Winners or Losers?
On Peter Mommsen’s “The Church We Need Now,” Autumn 2017: Peter Mommsen claims that the Anabaptist Reformation not only “matters,” but “won,” and tells why. He knows that it is very unbaptistic to make extravagant claims that “we’re number one.” But he does point to three reforms, neglected or disdained when Anabaptist movements were formed in the sixteenth century, whose teachings and practices made them look like “losers,” or made them to be losers when the hangmen from the other four versions [of the Reformation: Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, and Catholic] defeated or even killed them….
Is this boasting? At the end, Mommsen acknowledges some specialty weaknesses that do not deserve to be praised or copied. This cluster of Protestants did not “win,” as Mommsen’s article claims. But its witness is heard and its effects are still seen where religious freedom, nonviolence, and community are present in fresh ways.
Thirty years ago I wrote a book (Theology in Postliberal Perspective) suggesting that these three concepts – freedom of belief, pacifist nonviolence, and a communal ethos of mutual aid and support – were the central features of Anabaptist spirituality and practice, on which a church of the future could thrive. That book found much better reception outside of the Anabaptist churches than within, so I am quite heartened to read this essay by Peter Mommsen today!
The Church’s Politics
On George Weigel’s “Re-Forming the Church,” Autumn 2017: I am in agreement with George Weigel’s understanding of what makes authentic reform in the Church. I disagree, however, with his understanding of the example that he gives: the Catholic Church’s affirmation of religious freedom at Vatican II. According to Weigel, Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, represented a rejection of the “thesis” that the best arrangement of church–state relations would be an “establishment” of the Church, in which temporal power recognized the authority of spiritual power and the truth of the Faith. His has been the conventional reading of Dignitatis humanae. But the document itself explicitly excludes such a reading, stating that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” As recent interpreters such as Thomas Pink have demonstrated, Vatican II’s affirmation of religious freedom is fully consistent with the soul–body model of Church–state relations taught by popes such as Leo XIII.
Yes, what the Church needs most are witnesses on fire with the love of Christ. But such persons should be the first to recognize that loving Christ means ordering all things to him, including political societies. All political action is concerned with realizing the good, and things can only be adequately judged good with respect to the highest good and last end. It is therefore impossible for political action to be “neutral” with respect to the last end: either it will order itself to the true good in God, or to a false idol.
Weigel claims that establishment leads to secularization, whereas disestablishment leads to the Church prospering and growing. But it is hard to see how this claim holds up with a view to current trends. Secularization has only accelerated more and more since European nations gave up establishment. And even the United States, which once seemed exceptional in that regard, now seems to be catching up with Europe.
George Weigel responds: Thesis–hypothesis was, as I understand it, not a matter of doctrine but of theological opinion, so my claims about Dignitatis humanae are not affected by the citation from the document quoted by Father Waldstein.
As for establishment contributing to the decline of Christianity under conditions of modernity, I offer Father Waldstein the examples of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Quebec, where the Church leaned heavily on state support in one form or another – and the faith collapsed within two generations when the tidal wave of cultural sludge let loose in the Sixties overwhelmed those societies. Poland, where the bishops are too publicly identified today with one political party, might ponder this experience.
I would be interested to know if Father Waldstein believes (along with Father John Courtney Murray, SJ, one of the intellectual architects of Dignitatis humanae) that the natural law can provide a public moral grammar for the ordering of societies, one that can function amidst confessional differences. That would seem at least one possible alternative to either states becoming theological actors again, or the impending dictatorship of relativism of which Pope Benedict XVI warned.
As Father Waldstein may know, I am fully committed to the New Evangelization, a position I laid out in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. But having President Donald Trump publicly recognize Jesus Christ as King of the United States of America hardly strikes me as something that would advance the cause of the gospel.
Last Christians in Iraq?
On Andreas Knapp’s “The Last of the First Christians,” Autumn 2017: After working in Iraq over the past fifteen years with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I am always glad when people voice their concern about the people of Iraq. I was touched by the love Andreas Knapp showed in dropping his work to accompany his new refugee friend, Yousif, back to northern Iraq.
I have difficulty, though, with some of Knapp’s statements. Yes, large numbers of jihadists from all over the Muslim world came to Iraq in response to the 2003 US invasion, and threatened some Christians because they aligned them with the “Christian” United States, but Iraqi Christians were not their main target. They bombed mosques, especially Shia mosques, as well as churches. Other targets included sites connected with US forces and the Iraqi police forces as well as general public sites. The goal was to destabilize society and get rid of US occupation. In some places Muslims did take advantage of the chaos to drive out or even kill their Christian neighbors. But there was never a large-scale jihad or genocide against Christians.
What Knapp writes about protection money happened in some places, particularly in Mosul, but was not widespread elsewhere. I related to many Christians and church groups in southern and central Iraq, but had never heard of a Christian tax until ISIS took over Mosul and enacted it more widely there. ISIS gave most Christians in Mosul the choice of leaving the city or paying the tax.
Since the US invasion, criminal gangs in Iraq have kidnapped and sometimes killed many Christians for the purpose of extracting money, but not proportionally more than Muslims. When ISIS occupied parts of Iraq in 2014, it destroyed or took over a number of Christian churches. Violence against Christians increased. There were some Christians killed by ISIS, but in general Shia Muslims and Yezidi people fared worse. The Yezidis were the most systematically targeted, to the degree that this could be labeled “genocide.” That doesn’t make the times Christians were killed, threatened, or forced from their homes any less horrible, or lessen the witness of those Christians who were killed for refusing to deny their faith. But there hasn’t been, and isn’t currently, a widespread genocide against Christians or an attempt to stamp out Christianity in Iraq.
In spite of my concerns with this article, my hope for readers of Knapp’s book is that they will come away with more compassion for displaced Christians, Muslims, and Yezidis from Iraq (and for displaced Christians from Palestine, and the Muslim Rohingya people currently being killed, abused, and displaced), and become more committed to witness against such wars of aggression that led to the suffering Knapp describes.