Anabaptists, Suffering and Discipleship
There is a growing movement within the Christian community to embrace principles such as pacifism and radical discipleship. In many ways these interests go back to or at least parallel the views of the Anabaptists.
I am not an Anabaptist, but I have much respect for this tradition of the Christian faith. It's a largely misunderstood community of communities, which emerged in the 16th century from a desire to push the Reformation further than most of the Reformers (from Luther to Calvin) felt comfortable with. Although not all were pacifist (Thomas Muntzer was linked to them as were the Munsterites), but most rejected the sword and often separated themselves from the rest of society. Most were Restorationists in that they sought to return to the church of the New Testament, restoring to the church elements of that earlier faith community including baptism of believers, immersion, footwashing, community of goods, etc.
One of the key elements of this tradition, and an element that provides a foundation to much of their practice is the doctrine of Gelassenheit, a word that has a variety of meanings, but which included elements of self-denial, suffering, obedience. It was an idea embraced the premise that the cross should form the basis of Anabaptist discipleship. The cross represented the complete denial of the self in obedience to the call of God. This theme is developed in full in Menno Simons' tract, "The Cross of the Saints."
For it can never be otherwise, as you well know, than that all who wish to obey and follow Jesus Christ and go in the right door, Christ Jesus, and walk upon the proper highway to eternal life, the light of Christ, must first deny themselves whole heartedly and then sacrifice all that they have. They must take upon themselves the heavy cross of all poverty, distress, disdain, sorrow, sadness, and must so follow the rejected, the outcast, the bleeding and crucified Christ. [Menno Simons, "The Cross of the Saints," in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Leonard Verduin, trans., J.C. Wenger, ed., (Scottsdale: Herald Press, 1956), 614.]
Suffering and self-denial could have positive as well as negative ramifications. Suffering purged life of the believer of personal sin; thus, they linked suffering to the process of sanctification. It was not enough to accept that Christ had suffered for the believer, one must also had to endure the suffering of Christ. Sanctification was purification by fire. Suffering also enabled the believer to let go of the transitory things of life, even as the dross is burnt off the gold and silver in the fire.
Anabaptists were greatly concerned about the purity of church. Consequently, they made use of the ban and called for separation from the world. True discipleship could lead not only to suffering but also martyrdom. Martyrdom was a shared fate for Anabaptists. Felix Mantz was the first Anabaptist leader to be executed, and appropriately enough he was sentenced to be drowned. It is estimated that at least 4,000 Anabaptists were executed during the 16th and 17th centuries. Anabaptists who saw the cross as the symbol of their own discipleship knew that they might also share the fate of their master.
So, is the Anabaptist vision one that Christians should emulate? What would that mean for our engagement with the broader community? Are we willing to embrace a theology of suffering?