Rejecting Imperial Religion: baptistic Reflections from a Non-Baptist

By Jesse Wheeler

If the Turk comes, he should not be resisted, for it stands written: “thou shalt not kill” (Matt 5:21). We should not defend ourselves against the Turks or our other persecutors, but with reverent prayer should implore God that he might be our defense and our resistance ­– Michael Sattler, 1527.[1]

At the trial which would ultimately result in his horrifying execution, a mere ten years after Martin Luther inaugurated what would become the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler boldly declared before the imperial representatives of the Holy Roman Empire his sole allegiance to Christ Jesus. And he would suffer gravely for it, his execution order reading:

“Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.”

Perhaps little did the catalyst behind the Schleitheim Confession[2] know how paradigmatic his words and witness would become in defining ‘baptistic’[3] identity and practice. That Sattler spoke so boldly in the context of Christian-Muslim hostility, at a time of profound anxiety concerning the future of “Christian Europe,” is all the more remarkable – with the Turkish Siege of Vienna occurring a mere three years following. Not only does he stand in defiance of the Holy Roman Empire, Sattler’s declaration represents a bold denunciation of Martin Luther’s Two-Kingdoms Theology, a doctrine explicitly promoted by Luther within the context of Ottoman advances in Eastern Europe and which grants relatively free reign and even divine sanction to Luther’s political and military benefactors. In the words of one Lutheran pamphleteer,

Christians should also take comfort in the knowledge that the Turkish Empire is God’s enemy, and that God will not allow it to annihilate the Christians. Although God has caused this empire to arise in these last times as the most severe of punishments, nonetheless He will not allow the Christians to succumb completely, and Mahomet will not rule alone in the whole world … Therefore, those who fight against the Turk should be confident … that their fighting will not be in vain.[4]

This, of course, is the language of the holy crusader. What, then, led “radicals” like Sattler to such an extreme pacifism while Europe was in the throes of existential distress and for what reason did such views bring down the wrath of the Christian imperial authorities, be they Catholic or Protestant, upon these historic ‘baptistic’ communities?

It is critical to note that radicals like Sattler failed to distinguish between the Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires or even the various Protestant principalities in their denunciation of “Imperial Religion.” And, when the full wrath of Empire came flooding down upon his body, it was done under the banner of the cross. This fact illustrates what might be considered the core distinctive of baptistic belief and practice: a commitment to the tangible Lordship of Christ Jesus.

My personal background is neither Baptist nor Anabaptist, having jumped between the Nazarene (Wesleyan-Holiness) and Presbyterian (Reformed) traditions through various times in my life. Yet, having been immersed, so to speak, within a Baptist milieu over the past few years, I have come to a profound appreciation of what it means to proclaim the universal Lordship of Christ. “Every area of life,” writes David W. Shenk, “needs to come under the authority of the Messiah and his kingdom.” He notes further that this holism is shared in many respects with mainstream Islamic thought:

That commitment is understood by Muslims, who are also committed to bring all aspect of life into submission to the will of God. Of course, the understanding of the nature of the Kingdom of God within Biblical and Quranic faith is different. Nevertheless, both […] resist dividing life into the secular and the religious, but rather seek to submit every area of life to the rule of God.[5]

Such a commitment has deep implications for Biblical interpretation, church life and discipleship. First, Christ becomes the interpretive key through which all scripture is read, understood and applied.[6] As ethicists Glen Stassen and David Gushee tell us, “The Bible is not flat; Christ is its peak and its center.”[7] Therefore, “thou shall not kill” is read through Christ’s elaboration of the command in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21). And in imitation of the messiah, Sattler’s decision to refuse the sword would lead him to his own cross. So, when Christ speaks from atop a mountain, after first wandering the desert and passing through the waters of his baptism, it seems the Book of Matthew might be telling us something – especially if thought about in light of core Jewish and Muslims emphases on Law. If Christ is who we proclaim him to be, if in the words of Christ are found the very words of God Himself, then it seems wise to “hear his words and put them into practice.” His law is our law. His example is our example. And, his cross becomes our own.

Concerning congregational life, the radicals worked out their theology “in terms of the actual form and structure of the church on the ground” such that the individual church exists “under the immediate rule of Christ.”[8] Being under the direct rule of Christ would have profound social and political consequences. Severing the ties between church and state, adult baptism was but a sign of this divorce. This didn’t represent, however, an abdication of the political realm, as these groups “took up a prophetic resistance to what seemed to them to be the assumption of Christ’s rule by the state.”[9] Like with Sattler, accusations of treason and heresy went hand in hand.

Yet the form of their resistance was distinctive, representing a discipleship modeled on the example of Christ. According to Nigel Wright,

[They] understood the cross of Christ to be a pattern of the whole shape of Jesus’ redemptive life, and therefore of the life of the believers who earnestly follow him. This is a life of self-giving and self-denial, of returning good in place of evil, of absorbing and enduring hostility rather than returning it.[10]

To follow after Christ, to “hear his words and put them into practice,” becomes then a means for actualizing, embodying the Kingdom Vision in the here and now. To paraphrase theologian James McClendon, what is represented here is an interweaving of the Biblical story, both past and future, and the story of the individual congregation. In taking on the mantle of discipleship, represented in baptism, one takes on the story of God in Christ witnessed to in the pages of scripture, and participates in the present-day actualization of God’s coming reign. This is a lived, ‘earthy’ spirituality, a narrative embodiment of the pages of scripture in real time. [11]

But, the historic neglect and/or marginalization by the church of the clear teachings and lived example of Jesus has been catastrophic to our witness and the actualization of God’s Kingdom in our midst. As such, when Michael Sattler proclaimed his loyalty to Christ before the emissaries of the Holy Roman Empire, he was confronting in his mind not simply an alternative theology, for which a little modern ecumenical sensitivity should cure, but one that had circumvented the clear teachings of Christ in captivity to an unholy alliance of land, people, power, and religious sanction. It is this unholy alliance of territory, people, power, and belief which defines imperial religion. Of the New Testament challenge to this alliance, Ida Glaser writes,

[The New Testament] shatters ties between religion and territory, and between religion and power even more strongly than did the exile […] These are the ties that support the dangerous triangle of people, power and land that has always characterized so much religion. It is the cross that shatters them.[12]

In this line of thought, empire is empire regardless the talisman – cross, crescent, star or flag – under which its soldiers charge. And empire, particularly imperial religion, stands contrary to the reign of the crucified messiah.

So, as many Christians in the West line up behind demagogues stoking fears of migrants and refugees, or as in Lebanon where every square centimeter is claimed by a volatile amalgam of land, people and religious power, perhaps there is something to learn from the example of baptistic martyrs like Sattler and others in their wholesale allegiance to the universal Lordship of the crucified Christ and subsequent rejection of such imperial arrangements.

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[1] David W. Shenk, ‘Introduction: Three Journeys—Jesus, Constantine, Muhammad’, in Anabaptists Meeting Muslims: A Calling for Presence in the Way of Christ, ed. by James R. Kraybill, David W. Shenk, and Linford Stutzman (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2005), pp. 25-45 (pp.40-41).

[2] According to David W. Shenk, the Scleitheim Confession is considered normative for defining 16th century Anabaptist belief and practice.

[3] I follow here the vocabulary of Parush Parushev who speaks of the ‘baptistic’ tradition. While recognizing a clear distinction between Anabaptist and Baptist traditions, it acknowledges also a clear family resemblance between the two. See: Parush Parushev, ‘Doing Theology in a Baptist Way’, in Doing Theology in a Baptist Way: the Plenary Papers Collection of the Symposium, ed. by Tuen van der Leer (Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit, 2009), pp. 1-33 (p. 3).

[4] Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 8.

[5] David W. Shenk, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church: Exploring the Mission of Two Communities (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2003) pp. 16-17.

[6] Nigel Wright, “Spirituality as Discipleship: The Anabaptist Heritage,” in Under the Rule of Christ: Dimensions of Baptist Spirituality, ed. by Paul S. Fiddes (Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2008), pp. 79-101 (pp. 82-83).

[7] Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), p. 97.

[8] Paul S. Fiddes, “A Fourth Strand of the Reformation, Ecclesiology,” 13 (2017), pp. 153-159 (pp. 154).

[9] Fiddes, “Fourth Strand,” p. 157.

[10] Wright, “Anabaptist,” p. 88.

[11] James Wm. McClendon, Jr., “The baptist Vision,” Baptistic Theologies 6 (2014), pp. 23-35 (p. 28).

[12] Ida Glaser, The Bible and Other Faiths: What Does the Lord Require of Us? (Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2005), Kindle Location 2105-2111, Kindle eBook.

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