Shel – Two things:
(1) For those who are new to this Anabaptism is a big title for most of the radical reformation folks. These folks formed sub-groups of which the term “Mennonite” is one of the biggest and most diverse word used. Many churches, peoples, denominations, etc. flow out of this group. There are also groups that went very counter-cultural in pursuit of non-conforming to the world’s cultures at large and simplicity. These are are the ones that get a lot of press but are the smallest part of Anabaptism such as “old order mennonites”, Hutterites and Amish. Usually they make a practice of looking and living VERY differently than the main cultures they are located in. They also have many different sub-groups too.
(2) I had a guy who got irate at me once because I spoke of Luther’s and later Lutheran brutality, murder and harassment of the Jews and Anabaptists. Luther considered the Jews basically less than human later on in his ministry (earlier in his ministry-before he had the state sword at his disposal – he was kinder – but grew worse in word and deed with age and power). The Anabaptists in Luther’s words were “worse than the Jews.” This was not hyperbole -this was a historical reality based on his views and the condemnation of Anabaptists is in the Augsberg(Lutheran) Confession.
So when I brought this up someone thought I was attacking his family. He had not learned to engage in personal peacemaking regarding the offense he took – left in a huff to a shinier show. We both missed a great opportunity to become deeper Jesus-centered peace-makers when it counted most (I have a feeling though this pattern was deeper a issue that has and will be repeated again until real transparency and trust is developed). But until that breakthrough, if it’s “your way or the highway” you will be too good and too sinful for everyone eventually.
The reality is once the Lutherans had the power of the sword of the state they used it on other kinds of Christians. It only stopped once the state stopped enforcing the church leaderships demands with the sword. Would it have ever stopped if secularism didn’t push back?
A question for the new state-church blending advocates to consider.
After 500 years, Mennonites and Lutherans come to terms with a painful past
The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is widely quoted (or misquoted) as having said in 1972 that it was too early to assess the implications of the French Revolution of 1789. Two centuries were not enough for right remembering.
Are five centuries enough? Mennonites and Lutherans are approaching the quincentennial of the day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to Wittenberg Church door. For some years now, the two denominations have been engaging in dialogue about what happened in the 16th-century Reformation and what it means for our identities and relationships today. The dialogues have taken place on the national level (Germany, France, U.S.) and on the international level (Lutheran World Federation and Mennonite World Conference).
The dialogues reached a ritual climax at Mennonite and Lutheran world conferences in 2009 and 2010 in Asuncion, Paraguay, and Stuttgart, Germany. At both gatherings Lutheran representatives officially asked forgiveness for past persecution of the Anabaptists. Mennonites, in response, acknowledged their own sin and complicity in false memories of this painful history.
Why is it necessary to come to terms with events that most Lutherans and Mennonites have long since forgotten? On the Lutheran side is embarrassment that their Augsburg Confession of Faith, adopted in 1530, includes a number of harsh condemnations of the Anabaptists. The Lutherans are a confessional church, bound together in mutual allegiance to the Augsburg Confession. All Lutheran pastors, prior to ordination, must affirm their allegiance to that unaltered confession. Ishmael Noko, a Lutheran leader from Zimbabwe, described the condemnations “as like the poison which a scorpion carries in its tail.”
Mennonites are afflicted with their own poisons. The ways Mennonites tell stories of Anabaptist martyrdom has sometimes led to self-righteousness. Nor have Mennonite historical accounts done justice to the motives of the persecuting Lutheran, Catholic and Reformed leaders in the context of the Reformation.
Mennonites are troubled by the urgent desire of Lutherans today that their baptism be acknowledged and respected when they join Mennonite churches. Lutherans today respect Mennonite baptism. Why can’t Mennonite Church USA and other Mennonite bodies adopt statements accepting Lutheran baptism?
Healing Memories: Reconciling in Christ: Report of the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, published in 2010 by MWC and the Lutheran World Federation, points to ways of reconciliation.
At the heart of the book is a history of “Lutheran Reformers and the Condemnation of Anabaptists.” The principal authors were John Roth of Goshen (Ind.) College and Timothy J. Wengert, a seminary professor in Philadelphia.
Roth and Wengert demonstrate that it is possible for scholars on both sides of the Anabaptist-Lutheran Reformation divide to tell the stories of the leaders, the main events and key writings of this era in a way acceptable to both sides.
This jointly written history is a brief summary of a vast amount of scholarship in recent years about the Reformation and Anabaptism. Roth, more than Harold Bender in his time, acknowledges the great diversity of Anabaptist movements.
When Reformation leaders persecuted Anabaptists, it was in a context where the radicals’ understandings of the Bible and of church and state would be seen as “a serious threat to religious faith and social order.” In the wake of the Peasants War of 1525 and the Muenster uprising of 1534-35, the killing of Anabaptists seems understandable, if not entirely excusable.
Wengert’s picture of Martin Luther shows the great reformer to be a more reluctant persecutor of Anabaptists than Mennonites have often assumed. In Wengert’s view, Luther “treated rebaptism as a theological dispute, not a political one.” Yet when Luther defined the work of Christian magistrates to include punishment of public blasphemy, he opened the way to “political punishment.” Wengert lifts up the argument of Johannes Brenz, a Lutheran leader who opposed capital punishment for Anabaptists. Those who accepted the killing of Anabaptists cannot be excused on the grounds that it was impossible in the 16th-century context to imagine alternative policies.
Does the purpose of ecumenical reconciliation require that such an account depart from the historical goal of objective truth? Surely the purpose affected the narrative and analysis. Will the purpose of reconciliation be achieved?
The Lutherans, though they cannot remove the Anabaptist condemnations from the Augsburg Confession, have agreed that the condemnations must now be interpreted in the light of this new interpretation. That means, among other things, that some of the condemnations must be seen as mistaken in their understanding of Anabaptism in the 16th century, and some of them must be seen as inapplicable to Mennonites in the present day.
Two areas of doctrinal disagreement remain — baptism and church-state relations. Lutherans and Mennonites, now attempting to “move beyond the condemnations,” are committed to ongoing dialogue about their differing approaches to these topics.
The Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue, and the book Healing Memories: Reconciling in Christ, offers opportunities for Sunday school classes or small groups to explore the issues. Available online is a study guide to accompany the book: “Healing Memories, Reconciling in Christ: A Lutheran-Mennonite Study Guide for Congregations.”
It would be best if a local study group could include members of both groups in at least one of the sessions.
The five-century mark will be upon us soon. The Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue gives us a chance to rightly remember events that may be as important for us as the contested French Revolution was for Chou Enlai.
James C. Juhnke, of Wichita, Kan., is professor emeritus of history at Bethel College.