The Need for an Anabaptist Political Theology

After reading this piece in Christianity today, a few things stuck out to me.

One is that I have a serious and deep suspicion that many fellow disciples are lacking a coherent set of principles guiding their decisions about how to engage with society. That is, if I were a betting man, I would place an inordinate sum of money on the wager that I could predict a Christian’s political views without knowing anything about their particular beliefs about Scripture. Why? Because we do a sloppy job of thinking through this issue in general, and because, as the article above shows, only 1% of theologically conservative Protestant Pastors have preached at least one sermon on a public policy issue in 2016. I don’t know if I would fall into that class if I were a pastor, but I certainly know plenty of pastors who would. How is that statistic possible when, at this particular juncture, almost all American Christians are going to be getting hammered with political opinion on issues that are not simply about “elections”, but about the intimate details of their daily lives from their workplace, schools, family, and culture at large? The answer, I think, is the lack of a political theology.

Kenneth Collins in his book “Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism” expresses this lack of a deeply integrated worldview for Christians in the present when compared with Christians in prior eras:

…traditional societies, medieval Christendom in Europe for example, were held together by the common ties of a carefully articulated political theology, with its robust belief in God, as well as by a philosophy of history that went back at least to the time of Augustine in his City of God….

Now, I strongly side with the Anabaptists of the 16th century, so I would unquestionably reject the medieval synthesis (as well as Collins’ own positions on this matter, though his book and analysis are excellent in many respects!), but what is to replace this? Catholicism has maintained its’ theological heritage on a synthesis of church, sword, and state (and has, to my knowledge, never taken an outrightly pacifist ethic) that, in my opinion, makes it untenable for the needs of the 21st century. Its’ ecclesiology is also still a far cry from the reforms called for from the dawn of Protestantism. Still, at least they have an idea of what they’re going for! What options do Protestant Christians, let’s say particularly in America today, have before them?

One option I see frequently expressed and say strongly “Not enough!”, is that Christians in a democratic state are free to engage with the political process, but they should not think that any particular way of ordering the society is better than any other. I might think we should help the poor by a just redistribution of taxes and government programs to alleviate fallen conditions of our society, and you think that our current structures of governance make it impossible to address the root causes of poverty and think that a laissez-faire market (one that is truly free, not the modern capitalist accommodation) would more quickly alleviate such issues. But, neither option is more “Christian”, because Christ never gave us a way of making these decisions. Yet, are we really supposed to think that Scripture-at-large has nothing to say about this question?

If there is no answer to this question, what makes it “unanswerable”? Take for example the more general question: “How can we best serve the poor?” Does scripture give us no ability to answer that? The two opinions I expressed above are possible answers to that question for any Christian. So, if scripture gives us any light on this, then it offers answers to questions which all the world would give”political” answers to, and so it is that scripture inevitably inserts itself into the social dimensions of earthly life, the “political” dimensions.

All of this is to say that the glib pronouncement of an “agreement to disagree” between Christians of all political persuasions will not move the Church further into its’ God-given kingdom mission. It will not stop laymen and laywomen from engaging, or not engaging, and it will not help them live more faithfully. What is needed is a deeper, consistent, radical call to a political theology informed by the New Testament. I have found this nowhere better expressed than by the Radical Reformers, and it is why I consider the writings of many 16th century Anabaptists to be a treasure trove for our modern predicament. In the next few months I hope to write more specifically on issues that are pressing in my particular, American, context, but thought that this general beginning is necessary to understand what kind of questions I’m thinking about.

…as Christ our Head is minded, so also must be minded the members of the body of Christ through Him, so that there be no division in the body, through which it would be destroyed. Since then Christ is as is written of Him, so must His members also be the same, so that His body may remain whole and unified for its own advancement and upbuilding. For any kingdom which is divided within itself will be destroyed.
Schleitheim Confession, 1527

My Veteran’s Day Prayer

Father,

You know my heart, you discern if there is any wicked way in me, and I ask that you would use this prayer in the growth of your kingdom, in the war which you have won against death, against the devil, war, and against every stronghold that lifts itself up against the knowledge of your Son.

Forgive me for not seeking out veteran’s to serve, lead me to more of them. Forgive me for judgmental attitudes towards them, I ask you would give me a heart of flesh to minister to them, and for those that have suffered, to share in their suffering.  Give me eyes to see and ears to hear how I can do this. Holy Spirit, I pray you would be working in me to be Christ’s hands and feet.

Forgive me for my greed, for my love of comfort, for my gluttony, for my laziness, for my lust, for my foolishness, for my pride, even for my fear of death, which now has no power over me. Forgive me for the sins which support the systems of this world, which support this worldly “way of life” and enable rulers to leverage it for purposes of war. Forgive me for my hypocrisy, for speaking out against war in my words but participating in the glorification of it with my actions.

Forgive me for my cowardice, and for not speaking out more frequently against the lie that the violence of war can be good and honorable. I ask you would grant me humility and willingness as I stand on this conviction, and wisdom to speak as your disciple. I pray you would use my life more than my words. I pray my actions would be weapons for peace, for the expansion of your Kingdom.

I ask you would especially minister to those veteran’s whose pain is unseen, who suffer mentally from committing deeds which our culture says are honorable and praiseworthy, but their consciences refuse to rest with. I pray you would wash over them with your forgiveness and hope, with the knowledge that all have sinned, we have all committed treason against you, but that you see the darkest parts of all our hearts, and say to us in that place “I love you.” Compell your church to meet the needs of the millions of veteran’s who are not fed, who are hungry, and dejected. I pray you would move us to action and not to wait for a government to provide for the least of these.

I also pray for those veteran’s who do not suffer from physical or mental illness, that have moved on and are living among us in healthy, whole lives. I pray they would serve your kingdom first, and see their allegiance as being to you, your global kingdom, not to their country or to their earthly co-citizens. Grant them the willingness to follow you faithfully. I pray for those veteran’s who are currently in the service, that you would redeem their actions, use them for good despite the ends to which our governments employ them. I ask you would bring peace to those places where our government is asking some to shed blood, give veteran’s in those positions a willingness to refrain from such actions, even if it’s costly.

I pray your kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

The Weak, Seek

Over the past few weeks I’ve shared the story of my conversion with several people, and it reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now. My conversion came at the lowest point of my life, and as such it exemplifies certain negative stereotypes which people have of religion in general, whether it’s faith in Jesus or something else. The one I want to address here is the idea that religious belief in general is a “crutch” for those of us who are just too weak to face the struggles of life alone.

The prejudice runs something like this: Few people are able to stare the meaninglessness of life in the face and create their own destiny, become gods, but those who do are truly strong. A more spiritual version of this is the idea that one can simply find “within oneself” the resources to sustain one’s life, and that there’s a sort of divine power which we need to access, and we will not be seeking resources to live from outside of ourselves. For those who turn to reliance on a power outside themselves or others, well, they’re just a little weak. The conclusion to be drawn is that, if that last sentence is true, then it somehow should count as negative evidence against these beliefs.

Now, I can only address this from the perspective of a disciple of Christ, but the general response is the same: the conditions under which people come to see something as true has little bearing on whether it is true, or not. For example, it may be only while I am watching a graphic film about factory farming that I conclude the industry’s practices are immoral, but just because I was queasy when I came to the conclusion doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This must be assessed on other grounds. Similarly, individuals coming to faith in times of duress is a circumstantial piece of information that does not determing whether their belief is true.

For Christians however, these observations are meant to confirm our faith. They are not meant as evidence for those who do not believe, but their existence is given robust explanation in scripture. There are two ways that I have been thinking of this.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)

The first is that Jesus Christ’s most famous sermon states in no uncertain terms that God specifically blesses those who the rest of the world would consider “unfortunate” or “weak”, in the exact kind of ways which many “weak” believers would hope. Consider the beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spiritfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousnessfor they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the mercifulfor they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heartfor they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakersfor they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousnessfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of meRejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heavenfor they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6:24-26, we see another sermon (or perhaps the rest of this one) combined to contrast Jesus’ attitude towards those whose assurance that they are living well rests on their level of comfort:

But woe to you who are richfor you have received your comfort alreadyWoe to you who are well satisfied with food nowfor you will be hungryWoe to you who laugh nowfor you will mourn and weepWoe to you when all people speak well of youfor their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

In other words, all of the observations used against faith birthed out of suffering, were acknowledged by a Jewish Rabbi over 2,000 years ago, and his followers have always known this is how the world seems to work.

The second way in which this counts as further confirmation for the Christian faith is that the entire New Testament unambiguously declares that the world is under the influence of the spiritual enemies of God, and that their rule (called the “kingdom of darkness”, or “kingdom of the world”) is one of deception. Specifically, a theme for Jesus is the deception of riches. It seems as though the fact that the world’s well-of seem to feel less in-need of God is an intentional ploy by the enemies of God. Here are just a few more passages to confirm this:

1 John 5:19 “We know that we are from Godand the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

Matthew 13:22 “The seed sown among thorns is the person who hears the wordbut worldly cares and the seductiveness of wealth choke the wordso it produces nothing.”

Luke 12:19-21 (Here Jesus is finishing a parable) “And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many yearsrelaxeatdrinkcelebrate!”’ But God said to him‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from youbut who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ So it is with the one who stores up riches for himselfbut is not rich toward God.”

1 Timothy 6:7-10 “For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out eitherBut if we have food and shelterwe will be satisfied with that. Those who long to be richhowever, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of every type of evilsSome people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.”

So, my final word is to those who may find themselves in weakness, in suffering, in poverty, and like Job are asking “Why do the wicked go on living, grow old, even increase in power?”

The reality of suffering and injustice were forever placed into the experience of God’s own life, and He knows what it is like.  “For we do not have high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses“, the author of Hebrews says. Jesus’ death puts on display the reality that the world is simply not just. The beautiful hope which we recently celebrated on Easter is that God is making all things new. In light of the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, we have assurance that he is able to resurrect us. This world’s order is passing away, and this short life will not be our last. When we awake, it will be to a reign of peace and love “for the former things have ceased to exist.” Today, I encourage you to take his words to heart:

“In the world you have trouble and sufferingbut take courage – I have conquered the world.”

Carrying a Cross

Not able to make time and finish the last three posts with a conclusion, I read a quote on a different topic that I thought was worth sharing.

Followers of Jesus often talk about “carrying our cross”, and, the quote below argues, we often confuse what Jesus meant by that.We can mistakenly call every difficulty we go through as “our cross”, anything from our car not working to being annoyed with a co-worker is given a highly doubtful significance. In doing this we belittle the real sacrifice that Jesus calls his disciples to make, and are unable to make that sacrifice ourselves because of our lesser substitutes.

That’s not to say that God is not walking with us through the everyday ups and downs of life, but there is a distinction between this and “taking up our cross“.  We can see this in Jesus’ life. He faced a multitude of difficulties in his life, but they were not all “carrying his cross”. Jesus carried his cross as the result of the kind of life He lived, and called his disciples to that same kind of life, which would result in the same kind of treatment. The quote below is from “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder:

The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross must be, like his Lord’s, the price of his social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is not, like Luther’s or Thomas Muntzer’s or Zinzerdorf’s or Kierkegaard’s cross or ‘Afechtung’, and inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come. The word “The servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me they will persecute you” is not a pastoral counsel to help with the ambiguities of life; it is a normative statement about the relation of our social obedience to the messianity of Jesus.

Representing as he did the divine order now at hand, accessible; renouncing as he did the legitimate use of violence and the accrediting of the existing authorities; renouncing as well the ritual purity of noninvolvement, his people will encounter in ways analogous to his own the hostility of the old order.”

Large Life, Small Memorial

“They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Rev. 12:11
Large Life, Small Memorial photo from: http://sites-of-memory.de/main/sattler.html

photo from: http://sites-of-memory.de/main/sattler.html

Michael Sattler was born in Germany in 1490. He lived his adult life during one of the most revolutionary times in human history, the Protestant Reformation. Unlike many of the more well-known figures during that time however, Michael’s legacy is unknown to most, and the small memorial above shows it.

Sattler had become a Benedictine monk at the St. Peter’s monastery in Frieburg. He had risen to second in authority, and was in charge of collecting taxes from the peasants who lived on the land owned by the monastery.  The massive wealth & exploitation of the common people by the church was a primary cause of the revolts brewing across Europe. Between 1523 & 1525, much changed.

Like many monks, Sattler had joined the monastery to seek a serious, devoted life to God, but discovered what was common in those days (and perhaps still): those who gave the common people the most polished veneer of “holiness”, were  often the furthest away from it & filthiest in reality. From his own study of the New Testament he concluded that if he truly wanted to follow Jesus, he had to leave.

Leave he did, and he married a nun.

Her name was Margarita and she was from the “Beguine” sisters, a Catholic order that was particularly concerned with the poor. They both broke with the tradition that had until then structured their entire lives.

A few years later, in 1525, Sattler found himself  in prison in Zurich Switzerland, for meeting and discussing the Bible with  Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and Georg Blaurock, all who had landed in prison with him. These men had just broken off from the Roman church in a movement later labeled as “Anabaptism”. Since this label was given to them by their persecutors though, it misses what seemed to be their own core reasons for breaking off from the Roman church.

While both the Roman church and the most respected Protestant Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin) believed that the state had a God-given-duty to enforce religious practice (with the use of force if necessary), these men believed the state had no authority to enforce or prohibit decisions made within the church. The argument behind-this-reason was that they believed Christian scripture made it clear that God’s kingdom was an alternative to, and ultimately not subordinate to, the governments of the world. On top of that, they saw that many of Jesus’ commands to those in his kingdom are in direct contradiction to how all wordly kingdoms and governments enforce their rule: by the threat of violence.

They paid for their beliefs dearly. In a little over a year, Zurich, like many towns both Protestant and Catholic, would institute the death penalty by drowning (in practice, being burned alive was the preferred method for men, and drowning for women) for anyone associated with Anabaptism.

On  February 24 1527, Sattler wrote “The Schletheim Confession”, a discussion of seven topics that key Anabaptist leaders had agreed were central to their understanding of the Bible. It spread so rapidly & widely that both Ulrich Zwingli & John Calvin wrote refutations of it to curb conversions in their regions of oversight. The movement which this document lit was one of the first in modern Europe to assert any kind of separation of church and state.

In March of 1527, Sattler was arrested again by Roman Catholic authorities along with fourteen other Anabaptists on their way back from establishing alternative Christian communities in other towns near and around Germany.

They were tried & sentenced to death on 9 charges,the last two which were specifically for Michael: the crime of abandoning the monastic order and marrying, and being an “arch-traitor” to the empire for writing that he would not fight against the turks if they were to invade Germany. The reason for Sattler’s writing this of course, was based on the conviction that followers of Jesus were to obey his calls to non-resistance no matter the cost. As the Schleitheim Confession had put it: “The child of God is to follow absolutely the law of love as taught by the New Testament, and leave the worldly sword to the officers of the state as ordained by God.”

For Michael, the sword of the state was used against him, and like many who have followed Jesus’ footsteps, the cost for refusing to take one up for himself was his life. Below is an excerpt on his execution:

First Sattler was taken to the market place and a piece cut from his tongue, but not enough to prevent speech. Then pieces were torn from his body twice with glowing tongs. Then he was forged to a cart, and between the city gate and the place of execution the tongs were applied five times again… The sentence ordered two and five applications… The place of execution is a quarter hour’s walk from the town… On the market place and the site of the execution he prayed for his persecutors and Klaus von Graveneck [a guard of the court that sentenced Michael]. When he was bound to the ladder with ropes to be pushed into the fire, he admonished the people to be converted, to repent and fear God, and to intercede for his judges. Then he turned to the judges. He especially remembered [reminded] the mayor and the admonition given him in private. The mayor replied defiantly and angrily that Sattler should concern himself now only with God. Then Sattler prayed, “Almighty, eternal God, Thou art the way and the truth; because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with Thy help on this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood.”

…a sack of powder had been tied around Sattler’s neck to hasten his death. He was now thrown into the fire on the ladder; then his voice could be heard bright and clear with prayer and praise. Soon the ropes on his hands were burned through. He could now raise the two forefingers of his hands, thereby giving the promised signal to his group, and prayed, “Father, I commend my spirit into Thy hands.”

Some Sources:
http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sattler,_Michael_(d._1527)#1989_Update
http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Schleitheim_confession