Anabaptist Separation and Arguments against the Sword in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union

By Biesecker-Mast, Gerald | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Anabaptist Separation and Arguments against the Sword in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union


Biesecker-Mast, Gerald, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: Recent historical interpretations of Anabaptism have focused both on the diversity of views concerning the sword and on commitments held in common among early Anabaptist groups. An alternative interpretive framework, shaped by the rhetorical tradition and a commitment to pacifism, can reorient our reception of early Anabaptist writings about the sword. A careful rhetorical analysis of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union shows that this document incorporated contrasting views of the sword: (1) the sword is evil and (2) the sword is good, yet outside Christ's perfection. While the former view supports the Brotherly Union's overarching antagonism to the dominant social institutions and practices of the time, the latter view dualistically recognizes the fundamental difference between the perfection of Christ, to which the church is called, and the protection of the good with the sword, which is the vocation of the magistrate. This contrast between antagonism and dualism, played out in the Brotherly Union, manages a central problematic faced by Anabaptist movements: how to be a separate, visible church while at the same time remaining civil, peaceful and law-abiding subjects. Ambrosins Spitelmaier's discussion of the role of government and articles 13 and 14 of the Dordrecht Confession illustrate alternative strategies for managing this tension between separation and civility.

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While the pacifist commitments of Mennonites remain visible in their primary confessions, in their continuing designation as a historic peace church and in their frequent public witness against violence, this pacifist commitment is today a contested issue within the Mennonite churches, as it has often been throughout Mennonite history. Furthermore, as J. Denny Weaver has been pointing out for some time, one of the commonplace sources for evidence on all sides of this internal debate about the Mennonite peace stance is the Anabaptist movement of the Radical Reformation. (1) That is not surprising, given the abundant evidence that the historical narrative told about Anabaptist origins in the sixteenth century continues to have profound implications for the shape of Mennonite identity at the turn of the twenty-first.

For example, Rodney Sawatsky has suggested a relationship between the recent historical narratives that emphasize Anabaptist pluralism and the lived experience of contemporary Mennonite pluralism. (2) John Roth has suggested that early Anabaptist conversations about church differences can provide both negative and positive models for current Mennonite encounters with cultural and ecclesiastical controversies. (3) Arnold Snyder has argued that amidst the plurality of Anabaptist perspectives there is a common terrain of agreement that could provide a basis for a common believers' church identity today. (4) And a number of recent books have anthologized old Anabaptist texts according to a packaging scheme that appeals to the current North American Mennonite obsession with spirituality. (5)

Lest we assume that these questions of identity are limited only to Mennonite and other church groups descended from the Anabaptists, I will point out that a Baptist historian like William Estep has sought to ground basic American constitutional assumptions, such as separation of church and state, in the Anabaptist movements. (6) And recent postmodernists such as Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard have proposed that America is a prototypical Anabaptist nation, driven by a determination to make its utopian dreams material in the here and now through the sensuous and ecstatic play of hyperreal simulacra and superhuman technologies that exceed the limits of the corrupted human body. (7)

As a communication scholar, I have a particular interest in two different aspects of these contested Anabaptist historical sources: (1) what rhetorical practices appear to shape these sources and their original audiences and (2) how these sources are used rhetorically by contemporary writers to defend particular arguments about the meaning of Anabaptism. …

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