This Summer, the Lutherans, or at least the Swiss-based LutheranWorld Federation, apologized for persecuting pacifist Anabaptists400 years ago. But given the ascendancy of Anabaptists among manyU.S. evangelicals, their days as a small, persecuted minority areclearly long over.
Â "We remember how Anabaptist Christiansknew suffering and persecution, and we remember how some of ourmost honored Reformation leaders defended this persecution in thename of faithfulness," solemnly intoned Bishop Mark Hanson during ajoint service of repentance in Germany with Mennonites from aroundthe world. Hanson is both president of the global Lutheran groupand chief prelate of the liberal-leaning Evangelical LutheranChurch in America.
Anabaptists are best known as Mennonites, Brethren,Moravians, and, in their more dedicated forms, Amish. Quakers aresometimes associated with the tradition in outlook though they haveseparate historical origins. Traditionally Anabaptists are pacifistand separatist from society to varying degrees, foreswearingnational loyalties. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestantand Catholic governments persecuted them for their perceivedtheological and political subversion. Many Anabaptists immigratedto colonial America, where they prospered.
But the Anabaptist tradition has often emphasized itshistory as victim and outsider. Mennonite World Conference chiefLarry Miller confessed to the Lutheran reconciliation service: "Attimes, we have claimed the martyr tradition as a badge of Christiansuperiority. We sometimes nurtured an identity rooted invictimization that could foster a sense of self-righteousness andarrogance, blinding us to the frailties and failures that are alsodeeply woven into our tradition."
Even Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams waspresent to offer his own repentance and sympathy with theAnabaptists. "All the 'historic' confessional churches have perhapsmost to repent, given the commitment of the Mennonite communitiesto non-violence," Williams insisted. "We look at a world in whichcenturies of Christian collusion with violence has left so muchunchallenged in the practices of power."
Archbishop Williams's quote about "collusion," "violence"and "power" illustrate increasingly how mainstream liberalProtestants and Evangelicals now share essential Anabaptistpacifist and pseudo-separatist beliefs. Traditional Anabaptists,such as the Mennonites, foreswore military service and publicoffice while not contesting the civil state's responsibilities,including armed force. But the new neo-Anabaptist movement is moreaggressive, demanding that all Christians, and society, includingthe state, bend to pacifism. Traditional separatism has alsocompromised, with today's many outspoken neo-Anabaptist voicespushing many insistent political demands that invariably align withthe secular left and religious left.
Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University is today's mostprominent Anabaptist thinker. He is himself a follower of the lateJohn Howard Yoder, a Mennonite who taught at Notre Dame, and whoseclassic 1972 "Politics of Jesus" remains deeply influential.Minnesota megachurch pastor and theologian Greg Boyd also espousesan Anabaptist message since he renounced his more conventionalconservative beliefs in a controversial 2004 sermon series called"The Cross and the Sword" that earned him a 2006 New YorkTimes feature story. He also wrote a popular book calledThe Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for PoliticalPower Is Destroying the Church. A younger neo-Anabaptist isself-proclaimed "urban monastic" Shane Claiborne, a thirtysomethingpopular lecturer whose 2008 book, Jesus for President: Politicsfor Ordinary Radicals, likened America to the ThirdReich.
All these neo-Anabaptists denounce traditional AmericanChristianity for its supposed seduction by American civil religionand ostensible support for the "empire." They reject and identifyAmerica with the reputed fatal accommodation between Christianityand the Roman Emperor Constantine capturing the Church as asupposed instrument of state power. Conservative Christians areneo-Anabaptists' favorite targets for their alleged usurpation byRepublican Party politics. But the neo-Anabaptists increasinglyoffer their own fairly aggressive politics aligned with theDemocratic Party, in a way that should trouble traditionalMennonites. Although the neo-Anabaptists sort of subscribe to atradition that rejects or, at most, passively abides state power,they now demand a greatly expanded and more coercive statecommandeering health care, regulating the environment, andpunishing wicked industries.
Even more strangely, though maybe unsurprisingly,mainstream religious liberals now echo the Anabaptist message,especially its pacifism. The Evangelical Left especiallyappreciates that the neo-Anabaptist claim to offer the very simple"politics of Jesus" appeals to young evangelicals disenchanted withold-style conservatives but reluctant to align directly with theLeft. Most famously, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, once a clear-cut oldstyle Religious Left activist who championed Students for aDemocratic Society and Marxist liberationist movements like theSandinistas, now speaks in neo-Anabaptist tones.
Most neo-Anabaptists would identify with Shane Claiborne'sangry and defamatory "liturgy of resistance":
With governments that kill"¦ we will not comply. Withthe theology of empire"¦we will not comply."¦ With the hoarding ofriches"¦ we will not comply."¦ To the peace that is not like Rome's"¦we pledge allegiance."
Neo-Anabaptist rhetoric is especially pervasive atmany evangelical schools, suburban megachurches, intellectual andhipster circles. Its themes permit a naughty sense of rebellionwithout having to stray too far from Christian orthodoxy. A risingforce, the neo-Anabaptists now politically overshadow some of the"Constantinian" Protestant forces that once persecuted them. Atsome future reconciliation service, will repentant neo-Anabaptistsapologize to other Christians for their hyperbolic denunciationsand sweeping political demands?