500 Years Later: An Anabaptist Reflection on the Reformation

According to any good Protestant storyteller, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses onto the Wittenberg door, resulting in the beginning of the Reformation. While recent scholarship has shown that the beginning of the Reformation is much more nuanced, situated in a developed history, than the traditional Protestant narrative of mutual fidelity and rebellion, today, October 31, 2017, global Protestant commemorates the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.

Historical accuracy aside, the global commemorations and celebrations of #refo500 (because it wouldn't be a good twenty-first century celebration without a corresponding hashtag) at minimum offer Christians everywhere an opportunity to pause and reflect on what has transpired in the last five hundred years.

It is my assumption that in the days, weeks, and months surrounding this momentous anniversary, most Protestants will view the Reformation with unbridled optimism, while many Catholics will continue to view Protestants with heretics. (Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, will continue doing their own thing because nobody in the West ever pays attention to them while reflecting on matters like this.) But, if we were to take a step back, out of the comfort of our own churches and denominations, and attempted to truthfully examine some of the implications of the Reformation, how should we respond?

It is likely that, as we engage in the act of reflection, that no two denominations will reflect on the Reformation in the same way. As a result, I can only admit to my own biases and perspectives as I approach this reflection. Thus, I will be up front about my biases and perspectives. I am first of all a Christian, who chooses to identify with the Anabaptist tradition, and, more specifically, as a Mennonite. Part of the reason for this is as a personal choice, but, perhaps more pertinent, is that my ancestors were all Russian Mennonites, who immigrated from Russia to Canada between the 1870s and 1940s.

Anabaptists have always had an interesting relation to Protestantism. On the one hand, Harold Bender declared loudly in 1943 that

There can be no question but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, who for the first time clearly enunciated them and challenged the Christian world to follow them in practice. The line of descent through the centuries since that time may not always be clear, and may have passed through other intermediate movements and groups, but the debt to original Anabaptism is unquestioned.

However, not all Anabaptists agree with Bender's reading of history. Others, like Walter Klaassen or C. Arnold Snyder have boldly declared that Anabaptists are neither Catholic nor Protestant, arguing that while Anabaptists were influenced by both Catholic and Protestants, they emerged as an alternative grouping altogether. Thus, Anabaptists are left with a unique perspective with which to reflect on the Reformation.

Anabaptists are no doubt, at least to some degree, a product of the Reformation. Whatever difference the Anabaptists possess in comparison to Luther et al, there is no question that Anabaptist beginnings owes a debt to the theological, political, and social climate of the time. Thus, as an Anabaptist, I want to affirm that there was good that came out of the Reformation. On the heels of the Crusades, amidst the Inquisition, with multiple popes attempting to anathematize each other, the church was surely in need of reform.

Yet, it also remains true that Anabaptists were persecuted and killed not only by Catholics, but Lutherans as well. Anabaptists were rejected as "too radical," and persecution of major Anabaptist groups has occurred as recently as the twentieth century. The majority of Protestantism has not always taken Anabaptism seriously, as a viable option of expression of the Christian faith. Thus, Anabaptists operate in both a place of privilege and of oppression within the world of Protestantism.

I think that this is may be true of the Anabaptists story in general. Anabaptists have continually walked that line between privilege and oppression. For example, in the seventeenth century, Dutch Anabaptists experienced a period of great wealth and prosperity, a far cry from the persecution many Anabaptists were faced with less than a century earlier. Similarly, Anabaptism has grown into one of the largest expressions of Christianity in the world--a fully global movement--reaching onto every continent. We are a privileged people.

On the other hand, however, Anabaptists have not only been the victims of persecution and oppression, we have also been the cause of it. There were Mennonites who engaged in Nazi activity in Germany and Poland. Closer to home, Mennonite settlements in North America displaced Indigenous persons, taking an implicit role in the colonization of North America.

I think that it is important for Mennonites to engage in the truthfulness of our history, for, as the pseudo-Mennonite Stanley Hauerwas has said, "we cannot speak this truth without it having worked truthfully in us." Said differently, Mennonites must be honest with ourselves about our own history--its heights and its pitfalls--if we want to work towards our goal of being a people called into relationship by God, being transformed by the Divine Presence.

As I have learned more about the dark-side of my Anabaptist history, I have not become less convinced of the truth that I believe is embedded in the Anabaptist narrative. Rather, it has spurred me on to re-examine my assumed understanding of theology, ethics, and spirituality, attempting to bring myself into closer communion with God through the body of Christ.

I believe that a similar approach is not only recommended, but imperative for Christians as we reflect back upon the last five-hundred years of church history. We must be honest with ourselves, both about the good, and the bad, if we want to move forward into increased faithfulness to Christ. How are we to do this?

First, I think we should recognize that the Reformation needed to happen. While I am certainly no expert on the medieval church or spirituality, my best reading of the centuries leading up to the Reformation is that the Catholic Church was in massive need of reform (and not only because of the indulgences). Crusades, the Inquisition, certain practices involved in veneration, were all created as--or at least evolved into--manipulative practices for the church to maintain their power over the laity. As a result, in ridding the church of these oppressive and manipulative practices, there is certainly good that has come as a result of the Reformation.

However, I can't help but wonder if we as the church catholic are actually that much better off than we were five hundred years ago. There is but one body of Christ, yet many churches still cannot get along, never mind worship together. Christ's body was broken for us, not for us to emulate, but so that we would be made whole in his presence. As long as the church remains separated from the rest of her body, can we really call the results of the Reformation good?

We cannot go back to some pre-Reformation church, and we certainly cannot, like many Anabaptists wish to do, go back to being the early church. We are left to deal with the happenings from history, and resolve to put our best foot forward in moving beyond our current situation, striving for ecumenism within the broken body of Christ. Such ecumenism will require a reoriented posturing of ourselves, ready not only to give but also to receive from our sisters and brothers within the body of Christ. Thus, as an Anabaptist, it is not enough for me to simply recognize only the gifts of my tradition, and, in hospitality, offer it to Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and others, as a shared gift within the body of Christ, although this alone may be hard enough. I must not only be willing to give from my tradition, but as an Anabaptist I must be willing to receive from these traditions who have not always treated us with grace.

Unlike many of the pieces that have been published leading up to the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, I do not want to conclude this piece with a definite answer to the "goodness" of the Reformation. I do not think it my place to offer the Reformation a definitive ranking of "good" or "bad." I believe that to do that eliminates any of the nuance or particularity that is withheld in the Reformation. Rather, I end this brief piece asking us to think back with honesty, in truthfulness, on the legacy of the Reformation.

In the end, all I can ask of us to do is to look at both the heights and pitfalls of the last five hundred years of church history, and consider what we, as the global body of Christ, can do to continue pursuing Christ in faithfulness. Because, in the end, that was the goal of the Reformation, wasn't it?

Ecclesia semper reformanda est.