“The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God.” Schleitheim Brotherly Union, article 6, 1527
“All of the sovereigns, protectors, and rulers are only swineherds in contrast to the sovereignty of Christ.” Pilgram Marpeck, 1531
Among the many striking images contained in illustrated versions of Martyrs Mirror is the etching of Simon den Kramer defying the public procession of the sacrament in the town of Bergen op Zoom in 1553. This procession can best be described as a 16th century European expression of what we today call civil religion — the recruitment of religious symbols and rituals on behalf of national or political authority. In this case, the established political authority collaborates with the established religious authority (here the Christian church) in order to strengthen the power of both institutions over the lives and imaginations of their subjects. The communion procession in this case is underwritten by the power of law enforcement to arrest and punish anyone who refuses to participate in this public display of religiosity. Simon — who is in the marketplace as a street vendor — refuses to give allegiance to what he regards as an idolatrous expression of piety. He refuses to kneel before the established symbols of Christian unity, a protest for which he was burned at the stake on the outskirts of the town.
This refusal of publicly and politically sanctioned piety lies at the heart of the stubborn Anabaptist protest against established Christendom — the corrupt mixing of national and religious loyalties — in practically all of its forms. Anabaptist confessions of every kind grant respect and the hope of God’s favor to constituted forms of civil authority; at the same time, such confessions refuse to accept the authority of governments over matters of conscience and faith — a principle eventually expressed as the separation of church and state. Because the powers of governance are based on the coercive threat of the sword, such powers are ultimately corrupting of human communities and relationships — they operate “outside the perfection of Christ,” as the Schleitheim Brotherly Union states it.
Because such coercive power is incompatible with the gospel of peace that Jesus proclaimed and modeled, from an Anabaptist perspective there is no such thing as a Christian nation, the United States has certainly never been one, and the church should not seek to make it so. From its earliest beginnings, however, Anabaptist communities have assumed that the gospel witness of their communities had a public form — a message of hope and challenge for all, including civil authorities. In 1552, the year before Simon den Kramer’s public protest and execution, Menno Simons addressed magistrates as Christians and urged them to “serve God with all your might; do justice to widows, orphans, strangers, the sad, and the oppressed; wash your hands of blood; rule your lands with wisdom and peace.” The 1950 Winona Lake declaration of numerous Amish and Mennonite denominations in the U.S. acknowledges the “obligation to bear witness to the powers that be of the righteousness which God requires of (all), even in government.”
My personal political manifesto offers one Anabaptist approach to politics with this history and these commitments firmly in view. It is one expression of persisting with Simon den Kramer’s public protest against the idolatrous mixing of piety and politics while at the same time offering a public witness to “the righteousness which God requires of all.”
1. My first allegiance is to Jesus Christ. I belong to a global network of members of his reconciled and reconciling body, before I belong to a nation, a party, a club, an institution, a denomination, a family or any other organized form of belonging. I believe the primary vocation of baptized Christians is to represent this reconciling body of Christ in every station of our lives, including in our duties as citizens. For me, this means I will not take up arms on behalf of any nation, I do not belong to any political party, and — given the amount of idolatry associated with presidents and presidential candidates in our country — I will not give partisan (unqualified, party-identified) support to candidates in a presidential election or to any incumbent president, although I am prepared to critique or affirm the discourse and policies of any candidate from either party, according to my understanding of the professed civic and national commitments outlined in such documents as the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, when such commitments do not contradict my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. I believe in the separation of church and state. I believe the church is called to make disciples by displaying in its life together the practices of compassionate love and mutual accountability taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ, and by inviting all who are attracted to this life to join in through baptism. While the purpose of the state is different from the mission of the church, I believe the church should never support policies or practices by either church or state that contradict the church’s mission to proclaim and practice the disruptive and reconciling peace of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:11-12). Moreover, the church is called to challenge policies and practices of human governance — whether of church or state — that violate the dignity of human beings created in the image of God and that are therefore opposed to the peace of Christ to which the church bears witness. While I am ready to participate in organized forms of resistance to tyranny and violence, I do so first of all as a baptized member of the body of Christ and only secondarily as a citizen. My allegiance to Jesus Christ and to the peaceable way of Jesus Christ qualifies all other obligations and commitments, including even those that attach to church-related institutions.
3. I believe there is a Christian witness to the state but I do not believe there is or should be a Christian political party. I give priority of support to candidates for office in my town, my county and my state over candidates for national office, with the concern in mind that greater concentrations of power — such as those found closer to the federal level — are also more corrupting of thriving human relationships and communities. I am open to supporting all public policies and citizen initiatives that align with biblical priorities announced by Jesus Christ of justice for the poor, release for captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and fulfillment of the year of the Lord’s favor — that is to say, following the Jubilee rule of redistributing wealth and land fairly, forgiving oppressive debts, restoring the soil and attending to the flourishing of this good earth (Luke 4:16-21; Isaiah 61:1-4; Leviticus 25). I also support the exercise of civil authority that rewards virtue and restrains crime; I am glad to pay taxes that strengthen the capacity for civic leadership in both public and private spheres to pursue the common good (Rom. 13:1-7). I will advocate for a social and civic order that welcomes and protects migrants and refugees; this means opposing laws that treat citizens and non-citizens differently under the law, and it may mean disobeying laws or policies that forbid harboring and caring for migrants (Lev. 19:33-34; Numbers 15:15-16; Deut. 24:17). I am committed to the biblical vision of flourishing and peacemaking communities in which swords are beaten into plowshares, guns are forged into garden tools and in which the creative arts of peace are improvised from the ruins of empires built on the self-defeating foundations of violence (Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:9-12). I advocate the respect for every human being and for differing experiences and perspectives to which the New Testament calls believers in our decision-making and discernment, and which is displayed at least approximately in the due process and parliamentary patience associated with the institutions of constitutional democracy — such as free and fair elections, separation of powers and a free press. (1. Cor. 12:12-31; 14:26-33).
4. I am supportive of policies and practices that align with this biblical vision of good and peaceable and just well-being, no matter which party or candidate is proposing them and no matter what religious identity (or lack of religious identity) is professed by the policy’s proposers or supporters — unless that professed identity is intrinsically opposed to good and peaceable and just well-being (i.e. white nationalist parties). And I will oppose policies and practices that challenge this biblical vision no matter what party or candidate is proposing or supporting them and no matter what religious identity (or lack thereof) is professed by the policy’s proposers or supporters.
5. I welcome accountability to these commitments and will strive to amend my life and habits when shown that I have failed to live up to what I profess. At the same time, I recognize that my own articulation of these commitments continues to evolve as I study Scripture alongside early Anabaptist source texts and discuss these convictions with friends and colleagues in response to changing political realities. I am open to being shown that I am mistaken, in other words. A refusal to insist on my own understanding of politics is a defining platform of my political posture. My only unqualified allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
Gerald J. Mast is a professor of communication at Bluffton University and a member of First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio. He blogs at mastgblog.wordpress.com, where this post originally appeared, and is co-author, with J. Denny Weaver, of the forthcoming book Nonviolent Word: Anabaptism, the Bible, and the Grain of the Universe (Pickwick).