2025: less triumph, more confession

Photo: Amaury Gutierrez, Unsplash

On a Sunday In June 2004, an unusual scene unfolded on the west bank of the Limmat River in Zurich, Switz-erland. An eclectic crowd of American and European Mennonites, along with several Old Order Amish, Reformed clergy, Zurich city officials and curious onlookers, gathered to unveil a bronze plaque commemorating the executions of seven Anabaptists. 

“Here in the middle of the Limmat River,” the inscription reads in German, “Felix Manz and five other Anabaptists were drowned from a fishing platform during the Reformation between 1527 and 1532. The last Anabaptist executed in Zurich was Hans Landis in 1614.”  

For many of those present, the ceremony was part of a moving series of events in which leaders of the Reformed Church of Zurich formally apologized for the persecution of Anabaptists five centuries earlier. 

Now as we approach the 500th anniversary of the first adult baptisms in Zurich in 1525, representatives of Mennonite World Conference are again reflecting on how best to commemorate that event. 

Much has changed in the 20 years since that remarkable gathering in 2004. In 2009, for example, the Protestant Church of Switzerland and the Swiss Mennonite Conference concluded a three-year dialogue under the heading “Christ is Our Peace” in which both groups committed themselves to a relationship rooted in Christian love and respect. Since then, key Swiss Protestant leaders, especially in the Reformed Church of Zurich, have expressed extraordinary hospitality to Mennonites, both personally and collectively. At a service of reconciliation in 2010, nearly 1,000 delegates to the Lutheran World Federation assembly in Stuttgart, Germany, knelt to affirm a resolution of apology to representatives of MWC for the persecution of Anabaptists. At that gathering, which followed five years of intense conversation, both groups committed themselves to “right remembering” in telling the story of Anabaptist-Lutheran interactions in the 16th century. 

In 2017, representatives of MWC, the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican concluded a four-year dialogue on baptism, in which each of these three Christian communities reflected on their understanding and practice of baptism in light of the contemporary pastoral and missional challenges each group is facing. Five hundred years after the tumultuous — often violent — events of the Reformation, the humility expressed by Lutherans, Catholics and Mennonites in the final report is remarkable. 

This month, representatives of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and MWC will initiate conversations that could result in yet another statement of reconciliation and a commitment to shared witness. 

None of these encounters has led the groups involved to renounce their basic convictions or to deny the painful reality of division in the 16th century. But these steps toward reconciliation in the past two decades make it clear that the commemorative events MWC plans for Zurich in 2025 will need to look different than they did in 2004. 

For example, if earlier accounts of Anabaptist beginnings depicted the movement primarily in heroic, even triumphalist, language, the 2025 commemoration will need to include space for confession. For many Mennonites our impulse in ecumenical settings is to claim our distinctive theological themes — community, discipleship, nonresistance — as if they were talismans that secure our moral superiority. The principle of “right remembering” calls us to also recognize shadow sides of those distinctives — the way in which our focus on distinctives can blind us to other theological truths — or to the gaps that exist between our precepts and our practice. 

Second, a focus on Anabaptist origins in 16th-century Europe can easily overshadow the global reality of the church today. History matters, but almost all of the growth in MWC-member churches during the past 50 years has been in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The renewal of the Anabaptist tradition today is happening in the Global South. 

Finally, our commemorations in 2025 will need to acknowledge the significant ecumenical relationships forged since 2004. These have spiritual significance and call on Mennonites to revise how we tell the story of the 16th century.

Perhaps we should erect a new plaque alongside the reminder of Anabaptist martyrs, one reading: “In 2025 — 500 years after the turbulent beginnings of the Anabaptist movement — representatives of the Anabaptist, Lutheran and Reformed traditions gratefully acknowledge the acts of reconciliation and forgiveness that have restored our groups to fellowship.”  

John D. Roth

John D. Roth is project director of MennoMedia’s Anabaptism at 500.

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