An Example of Nonviolence: Anabaptism (Part 1 of 2)
“The commandment ‘You shall not kill,’ has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.” – Pope Francis, February 21, 2016
I have debated going over in detail about the successes of Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent movements for this chapter, but then I realized…you all know about those movements. Sometimes when we hear something over and over again, it loses its significance, and the effort for me in preparing such a chapter may not prove to be worth it to my readers. Instead, I will go over a little of my own heritage’s history on this matter for the purpose of telling a few stories that are rarely told: The story of the anabaptists being killed for their beliefs, and refusing to fight back, the story of religious men in the days of war who refused to serve as a soldier out of their convictions, and the theme in how all of these things can be inspirational.
The Rise of Anabaptism
The Protestant Reformation is well known to many, and brought out several early branches of Protestantism including the followers of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others. However, some individuals felt that more stones were left to turn over in seeking to reform/reform the Church; particularly on the issues of baptism, the separation of the church from the governing authorities, the question of military service, and other areas.
The Early Beginnings – 1525
Ulrich Zwingli was an early supporter of this movement, but parted ways with them because he desired a slower and less radical movement. Keep in mind that the State and Church were united at this time, and baptism was not merely a religious ceremony as Christianity Today explains here:
“The immediate issue creating the Anabaptist movement was not just baptism, however, but also civil government. (The two were related. To be baptized was a civil issue, and to refuse it tore a “seamless Christian society.)”
The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism because they believed that only believing adults, or believing children old enough to reason, should be baptized, and because of this rejection of infant baptism, they re-baptized those who were baptized as infants, which would have been seen as both heretical to the Church, and rebellious to the State. This, combined with their views of not having any governments influence the Church, and other views, caused Zwingli to part ways with their movement. On January 21, 1525, Zwingli, along with the city council of Zurich, Switzerland, forbade these Anabaptist radicals from seeking to spread their beliefs. That evening, the Anabaptist radicals met in a neighboring village, and baptized one another.
From those cold clandestine adult baptisms arose a movement in which men and women joined out of a few united convictions.
The Schleitheim Confession – 1527
On February 24, 1527, the Schleitheim Confession was penned. The confession served as the first significant united statement of Anabaptist principles and beliefs which were all held by the Swiss Anabaptists. It is truly an interesting short document to read, and I encourage you to read it all, or at least the parts that interest you at your leisure, but for the purpose of this chapter, I will simply provide the points which were addressed, and a brief explanation of them. (A full translation of this confession can be found on anabaptists.org)
A defense of what is now known as Believer’s Baptism, and a denouncing of Infant Baptism.
-The Ban (Excommunication)
Believers caught in sin should be addressed in private up to two times, and then the third time (if needed) , they should be openly disciplined, or banned/excommunicated, in the presence of others. (This is where the modern Amish practice of shunning came from).
-Breaking of Bread
All believers of Christ are to take communion, and those who do not believe cannot do so. The confession even takes it further and states that if a person is involved in worldly things, they should not take communion. To the anabaptists, this would have included those baptized Catholics and Protestants who they saw as being worldly (See the next point), it would have included those in military service, and it would have likely included every government official.
-Separation from the Abomination
This was a broad point in which they desired to separate themselves from all evil, or from offices/organizations that commit evil. This included separation from all Catholic and Protestant services, separation from their government, and the separation of the Christian from weapons of force.
-Pastors in the Church
A description of the responsibilities of the Pastor
A recognition that the sword can be wielded to punish the wrong, and protect the good, and is allowed by God to do so in the State’s hands. Contrastly, a Christian ought to never use the sword/violence against anyone, and this point also addresses that these anabaptists were against serving in the government.
They were against taking an oath, or swearing by something/someone as a way to prove the reliability of their word. Rather, they stuck to the teachings of Christ in Matthew 5:33-37 by teaching “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no”.
These seven points were the foundation of early anabaptism, and although we may gloss over these points as nothing new or noteworthy, we have to remember that in the time when these were written:
-Infant baptism was practiced in both Catholic and Protestant churches and to actively go against it is heresy
-Their stance on who could and could not take communion put them at odds with all other Christian groups at the time.
-Their stance against Christians in the government and military, as well as against Christians using violence would have been seen as controversial at best, if not heretical.
The Anabaptists were radical pious people, who were inspired by Martin Luther and the earlier reformers to read the bible for themselves, as well as to go against what they saw as false doctrine. Not only were the Anabaptists at odds with the Catholics, but they were against these new Protestant movements that rose up before them. The Schleitheim confession gave this budding movement a voice and a set of united principles and beliefs, though not everyone agreed fully with each point, and not everyone would have even known that this confession existed.
Obviously, we will focus in on the Anabaptist commitments to nonviolence, as well as their general attitude on the Church’s relationship to the State in covering their history – however, understanding what came out of that movement begins with understanding how it started, and what it went through.
Because of the Anabaptist’s radical views, they were violently persecuted by both Catholics and the Protestants, and because of their refusal to take up arms and fight back, their options were to flee or to die. John Horsch in “Mennonites in Europe” writes the following on the severity of the persecution of the Anabaptists:
“Anabaptism was made a capital crime. Prices were set on the heads of Anabaptists. To give them food and shelter was a made a crime. In Roman Catholic states even those who recanted were often executed. Generally, however, those who abjured their faith were pardon except in Bavaria and, for a time, in Austria and also in the Netherlands. The duke of Bavaria, in 1527, gave orders that the imprisoned Anabaptists should be burned at the stake, unless they recanted, in which case they should be beheaded. King Ferdinand I of Austria issued a number of severe decrees against them, the first general mandate being dated August 28, 1527. In Catholic countries the Anabaptists, as a rule, were executed by burning at the stake, in Lutheran and Zwinglian states generally by beheading or drowning.” – as seen on anabaptists.org
Although burning at the stake and being beheaded is severe persecution, the most alarming thing to me was those who put anabaptists to death by drowning because they usually made a cruel joke of the event by making fun of the anabaptist conviction of believer’s baptism, in which they re-baptized those who were baptized infants. Mark Woods, of Christianity Today, writes of these cruel ways of execution:
“The Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand, was particularly vigorous; he unleashed a wave of burnings and drownings (drowning was the “third baptism” and “the best antidote to Anabaptism”, he thought)”
Not only was this a cruel joke in which leaders, yes political and Religious leaders, carried out while claiming to follow God, this also should have been completely sacrilegious to any Christian in their right mind because it made a mockery out of the sacrament of Baptism.
The Münster Rebellion – 1534-1535
*Disclosure: The Anabaptists of today would have a hard time labeling the Münster Rebellion anabaptists as Anabaptists at all, but they all still held to a few common beliefs, and were seen by other people of the day as belonging to the same sect. Since what we know of anabaptism today is a church tradition that traditionally advocates for nonviolence and peace, it would be unjust to align them with this perversion, especially considering the Schleitheim Confession that preceded the event, and the nonviolent teachings of Menno Simons which came shortly after. Nevertheless, this point in history left a black mark on the anabaptists outside of the city.*
Imagine going through about 10 years of widespread persecution coming from the tops of governments, as well as from the various other Christian churches who all claim to follow the same God as yourself. Imagine losing family and friends because they refused to renounce the faith that they held, and they refused to fight back. Add to that the German Peasant’s War(1524-1525) which just recently took place in which peasants revolted under the inspiration of the radical independent thinking propitiated by the Reformation, and a myriad of other reasons, and we can begin to understand the radical, though misguided, rise of the Münster Rebellion. I write about this in the spirit of the goal of this book, which is to present an argument for Nonviolence, while acknowledging alleged philosophical or biblical roadblocks. The Münster Rebellion is the only major instance in which anabaptists (though they were outliers) were seen as violent. It causes the anabaptists of today, who know of its existence, to hang their heads in disgust. I did not even know too much about it until I recently finished listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast on the subject – Episode 48 – “Prophets of Doom”. It is from this podcast that most of my knowledge of the subject comes from, along with a few other articles that I will place in the Work’s Referenced section of this chapter.
The Münster Rebellion is such an odd and confusing story, and truthfully, the information on it is a little hard to find. But in order to present this story to you in a clear way that gets the point across, I will summarize the account with broad strokes. The Rebellion began when Anabaptist teachings of Believers Baptism, and the sharing of wealth among believers, overtook a good portion of people in the city of Münster(located in the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia), and the city hall was seized by these anabaptists who installed one of their leaders, Bernhard Knipperdolling, as mayor. Bernhard Knipperdolling also printed the works of Bernhard Rothmann which called anabaptists in the surrounding areas to come to this new Anabaptist Haven in Münster.
A man named Jan Matthys rose up in recognition for claiming to be a prophet of God, and proclaiming the “End is Near”; calling the town of Münster was the “New Jerusalem”. Matthys desired the town of Münster to be an anabaptist theocracy (sounds oxymoronic) because he truly felt that that is what God was telling him to do. Soon the remaining Catholics were told to leave, and the Lutherans were given the option to either convert, or leave the city.
After Matthys died by riding out against local armies with just a few men, an even more extreme prophet-figure rose to power. This man, Jan Van Leiden, eventually became “King”, established mandatory polygamy (wives who objected to their husbands taking more wives were put to death), and lived richly along with those in his court, while the citizens of Münster literally starved to death. In June of 1535, the city was overtaken by outside forces, and the Rebellion was no more.
In short, the Münster Rebellion started as an Anabaptist Haven, and ended as a brutal and bloody tyrannical theocracy. This event would unfortunately paint the other, less revolutionary-minded, anabaptist believers black as they would be seen as crazy, as rebellious, and as a threat. As Mark Woods writes “They [anabaptists] suffered a crushing blow to their reputation with the terrible events of the Munster Rebellion of 1534-35”.
I wanted to touch on this black mark in anabaptist history to explain the only time in which some outliers who claimed to be a part of my own specific faith tradition fell guilty, in a major way, to the temptations of power through government, and killing in the name of God. The Catholics, the Lutherans, the Reformed, these outlier anabaptists, and many other Christian groups have all been guilty of bloodshed, whether through an official position of their faith, or through the works of a radical offshoot. I believe the key is what these various movements learned from these violent histories, and how they view these histories in hindsight. Where I am going next tells of how many anabaptists rejected the horrid situation in Münster, and went on to form some of the most consistent “peace” churches today.
Peace in the Name of Christ
I was raised in a Mennonite Church, which is a remaining Anabaptist tradition, along with Brethern in Christ, Church of the Brethern, and others. Growing up, there was a strong emphasis on the Bible, prayer, service, and all of which was based on a Christocentric view of scripture and theology, which essentially means that Christ is the Climax of the biblical narrative and his teachings and example should be seen as such – in other words, we believe that Christ is the center of our theology and mission.
Menno Simons is credited as being a unifier of the Dutch anabaptists, and as such, his followers were known as mennonites. However, it is important to note that modern day mennonites do not view Menno Simons in the same way that Lutherans view Martin Luther – we don’t hold Menno’s teachings very high, but rather, we generally simply agree to some main tenants of his branch of anabaptism, and most mennonites would agree with several points in the Schleitheim confession if they were to read it – we are not generally a creedal or confessional church. Regardless, the following quote of Menno Simons is quite relevant to our discussion in defining what Anabaptism means, apart from the perversion that was the rebelliousness in Münster:
“For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.” – Menno Simons in Why I Do Not Cease Writing and Teaching, 1539.
The Anabaptist/Mennonite faith is about striving to live like Jesus in piously worshiping God and serving/loving others – including our enemies. These commitments are what make anabaptism so attractive to me because it pairs taking the scriptures and God’s Will seriously, with striving to live out the love of Christ. There are some churches who are happy with members who read their bible every day while ridiculing, shaming, or hating others (Westboro baptist is the extreme of this), and there are other churches who don’t really have a lot of theology past “God is love”. To me, the anabaptists are very good about marrying the good in both extremes, and getting rid of the distortions. Not that I believe that the anabaptists have it all together, or that they are any better than others, but I have been in other denomination’s church services, I have been a part of other churches for longer periods of time, and I keep coming back to the consistent and radical way of the anabaptists. It doesn’t matter whether your church, or you as an individual, claim to be anabaptist – I believe that anabaptism has influenced many branches of Christianity.
When it comes to the discussion killing “what would you do if…” questions raised in conversations about Nonviolence, the person asking always assumes that the person who claims nonviolence would falter in a real-life situation. Although it’s nearly impossible to know what our personal responses would be, at the very least we have the example of the anabaptists who endured persecution without fighting back, and without renouncing their beliefs.
*All references will be included in the Works Referenced section at the end of Part 2*