Saturday, September 17, 2011

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?  

7 comments:

John said...

What strikes a discordant note for me is that they engaged in self-induced suffering and that their practices were undertaken with the intention of gaining eternal life rather than simply because holiness is what we are called to.

Self-induced suffering is at best delusional and at worst sado-masochistic. There is enough suffering in the world, the role of the follower of Christ should be to address the suffering that is already present in the world, preferably the suffering of others, by seeking to ameliorate suffering, or at least take on some of the burden of others. But there is no holiness in introducing more pain and suffering into the world even if you are doing it to purchase your way into God's heart.

As for suffering to increase your chances of gaining eternal life - is this not a matter of God's will? Do we not trust the love of God to do with us as promised? Do we think we can manipulate God into granting us a blessed eternity when God was otherwise inclined? Do we think God will cherish us more if we brutalize the bodies which God gave as temples for the Holy Spirit and teach others to do the same? Is God that gullible, does God not know us for who we are and yet loves us anyway?

Brian said...

I agree with John. We should learn from them and honor them, but honoring means correcting past abuses. The suffering as essential approach will inevitably lead to psychologically abusive homes and communities. Factor in elements such as bipolar disorder and you have the mix for a path of death, not life.

We can learn from their spirit and courage, but I don't think we should emulate them without serious modifications. Of course, this goes for all traditions of the past, including scripture (example: divorce).

Arthur Sido said...

It seems that the two prior comments are missing the point of Gelassenheit. This is not a self-induced flagellation but a realization that following the way of the cross will inevitably lead to suffering and persecution. I am far more concerned with those who try to claim to name of Christ while being perfectly comfortable with the world, pursuing riches and security rather than lives of radical sacrifice and discipleship.

For further reading check out the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Encyclopedia definition: http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/G448.html

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Arthur,

Yes, you have caught the proper sense of gelassenheit! The anabaptists didn't go seeking persecution, but like the early Christians, their embrace of the gospel led to their being persecuted. They took to heart the blessing of the Beatitudes, so that blessed are the persecuted, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The anabaptists sought to follow the gospel in its fulness. Their more radical version of the reformation was met with strong and violent response from both Catholic and Non-Catholic forces.

John said...

I read a little more on the Anabaptists and I see that they did not espouse self-induced suffering, though they did assert the value of suffering - something which I can accept in certain circumstances as being "of the kingdom".

Brian said...

Nobody is claiming they practiced intentional self-induced suffering. The anabaptist tradition is well-known and honorable. I simply think that with what we know of family systems, group psychology, and mental illness these days that we need to be very careful in how we present these ideas. The old terms have different understandings to people not well-versed in christian history and symbolic language.

An example is when Arthur states, "...following the way of the cross will inevitably lead to suffering and persecution". Metaphorically, most Christians agree. In practice, what does this mean? What does it look like? Specifically, who is practicing it? The only one I can name who is actually doing this in an observable way is Bradley Manning.

Arthur Sido said...

Brian

I don't know who Bradley Manning is but I am concerned when you say:

The suffering as essential approach will inevitably lead to psychologically abusive homes and communities.

That is an very broad blanket statement. Jesus never beat around the bush, in this world we will have trouble. The world will hate us because it first hated Him. If we are truly following Christ the world will persecute us. That persecution may take different forms and in fact much of the persecution will come from the religious among us, even some who claim the name of Christ, but to suggest that the results of following Christ as He described leads inevitably to psychologically abusive homes and communities is dangerous ground indeed.