An Anabaptist social gospel is rooted in our experience of God. On a deeply personal level we experience God as the intimate ground of being that encompasses all of life. This is expressed through the language of love in many of our church hymns. A prime example is the hymn For God So Loved Us with its repeated refrain, “Love so unending, I’ll sing thy praises. God loves his children, loves even me.” Our social action flows from this wellspring of love.
All God’s other attributes such as grace, truth, and justice are rooted in this central attribute of love. God respects our freedom and never coerces us even when we choose that which is hurtful to ourselves, other people, or the rest of creation. Instead, God draws us to the good, the true, and the beautiful—and to God-Self—through invitation and through sacrificial love.
This understanding of the nature of God has been gradually unfolding throughout human history. In contrast, a common understanding of the divine in the ancient world was that of a jealous and vindictive warrior God. This image of God is present in the Bible but it is constantly challenged by the Hebrew prophets with their assertion that God is merciful and even suffers with us.
The ancient understanding of God as a warrior who leads us into battle is still very much with us in many different forms. The notion that God is on our side as we fight our enemies is hard to resist even though the pain and estrangement it causes is clearly evident. A prevalent American version of it is the way we often unthinkingly unite God and country in opposition to perceived national enemies, or (even more subconsciously) our kind of people against all others.
Jesus has especially revealed God as a God of radical inclusion and sacrificial love. God has a special concern for the poor and the marginalized as seen in the way Jesus responded to such people throughout his ministry. For a challenging, in-depth exposition on God as love from an Anabaptist perspective, read The Nonviolent God by J. Denny Weaver. Country singer, songwriter John Prine has a folksy way of putting the lie to trust in our American “God and country” version of a warrior God:
Jesus don’t like killin’
No matter what the reason’s for,
And your flag decal won’t get you
Into Heaven any more.
This brings us back to the sixteenth century group of Anabaptists in Zürich who wrote to Thomas Müntzer advising him and the peasants’ leagues to use nonviolent means in their struggle against the social elites in what became known as the German Peasants’ War. The resort to violence, even in a just cause, was more than a tactical mistake; it was a denial of the loving, nonviolent God we know in Jesus.