People still use hiking sticks made of wood, though perhaps only for a pilgrimage. Otherwise, telescopic sticks made of carbon dominate here in Europe.
The imaginatively shaped hiking stick shown here is a symbol for events surrounding the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism in 2025. It especially illustrates this year’s motto for the commemoration: “Daring to live consistently.”
Centuries ago, Anabaptists took up the hiking stick when pressures at home became too strong, persecution set in and the opportunity of tolerance elsewhere beckoned.
But the walking stick carries yet another message. Traveling was a dangerous business in the 16th century. Robbers might lurk anywhere. The stick could be used for defense.
For Anabaptists, this raised the question of living consistently. Is using a hiking stick in self-defense compatible with a nonviolent life?
Anabaptists found different answers to this question. In 1554, an assembly attended by Menno Simons determined that elders “could not consider it impure . . . if a believer, according to the custom and manner of the country, shouldered a stick or a rapier [sword] on his way.”
Others rejected self-defense as contrary to Jesus’ command, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:59).
Anabaptism is often referred to as the “Radical Reformation.” This can seem like a contradiction today, because we associate radicalism with extremism and a willingness to use violence.
In reference to Anabaptist history, the term gained general acceptance after the publication of a 1962 book, The Radical Reformation, by George Huntston Williams. For Williams, “radical” meant more than the reform of spiritual and ecclesiastical life, as many early 16th-century reformers had sought.
It also meant going back to the roots of the early church — attempting to revive the Christian community as described in the Book of Acts.
In this sense, the Latin word radix, or root, applies — a return to the source.
On the other hand, German historian Hans-Jürgen Goertz held that Anabaptists were radical in that their ideas sought to change society in social terms. Radicality would become visible in violation of established law, order or conventions.
But radicality had its price. As Anabaptists challenged societal premises with their nonviolence and rejection of the established churches (both Catholic and Protestant), they became outsiders. They were different from the mainstream. This has impacted our theological and social identity for centuries.
What does living radically mean for us today? By what standards do we live? We agree that we should be biblical, following and emulating Jesus Christ. Yet this leaves some room for maneuvering. It requires interpretation and contextualization.
A church order, issued in 1540 by the Tyrolean Anabaptist Leupold Scharnschlager, stated that “all things will indeed exist through order” but “according to daily change and shape of the times” and always toward “the better.”
What is “the better”? It’s not always easy to say. Has not the “radicality” of the church “[without] spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27, King James Version) produced far too many victims of spiritual condemnation?
Radical nonresistance must be far more than refusing to take up arms. It should also apply to speech and to interactions with others in daily life.
Do we condemn another person with words?
Do we get into aggressive discussions where intolerance dominates?
Do we even notice when we use hate speech, or is it normal?
Does the Anabaptist tradition have something to contribute to the pacification of a polarized society?