaries matters as much as the call to love the neighbor. One contemporary word for this commitment is “pacifism,” which can be defined as a love of peace (social wholeness, genuine justice) and a rejection of violence.
A rejection of hierarchical religious and political structures is a fourth element. As a rule, Christianity has reinforced hierarchical dynamics with a sovereign, all-powerful God on top whose will is mediated through human authority structures—leaders in the state and in the church. Usually, this embrace of hierarchy has been expressed as an embrace of patriarchy—again, both in religious institutions and political structures. While the Bible can be (and, of course, has been in practice) read to support hierarchical structures, the Anabaptists broke with the consensus of Christendom in rejecting that kind of reading. They recognized the prophetic critique of and resistance to hierarchies and themselves sought to practice a much more egalitarian approach that empowers all in the community to exercise power.
Finally, the practice of economic sharing and rejection of possessiveness concerning material goods remains an extraordinarily important part of the Anabaptist legacy. In face of today’s devastating ecocide and social stratification, this call to a politics of generosity and simplicity has become the requirement for human survival on our shared planet.
I believe that an Anabaptist hermeneutic will call us to pose engaged discipleship as an alternative to autonomous religion where rituals and doctrines become ends in themselves. The life of faith is meant to be, when centered on the message of the Bible, a life where rituals and doctrines instead serve direct engagement in the ministry of “tikkun”—a devotion to healing relationships on all levels (with the divine, in our society, in our local communities, with the rest of creation).
An Anabaptist hermeneutic will also call us to engage the Bible and the Christian tradition as conversation partners meant to empower us for transformative living, not as simple authorities to bow down to (with the inevitable sense that bowing down to the authority of the Bible or Tradition means granting top-down power to human leaders). Likewise, an Anabaptist hermeneutic will motivate a critical sensibility toward all human institutions (even Mennonite institutions) and a commitment that, to paraphrase Jesus, the institutions are meant to serve humanity, not humanity serve institutions.
For some time, I have sought to embody a pacifist hermeneutic (an affirmation of love of neighbor and a rejection of violence). More recently, I have wanted to add an anarchistic sensibility (affirming our human potential for self-direction and a suspicion of centralized power). I have tried to read the Bible and the tradition with these two lenses. As I think about it now, I wonder if I may want to use the term “Anabaptist” as shorthand for “pacifist and anarchist” when it comes to naming a desired approach.