This Summer, the Lutherans, or at least the Swiss-based Lutheran World Federation, apologized for persecuting pacifist Anabaptists 400 years ago. But given the ascendancy of Anabaptists among many U.S. evangelicals, their days as a small, persecuted minority are clearly long over.
“We remember how Anabaptist Christians knew suffering and persecution, and we remember how some of our most honored Reformation leaders defended this persecution in the name of faithfulness,” solemnly intoned Bishop Mark Hanson during a joint service of repentance in Germany with Mennonites from around the world. Hanson is both president of the global Lutheran group and chief prelate of the liberal-leaning Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Anabaptists are best known as Mennonites, Brethren, Moravians, and, in their more dedicated forms, Amish. Quakers are sometimes associated with the tradition in outlook though they have separate historical origins. Traditionally Anabaptists are pacifist and separatist from society to varying degrees, foreswearing national loyalties. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestant and Catholic governments persecuted them for their perceived theological and political subversion. Many Anabaptists immigrated to colonial America, where they prospered.
But the Anabaptist tradition has often emphasized its history as victim and outsider. Mennonite World Conference chief Larry Miller confessed to the Lutheran reconciliation service: “At times, we have claimed the martyr tradition as a badge of Christian superiority. We sometimes nurtured an identity rooted in victimization that could foster a sense of self-righteousness and arrogance, blinding us to the frailties and failures that are also deeply woven into our tradition.”
Even Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was present to offer his own repentance and sympathy with the Anabaptists. “All the ‘historic’ confessional churches have perhaps most to repent, given the commitment of the Mennonite communities to non-violence,” Williams insisted. “We look at a world in which centuries of Christian collusion with violence has left so much unchallenged in the practices of power.”
Archbishop Williams’s quote about “collusion,” “violence” and “power” illustrate increasingly how mainstream liberal Protestants and Evangelicals now share essential Anabaptist pacifist and pseudo-separatist beliefs. Traditional Anabaptists, such as the Mennonites, foreswore military service and public office while not contesting the civil state’s responsibilities, including armed force. But the new neo-Anabaptist movement is more aggressive, demanding that all Christians, and society, including the state, bend to pacifism. Traditional separatism has also compromised, with today’s many outspoken neo-Anabaptist voices pushing many insistent political demands that invariably align with the secular left and religious left.
Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University is today’s most prominent Anabaptist thinker. He is himself a follower of the late John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite who taught at Notre Dame, and whose classic 1972 “Politics of Jesus” remains deeply influential. Minnesota megachurch pastor and theologian Greg Boyd also espouses an Anabaptist message since he renounced his more conventional conservative beliefs in a controversial 2004 sermon series called “The Cross and the Sword” that earned him a 2006 New York Times feature story. He also wrote a popular book called The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church. A younger neo-Anabaptist is self-proclaimed “urban monastic” Shane Claiborne, a thirtysomething popular lecturer whose 2008 book, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, likened America to the Third Reich.
All these neo-Anabaptists denounce traditional American Christianity for its supposed seduction by American civil religion and ostensible support for the “empire.” They reject and identify America with the reputed fatal accommodation between Christianity and the Roman Emperor Constantine capturing the Church as a supposed instrument of state power. Conservative Christians are neo-Anabaptists’ favorite targets for their alleged usurpation by Republican Party politics. But the neo-Anabaptists increasingly offer their own fairly aggressive politics aligned with the Democratic Party, in a way that should trouble traditional Mennonites. Although the neo-Anabaptists sort of subscribe to a tradition that rejects or, at most, passively abides state power, they now demand a greatly expanded and more coercive state commandeering health care, regulating the environment, and punishing wicked industries.
Even more strangely, though maybe unsurprisingly, mainstream religious liberals now echo the Anabaptist message, especially its pacifism. The Evangelical Left especially appreciates that the neo-Anabaptist claim to offer the very simple “politics of Jesus” appeals to young evangelicals disenchanted with old-style conservatives but reluctant to align directly with the Left. Most famously, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, once a clear-cut old style Religious Left activist who championed Students for a Democratic Society and Marxist liberationist movements like the Sandinistas, now speaks in neo-Anabaptist tones.
Most neo-Anabaptists would identify with Shane Claiborne’s angry and defamatory “liturgy of resistance”:
With governments that kill… we will not comply. With the theology of empire…we will not comply.… With the hoarding of riches… we will not comply.… To the peace that is not like Rome’s… we pledge allegiance.”
Neo-Anabaptist rhetoric is especially pervasive at many evangelical schools, suburban megachurches, intellectual and hipster circles. Its themes permit a naughty sense of rebellion without having to stray too far from Christian orthodoxy. A rising force, the neo-Anabaptists now politically overshadow some of the “Constantinian” Protestant forces that once persecuted them. At some future reconciliation service, will repentant neo-Anabaptists apologize to other Christians for their hyperbolic denunciations and sweeping political demands?