The Naked Anabaptist 3: After Christendom
After a not so brief hiatus, on to the third of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptism:
Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalized Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
G.K. Chesterton is reported to have said that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and left found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” This very Anabaptist-sounding statement could be used to describe their view about the way that history has unfolded. Beginning with Constantine in the fourth century, all the way down to the twentieth century, Christianity has, to varying degrees at different times and in different places, been closely aligned with political power. And from an Anabaptist perspective, this is a connection that should never have been made. Jesus was never interested in starting a new “empire” with the only difference between the new and the old being the word “Christian” prefixed to it. The New Testament (difficult—and often left untried) ideal was a kingdom community defined exclusively by its allegiance to Jesus, that could speak the truth to political power, and operated from the margins rather than the center of power.
Of course, some might detect a bit of irony here. When Christians have historically enjoyed power and cultural influence the theological justification for “Christendom” is not hard to find. And when Christianity is on the wane and no longer occupies the position of prominence it once assumed, as certainly seems to be the case in the postmodern “West,” then the theological language is altered to re-describe the present as the most faithful biblical model of how church and state should relate to one another. Anabaptism is certainly in vogue in some circles right now, and often to people who have either grown tired of or are struggling to come to terms with post-Christendom realities. Perhaps one of the lessons that is to be learned from history is to be suspicious of any claim that portrays this particular instantiation of Christianity (i.e., the one we happen to inhabit) as the most faithful, most biblical, most theologically consistent, most whatever.
And yet… The first Anabaptists rejected the link church and state precisely at a time when this link was taken for granted and assumed. They truly were dissidents in the sense that they analyzed their present situation in light of the teachings of the New Testament and did a big rethink.
They saw Jesus’ command, in each of the synoptic Gospels, to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” They saw injunctions against retaliation, commands to love enemies, warnings about abusing power, and took them seriously. They wondered how all of this could happen when Christianity was closely linked to political empires that relied on coercive violence for their maintenance. They saw an inconsistency between the biblical ideal of a freely chosen life of discipleship and a political reality where one was a “Christian” simply by being born in a certain geographic location. For the early Anabaptists, the religio-political reality of Christendom not only made the biblical ideal more challenging; in many ways, it represented its exact opposite.
And for Stuart Murray, our current situation, in the post-Christian West, represents an ideal time to rediscover some of these things. Murray advocates a return to thinking of the church as somewhat like the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time (and Anabaptists in the sixteenth century)—exiles in a foreign land. If we are to be effective in mission, there are at least seven transitions that we will have to get used to and work from within:
1. From the centre to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
2. From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
3. From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles, and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
4. From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
5. From control to witness: in Christendom the churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
6. From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
7. From institution to movement: in Christendom the churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.
While I might have minor questions about a few of these, they strike me as both a fairly accurate description of our cultural moment and a compelling diagnosis of a helpful way forward. This is where the church finds itself in the 21st century. Like it or not, this is the reality we must face. But we can take comfort in the fact that our reality is not historically unique. The first Anabaptists faced a situation quite similar to our own, and there is much they can teach us about how to live faithfully after Christendom.
For those interested, Jamie Arpin-Ricci has posted a transcript of his interview with Stuart Murray here.