The Anabaptist movement had deep roots in the peasants’ leagues and their radical faith communities emerged from the same localities. James Stayer shows that some Anabaptist leaders such as Hans Hut had actually been involved in the German Peasants’ War (The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods, 77-79). Other Anabaptist leaders like Conrad Grebel and Michael Sattler sided with the peasants’ social objectives but chose a different faith-based strategy.
They embarked on the path of creating a “free church” independent of state control. The gospel values of equality, economic sharing, servant leadership, truth-telling, welcoming strangers, and nonviolence would be put into practice in small separated Anabaptist communities and, in this way, witness to the watching world. They likewise experienced severe persecution, including forced exile and martyrdom. Yet, in this form, a Jesus centered social gospel stayed alive in scattered Anabaptist communities on the margins of Western society.
Those of us committed to Anabaptist thought and practice are the spiritual heirs of this radical heritage. For most Americans, given our system of separation of church and state, it’s hard to appreciate how radical it was to form “free churches” in the sixteenth century. Yet the same dynamics are still alive in our world. A Latin American voice from the margins can help us to better understand this.
Mayan social activist and Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú writes, “Many who call themselves Christians don’t really deserve to be called Christians. They have no worries, and lovely houses. But that is all. That is why I say that the church in Guatemala is divided in two. The church of the poor . . . has the same beliefs as the poor. And the church as a hierarchy, and an institution, is still a little clique. . . . If our own shepherds (as they’re called) teach us bad examples, and go hand in hand with the [oppressive] government, we’re not going to follow them” (I Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, 245).
A faith-based social gospel doesn’t depend only on us. We’re invited to listen to voices from the margins beginning with the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, the sixteenth-century peasants’ leagues and our Anabaptist spiritual ancestors, and contemporary voices from churches of the poor in places like Central America. Those voices challenge us to live out the social and relational values of the gospel in our churches and our communities.
A place to start is with lots of church potlucks where we share food and learn to know each other. Another place is church work days where we all pitch in to do necessary chores. Yet another is a church compassion fund. These practices can be naturally expanded to include working with neighboring faith communities in various service projects such as a hypothermia program to give temporary shelter to homeless people and to advocate for things like affordable house in our city.
An Anabaptist social gospel is rooted in the life of local faith communities but includes working with others in the struggle for a more just and peaceful world. It was a tragedy that the sixteenth century peasants’ league activists thought they had no choice be to resort to counter-violence when confronted with mercenary soldiers. We can only imagine how differently it might have turned out if they had followed the advice of the group of Anabaptist leaders in Zürich who wrote to tell them not to go to war. More recent faith leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. have shown us the alternative power of nonviolent social action in the way of Jesus.