This article is part of the Anabaptism and Politics series.
For those afflicted, it has all the compulsiveness of a guilty habit: repeatedly scanning news headlines; experiencing mood swings based on the latest polling data; responding to scandals, epidemics, or Wall Street gyrations by first wondering how it will affect the race. The insta-politics addiction (which I fall into from time to time) is a disease of the technological age. Like Instagram-fueled shopping or VR gaming, it promises a heightening of experience while in fact delivering a kind of numbness.
The Unites States is caught up in the spectacle of a presidential election year, and political obsession is again a social contagion. The full-blown symptoms may affect only a small part of the population, but through the social networks and the media, it influences far more, and the polarized identities it encourages are real enough. That’s true even in a relatively open-minded Anabaptist Christian community like the Bruderhof, where I live. When the talk turns to elections, emotions begin to simmer.
It’s hard not to suspect your political opponents of willfully shutting their eyes to self-evident truths. How can a follower of Jesus fail to support healthcare for the poor, racial justice, and getting immigrant kids out of cages? Or: how can she tolerate abortion, sex change for kindergartners, and the push to eradicate faith from the public square?
“Ah,” interposes another voice, “neither side is right.” Christians should “rise above polarization,” condemning extremism while seeking principled common ground. By this view, Christian conservatives should recognize their implicit biases and learn to see the world through the eyes of the marginalized; Christian progressives, meanwhile, should spend more time trying to understand the fears and loves of their MAGA brethren.
Why do Christians so easily imagine that party politics is where the action is?
Which sounds very virtuous, but also quite bloodless. We should be appalled at real evils, whether identified by the left or the right; most of us aren’t appalled enough. Nor is it wrong to desire a transformation of society; most of us should desire it far more, and be more willing to practice self-sacrificial solidarity with our neighbors.
Equally, the mistake is not “being too political.” By nature we’re the “political animals” Aristotle said we are. Only, by New Testament standards, we too often pick the wrong politics – in fact, the wrong polity – to pledge our allegiance to.
The apostle Paul taught that our polity (politeuma) – our republic, our civil affairs, our citizenship – is the kingdom of God (Phil. 3:20). This politics of the kingdom is not just a theological detail. It’s the whole point of the gospel that Jesus announced and died for. It’s the politics that will truly set right an unrighteous world.
If that’s the case, why do Christians so easily imagine that party politics is where the action is? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” – yet in real life, we Christians often lavish our time and passion on trying to manipulate the levers of state power, while treating what should be our highest political loyalty as a pious afterthought. It’s worth asking ourselves a few searching questions: Why is it that democratic socialism or national conservatism sets so many Christian hearts racing, when the goal of re-tooling the state is one to which Peter and Paul were notably cool? Why do denominations prioritize action days, voting guides, and statements of political concern, when the Christian fellowship itself is meant to embody the new justice in its common life? Why do ambitious young Christians gravitate to party politics, pouring their talents into think tanks, conferences, and wonkery, rather than into building up the church as a Basil or Augustine did? In short, why does the knockoff form of politics command such attention when Christ himself had so little time or regard for it?
In an election year, the kingdom of God can seem a bit too … abstract. It’s affirmed, certainly, as a traditional metaphor for eternal life; it can prove useful perhaps as a source of moral principles to guide our “real” political commitments. But it’s not a flesh-and-blood reality. Maybe later – after Judgment Day? – but not now.
This, however, is the opposite of apostolic Christianity. For the first Christians, the kingdom of God was the only politics that mattered, as scholars such as N. T. Wright have shown. This assertion is nothing novel. It’s a truth hidden in plain sight in the Old and New Testaments and the early Christian writings. Five hundred years ago, it caught the imagination of the farmers, artisans, and village priests who made up the Radical Reformation movement now known as Anabaptism.
Fair warning: This issue of Plough is heavy on Anabaptism. Our purpose is not to promote the Anabaptist brand for its own sake or to claim our forebears were perfect (the Radical Reformers had their blind spots too). Rather, we believe this tradition recovers elements of original Christianity that are a crucial corrective in a year when simply saying you’re Christian strikes many as partisan.
From the start, the Anabaptist movement revolved around questions of faith and politics, church and state, freedom and compulsion. Its origins lie in Zurich in the 1520s, at a time when a charismatic young humanist preacher, Ulrich Zwingli, was introducing the Reformation into the city. In seeking to reform the church based on a “plain reading” of the Bible, Zwingli was backed by the Zurich government, which claimed for itself the right to regulate religion in its territory.
Two of Zwingli’s young protégés, Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, asked their teacher how he could justify making religious renewal dependent on state power. To them, Zwingli had simply transferred authority over matters of faith from the pope to the civil government. Yet they believed, based on their reading of the New Testament, that this authority belonged to the body of believers under the Holy Spirit (Matt. 18:18–20).
We too often pick the wrong politics to pledge our allegiance to.
Zwingli responded somewhat ambiguously that of course the city government could not violate God’s law, but that Romans 13 gave it the God-ordained right to determine the scope of reform. This claim is what Manz and Grebel protested. It was a protest with which their Catholic compatriots would have agreed, a usurpation of the rights of the church. But it cut deeper, and challenged the medieval vision, shared by Reformers and Catholics alike, of a harmonious collaboration of church and state.
The dream of a Christian state is usually traced back to the Emperor Constantine, who first legalized Christianity in AD 313 (he’s on the cover of this issue). Yet Constantine himself seems to have recognized the incompatibility between his faith and his political office, famously postponing his baptism to his deathbed. In subsequent centuries, many Christians had lost the awareness of what Constantine still knew. The Radical Reformers, going back to scripture and the early church, were simply reminding them of the original Christian tradition.
Infant baptism was the next point of conflict. This question went to the heart of the radicals’ protest, and it, too, was linked to questions of state power: mandatory infant baptism, as recorded on parish rolls, was the basis for mandatory church membership enforced by the state. But if only the baptism of believing adults was biblical, then the church ought instead to be a voluntary fellowship, one whose members had freely chosen the way of discipleship. Though Zwingli, too, had earlier questioned infant baptism, he now reversed himself. In 1524, the Zurich government mandated the baptism of newborns, so that it was not even a question of children’s parents making the commitment on their behalf, and forbade the rebaptism of adults on pain of banishment.
It was just one month later that the radicals gathered in Manz’s mother’s house and performed the first Anabaptist baptism. This was a deliberate act of civil disobedience, in the spirit of the apostle Peter’s words in Acts 5:29 that “we must obey God rather than men” (soon a favorite Anabaptist text). As the Hutterite Chronicle records:
Conrad and Felix believed that people should be truly baptized in the Christian order appointed by the Lord, because Christ himself says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” Ulrich Zwingli (who shrank from the cross, disgrace, and persecution that Christ suffered) refused to agree – he said it would cause an uproar. But Conrad and Felix said that was no reason to disobey the clear command of God.
Within days, the movement spread to the countryside around Zurich; in one nearby village, nearly all the inhabitants were baptized amid a revival atmosphere of forgiveness of sins, and the people began living in voluntary, joyful community of goods, much as the first Christians had as described in Acts 2 and 4. The movement’s leaders were quickly arrested, but it continued to spread despite imprisonment, confiscations, and banishments.
A year after the first adult baptisms, Zurich made the rebaptism of adults a capital crime, and the other Swiss cantons followed suit. In neighboring Habsburg-ruled Austria, execution was already prescribed. An imperial decree soon made death the mandatory penalty throughout the Holy Roman Empire, including in Protestant lands.
On January 5, 1527, Felix Manz, twenty-nine, became the first Anabaptist executed by a Reformed government, drowned in the Limmat River with the approval of his former teacher Zwingli. Over the following decades, two to three thousand Anabaptists were executed across Europe, usually after torture and often by burning; most could have saved their lives even at the last minute by recanting. Rulers, judges, and executioners: all were Christians administering the church-blessed laws of Christian states.
Martyrdom by fellow Christians sharpens one’s thinking regarding the right relation between church and state. In decisive ways, history has borne out the Anabaptists’ insights. The Reformation churches’ dependence on and subservience to secular power, which Manz and Grebel warned about, would bear bitter fruit in later centuries, not least in 1930s Germany. Meanwhile, it would take Roman Catholicism until the Second Vatican Council to reaffirm the church’s original teaching on religious liberty, as Robert Louis Wilken describes in Liberty in the Things of God. Early Christianity’s tradition of nonviolence and economic sharing, which Anabaptism recovered, has shaped Christian leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Dorothy Day, even if the major churches haven’t yet returned to it.
What can the radical reformation tradition teach about faith and politics in an election year? This short editorial isn’t the place for anything like a full answer (though several articles in this issue make a start). All the same, here are three brief observations:
- The church, not the state, embodies God’s will for history. Christians don’t split their allegiance between two realms (medieval Christianity’s “two swords”), with the church responsible for their souls and the state for their bodies. Instead, God’s kingdom is the true politics, and makes a claim on both souls and bodies; the state’s politics comes a distant second, and its significance in God’s eyes is always an open question. It’s never worth sacrificing our higher allegiance to the lower.
- The calling of Christians is to follow Jesus’ words and example, without crafting ingenious escape clauses to justify the pursuit of power. The charter of his kingdom is the Sermon on the Mount, which means what it says about nonviolence, freedom from possessions, marital faithfulness, and unconditional forgiveness. For obedient discipleship, these are non-negotiables; we can’t cherry-pick some pieces of Jesus’ message at the cost of others. Accordingly:
- The gospel is an integrated whole, meant to encompass all of human life. Call it Anabaptist integralism. Catholic integralists and others have also envisioned a Christian society in which the gospel is the supreme law. But unlike the Anabaptists, they would bring into that Christian society something alien to Christ: state power backed by lethal violence. Instead, as the early Christians repeatedly taught, the church itself is the new society, the new humanity, the fulfillment (though incomplete and imperfect) of Isaiah’s prophecy of the peaceable kingdom, where swords are forged into ploughshares. (Theologians and political theorists who fret about “immanentizing the eschaton” should read the Apostolic Fathers.)
To come to the nub: Questions of public justice should matter deeply to Christians. We dare not be indifferent about securing healthcare for all and ending interventionist wars; we must seek to reduce abortions and strengthen families. When an election comes, we should pray and then, perhaps, lend our support to a candidate we judge may, on balance, advance social righteousness.
But if the early Christians and the Anabaptists are right, this isn’t the politics that matters most. And so, as a matter of faithfulness, we should question how much it deserves of our passion and time. Our allegiance belongs elsewhere.
Jesus’ politics are grittier and less glamorous than an election campaign.
Admittedly, in contrast to the excitement of an election campaign, this politics may feel grittier and less glamorous. It’s not the best route to a big Twitter following or a prestigious job title. As many saints have shown, it will mostly involve a hidden task: doing mundane works of mercy, being a good father or mother, bearing suffering patiently, taking and keeping religious vows. If it does involve activism in pursuit of justice, it will be the truth-telling activism of the prophet, not the compromising tactics of the professional politician. Such a life usually won’t look much like success:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:25–28)
That’s Jesus’ politics, deserving of all our devotion. No matter who wins the next election, Caesar will remain Caesar, doing some good and some bad. But we report to a different king.
Peter Mommsen, Editor
PS: For additional thoughts on how the coronavirus pandemic affects Plough, see my Notes from the Lockdown.