Contents of Volume
July 2000 Number Three
Anabaptist Separation and Arguments Against the Sword in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union
Abstract: Recent historical interpretations of Anabaptism have focused both on the diversity of views concerning the sword and on commitments held in common among early Anabaptist groups. An alternative interpretive framework, shaped by the rhetorical tradition and a commitment to pacifism, can reorient our reception of early Anabaptist writings about the sword. A careful rhetorical analysis of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union shows that this document incorporated contrasting views of the sword: (1) the sword is evil and (2) the sword is good, yet outside Christ’s perfection. While the former view supports the Brotherly Union’s overarching antagonism to the dominant social institutions and practices of the time, the latter view dualistically recognizes the fundamental difference between the perfection of Christ, to which the church is called, and the protection of the good with the sword, which is the vocation of the magistrate. This contrast between antagonism and dualism, played out in the Brotherly Union, manages a central problematic faced by Anabaptist movements: how to be a separate, visible church while at the same time remaining civil, peaceful and law-abiding subjects. Ambrosius Spitel-maier’s discussion of the role of government and articles 13 and 14 of the Dordrecht Confession illustrate alternative strategies for managing this tension between separation and civility.
While the pacifist commitments of Mennonites remain visible in their primary confessions, in their continuing designation as a historic peace church and in their frequent public witness against violence, this pacifist commitment is today a contested issue within the Mennonite churches, as it has often been throughout Mennonite history. Furthermore, as J. Denny Weaver has been pointing out for some time, one of the commonplace sources for evidence on all sides of this internal debate about the Mennonite peace stance is the Anabaptist movement of the Radical Reformation. That is not surprising, given the abundant evidence that the historical narrative told about Anabaptist origins in the sixteenth century continues to have profound implications for the shape of Mennonite identity at the turn of the twenty-first.
For example, Rodney Sawatsky has suggested a relationship between the recent historical narratives that emphasize Anabaptist pluralism and the lived experience of contemporary Mennonite pluralism. John Roth has suggested that early Anabaptist conversations about church differences can provide both negative and positive models for current Mennonite encounters with cultural and ecclesiastical controversies. Arnold Snyder has argued that amidst the plurality of Anabaptist perspectives there is a common terrain of agreement that could provide a basis for a common believers’ church identity today. And a number of recent books have anthologized old Anabaptist texts according to a packaging scheme that appeals to the current North American Mennonite obsession with spirituality.
Lest we assume that these questions of identity are limited only to Mennonite and other church groups descended from the Anabaptists, I will point out that a Baptist historian like William Estep has sought to ground basic American constitutional assumptions, such as separation of church and state, in the Anabaptist movements. And recent postmodernists such as Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Franois Lyotard have proposed that America is a prototypical Anabaptist nation, driven by a determination to make its utopian dreams material in the here and now through the sensuous and ecstatic play of hyperreal simulacra and superhuman technologies that exceed the limits of the corrupted human body.
As a communication scholar, I have a particular interest in two different aspects of these contested Anabaptist historical sources: (1) what rhetorical practices appear to shape these sources and their original audiences and (2) how these sources are used rhetorically by contemporary writers to defend particular arguments about the meaning of Anabaptism. As a committed pacifist, I have a third commitment, to an interpretation of history that gives priority to those historical choices that constitute an alternative to the dominant stories of violent struggles, military campaigns and political powers. Consequently, I propose a rereading of early Anabaptist sources that highlights the difficult yet compelling choices a very large number of Anabaptists made on behalf of nonresistance or nonviolence. I do so without denying that the commitment to defenselessness was a contested issue already at the Anabaptist origins of the Mennonite, Brethren and Hutterite peoples. This rereading focuses first on the changing character of Anabaptist historiography and then turns directly to a rhetorical analysis of an early Anabaptist confessional document whose status in the contemporary historical discussion has shifted dramatically: the Schleitheim Brotherly Union. My rhetorical analysis of the Brotherly Union emphasizes its movement from a simple to a complex understanding of separation as a strategy for opposing the sword without undermining civic authority. By way of comparison, the essay then turns briefly to two other Anabaptist texts-one contemporaneous with the Schleitheim Brotherly Union and the other appearing over a century later-that also sought to manage the tension between separated pacifism and civil subjectivity: Ambrosius Spitelmaier’s answers to the city of Nuremberg in 1527 and the Dordrecht Confession of 1632.
THE ANABAPTIST VISION AND POLYGENESIS HISTORIOGRAPHY
The investigation of Anabaptist origins in the sixteenth-century Reformation is usually described according to the following progressive plot. For centuries after the Reformation, the Anabaptist story was primarily told by church historians who inherited the enmity of the magisterial Reformers and their Catholic counterparts toward Anabaptists. Such historians had focused on the violent and polygamist Mnster experiment or the involvement of Thomas Mntzer in the German Peasants Revolt of 1525 as paradigmatic of the Anabaptist movements. During this time, the only alternative readings of Anabaptist origins appeared in such texts as the Martyrs’ Mirror or the Hutterite Chronicle, which were written primarily for didactic purposes and directed toward the Mennonite and Hutterite descendants of the Anabaptists.
However, as the story goes, at the beginning of the twentieth century a young German Mennonite named John Horsch, who had been deeply influenced by the groundbreaking sympathetic reconstruction of European Anabaptist history by the state archivist at Mnster, Ludwig Keller, migrated to America to escape mandatory military service. Horsch took up the scholarly retrieval of Anabaptist sources that was to culminate in the flourishing of vigorous Anabaptist historical study by American Mennonite scholars under the historiographical rubric known as the Anabaptist Vision, a framework given its particular shape primarily by Horsch’s son-in-law, Harold Bender.
Anabaptist Vision historiography challenged the reigning Reformation historiography that had reduced Anabaptists either to spiritually unstable enthusiasts or violence-prone revolutionaries. At the same time, the Anabaptist Vision gave renewed credibility to the historical and theological identity of Mennonite peoples by renewing the heroic narrative of Anabaptist origins with the tools of modern historical investigation. It did so, as polygenesis historians pointed out, by focusing on the pacifist Swiss Brethren as the true origin and guidepost for authentic nonresistant Anabaptism. By applying this arbitrary historical guidepost, the sword-bearers and enthusiasts could be safely left out of the story, on the one hand, and contemporary Mennonites could claim a legitimate place in church history that grounded their church’s pacifist and separatist identity, on the other hand.
As the tale we have been following unfolds, the Anabaptist Vision paradigm lost its historical credibility in the early 1970s as a result of the historical research convincingly summarized in two publications: (1) a book by secular historian James Stayer entitled Anabaptists and the Sword and (2) an essay published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review by James Stayer, Werner Packull and Klaus Depperman entitled “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins.” The former text documented the wide diversity of viewpoints held by early Anabaptists on the issue of sword-bearing while the latter text demonstrated that, far from bursting forth exclusively from the fuel of Zwingli’s Zurich reformation, the early Anabaptist flames were ignited in at least three distinctive regional European hearths, each with its own particular mix of combustible social and historical elements. The apparent absence of a nearly universal Anabaptist commitment to defenselessness combined with the newly acknowledged complexity of Anabaptist origins to undermine especially that part of the Anabaptist Vision narrative that made nonresistance a central feature of early Anabaptism-“thoroughly believed and resolutely practiced by all the original Anabaptist Brethren and their descendants throughout Europe from the beginning until the last century,” as Bender had claimed in his influential manifesto. More broadly, as many church-related scholars were to lament, the new historical accounting of Anabaptist beginnings, with its focus on the specificity of particular Anabaptist movements and groups, made it very difficult for church historians to produce a credible narrative that was also accessible and inspiring to laypersons in Mennonite and Brethren churches in search of historical meaning. In fact, one of the scholars who was primarily responsible for the triumph of the polygenesis thesis over the Anabaptist Vision expressed surprise at how readily and easily Mennonites accepted the demise of the Anabaptist Vision. Wrote James Stayer, “The last thing I could have imagined was that the Mennonites would have abandoned Bender’s conception of evangelical Anabaptism without a determined critical defense. The unexpected was precisely what happened.”
Of course, it is not entirely true that Mennonites simply abandoned the Anabaptist Vision. While few scholars were prepared to defend Bender’s thesis in every detail, a determined, if friendly, critique of Stayer’s book on the sword did come in 1974 from John Howard Yoder. Furthermore, in 1987 J. Denny Weaver published an account of Anabaptist origins entitled Becoming Anabaptist that summarized, in a popular style, more than a decade of writing by Weaver that had promoted in revised form the basic theological assumptions, if not all of the historical premises, of the Anabaptist Vision.
Nevertheless, Stayer is correct that most Mennonite scholars abandoned the historical premises of Bender’s thesis, sometimes eagerly and sometimes reluctantly. This abandonment, in my view, came about partly because of the rigorous and professional presentation of historical data by polygenesis scholars and partly because of the persuasive power of the general historiographical narrative within which polygenesis findings were often framed: up until then the storytelling had been in the hands of partisan scholars; now, the story was being told by people with no axe to grind. Typical of this kind of characterization is Stayer’s 1982 description of the contemporary Anabaptist research agenda as, among other things, “breaking free from confessional partisanship and narrowness” and “recognizing the diversity and plurality of the Anabaptist movements.” Stayer has also rightly noted that some Mennonites in the 1970s found the polygenesis thesis more friendly to their own political and theological agendas than was the Anabaptist Vision.
Mennonite scholars who accepted the polygenesis thesis and its critique of “confessional partisanship” nevertheless sought to make this thesis compatible with the postmodern Mennonite search for historical self-definition. Perhaps the best known of these efforts is the book by J. Denny Weaver already mentioned. Becoming Anabaptist fully accepted the polygenesis historical thesis, yet held out for a theological interpretation of this data that made pacifism normative for Anabaptist-Mennonite identity. This book has served Mennonite churches and laypeople very well by making the new scholarship on Anabaptism accessible to non-specialists and by taking a clear stand on the contemporary meaning of the Anabaptist legacy. At the same time, this book has been critiqued by some Anabaptist historians for making normative claims that, in their view, do not appear to flow from polygenesis historiography. As we will see, the view that Weaver’s normative claims cannot be justified by polygenesis is itself burdened by unwarranted assumptions about the meaning of polygenesis. In fact, as I will argue, the view that early Anabaptism originated in numerous hearths, for varied causes and with opposing views on the sword can by itself tell us very little about how to appropriate or make meaning of that legacy. Rather, it is our own commitments and convictions that have the greatest impact on how we read and interpret these sources. That is not to say, of course, that we should be unprepared to have the sources challenge our assumptions and to make us rethink our commitments. But we should not assume that our interpretation of these sources is ever simply either the self-evident meaning of the sources or obvious confessional partisanship.
Arnold Snyder, whose recent book on Anabaptist history and theology seeks to separate issues of interpretation from the actual historical record, proceeds on the basis of the assumption that the central meanings of Anabaptism can best be derived from what early Anabaptists shared in common. From the fragmentary accounts of contemporary Anabaptist historiography, his book quite compellingly reconstructs a coherent description of Anabaptist historical theology and doctrinal conflict. As we have observed, these recent historical accounts have in the last few decades been fruitfully focused on the specific details associated with the socio-economic-historical contexts of local Anabaptist communities while being understandably less concerned with the production of an accessible story. In seeking to reconstruct an accessible account, Snyder’s book focuses on what he calls the “theological core” of Anabaptism’s “shared teachings,” some of which Anabaptists held in common with Catholicism, some of which they held in common with evangelical Protestantism, and some of which were held only by the Anabaptists. As J. Denny Weaver points out in a recent article, this focus on the theological core makes pacifism a secondary concern within the story Snyder is telling, since all Anabaptists clearly did not agree on this ethical issue. Moreover, Snyder’s focus on a “theological core” can be read as an implicit prioritization of those theological concerns which happen to fall into the core, even though Snyder himself insists that he is not seeking to make this theological core normative. In any event, while Snyder’s approach can perhaps help us make sense of Anabaptism as a whole, it may be less helpful in giving meaning to specific texts and the communities shaped by such texts. As Snyder himself acknowledges, the theological core he identifies is shaped heuristically by Balthasar Hubmaier’s 1526 catechism. Since Hubmaier was himself a partisan in sixteenth-century debates over the doctrinal and ethical identity of the Reformation in general and Anabaptism in particular, it is no surprise that the theological core proposed by Snyder does not fit very well with the assumptions and assertions made, for example, by the Schleitheim Brotherly Union, whose defenseless and separated stance Hubmaier sought to refute. For those who seek to understand the Anabaptist commitment to peace, it might be more fruitful instead to read Hubmaier’s catechism through the Brotherly Union rather than the Brotherly Union through Hubmaier’s catechism. I make this proposal not because the Brotherly Union represents true Anabaptism and Hubmaier a false Anabaptism, but because as a pacifist Christian I seek to understand what it meant to be an Anabaptist pacifist in the sixteenth century.
THE SCHLEITHEIM BROTHERLY UNION AND POLYGENESIS HISTORIOGRAPHY
In February 1527, two years after the first adult rebaptisms in Zurich marked the birth of Anabaptism, a group of Anabaptists drawn mainly from the Swiss Brethren branch gathered to determine the future of their movement. Their meeting produced a document whose meaning and influence remains controversial nearly 500 years later.
The document was entitled Brotherly Union of a Number of Children of God Concerning Seven Articles and was accompanied by a cover letter addressed to “beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord.” The seven articles, which were apparently drafted by Michael Sattler-a Benedictine monk turned Anabaptist dissenter-focused on those matters of faith that distinguished these Anabaptists from other Christians and that stressed the separation of true Christians from the “world.” Among these articles was a formulation about citizenship that insisted the sword of governance was ordered or ordained by God, yet outside the perfection of Christ and therefore off limits to Christians.
That is about all one can say about the Brotherly Union without venturing into treacherous and contested historiographical terrain. The meaning of these articles, the process by which they were formulated, the participants in the gathering that discussed them, the influence of the articles on other Anabaptists and their place in the development of Anabaptist pacifism and separation-all are issues about which Anabaptist and Reformation historians hold widely varying opinions today. My interpretation of the arguments against violence found in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union needs to be understood in the context of this contemporary historiographical conversation.
When the Brotherly Union was first rehabilitated by North American Mennonite scholars during and after World War II, it was framed within the emerging consensus of Anabaptist Vision historiography that (1) the Swiss Brethren most likely responsible for the Brotherly Union were prototypical Anabaptists and (2) the Swiss Brethren were by definition both separatist and nonresistant. These assumptions contributed to the impression that the Brotherly Union was a representative Anabaptist document and that it had had wide influence throughout the early Anabaptist movement.
The early stages of polygenesis historiography did not contest the importance of the Brotherly Union but, rather, relativized its posture on such issues as the Christian refusal of the sword by demonstrating that the Swiss Brethren were not prototypical of Anabaptism in general and that the Schleitheim position on the sword was by no means held even by all Swiss Brethren, much less all Anabaptists. James Stayer’s 1972 book, for example, came to the following conclusion about Schleitheim:
There was a nonresistant teaching in gestation among the Swiss Brethren before Schleitheim and there were deviations from separatist nonresistance after Schleitheim. Nevertheless, the Schleitheim synod marks the formulation by the Swiss Brethren leadership of an influential and distinctive teaching on the Sword that was now the common property of the sect, rather than the private thinking of some of the leaders.
Stayer’s interpretation also placed the Schleitheim Brotherly Union within a broader political typology in which the nonresistant Swiss Brethren who followed the Brotherly Union are described as “apolitical”; that is to say, avoiding rather than embracing political struggle. This interpretation of Swiss Brethren nonresistance in general and of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union in particular was contested by John Howard Yoder, who published his annotated translation of Michael Sattler’s writings, including the Brotherly Union, in 1973, and a year later published a critical essay challenging the traditional understanding of Anabaptist apoliticism. In the latter essay, Yoder argued that the Brotherly Union was not a radically dualist document in the way that earlier generations of Mennonite scholars and, more recently, Stayer, had thought. Rather, according to Yoder, the Brotherly Union exemplified a more radical position: “that two orders of preservation and redemption exist together under the same God” and that thus:
There begins to surface at this point something new in the history of ideas. Between the simple condemnation, “it must not be done,” issuing in withdrawal, and the simple acceptance, “it cannot be helped,” which justifies compromise, there arises the “it should not be” which refuses either to destroy the adversary or to withdraw from the struggle.
Instead of apoliticism, in this view, the Brotherly Union was a document that instantiated social and political struggle rather than quietist and apolitical withdrawal. Instead of demonizing the world, according to Yoder, the Brotherly Union offered a challenging alternative to a fallen, yet not completely reprehensible world order. Furthermore, according to Yoder, Stayer’s political typology was a flawed interpretive frame for Anabaptist dissenters who tended to think practically and situationally about their beliefs and commitments, not systematically or theologically. Yoder’s revisionist perspective on Schleitheim was challenged by Stayer, who claimed that Yoder was simply reading into an old Anabaptist text the theological and hermeneutical assumptions of The Politics of Jesus, Yoder’s famous exegesis of the gospel texts.
During this same time, an article by German historian Martin Haas appeared in Umstrittenes Tufertum, a collection of essays that extended the emerging polygenesis consensus among Anabaptist historians. Haas’s article explained the Schleitheim Brotherly Union as a document that clinched the move of the Swiss Brethren from revolutionary involvement in movements for social change such as the Peasants’ War toward social separation from all forms of political and social struggle. This view prevailed until the mid to late 80s.
In 1989 a further development in Schleitheim historiography took place. Responding to German scholar Hans-Jrgen Goertz’s claim that the significance of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union had been overestimated, Arnold Snyder published an extensive survey of the historiography associated with the Brotherly Union in which he offered a well-documented analysis of the influence and distribution of the document. Snyder concluded that indeed the Brotherly Union played a “formative role” in the development of the Swiss tradition, but he expressed doubts about its importance for other Anabaptist groups.
Not to be outdone, James Stayer has more recently concluded that in fact his assessment of the significance of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union in his book Anabaptists and the Sword was mistaken. Now he acknowledges that Yoder was right in his critique of the political typology that Stayer applied to Anabaptist views on the sword. However, Stayer adds a pronouncement that the early Anabaptists, including the Swiss Brethren, were not particularly interested in the issue of the sword, as it was articulated in the Brotherly Union. After surveying a number of texts in which contradictory views on the issue appear, Stayer concludes that “among the Swiss Anabaptists non-resistance seems at first to have been a lesser teaching, imperfectly understood despite the Schleitheim Articles and, hence, not unanimously held.” Thus, in the space of about thirty years historians have gone from claiming that the Brotherly Union was a quietist document that was both prototypical and influential, to the claim that it was quietist and influential but not prototypical, to the claim that it was influential but not quietist or prototypical, to this most recent pronouncement by Stayer that the Schleitheim Brotherly Union was not quietist, not prototypical and not influential.
The changing status and interpretation of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union during the last half-century of Anabaptist scholarship illustrates effectively the concrete implications of polygenesis scholarship. The focus on local conditions of Anabaptist emergence as well as a concern for understanding who was reading what, where and in what circumstance has yielded both much greater ambiguity in interpretation of the sources and a far more nuanced understanding of the relationship between Anabaptist practices and sixteenth-century contexts. For example, in examining the extent of Schleitheim’s influence, historians have gained a greater understanding of the means by which Anabaptist ideas were communicated from one community or region to another. Yet the agenda suggested by Yoder’s 1974 critique of Anabaptists and the Sword-to read Anabaptist texts in general and statements about the sword in particular as practical arguments, not doctrinal formulations-has yet to be extended beyond the preliminary work of Yoder’s dissertation on the debates between Reformers and Anabaptists. The agenda suggested in that 1974 essay is the agenda I propose to take up once again, using the methodological tools of the rhetorical tradition.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE SWORD IN THE SCHLEITHEIM BROTHERLY UNION
The effort to recover the meaning of Anabaptist practical arguments over against the reduction of those arguments to theological paradigms or social necessity has already begun. Thomas Heilke, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, has leveled a persuasive critique of the ideological assumptions behind the contemporary polygenesis historiography. Focusing especially on Stayer’s work, Heilke takes up the argument that Yoder dropped in the mid 1970s, advances a close reading of the narrative assumptions underlying Stayer’s reconstruction of Anabaptism and concludes that Stayer’s history “is a history written from the perspective of the Realpolitiker, in which pacifism and non-resistance are neither ‘true,’ nor faithful, but expedient.” Thus, according to Heilke, “Stayer’s claims of pluralist development are a critique not only of contemporary evangelical Mennonite claims of continuity, but, more importantly, of their own (and most likely, earlier Anabaptists’) self-understanding.” In other words, rather than try to see the world from the historically, religiously and socially constrained perspective of sixteenth-century Anabaptists, Stayer and other polygenesis scholars seek to help us understand the Anabaptists better than they could understand themselves. Thus, we learn from Stayer and others that Anabaptist “peaceableness is a product of expediency, not a recovery of an original, biblical vision.”
In what follows, I reread the Schleitheim Brotherly Union’s article on the sword as a rhetorical statement, as an articulation of Anabaptist self-understanding that sought the “recovery of an original, biblical vision.” I will let social and intellectual historians determine the extent to which this statement was influential among the Swiss Brethren who drafted it, was distributed among other Anabaptist groups and conformed to one theological formula over another. My assumption is that the rhetorical movement of the text itself can tell us a great deal about the practical problems and possibilities that characterize the article’s position on the sword. By following this rhetorical movement carefully we ought to be able to advance our understanding of the concrete historical meaning of defenselessness for those who subscribed to the Schleitheim Brotherly Union-whoever, wherever and however many they were.
Any close reading of the arguments in the Brotherly Union must come to terms with the overall commitment to unity in separation that these arguments entailed. The argument for separation is established in the Brotherly Union through a series of dramatic binary oppositions most clearly articulated through the archetypal figures in article IV: “Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are [come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other.” This call to separation is the framework within which nearly all of the remaining articles establish their distinctive formulas for the Christian practices of the Swiss Brethren and within which appeals to unity are made throughout the document.
For example, the logic of separation guides the order and meaning of the Lord’s Supper established in article III. Those who wished to partake needed to already have been “united in the one body of Christ, that is the congregation of God, whose head is Christ, and that by baptism.” This communion order is supported and intensified by a series of literal and figurative oppositions so characteristic of the Brotherly Union: “those who have fellowship with the dead works of darkness have no part in the light”; “those who follow the devil and the world, have no part with those who have been called out of the world unto God”; “those who lie in evil have no part in the good”; “whoever does not share the calling of the one God to one faith, to baptism, to one spirit, to one body together with all the children of God, may not be made one loaf together with them, as must be true if one wishes truly to break bread on the command of Christ.” The relation of dependence between unity and separation is perhaps most clearly articulated in the previous article II, where the purpose of the ban is announced: “so that we may all in one spirit and in one love break and eat from one bread and drink from one cup.”
SEPARATION AS POLITICAL
These rhetorical conventions, which support the relationship of spiritual unity to separation, carry at least two characteristics that have often misled previous interpretations of this document. First, it appears so far as if the Brotherly Union is comprehensively opposed to nearly everything outside the body of believers that it seeks to unify-so much so, in fact, that it is easily classified as a sectarian or apolitical or even quietist document. But in the latter section of article IV we discover that the drafters of the Union were concerned not merely with a principled withdrawal from the whole world, but rather with a specific rejection of certain practices that, as they put it, “the world regards highly, and yet which are carnal or flatly counter to the command of God.” Such practices included “popish and repopish works and idolatry, gatherings, church attendance, winehouses, guarantees and commitments of unbelief, and other things of the kind.” If the posture of the Union toward these practices is indeed one of rejection, then it would be more appropriate to describe the rhetorical action here as constituting antagonism, rather than withdrawal or dualism. Indeed, as the Union puts it, “everything which has not been united with our God in Christ is nothing but an abomination which we should shun.” To shun in this case is to negate, to reject and to make the condemned practices mutually exclusive from the Christian identity established by the Schleitheim Brotherly Union.
The antagonism to these practices needs to be read with some awareness of the historical context in which the Brotherly Union appeared. Two years earlier it became clear that the Zurich reformation inaugurated by Zwingli was not going to embrace the radical liturgical and sacramental reform demanded by the circle of reformers associated with Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Andreas Castelberger, Wilhelm Reublin and others. Yet even after the first adult rebaptisms in Zurich, leaders in this circle sought support and protection from other magisterial reformers, most notably the Strasbourg reformers Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito. However, by the time the Brotherly Union was hammered out, reformed Zurich had already begun executing Anabaptists. Only weeks after the Schleitheim conference, Michael Sattler was captured, tried and executed by Catholic Austria. The Brotherly Union thus stands as a statement of protest against the religious and cultural and political establishment associated with the status quo in Switzerland and South Germany. It represents the outcome of failed discussions, disputations and exchanges between Anabaptist leaders and the political and ecclesiastical authorities of Christendom. It is the product of engagement, not withdrawal. The argument for separation is thus more like a boycott of the religious establishment, in both its “popish and repopish” forms, than an apolitical or sectarian argument. To be sure, the language used to justify this boycott anticipates and perhaps even encourages the development of the theological dualism that appears in later Mennonite confessions. But in this confessional statement, at least, the world has taken on a very specific political form: the Catholic and Reformed religious establishments along with their political allies. Furthermore, the community established by this section of the Brotherly Union seems less interested in coexisting with these establishments than in rejecting them.
After having named the specific religious and political institutions from which the brothers and sisters had withdrawn, Article IV of the Brotherly Union concludes with a further admonition that anticipates the subject matter of Article VI: “Thereby shall also fall away from us the diabolical weapons of violence-such as sword, armor, and the like, and all of their use to protect friends or against enemies-by virtue of the word of Christ: ‘you shall not resist evil.'” This concluding statement in the article of separation carries perhaps the most significant political implication of any item in the list of practices deemed worldly and thus opposed by the brothers and sisters at Schleitheim. Within the framework of Article IV, the statement may seem in retrospect to be a logical and appropriate conclusion. But, as we will see, this conclusion must not have been an easy one to reach, and its portentous implications must have been fairly clear to the drafters of the Brotherly Union.
SEPARATION AS COMPLEX
To fully grasp the implications of extending the doctrine of separation to refusal of the sword, one must first give attention to a second characteristic of the separation language that frames the specific programmatic features of the Brotherly Union-the apparent language of simple opposition: either/or, black and white. As we have seen, article IV on separation employs this simple linguistic opposition to establish an antagonism with those aspects of the worldly status quo rejected by the brothers and sisters. It is striking, however, that Article VI opens with a very different kind of statement: “We have been united as follows concerning the sword. The sword is an ordering of God (ein gottes ordnung) outside the perfection of Christ.” Here is a much more complex statement about the relationship between believers and the world than the statements we find in Article IV. As John Howard Yoder has noted, in article VI on the sword, “Two orders of preservation and redemption exist together under the same God. In one of them the sword has no place, due to the normativeness of the work of Jesus Christ, whereas in the other the sword has a limited legitimacy, which is tested precisely at the point of its ability to keep itself within limits.” Such a statement admits of complexity that is not immediately apparent in the simple oppositions between darkness and light, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial. Indeed it suggests that the dissenters who were identified with this document were aware at the outset that separation was no simple matter, that it included ambiguity and instability. The rhetorical formula for containing this ambiguity is a logic of the good versus the better. The secular rulers wield a sword of governance whose God-ordained purpose within the realm of the law (gesatz) is to protect the good. That may be good, but in the perfection (volkumenheit) of Christ that is not good enough. Within Christ’s perfection nothing more forceful than the ban may be exercised against evil and wickedness. The sword is good, but the ban is better. If there is dualism in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union it is here, where the church and the government are shown to have dramatically different functions and purposes, including the legitimate if imperfect functions of government and its sword.
Having made this careful and complex distinction of two moral levels, both within the realm of the good, Article VI quickly moves toward further clarification and thus back toward simplification: “Now many, who do not understand Christ’s will for us, will ask: whether a Christian may or should use the sword against the wicked for the protection and defense of the good, or for the sake of love.” One can easily imagine how important it is to answer this question. If the sword can protect the good, then could not a Christian wield it? An elaborate and well defended answer to this question follows in four separate points, all of which serve to intensify the original rhetorical impulse toward simple separation, rather than the complexity admitted in the first part of Article VI. First, the story of Christ’s confrontation with the woman taken in adultery is cited. Just as Christ showed mercy and forgiveness instead of calling for the death penalty, so “should we proceed, according to the rule of the ban.” Second, the specific question of whether Christians should pass judgment in disputes about worldly matters is answered in the negative: “Christ did not wish to decide or pass judgment between brother and brother concerning inheritance, but refused to do so. So should we also.” Third, should a Christian be a magistrate? Again the example of Christ is cited: “Christ was to be made king, but He fled and did not discern the ordinance of His Father. Thus we should also do as He did and follow after Him, and we shall not walk in darkness.” Additional passages are cited here which support the claim that following Christ requires giving up worldly power and denying the self. The final point essentially reiterates and supports the first three by summarizing their conclusions and then summoning a series of figurative and literal binary oppositions, very much like those in article IV:
Lastly one can see in the following points that it does not befit a Christian to be a magistrate: the rule of government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the spirit. Their houses and dwelling remain in the world, that of the Christians is in heaven. The weapons of their battle and warfare are carnal and only against the flesh, but the weapons of Christians are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God.
The conclusion of article VI is thus far less ambiguous than the first part. Instead of being a legitimate good outside the perfection of Christ, the sword of governance is depicted as carnal, devilish, fleshly and opposed to the polity of Christians. No doubt, Stayer’s reading of the Brotherly Union as a quietist document would be justified if we allowed the conclusion of article VI to provide the hermeneutical grid for making meaning of the rest of the text. But what we have here is a profound instance of rhetorical movement within a confessional text, from the establishment of a clear logic of separation, to an accounting of a perplexing problem within that logic-the legitimate place of the sword of governance-which momentarily destabilizes the binary oppositions established in the doctrine of separation, back to a clear and simple opposition between the Christians and the world and thus between the spiritual rule of Christians and the carnal rule of magistrates. To put it succinctly, the Schleitheim Brotherly Union moves from a posture of antagonism (mutual exclusivity) to one of dualism (legitimate difference)-when accounting for the sword-and then back to antagonism.
SEPARATION VERSUS CIVILITY
This kind of unstable rhetorical stance should not surprise us, given the contradictory space inhabited by these early Anabaptists who sought to live the biblical language of separation without in fact exiting the world. Without official sanction-such as that granted to monastic communities-the Anabaptists gathered at Schleitheim sought to be a visibly distinctive and unified body that functioned as a concrete, alternative Christian community. In so doing, these Anabaptists also rejected the popular Protestant construal of Christ’s body as invisible, and by doing so also closed the door on the option of making the outward witness a secondary and imperfect representation of an inner, purer identity. For brothers and sisters who sought in this way to separate from the world, yet live in the world, the sword of governance associated with civil authority and civic loyalty represented a huge obstacle to keeping this separation clear and simple. The rhetorical instability I have just described in the Union is not a mark of thoughtless inconsistency but rather a symptom of the inherently problematic, albeit ethically fruitful, stance associated with the doctrine of separation. James Stayer has claimed, accurately I think, that the pre-polygenesis consensus about Article VI in the Brotherly Union was that it was an application of article IV on separation. I am suggesting an extension of this consensus to a somewhat more qualified claim that Article VI in fact reveals and seeks to manage the practical impossibility of the doctrine of separation as articulated in the simpler binary oppositions of the Brotherly Union. Indeed, in my ongoing research I wish to test the hypothesis that this discursive instability, this tension between concrete separation and civic legitimacy that is internal to the Brotherly Union, also drives other Anabaptist arguments against the sword, even though the specific rhetorical forms used to manage this instability vary from text to text. What I wish to understand, in short, is the struggle for Anabaptists to be separate, vulnerable and visible Christians while at the same time civil, peaceful and law-abiding subjects.
OTHER ANABAPTIST ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE SWORD
In order to illustrate very briefly how the same tension between separation and civility was worked out in other texts, I offer a preliminary examination of two texts about the sword that reproduce and improvise upon the rhetorical forms found in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union. By identifying these texts, I am not seeking to establish something like a line of influence or citation that can be traced from the Brotherly Union to these texts. Rather, I am simply showing that other Anabaptists struggled with the same ambiguities and came up with similar and different arguments by way of response to a common structural and discursive problem that arose out of the commitment to being an alternative, defenseless Christian community.
Answer of Ambrosius Spitelmaier
The same year the Brotherly Union appeared, a South German Anabaptist by the name of Ambrosius Spitelmaier, a convert of the Anabaptist evangelist Hans Hut, was captured at Erlangen and executed by beheading. Before his execution, however, he answered a long list of questions posed by the city of Nuremberg, among them “whether they [Spitelmaier and his dissenting associates] consider it to be true that there should be appointed governments and whether all power and government are of God'” Spitelmaier replied that indeed government had been instituted of God, but, as he put it, “has not remained in God for it has exceeded its power and still does today.” After further support for this claim that government had exceeded its authority, just as Pilate had when he judged Christ, Spitelmaier went on to declare that true Christians required no government since they voluntarily engaged in righteous deeds, whereas Christians who were Christians only in words required government coercion. “Otherwise,” he said, “they would put out each other’s eyes.” Furthermore, according to Spitelmaier, if the Jews in the Old Testament had been true children of Abraham, “they would have required no judges or emperor.”
While the larger confession within which these claims appear is less explicit about separation than was the Brotherly Union, Spitelmaier is quite clear that the community with which he identified was a visible, vulnerable, alternative religious body. Furthermore, although his views bear the marks of the more mystical and apocalyptic character of South German Anabaptism, he still struggles with the same tension found in the Brotherly Union between separation and civility. At least two features of this argument stand out in comparison with the Brotherly Union. First, the specific characterization of government legitimacy is provided with a more nuanced qualification: government was legitimate so long as it stayed within its appropriate authority. While Schleitheim can be read as asserting both government legitimacy and government carnality without really justifying the move from the first characterization to the second, Spitelmaier provides a clear justification for that leap: government overreaching itself. Second, although Spitelmaier assumes the same distinction used at Schleitheim between law and mercy, the specific implication of true Christians living under mercy instead of under the law is slightly different. Within the Brotherly Union mercy means using the ban instead of the sword. For Spitelmaier, mercy simply means true Christians can do without civil authority, even though he recognizes that many Christians need civil authority because they are not true Christians. The struggle between separation and civility is worked out here by acknowledging government legitimacy in principle, yet calling into question its current overreaching practices, while at the same time suggesting that true Christians had no need for civil government anyway.
As James Stayer’s work has demonstrated, the sources contain a huge number of variations on these themes, ranging from an almost complete rejection of any legitimate use of the sword by any authority to a reluctant acceptance of the possibility that a true Christian might even exercise the sword as an agent of the government. Contrary to Stayer’s approach, however, my analysis seeks to avoid casting the variations within a preset typology, but instead treats them as practical arguments designed to invent a relationship between a defenseless church and a violent civil order, on the basis of a common commitment to following the nonresistant example of Christ. In what follows, I offer one more example of what such a rhetorically specific analysis might suggest.
Dordrecht Confession of Faith
Leaping forward by a little over a century, we can examine one outcome of the ongoing struggle to manage this complex relationship between a peace church and the civic order: Article 13 and 14 of the Dordrecht Confession of 1632, the product of efforts to unite quarreling Dutch and German Mennonite groups, which eventually was also adopted by numerous other Mennonite groups, including the Amish faction of the Swiss Brethren. Article 13 of this confession appears to have accumulated the traces of a century of practical apologetics on behalf of a separated and defenseless church. By way of marked contrast to the Brotherly Union, for example, Article 13 of Dordrecht elaborates extensively the legitimate role of government and the proper Christian respect due to it:
We also believe and confess, that God has instituted civil government, for the punishment of the wicked and the protection of the good; and also further, for the purpose of governing the world-governing countries and cities; and also able to preserve its subjects in good order and under good regulations. Wherefore we are not permitted to despise, blaspheme, or resist the same; but are to acknowledge it as a minister of God and be subject and obedient to it, in all things that do not militate against the law, will, and commandments of God; yea, “to be ready to every good work”; also faithfully pay it custom, tax, and tribute; thus giving it what is its due; as Jesus Christ taught, did himself, and commanded his followers to do. That we are also to pray to the Lord earnestly for the government and its welfare, and in behalf of our country, so that we may live under its protection, maintain ourselves, and “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” And further, that the Lord would recompense them (our rulers), here and in eternity, for all the benefits, liberties, and favors which we enjoy under their laudable administration.
This is quite an accumulation of respects for the legitimate function of civil governance and coercion. While there are some basic functional continuities with the Brotherly Union-for example, the government is instituted to punish evil and protect the good; and the appeal to the example of Christ to justify the position-this article also constitutes a significant extension of the Brotherly Union’s more limited acknowledgment that civil authority is ordained by God. It also includes no explicit mention that the sword exercised by the government is outside the perfection of Christ. Much of this affirmation of civil authority can certainly be explained by the Dutch tolerance for Anabaptists, compared with the Swiss, for example. But it also represents, I believe, a rhetorical response to the ongoing tension between separation and civility, an apparent need to be clear that Anabaptists are not a threat to the civil order, even though, as the following article will state, they still reject the sword themselves.
Whereas the Brotherly Union dealt with the sword and the civil authority together in one article, the Dordrecht Confession considered them in two separate articles. Having established respect for the government, the confession moved on to what in its organizational logic is a new issue: the sword. “Regarding revenge,” states the confession, “whereby we resist our enemies with the sword, we believe and confess that the Lord Jesus has forbidden his disciples and followers all revenge and resistance, and has thereby commanded them not to ‘return evil for evil, nor railing for railing’; but to ‘put up the sword into the sheath,’ or, as the prophets foretold, ‘beat them into plowshares.'” This clear commitment to nonresistance, on the one hand, avoids the question of Christian involvement in the civil governance, on the other hand. By treating civil authority in a separate article and dealing with the question of the sword purely in terms of whether Christians acting as Christians may use the sword, Dordrecht resolves the tension between separation and civility through its particular organizational pattern. Nevertheless, the implicit assumption in article 13 seems to be that Christians function only as subjects, not as magistrates, since all of the practices named are those associated with being a subject and none of the practices are named from the standpoint of being a magistrate.
Finally, the Dordrecht Confession includes none of the specific oppositions to the religious establishment included in the Brotherly Union. As such, the separation from the world assumed by Dordrecht carries a more benign logic. Articles 13 and 14 seem to strain toward a harmless relationship between the civic establishment and the Anabaptist fellowships. Instead of using oppositional language, these articles construct the relationship between civil authority and Anabaptist churches as one of differentiation, or even dependence, but not antagonism. For example, appeals are made to the civil authorities to protect the Anabaptist fellowships, and prayers are offered that the Lord would reward civil authority for such protection. The relationship between Anabaptist fellowships and the status quo has been effectively constituted through a relationship of dependency with the civil government, with no claims being advanced that government was overstepping its bounds or that it was carnal and devilish.
To sum up, if the Schleitheim Brotherly Union privileges antagonism as the dominant (if not the only) paradigm through which to understand the relationship of the peace church to the sword-bearing government, and Spitelmaier’s answers both qualify and justify that antagonism, the Dordrecht Confession by contrast emphasizes dualism-the peaceful coexistence of two distinctive spheres with different purposes and priorities.
ANABAPTISTS AND THE SWORD: AN ONGOING TENSION
My rhetorical analysis of Article IV and VI of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union as well as my preliminary sketches of two other confessional texts-one that was contemporaneous with the Brotherly Union and another that appeared over a century later-suggests that the practical arguments made by Anabaptists on behalf of defenselessness and against violence can be fruitfully studied in order to advance our understanding of the Anabaptist struggle to be a peace church. From this point of view, Anabaptist responses to the sword are best understood not as fitting a pre-existing theological or political paradigm but, rather, as practical efforts to be faithful to the example of Christ in a context of ambiguity and complexity. Anabaptist confessional statements, in particular, offer profound glimpses of this struggle, insofar as they exhibit the textual symptoms of a community that sought to legitimate its existence outside of the dominant theological formulas of the Reformation and the Counterreformation.
The commitment to a vulnerable and visible separation from the “world” among the Anabaptists produced a difficult and troublesome exigence when the relationship to civil authority and the use of the sword was considered within this rubric of separation. This tension between separation and civility was an ongoing problem for Anabaptist groups that sought to be faithful to Christ’s nonresistant example. By giving attention to how this tension is shaped through the confessional history of Anabaptist-Mennonite-Hutterite groups, we can better tell the story of commitment to peace among these groups. Instead of lifting up a normative pacifist pattern that such groups either followed or neglected, the approach I am suggesting reads the commitment to peace in Anabaptist documents as an inherently destabilizing practice with a variety of changing features. Rather than simply reduce this variety to a pluralist panoply of paradigms dependent on circumstance and place, my approach recovers the controversial and rhetorical specificity of Anabaptist arguments against violence-arguments that sought to win adherence by resolving obvious social and religious contradictions that emerged when pacifist principles were applied or challenged. This approach is unsatisfied with the obvious conclusions that Anabaptists were pacifists or that many were not-both of which are true statements-and instead tells the story of Anabaptist arguments about the sword, arguments that responded again and again to the changing problems of the moment for a church committed to both peace and righteousness, both civility and separation. In the story of this rhetorical struggle there may be arguments with which contemporary readers of these texts might identify. But such an identification can happen best when we have understood the full implications of such arguments in the context within which they appeared. Only then can Anabaptist texts be a gift to the present generation, rather than a trump card for church identity or an ancient relic stripped of any contemporary relevance.
[*] Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast is Associate Professor of Communication at Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio. He gratefully acknowledges the financial assistance of a Bluffton College Study Center grant during the summer of 1997 to complete the research for this essay.
1. J. Denny Weaver, “Reading Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism Theologically: Implications for Modern Mennonites as a Peace Church,” Conrad Grebel Review 16 (Winter 1998), 37-51. Arnold Snyder’s vehement response to Weaver’s essay follows (53-59), maintaining that history-writing has little to do with commitment: “What does my personal commitment to peace have to do with Anabaptist History and Theology'” Snyder asks. “In fact, not very much at all,” he answers. Weaver’s critique of Snyder’s book, of course, was not questioning Snyder’s personal commitment to pacifism but rather challenging Snyder’s marginalization of pacifism in his telling of the Anabaptist story. Snyder’s response is to insist that history is on his side and to dismiss the significance of interpretation in history writing.
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. John D. Roth, “Community as Conversation: A New Model of Anabaptist Hermeneutics,” in H. Wayne Pipkin, ed., Essays in Anabaptist Theology (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1994), 43-47.
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. “Not only are the Americans missionaries, they are also Anabaptists: having missed out on the original baptism, they dream of baptizing everything a second time and only accord value to this later sacrament which is, as we know, a repeat performance of the first, but its repetition as something more real. And this indeed is the perfect definition of the simulacrum.”-Jean Baurdrillard, America (London: Verso, 1989), 41. This line of interpretation was picked up by Paul Smith in Millennial Dreams (London: Verso, 1997), 16. See also the fascinating discussion of Ernst Bloch’s biography of Thomas Mntzer in Jean Franois-Lyotard, Toward the Postmodern (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1993), 115-24.
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. Snyder’s book does much more than pull together polygenesis research into an accessible narrative; he also weaves into the story new research into the communication of Anabaptist ideas and the role of women in Anabaptist movements. These features alone make the book a significant achievement for Anabaptist studies.
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. See John Howard Yoder, Tufertum und Reformation in der Schweiz, I. Die Gesprche zwischen Tufern und Reformatoren 1523-1538 (Karlsruhe: Mennonitischen Geschichtsverein, 1962), and Tufertum und Reformation im Gesprch (Zrich: EVZ-Verlag, 1968). Some of Yoder’s research in this area was also published in MQR. See John Howard Yoder, “The Turning Point in the Zwinglian Reformation,” MQR 32 (April 1958), 128-40, and “The Evolution of the Zwinglian Reformation,” MQR 43 (Jan. 1969), 95-122.
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. Following the publication of that 1974 essay, Yoder’s work became more focused on contemporary ecumenical discussion about social ethics and less concerned with sixteenth-century debates.
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. For a lengthier discussion of how antagonisms work in the discourse of social conflict, see Gerald Biesecker-Mast, “Mennonite Public Discourse and the Conflicts Over Homosexuality,” MQR 72 (April 1998), 280-83.
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. James Stayer, “Anabaptist Nonresistance and the Rewriting of History: On the Changing Historical Reputation of the Schleitheim Articles and the Four Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary of Hans Denck’s Concerning Genuine Love,” unpublished manuscript in the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, 5.
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. Karl Schornbaum, ed., Quellen zur Geschichte der Wiedertufer, vol. 2: Markgraftum Brandenburg, Bayern I. Abteilung (Leipzig: M. Heinus Nachfolger, 1934), 46. The English translation I am using is from Frank Friesen, trans. and Walter Klaassen, ed., Sixteenth Century Anabaptism: Defences, Confessions, Refutations (Waterloo, ON: Conrad Grebel College, 1982), 8.
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. For a discussion of how Anabaptism can be received as a gift by “minding the gap” between the sixteenth-century and our own, see Susan Biesecker-Mast, “Anabaptists and Postmodernity: A Risky/Risque Proposition.” in Susan Biesecker-Mast and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, eds., Anabaptists and Postmodernity (Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2000), 19-38.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Anabaptist Separation and Arguments Against the Sword