Today I had the amazing privilege of participating in an historic event. As chair of the division of Biblical and Religious Studies at Fresno Pacific University I represented our department in the dedication of the Center for Anabaptist Studies. The purpose of this Center is to research, teach and envision how the original Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century might influence and inform our theology and churchly practice in the twenty-first century.
These are my people. This is my tradition. This radical wing of the Reformation was neither Protestant nor Catholic. Harold Bender reminds us in his book The Anabaptist Vision that it was a movement of priests and peasants who centered their understanding of God’s kingdom in three things: discipleship, community and the way of peace. For this they were hunted, persecuted and martyred.
Dr. Valerie Rempel gave an inaugural address in which she provided a concise definition of Anabaptism and offered a rationale for the founding of the Center. Here is an excerpt from her presentation.
In the 16th Century, some of the greatest theological minds of that era began to read the Bible in new ways. The text itself hadn’t changed but because of their experience in the Roman Catholic church, their own study of the scripture and, I have to believe, the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they began to develop a new understanding of God’s grace and free offer of salvation. Among those who were committed to reforming the church were those who wanted more than reform – they wanted to restore the kinds of communities described in the New Testament. These were the men and women who became known as the Anabaptists. Many of them lost their lives because of their witness to a new way.
Anabaptists were radical Bible readers at the core. They understood the reign of God to be centered in the church rather than the state, and believed that the body of Christ was to give visible witness to its proper citizenship. They saw themselves as present-day disciples of Jesus and because of that, they gave special weight to Jesus’s teaching – to his invitation to live generous lives, to his call for love of enemies, to his encouragement to participate in God’s work of healing and justice and hope. They formed voluntary churches based on an adult confession of faith. They practiced mutual aid. They practiced church discipline.
As spiritual descendants of those early radicals, these ideas have informed our theological tradition and our church practices. But, nearly 500 years later, we live in a very different period of time. Separation between church and state has morphed from a theological idea about proper allegiances, to a political idea embedded in a constitution. Old enemies – church bodies that persecuted early Anabaptists, are now brothers and sisters in common endeavors – mission enterprises, community development projects, health and human service ministries, and educational programs. We are witnessing the demise of Christendom, a political and cultural reality that privileged Christianity but also invited, indeed welcomed, compromise. In its place is an increasingly secularized society and an increasingly secularized church.
I believe that this is a time that calls for radical Bible reading. The text hasn’t changed – but the times we live in have and they call us to re-engage with God’s Word and with our own theological tradition to see how it can offer us wisdom for living as Christians in our world and for engaging in mission that invites all people to become followers of Jesus and children of God.
I, too, believe that Anabaptism is a viable and relevant option for our postmodern, post-Christendom culture. In an age when people are increasingly skeptical of a superficial gospel that amounts to nothing more than “fire insurance” from the “flames of Hell,” the call to discipleship is compelling and authentic. As people face the crushing and dehumanizing consequences of individualism, the call to community is meaningful. As people recognize the failure of war and militarism to bring about positive change, the call to a way of peace is hopeful. This is the time to dream dreams and allow the Spirit to move us in ways that are often counter to the culture we inhabit. And a re-envisioned Anabaptism gives us the theology, history and tradition from which we can engage the new world around us.
Another quote from Dr. Rempel:
I want the Center to be a place that encourages our own tradition – the Mennonite Brethren church that gave birth to the University and the Seminary – to reclaim its theological heritage. The question of allegiance – to God or to the state – has not gone away. We, too, struggle with an increasingly secularized society and its impact on the church. It is difficult for us to resist the lure of a consumer society – to live lives of simplicity and generosity. Too often, we find ourselves fighting over how God accomplished the work of salvation through Jesus, rather than joining together to proclaim the message that Jesus does indeed save and that through him, people and communities can be transformed. We need active imaginations that can envision ways for our congregations to live out their calling to be the body of Christ and we need the courage to lead.
My people died at the hands of their persecutors for these beliefs. They would not claim allegiance to the state. They would not take up arms against the enemies of the state. They would not baptize their children, but rather chose adult confession of faith. They would not coerce anyone to join them. They were, however, a people of discipleship, community and peace, committed to the Sermon on the Mount. For this they died.
Particularly thrilling today, was when I got to hold a copy of a 263-year-old book. This book, The Martyrs Mirror, is a collection of stories chronicling the deaths of an untold number of Anabaptist martyrs. First published in 1660, the copy that I held was printed in 1748. Documented as the largest book to be printed in Colonial America, and older than the Declaration of Independence, the book before me held story after story of people who sacrificed everything to be a part of this radical way of life.
One of the most famous stories tells of the Anabaptist Dirk Willems. Dirk had the opportunity to flee his captors, but as he ran across a frozen lake he suddenly heard the cries of his pursuer. Dirk’s would-be-captor had fallen through the ice and was certain to be drowned. In an act of compassion, Dirk rescued his pursuer, was recaptured and later burned at the stake.
These are my people. I am very proud to be a founding partner in the Center for Anabaptist Studies. I believe that God has a great and vibrant future for us as we bear witness to his Son through the ongoing creative work of his Spirit, and as we carry forward the heritage of our past.
Here is the dedicatory prayer I offered for the center:
We come today, our great God and Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, through the guidance of the Spirit, to ask for wisdom and discernment. We ask that you would enlighten our minds, open our eyes and soften our hearts for the mission at hand. We ask that you would challenge us through the vast host of witnesses that have gone before us, the forbears of a great tradition of faith – a tradition committed to discipleship, witness, service, community and peace.
We ask, Father, that you will anoint and bless The Center for Anabaptist Studies. And as the various partners work together to further a theological, historical and educational mission, will you revive the hearts of your children and draw all people to yourself.
We ask a blessing upon Dr. Valerie Rempel, our center’s director. Give her vision, passion and purpose for the challenges that lie ahead. We are grateful for the benefactors that have made this center possible. We honor their faithfulness to the Anabaptist vision and thank you for them.
God our Father, an idea is born today. For some, it would seem to be an idealistic one, an antiquated aberration of history. Some would even call it heretical as they did 500 years ago. But today, God, we stand together to again commit ourselves to the way of Jesus, though that way may not make sense, though that way may not be popular and though that way may not walk easily in step with the current culture. We believe that we have a vital and prophetic message for the twenty-first century and we believe that there are those, especially the young who are so disenchanted with popular ideologies and paradigms, that will also find hope, meaning and purpose in a third way.
So, today, our great God, we dedicate The Center for Anabaptist Studies to you and ask that you grant us favor.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.