Having written about my personal interest in Anabaptism in Part 1, and about the basic theological tenants (in my view) of Anabaptism in Part 2, I’m going to attempt now to reflect in general on the social and political implications of the movement. If there is a theme, or—if you will—a thesis, tying these three posts together, it is that the Anabaptists have traditionally sought to maintain a clear distinction between the church and the state. If you’ve spent any amount of time perusing this blog, you have no doubt noted the prominence of this theme within its pages as well.
In thinking about the development of my interest in the dynamics of the church/state relationship, it seems to have two points of origin. Firstly, I’ve always been interested in the process by which tyrannical governments ascend to power, usually by the direct consent or indirect apathy of the people, and then proceed to commit the most atrocious of crimes in the name of the state. How does, arguably, one of the most civilized cultures on the planet (in terms of the philosophic, scientific and arts) fall so low as to bow before a monster like Adolph Hitler? Or, how does a Mao Tse Tung get away with murdering 50 million people—people steeped in the ancient and enduring Chinese culture? Or, how does a Stalin crush under his boot a thoughtful and literate society that produced intellectual giants like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky? In the old days of monarchies ruling over ignorant populaces, this sort of wanton exercise of power is understandable. But how did this occur in the twentieth-century, post-enlightenment world? Analyzing these questions creates further questions concerning individual freedom, civil rights, forms of government, and the role of religion in society.
The parallel point of origin in my thought process on the subject came about as a result of me becoming a Christian. In the earlier days of my spiritual development I got my hands on a number of biographies about Christians who suffered under tyrannical regimes, typically through imprisonment, forced labor and torture. In some cases these men and women of faith were arrested on political charges. But most of the time, they were simply persecuted because of their faith. Of course religious persecution isn’t limited to Christianity, but due to my own personal interests, it was upon the experiences of Christian’s that the majority of my studies were focused.
Enter Anabaptism and my consequent interest in it. Here was a group of Christians who habitually experienced persecution at the hands of the state. In fact, the story of Anabaptism is largely a story of suffering (just pick up and peruse the massive Martyrs’ Mirror). But their suffering was not their defeat; it was their triumph. Because they possessed convictions they were willing to die for, the Anabaptists really lived. After all, what is faith if it doesn’t produce a passion for life even under the shadow of death? And this kind of eternal hope and perseverance isn’t limited only to those referred to as “Anabaptists.” The history of Christianity has rightly been called a “trail of blood.” However, countless numbers of those who’ve died at the hands of the state (or state church) never had their names recorded for posterity.
As a result of the brethren’s experiences, Anabaptism has explored the idea that life is a pilgrimage, a journey whose final destination is a new heavens and a new earth. This perspective has led certain groups like the Amish or Old-order Mennonites, both of which share an Anabaptist heritage, to all but withdraw from society, only associating with outsiders when absolutely necessary. I have a few friends of this persuasion. I respect their lifestyle choices and am not making any judgment calls upon how they’ve chosen to live. I’m only pointing out that this is one interpretation of the “pilgrim and stranger” motif.
However, early (sixteenth-century) Anabaptists did not generally withdraw from the society around them. They sought, rather, to engage it. In many places in Europe they were forbidden by law to publicly or privately assemble. This necessitated the need for the brethren to meet in secret if they were to continue to be faithful to Scripture’s admonition to not forsake the assembly. But they still sought through everyday contact with their neighbors, both socially and through business opportunities, to share their faith and their interpretations of the Bible. If they had withdrawn and kept their mouths shut, there wouldn’t have been so many burnings at the stake.
On one hand, Anabaptists were viewed by governments and the state church as separatists—strange and heretical because their lifestyles contrasted sharply with the mainstream. If you are considered a fringe element, you will not tend to feel at home in society that labels you as such. To the Anabaptists, this reinforced their view that God’s people are merely pilgrims, so it is no wonder that they did not feel accepted. On the other hand, the Bible teaches that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” God Himself didn’t withdraw from or ignore humanity, He reached out to it through His Son. For this reason a balanced approach will not allow a Christian to view the situation as entirely hopeless or people as beyond redemption.
So how does one interact with a society or state that persecutes him and still recognize that state’s authority as legitimate? I won’t attempt to answer that here (see When Government Becomes God). Instead, I propose the question rhetorically to demonstrate that the state/church relationship is unavoidable. The church is in the world. And governments are of the world. Both are ordained by God, but exist in perpetual distinction. No group that I am aware of went as far as the Anabaptists in emphasizing this. Arguably, there were also very few groups, religious or secular, that were as respectful of legitimate laws of the state as the Anabaptists.
Unfortunately, human nature is such that power is viewed in the context of control. Governments are, of course, no exceptions. The Anabaptists did not attribute ultimate authority to government. This they reserved for God alone. In their view government always takes a subordinate position to the Law of God as revealed in the Bible. This is intolerable to tyrannical regimes. No man can worship two masters. Anabaptists subordinated themselves to the state, but they would not bow to it.
The hallmark of free societies is the intellectual freedom of the individual. This applies to matters of faith as much as it does to any other ideology. The individual must be allowed to think for himself and come to his own opinions on religion and philosophical questions. Everyone has an opinion on these things (though everyone’s opinion is not necessarily well-reasoned or even acknowledged). To be allowed this freedom of thought is foundational to free societies. But totalitarianism, at its core, seeks to suppress the individual, to make him a corporate entity that thinks, believes and does what he is told.
Because the Anabaptists insisted upon separation of church and state, they laid crucial groundwork for the civil liberties we enjoy today. Their own motivation was the securing of freedom to worship as they pleased. But this necessarily extended to others the same freedom. True liberty does not infringe upon the rights of others. If you notice “Jeffersonian” or “libertarian” leanings in all of this, it’s because America’s Founders were well aware of the trials and tribulations the Anabaptists had passed through. And they recognized the necessity of complete freedom of religion and expression if a society is to be truly free.
The separation of church and state was initially an idea propounded by of the church. It was the church that insisted that the government has no jurisdiction over religion. Presently, however, the opposite interpretation is proffered. Governments (and the special interests that influence them) now attempt to insist that the church should have no influence, either on society or policy. We need to realize, however, that if the church is limited in any measure as to what it can publicly propound and practice, then everyone is affected—and not for better.
The influence of Anabaptism on general society lies in the Anabaptist realization that freedom must be extended to all, regardless of ideology, regardless of religion, regardless of socio-economic status. The irony, I realize, in this is that evangelical, conservative expressions of the Christian faith are typically branded as narrow, restrictive and bigoted by the modern pundits of political correctness. And in some cases, no doubt, they are. But what someone or some group believes, however, is not the point. Belief systems and their expressions should never be the focus of the state to either endorse or condemn. The idea that belief systems must be protected is what is significant.
Even though denominations associated with Anabaptism traditionally have very little to do with politics, the Anabaptist contribution to our modern understanding and application of democracy and civil liberties should not be ignored. In this day, with the frightening speed at which these liberties are eroding and the increasing distortion of the democratic process, perhaps the Anabaptist ethos has more to offer than just a fresh approach to theology. Perhaps it can offer encouragement to those of us who cherish individual freedom and civil liberty to contend for what we have too long taken for granted. In our technotronic age of mass surveillance and electronic control systems, the Anabaptist vision of the church and the state might never have been as vital to recapture.