Reading Anabaptist History in the Anthropocene – Populism and Apocalypse then and now

One year into the global Covid-19 pandemic, life continues to be strange. In many ways it is a grim time. The rising death tolls, as well as the ongoing psychological and social impacts of social distancing and state enforced lockdowns are hard to bear. After the first enthusiasm for new digital frontiers, a new routine, characterized by uncertainty, the shadow of grief, and frustration has set in. It’s a time that challenges all of us to find ways to struggle to recognize joy and hold onto it, as well as sitting with those who weep (Romans 12). If you are struggling and are tempted to give up, consider these resources and feel free to reach out to me!

One of the things giving me joy and much to ponder, are opportunities to learn and study online. It’s been almost two years since I was really studying at seminary, and I finally feel ready to read academically again. So I was excited for the invitation to join a free literature course on „Doing Theology from an Anabaptist Perspective“ taught by Fernando Enns at the Free University in Amsterdam. The course mainly consists of readings from John D. Roth and James Stayer’s Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism from 1521-1700 and later the collection of essays „Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision“ edited by Laura Schmidt Roberts as a sort of introduction to contemporary theological conversations. Today was the first session and it was very thought-provoking at least for me.

First of all, it just exciting to have an opportunity to read these classic and conscise introductions to the Anabaptist movement with a small, but also relatively diverse group of European Christians, all of whom are at least intrigued by Anabaptist movement of the 16th century, its thought and practice and the impacts this in some ways miniscule group had on the course of history. And, since this is a theological course and not merely a historical one, we are also at least to some degree interested in what these people and events mean for us today. How can their actions inform our attempts at following Jesus? How can their articulation of faith help us persevere against the tremendous odds of climate chaos, ongoing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and increasingly the spectre of resurgent fascism before us?

To deepen my own engagement and reflections, I am challenging myself to write a short reflection after each class on the relevance of the Anabaptist movements, their ideas and their struggles to our current times.

In this first session we briefly touched on many things, but to me the study of Anabaptism is best organized around three sets of questions:

  1. What was world the Anabaptists inhabited and were a part of? What was the common sense and the economic, political and religious institutions that produced it? What was the cultural mood and which sorts of contradictions and crises were looming large for people?
  2. How did the various Anabaptist groups differ from those around them and how far did they go in challenging assumptions or even break with the ruling consensus of their times?
  3. What was the social strategy they chose to establish their vision? How did they organize and for which purposes?

My thoughts, perhaps unsurprisingly to those who know me, turned mainly to the third question; that of social strategy.

At Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary I wrote a paper looking at the early Swiss Anabaptists through the lens not of „nonresistance“ but of „strategic nonviolence“ as it has been theorized by Gene Sharp and others, and is practiced by social movements around the world. Specifically, I was examining the sermon disturbances as nonviolent direct actions. In that context I also provide a reading of the letter to Müntzer as a letter of critical allies about an ethical and practical strategy. I am no longer completely convinced of my argument here, but I continue to think that we can learn a lot by using a movement lens to understand the dynamics and the relationship of thought and practice of the Anabaptists (as well as the Reformation and most of history in general).

Katerina Friesen, a fellow AMBS graduate wrote good paper summarizing this movement lens (which is very indebted to Goertz and many of the others we are reading here) that got published as a series of blog posts on the now sadly inactive blog „Young Anabaptist Radicals“ (linked here as part one, two, three, and four.)

Continuing along these lines, I was very intrigued by Goertz‘ article on Carlstadt, Müntzer, and the peasant’s war. But most of all, I kept thinking about his proposal to focus less on the intricate arguments about justification and the Lord’s supper as such and more on the reception of these ideas in the popular imagination and how they got translated into slogans that formed the basis of popular demands (Goertz names „pure gospel“ and „congregation“ as two popular, one could almost say „viral,“ slogans.)

What does this mean for our theologizing today?

Are we amplifying particular slogans intentionally or unintentionally?
Should we?

I am thinking specifically of the interconnected ecological, social and economic crises we have been in for a while which are both highlighted and eclipsed by the current pandemic.
In regards to the pandemic, epidemologists and other scientists are debating all kinds of proposals, but we can also see how slogans develop their own power (e.g. „Zero Covid, „Just Recovery“ or „Corona Dictatorship“ to name some that are from quite different ideological positions).

And if we broaden our perspective and think of the ecological crises, we can see how our time has its own distinct apocalyptic mood, only this time, the spectre of a judgment day with a world a flame is of our own making, and backed up by the natural sciences (which have long usurped the throne as queen of sciences, where in the middle ages and the reformation times, theology still sat more or less unchallenged.)

What do we do with this cultural mood (that really is in some sense an awareness of a real problem) in our theologizing?
Do we only work to deconstruct and relativize positions remembering all to clearly the dangers of misplaced apocalypticism and the militant fervor it kindles?

Or do we also sense (as Müntzer) that the “transformation of the world” is “now before the door.”
Do we have eyes to see that „small spark that will [maybe we should say might] soon burst into flame?”

These are not just theoretical questions to me, but real conundrums as I work within the church and live within the world, watching the signs of the times and the questions of a growing number of people in our congregations and outside it who ask what answers the church has to the existential threats and the new apocalyptic horizons that this time we have created ourselves, and that are confirmed not by ancient prophecies, but by science itself.

Much of the break between the reformers was about their vision of  a restored church and about the way to achieve that goal. These are questions of social strategy. Luther and Zwingli were shocked to see the peasants take up their slogans, readapt them to fit their own needs and then commit themselves to remake the world in the image of these ideas. They denounced the radicals and encouraged police violence and worse on them. The Anabaptists took a different route–or several different routes to be more accurate. But for the most part, they did not break solidarity with the revolutionary demands of the peasants, even if they disagreed on strategy and perhaps also the shape of things to come.

Where do we stand today and with whom?
And where is the Spirit calling us to in this time of rising tides?

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