Friday, March 28, 2008

Religion and Politics

They say two things you should avoid talking about in polite company are religion and politics. However, when discussing history from any perspective, especially the church's, it is impossible to avoid either. I bring this up because as one explores the various social communities on the Internet (Facebook, My-space, etc.) one invariably gets asked for one's political affiliation. It's always been a hard thing for me to nail down.

Since I would prefer to see governments in general kept as small as possible, and ignoring me as much as possible, I guess from a secular viewpoint I'm a Libertarian. But that's not entirely accurate as I'm not nearly as concerned with the government's ability to ignore me as I am with my capacity to ignore the government. Some would say that this makes me an anarchist, but that too is not an accurate label. I'm not against government, in fact I fully appreciate the need for one and want the best government possible, as long as it is no bigger than needed and leaves me to do my thing while it goes about doing its thing. "Render unto Caesar... " as it were.

I guess of all the terms I've heard to describe my approach, the best would be what Jacques Ellul called "Christian Anarchy"; Christians are not ruled by human governments but rather by Christ alone. This does not mean that we do not obey human authority, but rather that we obey them as far as we are able only because Christ expects it of us.

One aspect of Ellul's stand is that, as a result, Christians have no need to seek public office. Many Christian leaders, especially in the US, are of the opinion that followers of Jesus Christ have a duty to seek public office so as to ensure the laws of the land follow the teachings of the Bible. Ellul suggests this won't work because rather than bringing a Christ-like atmosphere to the halls of power, history has shown that political power is far more likely to twist the Christian politician.

Which brings me to this week's story. It's one of the examples from history that I believe Jacques might have had in mind.

Elizabeth Dirks was raised in a nunnery in East Friesland, where she learned Latin and read the Bible through and through. Convinced that monasticism was not the way for her she escaped with the help of the milkmaids and became a follower of Menno Simons. Simons was the leader of what is known as the peaceful arm of the Anabaptists, a group within the Reformation that opposed state mandated faith. They contended that the state could not force a person into belief, it had to be a personal choice. By the same logic they opposed infant baptism, claiming that an infant could not hope to understand the faith into which they were being baptized. Since no personal choice was involved the baptism was without meaning. This became the bone of contention between the government and the Anabaptists.

As one of the first Reformation women ministers, a deaconess, the civic authorities (read Catholic) arrested Elizabeth in 1549. When they found her Bible, containing notations from Menno's preaching, they believed they had the person they were looking for - the wife of Menno Simons. They were wrong. They were also wrong about Dirks' character. They thought they could intimidate this woman at her interrogation; they couldn't. The official record of her inquisition shows the examiners tried to get her to inform on those to whom she had taught Anabaptist interpretations of scripture. Knowing that this would lead to their arrest, she replied, "No, my Lords, do not press me on this point. Ask me about my faith and I will answer you gladly."

When she would not reveal who had baptized her or whom she had taught, they began to attack her beliefs. The records tell how she insisted church buildings are not the house of God, for our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and how the bread and wine are spoken of in the New Testament not as a sacrament but rather as the Lord's Supper. When asked if she were saved by baptism, she replied, "No, my Lords. All the water in the sea cannot save me. All my salvation is in Christ, who has commanded me love the Lord, my God, and my neighbor as myself."

Still refusing to reveal who had baptized her, she was taken to the torture chamber and a man named Hans applied screws to her thumbs and fingers until blood spurted from under her fingernails. Still refusing to reveal her friends, her agony was so great that she cried aloud to Christ, and her pain was miraculously relieved. So they lifted her skirt to apply torture to her shins. She rebuked Hans stating that she had never allowed anyone to touch her body and was not about to let herself be violated now.

Even so, they crushed her leg bones through her skirts with massive screws until she fainted dead away. In fact, the inquisitors were going to leave her for dead, but she came to and asserted her faith all the more. Finally they came to the realization that Elizabeth Dirks would never compromise herself. The authorities condemned her to die, but rather than burn her, as was customary for a heretic, they chose instead the irony of 'baptizing' her to death. She was tied up in a large cloth bag and drowned. It would become a common method of executing the Anabaptists.

Over the years, the so-called "Christian states", both Catholic and Protestant, hunted down the Anabaptists; declaring open season on anyone who opposed the sacrament of infant baptism or suggested that governments did not have the right to dictate the faith of their subjects. Believing God had placed them in authority, these Christian politicians and officials felt it their duty to protect the faith by whatever means necessary. History has shown it to be a common scenario. In this instance unnumbered thousands of people were slaughtered in the name of preserving the Christian heritage of 16th century Europe. Some of Menno's followers escaped by settling in Moravia where their descendants gave birth to a number of faith communities including the Mennonites (named in honour of Menno), the Hutterites, the Quakers, and the Brethren.

Elizabeth Dirks was executed for holding to her belief in a personal faith on March 27, 1549 - 459 years ago this week.


Resources:

1. "Protestantism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 Mar. 2008 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-41554
2. "Menno Simons." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 Mar. 2008 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-4811
3. "Elizabeth Dirks Drowned as an Anabaptist", Christian History Institute, March 27th

Other Events this week in Church History:

March 22, 1638: Religious dissident Anne Hutchinson is expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony. Questioned about her teachings on grace, she insisted she had received divine revelations. When her examiners asked how she knew these came from God, she replied, "How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the Sixth Commandment?" Although Hutchinson repented of her "errors," her questioners decided she was lying and banished her from the colony.

March 23, 332 (traditional date): Gregory the Illuminator, so called because he brought the light of Christ to the people, dies. A missionary to his homeland of Armenia, he was instrumental in the conversion of King Tiridates, and much of the kingdom followed suit. Soon Christianity was established as the national religion, with Gregory as its bishop.

March 24, 1980: Roman Catholic archbishop Oscar Romero, a vocal opponent of the San Salvador military, is assassinated while saying mass in his country. Several men, believed to be part of a death squad, were arrested for the murder but were later released.

March 25, 1625: England's King James I dies. In 1604, at the Hampton Court Conference, James authorized the translation project that produced the 1611 King James (Authorized) Version of the Bible.

March 26, 752: Stephen III assumes the papacy after Stephen II dies. But Stephen III is sometimes called Stephen II, since the real Stephen II hardly counts: he died a mere four days after his election!

March 28, 1661: Scottish Parliament passes the Rescissory Act, repealing all church-state legislation created since 1633 (Charles I's reign). In essence, the act restored the Anglican episcopacy to Scotland and quashed Presbyterianism, which had been the national church since 1638. In 1690 Parliament again established the Church of Scotland as Presbyterian.

--

53 comments:

Sincerae said...

Dennis,

I agree with the doctrine of the Anabaptists in a lot of ways. Here in America in the last decade I think the Christian faith has really been diminished because too many people want to have their cake and eat and eat it too by engaging politics and mixing church with business. Politics can corrupt. I vote, but I would have second thoughts about being a politician.

Great article.

God bless:))

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Theresa Bruno said...

This blog is wonderful! I have been looking for something like this!

I love your post. I have trouble "fitting" into the political spectrum. I don't mind government, as long as it conducts itself reasonably, leaves me alone, helps educate the citizernery and regulates businesses.

I appreciate your post on Menno Simms. Few know much about him or the Anabaptists and I find that when I mention thier theology, I get blank stares.

Keep up the good work! I hope my blog becomes as awesome as yours!

http://historywasneverlikethat.blogspot.com/

Ruben Rivera said...

I enjoy your blog, and this post in particular because in certain ways I identify with the peaceful wing of the Anabaptists. The story of Elizabeth Dirks is inspiring and her faith is far more consistent with the kingdom principles taught by Jesus (e.g., in Sermon on the Mount, a favorite with Anabaptists) than either Catholics or Protestants who believed they were right in burning a person to uphold a doctrine (Balthasar Hübmeier, 16th c., "On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them").

Similar to you, I have started a blog (though mine is only a few months old) as a place to reflect out loud on Christian issues of interest to me and many people I know.

Good stuff. Thanks

Ruben

babu21 said...

When asked if she were saved by baptism, she replied, "No, my Lords. All the water in the sea cannot save me. All my salvation is in Christ, who has commanded me love the Lord, my God, and my neighbor as myself."

Nice historical informational article
moreover the blog.
Thanks
History

Jefferey Cawlay said...

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Jefferey Cawlay said...

I found a great blog that contains interviews with tons of luminaries of religion, ones you wouldn't even believe. You can check it out here: http://psychicthinkers.tumblr.com/. It's one of my favorite blogs.

Kaara Sant said...

I live in a country of a multitude of religions. My sister who is Hindu is marrying into a Muslim family and they demand that she convert to Islam. (this is not a reflection on Islam but the situation itself). My sister presented a similar case to that of the Anabaptists- that is religion is a personal choice and cannot be forced upon anyone. I agree with this 100%.

There should be a separation of powers between politics and religion. I have seen too often that persons rise to power in hopes of spreading "the word of God" but yet get distorted by that same power. I think that power should be only undertaken by those who have staunch integrity and who are for the people- not just the Christian people. I don't believe in a hierarchy of persons based on religion and neither should persons involved in politics.

What is the purpose of religion if it makes you judgmental, hateful and spiteful?