[The following is an edited version of my response to Stuart Murray’s presentation in Abbotsford in the spring of 2012]

I am not surprised that The Naked Anabaptist has become popular in North America. One of the reasons the book has caught on and you are here is that I think you have told us something we needed to be hearing at this time. In the UK you are further along the journey of post-Christendom but we are well on the way and you are correct in observing that Canadians find themselves stuck in between the UK and US contexts. It is true here also that not all embrace the post-Christendom transition. Many, especially those more influenced by American conservative evangelicalism, bemoan the losses and long for Christianity to be in a place of influence and power. I appreciate your articulation of the shift towards post-Christendom and I see this as a wonderful opportunity for a new articulation of what it means to follow Jesus.

You have done us a favor by helping us to see Christ-centered discipleship and peace theology as our primary witness, rather than an embarrassing option on the peripheral of our faith. I concur that it is indeed disturbing that in some Anabaptist denominations there is a tendency to downplay the peace witness. The world is crying for the Gospel that Mennonites have embraced for centuries. Why keep it quiet?

How Anabaptist of you to say, “Seven core convictions, not a new creed.” My observation is that although we call our statements confessions, we unfortunately often treat them like creeds and then use them like weapons of theological warfare or walls of exclusion. I appreciate your theme and mindset of following and journeying with Jesus that underlies the seven convictions. Along with a 16th century text I utilize the seven convictions in The Naked Anabaptist as a resource for discussing Anabaptist theology in my classes. However, at the risk of offending you or any Anabaptist voyeurs and exhibitionists among us, I would like to proclaim that I believe that there is no such thing as a naked Anabaptist!

It is indeed a noble task to seek to defrock the so-called ethnic Mennonites of their cultural clothes accumulated through generations of life on at least two different continents. It is true that much of our theology is cloaked in the separatist colonies of Russia or more recently in the trendy t-shirts of American evangelicalism. To strip Anabaptism of these clothes has done us a favor, but thankfully, you have not left us embarrassed.

After taking off our cultural clothes you have hurriedly measured us for a new suit in a new culture. You have not left Anabaptism naked as claimed but have re-outfitted Anabaptism in the jacket of post-Christendom. Our faith will always be wrapped in our culture and that is not something to bemoan.

Just as Jesus was dressed in human flesh, so too, Anabaptists sought to incarnate the message of their Lord in humble every-day working clothes. To paraphrase the famous saying of Hans Denck: “If we want to be dressed in divine robes we must wear the denim of every-day life.” I believe that Stuart Murray has dressed us well for a relevant witness in a culture that is moving away from the Christendom of our European past.

But this clothing will probably only last a generation, and it should. The European Mennonite cultural clothes of the past have long since worn out their usefulness. Stuart Murray’s vision is not naked Anabaptism but it is a new outfit for a new time in the western world. We do however have other clothing designers we must also listen to as we seek to be faithful to Jesus in a global culture. We must also listen to listen to our brothers and sisters in the southern half of the world, to their cry for liberation, to their message of Pentecostalism, to the witness of independent ecclesial communities in both Africa and South America, and also to marginalized voices in our own country.

Although 16th century Anabaptism was an attempt to shed off the robes of Christendom built up over a millennium and is by its very nature simply and sparingly attired, I believe there is no such thing as a naked Anabaptist or a naked Christian for that matter. We are always dressed in the raiment of a particular culture and it behooves us to be aware of that. The caution is that we should be careful where we go clothes shopping!

 

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like many others of the teeming thousands who sought refuge on these shores we thought it was an empty land terra nullius free for the taking we were duped by the doctrine of discovery that in 1492 columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered america at least that was what we learned in history class until my grade 7 history teacher who was metis said it was not the massacre at seven oaks it was a battle and my young brain began to realize there was another side to the story and at the time i knew nothing about little boys and girls being taken away from their parents and sent to residential schools to try to make them christians as far as i knew the history of canada started with the vikings coming to new-found-land then the french and the english duked it out while the people who lived here began to die of no buffalo and new diseases we brought it was genocide and not just cultural this is the truth

it is interesting that in 1871 when Riel lost the war in the red river valley a few years later a ship containing my ancestors landed at the forks and the government gladly gave them the land vacated by those who lost the war it was a convenient buffer and we were grateful but Riel was pushed towards the hinterlands of the north saskatchewan to dream of a land where all kinds of different people would live together in harmony but the government would have none of his crazy dreams so we killed him and when he was again defeated by government forces in 1885 guess who got the free land after that more mennonites! the same ones who another generation later in columbia drained lake sumas because it was only a mosquito infested swamp without realizing that it was the source of salmon livelihood for the nations who were fishing it and living there we may not have done the policies but we were the beneficiaries this is the truth

finally there’s been a truth and reconciliation commission after thousands have died in residential schools too many suicides and dirty water on remote reserves and hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women on the highways and in the cities i hope my sister is never one of them after the 60’s scooped her into our family she’s bearing the load of generations what should we do feel guilty for coming here when we have been welcomed so hospitably and we brought booze guns and dandelions to return the favour should we all go back to europe no but the first thing we can do is acknowledge the truth we can’t even move on to the reconciliation part until we do the truth is I am a settler a squatter on somebody else’s land westerners always feel we gotta do something but maybe we can just sit with the truth for a while as uncomfortable as that is

Harold S. Bender’s now famous “Anabaptist Vision” address at the American Academy of religion in 1943 was the first modern attempt to synthesize and summarize the theological ideals of 16th century Anabaptism. Although many have criticized it as merely a product of its time, I believe it has stood the test of time as numerous others have come to similar conclusions when attempting their own independent summary of the theological themes of 16th century Anabaptism [e.g. Weaver, 170-179 as well as Palmer Becker’s book, Anabaptist Essentials] Bender summarized Anabaptist theology with three themes.

  1. DISCIPLESHIP: The way of Jesus

The great word for the Anabaptists was not “faith” but “following” (Nachfolge Christi). All of the Anabaptists committed themselves to the normativeness of Jesus for their lives in some form. Menno’s motto verse was 1 Corinthians 3:11: “Jesus is the only foundation for our lives.” Hans Denck is often quoted in this regard, “No one can know Christ except they follow him in life.”

Baptism became a counter-cultural witness, a statement of allegiance to the kingdom of Christ rather than the kingdoms of the world. In this sense, believers baptism is really not the best designation of what the 16th century Anabaptists died for. In fact, Arnold Snyder calls it “far too anemic a phrase” to describe the Anabaptist view of baptism. Baptism was not so much about belief or mental ascent to a doctrine or creed, but rather it was the sign of a transformed life by a new birth of the Spirit and the commitment to following Jesus in all of life.

  1. COMMUNITY: The way of Love

Baptism incorporates people into the body of Christ, the church. This brings us to the second theological theme of 16th century Anabaptism that most specifically and directly addresses the problem of individualism in our western society—the voluntary commitment to community or Gellasenheit. This meant not only yieldedness to Christ but also to the community of believers. The person gives themselves freely to love and be loved, to admonish, and be admonished-even disciplined.

This communal ideal was often messy in practice. The establishment of the community of goods in Moravia was not without its controversies and conflicts. The practice of the ban in order to build a pure and accountable community of faith was sometimes overly harsh rather than restorative. Yet the way of love and community has persisted.

  1. PACIFISM: The way of Peace

The third theological theme completes the previous two. Although not all of the first generation of Anabaptists were pacifist, it is a logical outgrowth of the previous commitment to the way of Christ.

It was perhaps the most violent incident involving 16th century Anabaptists that motivated and solidified an Anabaptist peace theology [see previous post]. After Munster, pacifism became one of the central distinguishing marks of Mennonites, albeit not consistently practiced by all groups in all circumstances. Even though the violent and polygamous Munster Anabaptists had most things very wrong, they did agree with the peaceable Anabaptists on one thing: They believed that the kingdom of God was to be enacted in historical time in historical place.

“The Anabaptist vision was not a detailed blueprint for the reconstruction of human society, but the Brethren did believe that Jesus intended that the kingdom of God should be set up in the midst of the earth, here and now, and this they proposed to do forthwith.” [Bender, 54] But this kingdom does not come about by coercion, which would be contradictory, but comes about as people of faith yield themselves to the way of Christ and to each other in community.

 

 

 

The Munster debacle was a tragic and terrible event that illustrated the extremes of the Anabaptist movement. Although the Munsterites may have been on the fringes of Anabaptism—a radicalization of a radical movement—the events at Munster became very influential in shaping the theology and practice of Dutch Anabaptists for generations to come. Munster was a defining moment even if it was something to react against. My theory is that the terrible violence at Munster was instrumental in forming the strong pacifist theology of Menno Simons and subsequent generations of Mennonites.

Consider Menno’s own words: “After this happened [the bloodshed at Munster] the blood of these poor misguided sheep fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it. I saw that these zealous people voluntarily gave their lives and possessions for their [false] faith and beliefs… while I myself continued in my comfortable life simply in order that I might enjoy physical comfort and remain outside the cross of Christ.”

After much agonized soul-searching Menno left the safety of the priesthood and joined the fledgling Anabaptist movement. He wrote about his developing convictions: “Christ is our fortress; patience our weapon of defense; the Word of God our sword; and victory a courageous, firm unfeigned faith in Jesus Christ. And iron and metal spears and swords we leave to those who, alas, regard human blood and swine’s blood about alike.”

And what of the violent debacles in our world today? The situations are more complex in a global society but some of the roots are the same. Do these situations break our hearts the way the Munster debacle broke Menno’s heart? How do we respond to violence today?

 

The German/Austrian/Moravian stream of Anabaptism had both a diverse geography and a diverse theology. It should also be noted that, other than the Hutterites, there remains no lasting tangible, institutional legacy of South German Anabaptism. Yet, interest in this stream of Anabaptism has had a bit of a revival in postmodern times. Why might this be so?

The following are edited quotes from past student responses to the above question. Which column do you identify with or agree with? Why?

 

“Today in the postmodern culture there has been a move away from legalism and just depending on the Scriptures to listening to God and seeing the Holy Spirit at work.” “Postmodernism focuses on truth and validity of experience rather than on God’s written word.”
“The young church is trying to escape the legalistic head knowledge of our parents in favor of a more personal, real, spiritual experience where we can feel God’s intimate presence tangibly and immediately.” “Today we are wanting a fast-food, feel-good type of encounter with God. Divine immanence theology offers a direct experience with God without looking to Scripture.”
“This postmodern generation is looking for an experiential faith that is life-giving over objective truths that become tools of control over people.” “Spiritualists and New Agers use this [mystical theology] as justification for their lives and lifestyles and as an excuse to engage in sinful activity.”
“God desires to do something new among the people of the world.   I think it could all be a result of what God is doing in the world.” “People don’t want rules; they would rather be subjective. It provides everyone the opportunity to generate their own religion.”
“We should be more open and accepting when the Spirit is working and less critical of things like miracles, dreams and different ways the Spirit moves.” “Postmodernity searches for diversity and acceptance like a teenager who never grows up. A divergence from Sola Scriptura is too self-seeking.”
“People today are more interested in and aware of God being much bigger than the boxes we put him in. There is something refreshing about mysticism and an emphasis on the Holy Spirit.” “Emphasis on the Spirit leads to disunity, because how can you test the “spirit” except by Scripture. Scripture we can trust. Too much emphasis on the spirit is the New Age creeping into Christianity.
“There seems to be two movements happening today. Lots of people seem to be going very orthodox and even legalistic because they want something firm to believe in. Others are the opposite and are bored and tired of merely reading and thinking and want to feel and experience God’s spirit within.”
“Maybe we are in the midst of a spiritual awakening to some degree. We need both Scripture and Spirit. The Spirit helps us understand the Bible and experience God and Scripture helps us know we are listening to the Spirit and not other voices.”

 

I have seen “The Radicals” more than twenty times and I am still gripped by the personal story of the Sattlers amidst the story of the Anabaptist movement amidst the macro-story of the sixteenth century upheaval in central Europe. What is your response to the movie?

Here are a few quotes from the movie that are memorable for me:
“Anyone who reads can become a theologian!” “Scripture without interpretation incites rebellion!” The Abbot responding to the idea that Scripture is being put into the hands of the common people.

“A true church cannot be built on violence.” “When we accept the power of the sword, we also invite its corruption.” Michael Sattler in conversation with Wilhelm Reublin about the nonviolent nature of the church.

There is an interesting exchange between Margaretha and the Countess that relates to my previous post in regards to women in the Anabaptist movement. The Countess says that she feels sorry for Margaretha, having to suffer in prison because of her husband’s beliefs, and offers her freedom and employment in her home if she will recant her beliefs. “I know what it’s like to have one’s thoughts dictated by my husband.”
To which Margaretha replies, “I do not follow my beliefs because of my husband. I follow my husband [to martyrdom] because of my beliefs.”
“Then I do not feel sorry for you, I feel envy.” The Countess sadly replies.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is the courtroom drama between Sattler and the clerk of the court, Eberhart Hoffman. This dialogue is taken almost directly from the Martyr’s Mirror which adds some historical authenticity and poignancy.

Sattler: We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors… If warring was right I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians, who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians, than against the Turks… The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith; and is a Turk after the flesh; but you, who would be Christians, and who make your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, are Turks of the spirit.
Hoffman: O you infamous, desperate villain and monk, shall we dispute with you? The hangman shall dispute with you, I assure you.
Sattler: God’s will be done.
Hoffman: It were well if you had never been born.
Sattler: God knows what is good.
Hoffman: You arch-heretic, you have seduced the pious; if they would only now forsake their error, and accept grace.
Sattler: Grace is with God alone.
Hoffman: You desperate villain and arch-heretic, I tell you if there were no hangman here, I would hang you myself, and think that I had done God service.
Sattler: God will judge aright.

Women in Ministry

There is disagreement among scholars as to the role of women among sixteenth century Anabaptists. It was the medieval era after all and women were not accepted as persons or leaders in the larger society or church at the time. Yet, the strong belief in believer’s baptism, freedom of conscience, calling of the Spirit, and communal living birthed an inclusivity that was radical for its time.

“The concept of the priesthood of believers among the Anabaptists elevated women to a role of partnership in the congregation of believers. In the state churches, Catholic and Protestant, the attitude toward women was as yet quite medieval and remained so for many years. However, in Anabaptist circles women were referred to as sisters, and were held in the highest respect.” [Myron Augsburger]

“The calling of the Spirit which provided the foundation for the Anabaptist movement was radically egalitarian and personal, even though it led individuals into a commitment to a community.” [Linda H. Hecht]

Anabaptists believed that women received the same call to salvation, baptism and discipleship that men did. Therefore, some Anabaptist women also had leadership roles in the church and many were imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith.

The nature of Anabaptist communities involved economic sharing and recognized the prophetic gifts of all people, not just ordained leaders. All people, including women, were involved in Bible study and spiritual discernment. In fact because the women lived and associated so freely with the men in the work of the church, the Anabaptists were often slanderously accused by their opponents for having their women in common!

With this background we should ask ourselves today: How are we practicing freedom and inclusion in our churches today?