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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Anabaptists on Wall Street

We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.”  Slavoj Žižek, Zuccotti (Liberty) Park, New York City, 10 Oct, 2011   
    No – I am not making an obscure reference to Anabaptists in Montana’s Lustre-Volt communities (along Wall Street Road).  Rather, I am muddling through potential similarities and differences between the so-called Radical Anabaptists of pre-Modern Europe, from which the Lustre-Volt Mennonites descend, and current non-religious social and market protesters in Cairo, Vancouver and New York.
    Žižek's words were directed to Occupy Wall Street protesters in present-day New York City.  Yet, they could just as easily be applied to the social upheavals of 16th Century Europe.
    Contemporary Anabaptists – what your everyday North American thinks of when you say Mennonite or Amish, are in many ways the result of a very successful, centuries-old public relations effort.  In reality, Anabaptists have only recently been seen as harmless, pacifist farmers who dress funny and speak poor English.  For much of history, the term Anabaptist indicated a suspicious, grass-roots, democratic and anti-elitist movement in both church and state – a movement condemned  and feared equally by Rome, Martin Luther and the secular princes of Reformation Europe. 
    Five hundred years ago, as in many cities today, Continental Europe was racked with social upheaval, protests, occupations of town halls and churches, and vicious media debates regarding the privileges of the elite – corrupt princes within the Roman Catholic Church and increasingly, corrupt secular officials.  Elites are seldom elite due to any objective or inherent criteria or tendency, but rather due to their subjective relationship to the reins of power and authority.  In Europe in the 16th Century, many elite were being challenged for having abused their authority to enrich themselves while neglecting the needs of the communities, congregations and individuals under their care.  Many privileged elite had also begun to exempt themselves personally from common notions of ethics and responsibility.  Many things remain the same.
 Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives."  – Žižek, 2011
    Early Anabaptists, and others, questioned the misuse of such authority and privilege within the Church and community, rediscovering what they determined to be the historic truth of Christianity – that the structure of religious elites who had come to so flagrantly abuse their power for personal gain could be by-passed entirely – that humanity did not need priests, bishops and a pope to approach God.  Rather, justification was a free gift, available to any person, directly from God – without the necessity of any other intervention by Church or secular authority. 
    Having looked beyond the necessity of Rome, many early Anabaptists also began to reconsider the rights, privileges and nature of their secular governing authorities as well.
    This unique blend of humanism in the fields of theology and sociology encouraged other strands of church and state activism – and modern democracy might owe as much to these Radical Anabaptists as it does to the ancient Greeks. 
    However, for the next 150 years, gatherings of early Anabaptists were often disrupted, church leaders and dissidents were excommunicated and exiled from their home churches and cities, persons were arrested and held without trial, and civil authorities cooperated with the state churches to deprive tens of thousands of individuals of what we would today call basic human rights.  While these characteristics are most closely shared with protesters in the Arab Spring movement, they are increasingly coming to also characterize anti-protest efforts by civil authorities in North America.
There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? – Žižek, 2011
    The Radical Anabaptist movement culminated in the tragic Siege of Münster (1532-1535) – a sort of early Branch Davidian – Waco, Texas, type event in which thousands were killed as the massed armies of the Catholic and Protestant authorities sought to crush the “dangerous” movement.  As the siege of Münster dragged on and both conditions and behavior became increasingly extreme, the conditions of the siege and its tragic consequences were blamed on the victims.
    Truthfully, the Münster Anabaptists had fallen in love with their own rhetoric and political power and lost their vision.  Anabaptists everywhere were discredited by the heresies at Münster while many in power used Münster as justification to harass and attack Anabaptists who questioned their authority and privileges elsewhere.     
We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself.  – Žižek, 2011
    Many of us are called Mennonites today, not because of Menno Simons’ originality in theology but rather due to his ability to challenge and refute Lutheran and Catholic attempts to label the Anabaptist movement as dangerous, anarchic and criminal and to help the persecuted church reorganize.  He was our P.R. guy (public relations).  Luther had by then successfully called for the execution and martyrdom of such dangerous persons as the early Mennonites (remember, these are the forebears of the peaceful Amish and Mennonite farmers who today raise premium poultry for fancy American restaurants).  In truth, most Anabaptists would have seemingly agreed with Žižek that they were not out to destroy anything but that the corrupt system was merely destroying itself while blaming Anabaptism for its demise.
    Simons responded that the only true Anabaptists were the quiet pacifists of today’s popular image.  Any ties to the more radical movements and their social demands were cut and denied in the pursuit of tolerance and the freedom to live segregated, peaceful lives.
    Similarly, in the mid-20th Century, the so-called Goshen School attempted to again reorganize Anabaptist history, to eliminate and exclude problematic radicals who simply did not conform with Anabaptism’s slick new marketing image.  In all fairness, part of this effort was seemingly in response to the need to explain and protect alternative service options for Anabaptists and other religious pacifists after two devastating world wars.
    In short, there is a radical Anabaptist history from which we have gone to great lengths to distance ourselves – but in the age of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party – we might learn a lot, and might need to learn a lot about our own radical history and the consequences of decisions made 500 years ago – decisions that many feel we are again facing today as we confront a break-down in relations and responsibilities between the masses and the social and business elite.
    The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements are, like early Anabaptism, grass-roots based, fed by efficient local media and standing up for a purer form of democratic social order that resists elitism and privilege.  Like the Tea Party – many of those movements were conservative and religious.  Like Occupy Wall Street, many of these movements originated in addressing deep social divides, social injustice, and the appropriation of unfair ratios of resources to an arbitrary, entrenched and increasingly out-of-touch elite. 
    I am carefully avoiding fleshing this out too much or taking sides in this debate at this time.  However, I would encourage persons to look up the radical history of Anabaptism and re-engage this aspect of our heritage to help shape and inform our social and religious visions as individuals today.
What is Christianity? It’s the holy spirit. What is the holy spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the holy spirit is here now.  – Žižek, 2011
     Even Žižek seems to intuit a shared theme and goal between the religious and social reform movements of the 16th Century and our attempts to comprehend and address similar situations today.  As Anabaptists, we were at the fore of such attempts 500 years ago.  Where are we today?

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