Making trouble

Jul 1, 2016 by

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During a recent trip to the Netherlands for work, I had the opportunity to stop by the Singelkerk in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it in time for service, but I did experience a fantastic tour by a brother named Marcel who gave me a good history of the congregation, the church building, and the presence of Mennonites (or “Baptist-minded”) in the Netherlands and Amsterdam. During this tour, Marcel described some Anabaptist groups in Amsterdam during the 1500s that certainly didn’t fit the picture of what most think of Anabaptists today. This got me thinking about our trouble-making legacy of the Mennonites and where we are today.

It is disingenuous for a person or a group of people to make the claim that the way they do things the way they think are somehow atomic and isolated from the past. It’s easy to say that something is tradition and even have a bit of a story about it, but there are a lot of things that we do and think that come from our long history that, perhaps, we need to dig deeper about. For some of us Mennonites, we like to think that we are Swiss/German in our origins. At least, that is our ethnicity. Others may identify as Mennonites through a Russian ancestry. But our church, our tradition, actually has its roots in the Netherlands. After all, Menno Simons was a Dutch Catholic priest. So, if we look at a couple of stories from the Netherlands, we might get a better glimpse as to why we do what we do.

Now, when folks think about Dutch Anabaptism, two things probably come to mind. First is the story of Dirk Willems, which is a great tale. It is a relatively popular story of Anabaptist ideals, so there are few who are within the tradition who have not heard it. Probably a little bit more obscure, but not to those with a scholarly bent, is the Dordrecht Confession. This is one of the first truly Mennonite confessions (the Schleitheim Confession was earlier and more generally Anabaptist and Swiss Brethren than specifically Mennonite). But Marcel, in his tour, told us two other stories.

The troublemakers

In the early years of the reformation and the birth of the various groups being called “Anabaptist,” there was a group of Anabaptists convinced that the end times were near, and they were committed, at all costs, to convince others of the same. They actually started an armed revolt, following in the path of Münster, and attacked the city hall of Amsterdam. The revolt was successful briefly in that they managed to gain control of city hall but within a day or two lost their control and were captured and executed. Just a year before that, three other Anabaptists were counted the first to be executed for heresy because of their support for Münster and their carrying of swords through the streets, calling on citizens to join in establishing God’s Kingdom on earth. These were some of the first Anabaptist troublemakers.

Another story Marcel told us was of the naked runners. Apparently, there was another group of Anabaptists in Amsterdam who were on the very charismatic line of things. If you think the snake handlers in the U.S. Southeast are a bit odd, well… Apparently, they were gathered together and were in an “ecstatic state of mind” when their leader made a statement that he had spoken directly to God. With a sign from God — that being that some kid at the meeting (parents, take note: keep your kids under control at prayer meeting) thew his slippers into the fire — he declared that the truth is naked and so everyone took off their clothes and burned them and then ran into the streets declaring that vengeance will fall on those who don’t see the truth. These were also Anabaptist troublemakers.

In truth, these stories are just a few that span a lot of Europe during these tumultuous times. It is also worth noting that between the Schleitheim Confession and the Dordrecht Confession, more than 100 years had passed. So we have almost a century of formation from the beginning of the Radical Reformation until the real start of the Mennonite denomination in the early 1600s.

Our legacy

So, what legacy do contemporary Anabaptists take from this? We could trace history further to our current Anabaptist denominations, tracking through various writings and events, but one thing came clear to me in the talk with Marcel. We are still, today, bearing the legacy of those early revolts and, because of them, the reactions of our forefathers to them.

Suffice it to say, the original Anabaptists were pretty bold folks with a lot of charisma and passion for what they believed. They were outspoken and very visible in their day. Even when they weren’t leading armed rebellions, some of those early folks were pretty “in your face” with the religious leaders of the time. So, what happened?

The answer is simple. We distanced ourselves. We saw what some of these other folks were doing and determined “that is not for us.” A good bit of it was recognition that the violence of Münster and those who followed in that path were not in keeping with Christ’s teachings. But some of it was certainly reactionary. If we put our necks out too far, we could find our heads separated from those same necks. We need to step back, quiet down, calm down and just do our thing.

And that is what happened. In truth, Mennonites became respectable folks in society in Amsterdam. They weren’t part of the government and so forth, but they did good works among the people. They were “water workers,” as Marcel put it, skilled at reclaiming land from the sea and instrumental in making the Netherlands what they are, a land below sea-level. They were humanitarians, taking care of the people around them, building orphanages and schools, and taking care of the poor among them. It was their reputation of doing good that, while they were still not necessarily viewed as “good Christians” by the Dutch Reformed church (but then, neither were Catholics), allowed them to exist in their communities and churches without bother.

In reflection, I think this is why we have the general idea of the Mennonite tradition of being “the quiet in the land.” We don’t put ourselves out there; we don’t make a stink or raise a fuss. But we do good works in and around ourselves, improving the society in which we live, quietly bringing the kingdom of God to bear within our congregations and communities.

However, I think we are too quiet at times. There are things going on around us, things that are definitely not good in the eyes of anyone, let alone people following Jesus — things about which we, perhaps, should have something to say. But should we make trouble?

A reflection

I think we should. I made a reflective video on my experience in which I ponder when to make trouble and how. And my friend, Steve Kimes, made another video in response, noting how he became a troublemaker recently. We can also read the stories in the New Testament and we can see how Jesus was branded a troublemaker frequently. The apostles, after Pentecost, also got a reputation for stirring up trouble. And Paul was arrested for being a troublemaker. If we are to truly say we are following in the footsteps of our Christian heritage, then being a troublemaker is well within bounds.

But I think our Mennonite legacy does teach us something. There is a big difference between being a troublemaker for Christ and being a troublemaker in general. With one very notable exception, all the examples in the New Testament of the apostles and Jesus being branded as troublemakers came not from them doing something deliberately aimed at causing trouble, but from living out the Kingdom where they were, preaching the good news of the gospel and living out that good news in their daily lives. By simply doing these things, they became a threat to the folks in charge. So, I think, as Mennonites, we can learn from our past and note that making trouble, deliberately, is not in our calling. It does not seem to hold up in Scripture as what the New Testament church should be doing with its interactions with the world.

But that does not mean we should simply be satisfied with being the quiet in the land. The apostles and Jesus both preached publicly. They made their statements, not in the quiet spaces of their homes and synagogues but out loud in public spaces. Paul spoke in public forums; Jesus spoke on a mountainside; Peter and John spoke in the temple. These were all public venues where they proclaimed, boldly, the truth of who God is, who Jesus is, and the good news that the world is about to change.

The day that we visited with Marcel in his church, he told us that there were some congregation members participating in a protest up on the town square against the violence and occupation in Gaza. I know of friends and family who have participated in demonstrations against the drone bombing the USA conducts. I, personally, have taken part in demonstrations speaking out against injustice. So, in some sense, we are still being troublemakers in the eyes of the world.

But I question, sometimes, the tactics that we use or have been suggested we use. It’s one thing to be labeled a troublemaker because the things you are doing call attention to the problems in society. It is another thing to be labeled a troublemaker because you are, actually, deliberately making trouble. Are some of the invasive protests and sit-ins that much different from men running through the streets with swords? Are they any different from armed men taking over the city hall and declaring the city the New Jerusalem?

I am unsure of this. I hear people use the image of Jesus purging the temple and saying, “Sometimes, even Jesus needed to use a whip,” and that just bothers me. Am I still bearing the legacy of my Mennonite ancestors, trying not to be lumped in with the violent uprisings? Or am I seeking a way, through Christ, where I stir up trouble by living alternatively?

The best I can do is to continue to follow Christ and do what I must to live out his way in this world. And, if in the process I get called a troublemaker, I lean heavily on God’s grace and mercy that, if that’s the case, it will be within his character, and not the character of the world.

Robert Martin blogs thoughts, reflections and stories regarding theology and the Christian walk at Abnormal Anabaptist, where this post originally appeared.


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