Overcoming Realism with the Anabaptist Vision

When Barack Obama was elected, I wrote a post on his connection with Christian realism of the Reinhold Niebuhr variety, which you can read about here.

Christian realism is basically the idea that the world is evil and that in order to fight that evil, you have to get your hands dirty. Christian realism says that an idealistic stance of non-violence allows evil to triumph over good. Although non-violence or pacifism may be an ideal, Christian realists say that this ideal must be subordinated to the utilitarian calculus of political force and violence. Augustine adopted a Christian realist position in advocating an interior ethic of love, but an exterior ethic of expediency. Luther adopted a Christian realist position against the peasants in his treatise “Against the Thieving, Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” Reinhold Niebuhr was the Christian realist par excellence in his support of strong-armed cold war politics.

In a recent op-ed, David Brooks notes that realism is still alive and well in the political philosophy of Barack Obama, articulated so very eloquently in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. . . I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Brooks commends President Obama for a “thoroughly theological” speech which “talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor.” Brooks, himself a Christian realist, clearly finds the president’s moral position a prudent one.

I agree that Obama did a fine job articulating a realist stance and defending his political foreign policy on respectable moral grounds. But remember the context—Obama’s realist speech, which Brooks says “was the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life,” was given at his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is meant to acknowledge those idealists like Martin Luther King Jr. who choose not to get their hands dirty, who refuse to succumb to violent tactics even in the defense of a just cause. Such prizes are meant to provide recognition and encouragement to those idealists who provide a witness for what is morally possible, even if it isn’t morally expedient.

Christians like Brooks are supportive of the president’s speech because, since Christianity has existed, Christians have been more comfortable compromising with the world’s evil than they have been resisting the world’s evil with non-violent agape. Those idealistic, non-violent witnesses, minority that they are, are necessary and important reminders of the task to which Christians are called. One group of such idealistic witnesses were the Anabaptists.

The Anabaptists were a group of Christians involved in what was called the “Radical Reformation.” Concerned that reformers like Luther and Calvin were compromising too much in their political stances and failing to live up to the demands of the Christian life, the Anabaptist vision offered a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship (die Nachfolge Christi), the essence of the Christian church as a community of brothers and sisters, and the essence of Christian ethics as one of agapic love and non-violence.

The Anabaptists refused to accept the state church system which reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin were a part of. They did not participate in the government for the precise reason that earthly institutions like the magistracy required moral compromise that the Anabaptists found inconsistent with Christian life. The Schleitheim Confession of Faith, an early Anabaptist collection of beliefs states this as an agreement to separation [from the world]:

A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them [the wicked] and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who [have come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other. To us then the command of the Lord is clear when He calls upon us to be separate from the evil and thus He will be our God and we shall be His sons and daughters. . .

Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force — such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use [either] for friends or against one’s enemies I would like the records — by virtue of the word of Christ, Resist not [him that is] evil.

In other words, the Anabaptists did not believe that Christ came so that we could continue resisting the corruption of the world with the tools of corruption or using evil to fight evil. Rather, Christ came to liberate us from evil, and by choosing to follow Him, the Anabaptists believed we must necessarily forsake force, violence, and political power of any kind.

Because of their commitment to non-violence and the principle of worldly separation, the Anabaptists had a lot of enemies. From 1527-1560, the Anabaptists were severely persecuted. The 1529 Diet of Spires passed a death sentence on all Anabaptists of either sex [by] fire, sword, or some other way.” The 1551 Diet of Augsburg decreed that any judge or juror who had scruples about executing an Anabaptist be removed from office, fined, and/or imprisoned. As a result of these decrees, thousands of Anabaptists were executed in the 16th century, without trial or sentence. Yet, as Harold Bender writes in his quippy “The Anabaptist Vision,”

The authorities had great difficulty in executing their program of suppression, for they soon discovered that the Anabaptists feared neither torture nor death, and gladly sealed their faith with their blood. In fact, the joyful testimony of the Anabaptist martyrs was a great stimulus to new recruits, for it stirred the imagination of the populace as nothing else could have done.

Bender goes on to conclude:

However, the Anabaptist was realistic. Down the long perspective of the future he saw little chance that the mass of humankind would enter such a brotherhood with its high ideals. Hence he anticipated a long and grievous conflict between the church and the world. Neither did he anticipate the time when the church would rule the world; the church would always be a suffering church. He agreed with the words of Jesus when He said that those who would be His disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him, and that there would be few who would enter the strait gate and travel the narrow way of life. If this prospect should seem too discouraging, the Anabaptist would reply that the life within the Christian brotherhood is satisfying full of love and joy.

Compare this to Obama’s Nobel speech:

[A]s a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [Gandhi and King’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. . . So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

Understandably, Obama cannot reasonably embrace the Anabaptist vision, but I do think that the Anabaptist vision can embrace Christians who have too long capitulated to the claims of realism. David Brooks seems pleased with the theological underpinnings of Obama’s political philosophy. He writes, “Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.” While Brooks may be correct in noting the theological underpinnings of Obama’s politics, Christians need to question whether those underpinnings adequately reflect the nature of discipleship to Christ.

Love and evil are not two warring powers, as Brooks so dualistically proposes. What the Anabaptist vision reminds us is that Christian love overcomes evil not by force, but by inspiration and imagination. Christian love, as lived out by the Anabaptists, provides a witness to what is best and noblest in human nature. In the wake of such love, evil simply becomes impotent. The County of Alzey, after executing 350 Anabaptists in Palatinate, was said to exclaim, “What shall I do? The more I kill, the greater becomes their number!” Barack Obama’s speech says that such love cannot ultimately triumph against the world’s evils, and that if good is to overcome evil, force will be necessary. But the Anabaptist vision says otherwise. Heinrich Bullinger, one of the Anabaptist’s enemies and persecutors, wrote that the Anabaptists taught,

One cannot and should not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, for faith is a free gift of God. It is wrong to compel anyone by force or coercion to embrace the faith, or to put to death anyone for the sake of his erring faith. It is an error that in the church any sword other than that of the Divine Word should be used. The secular kingdom should be separated from the church, and no secular ruler should exercise authority in the church. The Lord has commanded simply to preach the Gospel, not to compel anyone by force to accept it. The true church of Christ has the characteristic that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone.

It is unfortunate that a peace prize meant to recognize those idealists who believe peace without violence is possible ended up rewarding a spirit of moral compromise this year. But it is even more unfortunate that Christians like Brooks think that Obama’s message is grounded in theology of Jesus Christ. So I will conclude this post with the same words in which I concluded my last post arguing against Christian realism:

As Stanley Hauerwas notes,

Jesus’ cross . . . is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. The cross is not the confirmation of the facile assumption that it is better to give than receive. Rather, the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.”

Jesus does not play power politics. He does not fight the evil of the world on evil’s terms. He does not use violence, power, and coercion to fulfill his mission. Nor does he expect his disciples to. Jesus invites his disciples to his own non-violent love, a love that will indeed overcome the powers of the world, but not through coercion and force.

The Anabaptist vision gives us a glimpse of what Jesus’ non-violent love actually can accomplish.

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3 comments so far

  1. Chip Meister on

    Brooks does not identify as Christian in his writings. He is by no means an authority on matters theological.

    Real evil, is most effectively minimized via non-violent albeit financial means.

    The rest is propaganda, exploitation of wrath, fear, trust, ambition, unnecessary bloodshed.

    • everydaythomist on

      You’re right that Brooks does not identify explicitly as Christian, though he identifies sympathetically with what he calls “Obama’s Christian Realism.” And while Brooks is by no means an authority on matters theological, he definitely likes to talk theology, and he knows that Christians are listening to him. See this recent “Get Religion” post extolling Brooks. I worry that certain “theocons” look to Brooks as a compass, and this post was partially aimed at offering a different theological view of Christian ethics as not advocating a compromise with evil.

      I am interested in your statement, Real evil, is most effectively minimized via non-violent albeit financial means.” While non-violent political activities do cost money, I think that money is pretty synonymous with power when pitted against evil. Just as Christians are called to be meek (i.e. powerless), I think they are also called to be poor (i.e. money-less). To get your hands on large sums of money, you almost always have to have some sort of moral compromise, which is what the Anabaptists are resisting.

  2. Charles on

    Apropos your post, George Parker’s essay in this week’s New Yorker also notes the connection between Obama’s moral framework for foreign policy and the theology of Neibuhr, and includes a quote from Obama via Brooks.

    http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2009/12/21/091221taco_talk_packer

    My wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Anabaptist community of Berlin, Ohio, this past October, where we took in the Behalt, a 265-foot mural in the round that portrays the history of the Amish and Mennonites and Hutterites.

    Two years earlier, we were all stunned by the profoundly Christian response of the Amish community when a deranged gunman killed five of their daughters in a community school classroom.

    I am sympathetic to, even admiring of, Obama’s undertaking a reconciliation of what it means to be a Christian with what it means to be the leader of a national superpower. But the Anabaptists leave me troubled by the thought we have missed entirely the call of the Gospels’ Jesus. And, like so many of the Jews and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we have no idea how badly we’ve missed the message and the messenger.


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