12 July 2009

The soul of Protestantism, part 2

In the first part of this essay, I traced the genealogy of the values underlying Protestant social thinking and Christology back to the heathen Teutonic ideal of the warrior-king at the head of a band of free equals, bound together by kinship. This would seem to present some problems for some branches of the Protest (not least of which being my own, Anabaptism) and perhaps to the validity of the Protestant project as a whole.

First, a question. Why did I bother positing this barbarian warrior-king image of Christ at the fountainhead of Protestant thinking in the first place? What is the use? What does it show us? For one thing, it serves as a theoretical highlight to some of the a priori assumptions of our spiritual forebears. The barbarian warrior-king Christ still influences our creativity as Protestants, and to some extent it should. If we are to grow in faith, we need to be aware of where that faith comes from, and whether our a prioris ennoble or cripple us. And what could be more healthy, creative and ennobling than a theology which touts the nearness of God to his creation and which values personal honour and strength of spirit?

But it’s not enough simply to have this fountainhead. We have this deep, rich creative well to draw from, tapping into the tables of Scripture with our heathen buckets, but now the question is: what do we do with all of the water? Or, rather, what have we done with it? We in the American Protestant tradition have carried a portion of that water faithfully into the field, where it has yielded much by way of good fruit. The pursuit of personal understanding of the nature of God opened up the vast intellectual plains of historical criticism; value placed on equality and kinship of believers was the driving force behind the social gospel, which played a key role in ending slavery and establishing women’s and workers’ rights in the United States; basic trust in the nearness of God was the working assumption of the Boston personalist, neo-orthodox, and Black liberation theologies which influenced Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in his non-violent struggle for civil rights.

… And then there is the radical Reformation, which I would like to explore a little more in-depth. The radical Reformation was originally a collection of loosely-related radical religious and intellectual movements, most of which congealed into a common movement pejoratively called ‘Anabaptism’. From the beginning, it was German through-and-through; even when the Anabaptists were slaughtered and forced into other lands – into the Ukraine and Russia, into Kazakhstan, into North America – they kept their beliefs, their language (whether Alemannic or Plattdeutsch or Deitsch) and their way of life alive with steadfast zeal. The Anabaptists had in common a radical rejection of the violent, imperial order of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church and a rejection of what they saw as the same tendencies in magisterial Protestantism, and they varied on the particulars of their beliefs, but they developed a few common tendencies.

In common with magisterial Protestants (Evangelical, Reformed and Episcopalian), the radical reformers took Scripture as their sole source of authority (though some later Anabaptist movements, such as the Church of the Brethren, rejected the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative and kept only the Greek) and affirmed das Priestertum aller Gläubigen. However, we differentiate ourselves from other Protestant groups in that we practice believer’s baptism, non-violence, consensus-based decision making and abstention from oaths as per the agreements of the 1527 Brotherly Union at Schleitheim.

But wait! In light of my previous blog article, this tradition must seem like a truly bizarre aberration! Indeed, the believer’s baptism makes perfect sense if we are comparing faith with a Teutonic barbarian’s personal honour, but wouldn’t it be difficult in the extreme to imagine non-violence arising from the a prioris of a heathen warrior culture?

Indeed, this is the objection of C S Lewis, who evokes the same Teutonic myths in his famous (if somewhat facile) indictment of pacifism in The Weight of Glory:

If I am a Pacifist, I have Arthur and Ælfred, Elizabeth and Cromwell, Walpole and Burke, against me. I have my university, my school, and my parents against me. I have the literature of my country against me, and cannot even open my Beowulf, my Shakespeare, my Johnson, or my Wordsworth without being reproved…

My first impulse is, naturally, to argue that the entire purpose of the Protest – indeed, of Christianity as a whole – is to subvert the political institutions, culture, thought and habits of empire (even if that empire happens to be British), but that point may be left aside for now. It is true that, even within Protestantism and German theology, the practice of non-violence is an extreme minority opinion, historically counter-cultural even within the counter-culture. Luther, Zwingli, Chauvin and the other magisterial reformers had no objections to the use of the sword (as the Thirty Years’ War gave ample and bloody proof). But, obviously, it cannot be completely incompatible with the thinking of the age – that is to say, it cannot have been so against ‘the universal opinion of mankind’ as Lewis seems to think – otherwise it would have been so far outside the realm of imagination for radical reformers such as Sattler and Simons that they would never have bothered considering it in the first place.

Here it may be wise to offer clear definitions for terms. I am slightly uncomfortable using the language of ‘pacifism’, as in the general parlance the word is often identified with ‘passivity’, or worse, with ‘apathy’ and indifference or aversion to struggle. Non-violence, on the other hand, is clear terminology: it is a practice rather than an ideology; it is neither passive nor apathetic. We see a Jesus in Dream of the Rood who does not submit to his fate in apathetic weariness or bitterness; rather he faces his death with stoic resolve and with bravery. And, as the Saxons had Dream of the Rood, we Anabaptists have our Martyrs’ Mirror, and we have the Gospel. We have by no means forgotten or discarded the ideals of the barbarian warrior-hero, and it is simply failure of imagination on Lewis’ part that he cannot see how we might find meaning in Beowulf or in the legend of Ælfred of Wessex. Indeed, we identify non-violent resistance to a sinful and exploitative culture as our chosen means of achieving an honour analogous to that of the heathen heroes. The Anabaptist way of thinking is that non-violence is the furthest state from weakness: it takes strength of will and character in the believer, following the virtues and practices of his Lord and King, to place his own life on the line in witness against the powers of death, with the resolve not to strike back.

(So, good news for my fellow Anabaptists – you may enjoy Lord of the Rings with a clear conscience.)

There is also the other matter, of greater interest to me, of the dialectical, paradoxical tension between our inclination to the individual as the locus of faith in believer’s baptism on the one hand, and our thoroughly communitarian praxis of consensus-based decision making on the other. The paradox beats not just in the heathen heart of the Protest, balancing personal honour against the demands of kinship, but also in Scripture: Paul lays out this paradoxical Christian understanding of freedom in no uncertain terms in his letter to the Galatians:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. (Galatians 5:1, 13-14)

Though Anabaptism places the responsibility for one’s faith squarely on the shoulders of the individual believer by practicing believer’s baptism and das Priestertum aller Gläubigen, that faith arises from and comes back to rest in the holiness of the community. Ideally, we practice obedience – not to an imperial dominance hierarchy and not to a philosophical formula, but to each other in the living body of Christ. (If this looks familiar to anyone familiar with my philosophical background, it should – it is the way in which G W F Hegel’s ‘dialectics of lordship and bondage’ are transcended.) True to the kinship of belief which is our moral inheritance, we find freedom, creativity and spiritual nourishment in obedience to one another, expressed in the mystery of the Holy Supper – or, as the Mennonite hymn ‘What is this place’ (1, Hymnal: a worship book) puts it:

And we accept bread at his table, broken and shared, a living sign.
Here in this world, dying and living, we are each other’s bread and wine.

This approach has some interesting ramifications theologically. While the Catholic and Orthodox traditions claim original authority through a patriarchal ‘pedigree’ of apostolic succession (appointments of spiritual ‘overseers’ going back to the original twelve Apostles), the Protestant* (and more specifically, Anabaptist) emphasis on the nearness of God to the people gives a far different flavour to the nature of the apostolic commission. The body of Christ is present in our community – is our community, as we return constantly to the authority of Scripture – and the apostolic commission is constantly rejuvenated personally in each member of the community through the Holy Supper.

Protestantism is not perfect – the a priori value of the individual in Protestant thinking has led to some disastrous excesses, of which the solipsistic, totalitarian neurosis of fundamentalism remains but the most obvious manifestation. Also troubling (though not as obvious) is the anemic silence of the liberal Protestant Christianity of our day: though a handful of brave churches took a strong stand against the moral monstrosity which was the Iraq War, many, to their dishonour, did not speak out – leaving the field largely open to the apologists for empire. But in Protestantism lie the seeds of freedom – not ‘the isolation of the soul’, as Berdyaev argued, but the freedom of a commonwealth of equals.

Also: Anabaptist parody added. The Lord of Webhosts commandeth.

* Some Protestant churches – like the Anglican Communion and some European Lutheran churches – do have pedigrees of apostolic succession, though in the case of the Anglican Communion the retention of apostolic succession has been a High Church argument rather than a Low Church one, and the argument favouring apostolic succession in Lutheran church polity does not seem to be a majority one.

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