When theological push comes to shove and I’m pressed into a theological category, I call myself an Anabaptist. Being an Anabaptist means I place a premium on personal piety, the importance of the church, the individual’s right to choose faith for themselves, the centrality of baptism, and the non-coersive, power-sacrificing nature of God, but mostly, it means I spend time explaining what an Anabaptist is.
I tell you about my Anabaptism knowing that you probably don’t care. What you might find more interesting is that there was a time and place in which my declaration of Anabaptism might have gotten me killed.
A Little Background
Anabaptism arose as part of the Radical Reformation. While Luther and his compatriots pushed against the abuses they saw in the Catholic Church, some Christians – mostly in Switzerland – thought Luther wasn’t pushing hard enough. You want “Reformation.” We want “Radical Reformation!”
The primary sticking point between the Reformers and the Radical Reformers was baptism. The Reformers wanted to keep “pedo (infant) baptism,” while the Swiss Brethren believed baptism was a decision (faith) that a person must and could only make for themselves, so many of them opted to be re-baptized (ana-baptized).
It wasn’t long until Anabaptists found themselves on an island, the Catholic Church disagreed with them and the Reformers did too. In a time without the Bill of Rights, religious persecution was often thought commiserate with defending the faith. Add 2 and 2 together and you get widespread persecution of Anabaptists.
John Horsh captures it this way in “Mennonites In Europe”
‘It is a fact recognized by many recent historians, that the persecution of the Anabaptists surpassed in severity the persecution of the early Christians by pagan Rome! Persecution began in Zurich soon after the Brethren had organized a congregation. Imprisonment of varying severity, sometimes in dark dungeons, was followed by executions. Within a short period the leaders of the Brethren lost their lives in the persecution.
Anabaptism was made a capital crime. Prices were set on the heads of Anabaptists. To give them food and shelter was a made a crime. The duke of Bavaria, in 1527, gave orders that the imprisoned Anabaptists should be burned at the stake — unless they recanted, in which case they should be beheaded. In Catholic countries the Anabaptists, as a rule, were executed by burning at the stake; in Lutheran and Zwinglian states, Anabaptists were generally executed by beheading or drowning.
Thousands sealed their faith with their blood. When all efforts to halt the movement proved vain, the authorities resorted to desperate measures. Armed executioners and mounted soldiers were sent in companies through the land to hunt down the Anabaptists and kill them on the spot without trial or sentence. The old method of pronouncing sentence on each individual dissenter proved inadequate to exterminate this faith.’
The long and short of it is painfully straight-forward: There was a time in history when theological disagreements within Christianity got people killed. And that’s why I want to take a few moments to praise (almost, sorta, kinda) Internet skirmishes.
It’s Not That Bad, Is It?
I know that we’d all rather not have social-media, theological sparring. I know a loving, affirming, and supportive community is the best place to hash out differences. I understand that when the world looks at our public fights via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, books, and conferences, that we aren’t putting our best foot forward. I get all that.
I also get that Christians disagree about things that matter. I know we are vehement about our beliefs. I understand that my Neo-Reformed friends and I have fundamentally different ideas about what God is doing and what the Bible is for. I know – first hand – about nasty, name-calling e-mail, disgustingly vile Facebook private messages, Internet stalkers and trolls, and the way we damage one another in full view of the public. As I said, we’d all rather not squabble and fight.
But then I’m reminded that Martin Luther’s King’s read of the Bible lead him to say words and think thoughts drastically different from his white, southern, Christian counterparts and it got him killed. I know the Apostle Paul spent his entire ministry working through what it means to be a Christian, because Jews and Gentiles couldn’t figure it all out and didn’t want to work together.
I remember that Jesus, Himself, was led to the Roman chains because, at it’s core, He had a fundamentally different view of God than the Pharisees and teachers of the law. I’m reminded that my 16th-Century Anabaptists fore-mothers and fore-fathers were hanged by trees and burned at the stake over a theological conversation that hardly anyone is having in the 21st Century.
People have been killed over theological disagreements, but regardless of how nasty social media can get, the occasional Internet melees we encounter haven’t crossed that divide…yet. No one has died because John Piper is a complementarian and Rachel Held Evans is not.
But someone could…if we don’t become more charitable and generous toward one another.
A Better Way Forward
Maybe, just maybe, the Internet and social media allow us to argue more Christianly than we ever have. Though we may wish it were different, drawing sides is a positive step away from drawing swords. Our challenge is not to follow the Luddite trail and condemn social-media merely because we too often see Christians behaving badly. Our tasks is to use it to discuss and disagree in love and generosity.
Time and again I remind my Bible class that there are two crucial elements needed for proper Biblical interpretation: Humility and Community. Christians need to hear how our ideas and interpretations land with others (another reason we need to be invested in a local church body), what they might check, and where they disagree. It keeps us from a Biblical and ecclesial me-ism that trains me to think my way of reading the Scriptures is the best way. When we haggle with one another – and do it well and without malice – we can actually bless and challenge one another.
The Internet and social media can extend – in a limited way – our community, it’s up to us to nurture our humility.
But in order to do so, we must be exceptionally careful. The quick click and the seduction of anonymity can trick us into believing that we can call a sister or brother “fool” and not be in the danger of hell.
We clearly have many miles to travel before we reach what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the beloved community,” but, perhaps there is a role for talking – even arguing – over the wire. At our best moments we can willingly listen to and be generous to the Other; hearing the arguments can move us closer to the Other, if we let it. Maybe this way we can appreciate the genuineness of our sisters and brothers with whom we disagree.
More importantly, when we disagree we can let our disagreements just be disagreements.