An Anabaptist Social Gospel

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Democrats received a significant political setback and Republicans are celebrating big gains in the midterm elections. We’re all wrapped up in these political fights. The political gridlock in our two-party system and the increasing influence of big money in determining elections affects everybody.

Our politics affects the most vulnerable among us including those living in poverty, immigrants, prisoners, and people who are discriminated against for any reason. It shapes our inclination to resort to violence and war as a means to resolve problems or defeat perceived enemies. The natural environment and unsustainable resource consumption are other huge emerging concerns. Furthermore, our response to these social issues shape and are shaped by our spiritual values.

This midterm election has been particularly troubling but may present an opportunity for people of faith to think and act outside the conventional frame of American party politics. One way to do that is by stepping back and engaging our American political process from the perspective of an Anabaptist social gospel rooted in following the politics of Jesus.

The social message of the gospel caught the attention of peasants and laborers in Europe in the sixteenth century. Because of the invention of the printing press, they could now read the Bible for themselves. They read passages like the judgment of the nations in Matthew’s Gospel (25: 31-46) and applied it to their situation. If, as Jesus said, we will be judged by how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison, 16th century European society stood under judgment. It was time to begin dismantling the unjust social structures that propped up the whole system.

Common peasants and laborers were obligated to pay rent to the religious orders and the aristocrats who owned the land. Those rent contracts and interest payments were extremely unjust. In addition, they were obligated to pay taxes to support the clergy and the aristocracy. To make matters even worse, they were gradually losing their rights to use the village commons and lands traditionally set aside for public uses such as grazing, hunting, and gathering wood.

It was a time of social, political, and religious upheaval. Old feudal structures, which had been in place of centuries, were unraveling. Peasants that had been tied to the lord of the manor were let go as commerce associated with port cities such as Amsterdam began to replace the traditional agrarian economy. A capitalist economy was emerging. As the Holy Roman Empire crumbled, modern nations such as Spain, England, France and various German states emerged. This created rival centers of power and intermittent wars known as the Thirty Years War.

Church historian Justo Gonzalez writes: “Under these new conditions, pope and emperor, prelates and lords, found it difficult to retain the control that they had formerly enjoyed. The entire system of ecclesiastical administration had been developed to serve in a feudal society. . . . The unhappy peasants provided a fertile field for revolution” (A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3, 14). Two religious, social movements that emerged were the peasants’ leagues, which began as a nonviolent movement but ended disastrously in the German Peasants’ War, followed by the Anabaptist movement. I’ll write more about that in following blogs.

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