As MennoNerds, we all have found certain distinctives of Anabaptism to be central in our expression of faith. This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog in the month of May on Anabaptism.
The history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament is filled with violence and war. In the New Testament though we see a radical turning away from the former when a Rabbi from Nazareth comes on the scene and starts saying things like “turn the other cheek”, “bless those who persecute you” and “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”. The early church took those words seriously and for the next 300 years many of them would follow their masters’ example in life as well as in death. You can read some of the quotes from prominent voices within the early church on non violence by clicking over here.
Unfortunately since about the 4th century the history of Christianity has been just as brutal and bloody as any other religion or empire that has existed. The first notable moment of departure from Christ’s command to love ones enemies comes from Constantine in the year 312 AD. Just before the Battle of Milvian Bridge outside of Rome, Constantine had a vision of a cross in the sky which had an inscription, “Conquer by this”, attached to it. Then in a dream Christ supposedly appeared to him and commanded him to put the image that he had seen on the armies weapons as a safeguard (a) against his enemies. Constantine and his armies went on to win the battle and he took this as a sign to adopt the God of the Christians as his own. The first thing that comes to my own mind here are the Nicolaitans who are mentioned a few times in the book of Revelation. Revelation 2:6 is one example:-
But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Scripture does not tell us much about the Nicolaitans but the name itself means “lay conquerors” or “conquerors of the people”, which gives us some insight into who they may have been and why God hated their practices. Isn't it interesting that the first man to slay and conquer in the name of “the Christian God” had received a sign from heaven that said, “Conquer (the people) by this”?
While Constantine gave the power of the state to the church it was Saint Augustine of Hippo who gave the church the backing of the Bishops to fight fire with fire. It was the Donatists (an early Christian sect) who through violent acts against some of Augustine’s friends and an assassination attempt on Augustine himself eventually persuaded him to retaliate. His writings approved the use of political power to bring sinners into the fold in order that they may be saved (b). While he never came to the point in his beliefs that said heretics should be killed for their beliefs, it is largely believed that his writings and influence laid the foundations for the atrocities that would later be committed by the church in God’s name.
Much of the institutional churches history since could be compared to a woman who was drunk with the blood of the saints (c) as she has persecuted not only unbelievers, but those who did actually bear the true testimony of Christ. There has thankfully always been a thread throughout time though of those who have remained faithful to the peaceful teachings of Jesus. Most notably are the Anabaptist's of the reformation era in the 16th Century. They were heavily persecuted by both the Protestant and Catholic churches of their time for their "heresies". Whether for failing to recognize the authority of the Pope, for practicing adult Baptism or other similar crimes they suffered terrible persecutions for Christ. Yet the leaders of this “third way” remained committed to non violence and enemy love, as Menno Simons said:-
(The regenerated) are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and know of no war…Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine’s blood of well-nigh equal value (d).
This remains one of the core values of Anabaptist's today. While others go to war in the name of God against evil nations, and others push for the death penalty to be reinstated and so on. We as Christ followers, are called to live as Jesus did.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. – Isaiah 53:9
Is non violence always an option? For Jesus it was.
a – History (Robert Don Hughes, pg 62-63)
b – History (Robert Don Hughes, pg 92-93)
b – History (Robert Don Hughes, pg 92-93)
c – Revelation 17-6
d - The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, Indiana, 1871), 1, 170b and 81b. The quotations were revised by comparison with the Dutch editions of 1646 and 1681.