Contemplating the Sword

Early Anabaptist theologies of church and state differentiated between the types of power operative in the two realms, and made clear that external forms of coercion such as were common in the temporal realm have no place in the spiritual. The qualitative distinction between the two kingdoms prevents a direct transference of methods.
Are these, then, two non-overlapping magisterial authorities who cannot interact, as Luther suggests? The Anabaptist exemplars mentioned in this paper did not think so. In light of this, two questions remain. First, how does the Christian community relate to temporal authority as disciples of Jesus Christ? Second, in light of the mission of God, how does the Christian community cooperate toward the work of the kingdom of God in the world?

The answer to both questions lies in the Christian mandate to bear witness to the kingdom. Christian witness in Anabaptist reflection has often taken the form of deliberate separation – i.e., isolation, withdrawal – from external structures. But separation alone as a primary form of witness is neither unequivocally faithful nor consistent with historic Anabaptist thought. Hubmaier, Marpeck, and Menno show, in contrast, that critical participation in temporal government can be the locus for witness, framed by the ethical limits discerned by the sensitive Christian conscience. Participation is not itself witness, but can facilitate it where governments seek to follow norms of justice.

But further, witness does not consist in simply working for social justice, or in calling for it where it is lacking. Rather, witness transcends mere justice, embodying righteousness that embraces suffering in the interest of demonstrating love and mercy to others, and so embodying a righteousness higher than mere justice. Witness refuses to rely on temporal forces and structures for protection, much less preservation. It holds loosely the commitments tied to temporal citizenship and trusts that God’s sovereignty will ultimately vindicate the actions of the children of God, even if only eschatologically.
Witness demands that the Christian community embody a dissident relationship to temporal structures and authority.

Christians strive to be good citizens, but are aware that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. Consequently, Christians anticipate suffering, knowing that 1) it is to be expected within the ordering of this world (in which we still live); 2) following after Christ entails embrace of suffering in imitation of Christ; 3) the violence of this world can be overcome not by the exercise of violence, but ultimately only by the work of Christians to endure violence as a form of redemptive witness to others.

Anabaptists often ask whether Christians can participate in coercive or violent exercise of government authority. This is the wrong question, because it presupposes an absolute commitment to something other than Christ as a starting point. Rather, the question of how one’s discipleship will be incarnated in a situation is a far more fruitful way of discerning than to begin with an extreme scenario and generalize from that point. We can see this approach applied historically.

The Anabaptist commitment to separation seen as nonresistance is a contextualized expression of Christian discipleship in the face of opposition rather than it starting presupposition, but in cases where authorities were favourable, separation was not always deemed necessary. For example, Pilgram Marpeck continued to serve intermittently in civil service roles for many years after becoming an Anabaptist. In simple terms, the question “What would Jesus do?” asked in various forms and with difference contexts nuancing it, framed Anabaptist discernment. Sometimes it was asked in a consequentialist way that led to greater participation than I would affirm.

But if 16th century Anabaptism teaches us anything, it is that while natural law principles are clear and direct, human weakness frequently hampers their application. And so we continue, haltingly, but following the words of 1 Peter 2:23 (NIV) — “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”

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