Towards an Anabaptist Epistemology: A Non Violent Way of Knowing

Having summarized the broad outlines of an Anabaptist political theology, I will now draw out the epistemological implications of this stance. Some broad definitions might be helpful before we proceed. When I speak of “Anabaptism,” I am thinking of two particular, closely connected views. First, there is the commitment to Christian nonviolence or pacifism, the view that Christians should “do harm to no one.” Second, and as a logical consequence of this is the view that Christians cannot rule because this entails coercion and violence. This rejection of political power entails, on one hand, a recognition of the fundamental incompatibility of Christianity with Christendom; the state of affairs in which, “the two visible realities, church and world, [are] fused.” On the other, it entails a rejection of the use of of worldly, coercive means to promote the cause of Christ. In response to a potential objection to his position, Riedemann rules out Christian coercion:

 Someone might say, ‘It is necessary to use force because of wicked people.’ We have already answered this by saying that the power of the sword has passed to the heathen for the punishment of their evildoers. That is not our concern. Paul says, ‘What have I to do with judging evildoers?’ No Christian can be a ruler in worldly society. 

Peter Riedemann, Confession of Faith, 134.

Now this needs to be clarified further. In what sense are Christians using “coercive means” to impose their conception of the good on others? After all, we are a long way from the Catholic Integralist fantasy and there are no roving bands of violent Christians forcing people to be baptized, so in what sense can we speak of coercion? What we are getting at with “coercion” is the attempt to impose and force upon, through a variety of means, the Christian conception of things upon those who reject Christian claims. This is fundamentally a continuation of the logic of Christendom; the Church uses the violent means of the world to promote its own ends. It uses the same means that Pilate used to crucify Christ to promote the cause of that weak, crucified man. Yoder describes just this when he speaks of “Constantinianism,” named after the Roman Emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the empire. By Constantinianism, Yoder is describing the “willingness of God’s people to defer their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures. And using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.” Or stated more briefly: “The attempt by Christians to make history turn out “right” by grasping the reigns of power and by using violence to achieve their goals.”

What is at stake here is the stance that Christians take to the world. Are Christians trying to gain and maintain power? Do they see themselves as engulfed in a culture war for the soul of the nation? Do their intellectual projects shore up their political power? What I’m getting at is this fundamental stance which prioritizes power over faithfulness, or which uses anti-Christian means to promote Christian ends. This politicized stance manifests itself in preoccupation with the culture war, hatred of cultural opponents, justification of anti-christian political movements, compromising on faithfulness for the sake of political expediency, obsession with the “rationality” of the faith, and so on. In opposition to this, I want to argue for a disempowered stance, a Christianity that does not seek political power—in the Anabaptist case, this is something to be fundamentally avoided—but seeks instead to be faithful and to evangelize.

So if Anabaptist Christians see this strict dichotomy between the Church and the State, or the Church and the World, and do not think that the two can be fused into a Constantinian project, this has some further implications. But first, some more background definitions are needed. The political is concerned with the governance of society. Those with political ‘authority’ are those with the power to “influence or command thought, opinion or behaviour” of the people under their rule. In rejecting the Constantinian project of Christendom, Annabaptists believe that Christians cannot wield political authority to impose the Christian vision of things upon society. A society governed by Christian norms—Christendom—is a perversion of Christianity. This is because the coercive, violent means of the state—how political authority is upheld—are antithetical to the means of the kingdom. Whats important to note in all of this, is the connection between power and truth. Those in power—those with the ability to make people act or think in a certain way— are imposing a certain vision of the good life, a conception of reality, a “truth”, upon those under them, to which the ruled must, and subconsciously will, conform.The power structures of a given community, determines “the truth” —the norms, the narratives, the social imaginary and so on—that is formed into a person. Michael Foucault’s axiom, “Power is knowledge” captures the reality that any power system creates a system of “truth” which legitimates the power structure and imposes its conception of things onto the ruled. An obvious example of this is the mythology undergirding the founding of the United States, here we have a story that legitimates the power structures and creates a narrative in which citizens are embedded and a normative system to which they must submit. Power systems both tell us what we should believe and also force us believe it by building those truth claims into our bodies. Of course, this is not some conscious conspiracy to hide the truth, and one must not automatically think of this in oppressive terms. But the fact is that, for good or for ill, there is a tight connection between power and truth. The entry on Foucault in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy elucidates this further with the example of a hospital and a school:

The examination (for example, of students in schools, of patients in hospitals) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normalizing judgement. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth” (1975 [1977: 184]). It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know or what is the state of their health) and controls their behaviour (by forcing them to study or directing them to a course of treatment).

Johanna Oksla, “Foucault” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 

So if power structures in some sense determine the truth, in that they generate and impose norms upon the ruled, the reverse is also the case; claims to truth can be appeals to power. Think of the example of the hospital or the school above, both are making claims about health and knowledge that they intend to impose upon their patients and students. The cancer diagnosis (truth claim) will come with a course of treatment (power/authority). Again, this is not necessarily a negative or oppressive state of affairs, it just is the case that truth claims are often simultaneously claims to power. These examples of the hospital and the school, throw us slightly off the trail. What we are particularly interested in for the purposes of this piece, is how certain discourses, truth claims, ect. promote and undergird a political project. Even more specially we are interested in understanding how theological truth claims simultaneously conceal a political agenda. To flesh this out, lets use an example that we will touch on later in this essay. Think about how religious people often employ natural law or apologetic arguments in the political square. By making appeals to a universally accessible reason—truths that are available to all regardless of their confessional commitments—they are able to promote a Christian agenda in the political sphere. James K. A. Smith point out the connection between these epistemological claims to universal truth and a Constantinan political project:

In many cases, these political and apologetic interests merge to underwrite a Constantinain religious political project. In other words, the epistemological confidence of natural theology often translates into a notion of natural law that, more often than not, feeds into the colonizing of the political by the religious that also tends to cut the other way—namely the church becomes allied with the interest of the state. 

James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology, 51. 

So we see how this epistemology, this theological discourse of “natural law”, undergirds a political project. The claims of “neutral, objective, reason” are simultaneously political appeals.  In his essay, Theological Integrity, Rowen Williams makes a similar point by discussing what it means for a discourse to have integrity. A discourse has “integrity” if it: “is really talking about what it says it is talking about.” A discourse that lacks integrity is operating on two levels, one acknowledged, the other unacknowledged. Such a discourse, is fundamentally concealing a political agenda even if it is (as is usually the case) simultaneously involved in truth-telling: “To make what is said invulnerable by displacing its real subject matter is a strategy for the retention of power.” For those in power, the discourse will at its unacknowledged level “be essentially about the right to control.” For the powerless the “images and definitions offered by [those in power]” will be the only “means to access” the resources of the powerful. Anyone with any experience making a request to a more powerful or authoritative person, will be familiar with this dynamic. In a religious setting, religious appeals will work, in a democracy, appeals to the will of the people will be more effective—but those who lack power must make their appeal on the terms of those in power and must play within the rationality rules of the power game.

All of what has just been said, suffers from imprecision in definition and detail and hopefully the reader will grasp the general outlines of what I am saying without getting lost too deep in the weeds. Now, to connect all of this back to our discussion of Anabaptism, we can perhaps begin to see the epistemological implications of the Anabaptist stance. In claiming that the entire sphere of political power is off limits, that Christians cannot rule, Anabaptists are by implication saying that Christians do not know how to rule. An Annabaptist theological discourse would be powerless and non violent because it conceals no appeals to political power. What I want to explore in this piece, is what a non violent, non-Constantinian, epistemology would look like. In other words, can there be a Christian (or, to be more specific, Anabaptist, or in my own case, Hutterite) theological discourse that does not simultaneously work, consciously or unconsciously, to promote a Constantinitinian political project? This kind of non-violent epistemology, it seems to me, follows naturally from the Anabaptist two kingdom view. If the violent domain of the state is inadmissible for Anabaptists, and if Anabaptists claim that the Church is an alternative to the state, this presupposes an epistemology. Christians do not understand the logic of violence that the rulers use to justify their killing, because we see the world in a different, non violent way. Our alternative politics is undergirded by an alternative epistemology grounded in the foolishness of the cross. In that light we find the epistemology undergirding the politics of the world to be illogical. To summarize, the goal of an Anabaptist epistemology is to know powerlessly and nonviolently.  On one hand, because the church is a nonviolent alternative to the state, it does not understand the logic that could be used to justify violence and coercion. On the other hand, because the church is opposed to Christendom and the Constantinain project, it is opposed to a theological discourse that simultaneously conceals a political agenda. In short, the Church cannot rule because it does not know how to rule. 

Now, in what follows, I will draw out some of the implications of what such a non violent epistemology would look like. This is meant in no way to be the final word on anything, and indeed I recognize the myriad of questions and problems that I am passing over unacknowledged. I hope merely to point in some directions, ask some questions and provide some suggestions. Furthermore, it should be noted that this political theology is written from a given political climate and context. In the age of Trump, with the rise of religious nationalism and in our post-Christendom society, I am attuned more to a certain set of problems than to others and am attempting to be faithful within that context. Annabaptist Christians finding themselves in a very different contexts will have to faithfully respond in their own way. 


To begin with, on an Anabaptist epistemology, Christianity is not “rational” in the sense that it can be argued for, or proven by neutral, secular, reason. In other words, Christianity is not a universally accessible “fact” about the universe, that all human beings can rationally grasp, and indeed, should be able to grasp. Put this, way, it might seem obvious, after all, the foundational claim of Christianity is that God became flesh, a claim that is, then as now, a scandal to the intellect. Kierkegaard was particularly attuned to the absurdity of the incarnation: “The absurd is—that the eternal truth has come into being in time, that God has come into being, has been born, has grown up, and so fourth, precisely like any other individual human being, quite indistinguishable from other individuals.” And yet, in the rhetoric of the so called ‘apologists’ of the Christian faith, one hears no hint of such a scandal. It is claimed that Christianity is ‘rational’, that its most scandalous claims can be ‘proven’, that the historical truth of the resurrection can be ‘demonstrated’, ‘validated’ and so on. This is precisely the move that an Anabaptist epistemology rejects. Such an attempt to show the truth of Christianity on universally accessible, neutral reason, is linked to a Constantinian political project. If Christianity can be demonstrated to be true, in a publicly assessable way, it gains the right to impose itself on others. Behind the rhetoric claim of the ‘rationality’ of Christianity is a political agenda. Notice too the type of “reason”—neutral, secular, autonomous—that lies underneath the apologetic project. The claim is not that Christianity has internal coherence or that it can make sense of human experience. But rather, that Christian claims can be demonstrated to be true, from the outside, from a secular perspective that does not assume any Christian commitments and brackets the supernatural. Such a “rationality” is itself a construction, with its own pre-rational commitments and assumptions that it brings a-priori to the argument. As James K. A. Smith puts it: “What we get in the supposedly “naked public square” is, in fact, a number of skin-coloured costumes.” This attempt by Christians to attempt to make the case for Christianity on the terms of secular reason, is an attempt to re-gain political power. (Rowen William’s comments above about how the disempowered are forced to use “images and definitions offered by [those in power]” in order to gain access to their resources, is helpful to think about with regards to apologetics. When the distinctly Christian language and arguments are put aside for the more defensive posture of arguing for Christianity on the terms of the secular, perhaps this is a sign of the end of Christendom, rather than its resurgence. The fact that Christians don’t feel comfortable using their own theological language and must resort to language that appeals to the reigning secular regime in order to gain political influence, is a sign of their loss of cultural and political influence.) Furthermore, there is something inherently coercive about such attempts to demonstrate the ‘rationality’ of Christianity. After all, if we knew, and could show that Christianity was rational, we would expect everyone to be a Christian: 

Apologetics I would suggest, is always linked to coercion because it assumes a justification or warrant for Christian belief that is susceptible to (universal, rational) demonstration. Therefore, if the hearer of such ‘proofs; fails to receive/believe them, then the hearer is at fault—has just opened herself up to the charge of being ir-rational, and therefor actually in need of coercion in order to do what is good or right.

James K. A. Smith, “Questions About the Perception of “Christian Truth”: On the Affective Effects of Sin”,  New Blackfrairs 88(2007), 588. 

An Anabaptist epistemology will not attempt to demonstrate or prove the rationality of Christianity with apologetic arguments or appeals to secular reason, because this would be to, unwittingly or otherwise, promote a Constantianian political agenda. Additionally, an Anabaptist epistemology will reject the idea that Christianity is ‘rational’ in the sense of being demonstrable on neutral, universal reason. If this were the case, we would expect everyone to be Christian, and would expect any rational society to enshrine Christian norms into society. 

Instead, an Annabaptist epistemology will agree with John Millbank when he writes: “If my Christian perspective is persuasive, then this should be a persuasion intrinsic to the Christian logos itself, not the apologetic mediations of a universal human reason.” In other words, it will unabashedly proclaim a Christian vision of reality, speaking as someone embedded in that reality, and seek to persuade through the sheer attractiveness and beauty of the vision of things, rather than through coercive argumentation. This is a return to: “the original condition of theology: that of a story, thoroughly dependent upon a sequence of historical events to which the only access is the report and practice of believers, a story whose truthfulness may be urged—even enacted—but never proved…” The God Christians worship is a first century Jew from Nazareth. Christians claim that God decisively revealed Himself as this person, and that this person, Jesus Christ, is Lord. The Christian claims cannot be arrived at by unaided, universal reason, nor are they claims which can be made into abstract “universal truths,” rather, the claims of Christianity are particular, concrete, and contextual. For that reason, there can be no ‘rational’ entry of this kind into the faith, instead there must be an opening oneself to, or the breaking in ones life of the Transcendent. Riedemann affirms this when he speaks of faith as a “gift” from God: 

True and well founded faith, however, is not a human attribute. It is a gift from God, given only to those who fear God. That is why Paul says not every person has faith. Such faith is the assurance of what is not seen. It grasps the invisible, one and only, mighty God, making us close to God and at one with him… 

Peter Riedemann, Confession of Faith, 84.

It is the gift of faith that draws Christians into the new life of the kingdom of God and into a new, non violent way of knowing that is antithetical to the violent epistemologies of the kingdoms of this world. In its claim that Christianity cannot be arrived at through secular reason, Anabaptist epistemology is not thereby rejecting rationality. Instead, it emphasizes an incarnational rationality, that sees all of reality through a theological lens, and learns to “see God everywhere.” After all, if the God-man is the truth, we cannot understand the world in purely secular terms, with the ‘supernatural’ evacuated from it, but must recognize that “truth is inherently theological.” Smith summarizes: “Things are not anything “in themselves”: therefore they cannot be understood “in themselves” but only with reference to that from which they are suspended—their Creator (TA. 22). As a result, no secular account of things could possibly be true.” There is also an eschatological aspect to this epistemology. Christians live between the ages, in the now—Christ was made flesh and has triumphed over the Powers—and not yet—Christ is not yet all in all, and not every knee has bowed. For this reason, a Christian epistemology in the present evil age, is alway in an awkward, irreconcilable, paradoxical betweenness. The general fact of the incarnation means that the word was made flesh: the world has a rational structure which we can discover. But the particularity of the incarnation, that this man Jesus has the face of God, means that there is always something paradoxical, absurd and “beyond history” about Christianity. Just as a Christianity that wants to withdraw from the world and retreat into a pure, sectarian bubble, has lost sight of the gospel. So too, a Christianity that reconciles itself entirely to the culture it finds itself in, ceases to be recognizably Christian. We can find common ground with our non Christian neighbours, but we remain “citizens of a different country.” We stake out our claim on faith and seek glimpses of the kingdom, but until Christ is all in all, we see only “through a glass darkly.” 

We can see once again how the epistemic and the political are intertwined. Because the Anabaptist epistemology is incarnational and theological rather than ‘natural’ and ‘neutral’ it naturally leads into an alternative politics. In the Hutterite case, it undergirds an alternative political system in which the theological and the social/political are seamlessly intertwined. Like the incarnational epistemology underneath, it is an incarnational life in which the mundane is charged with transcendence. This is not the setting up of two separate spheres, one ruled by faith and the other by reason, one spiritual and the other political. But instead, the bringing together of faith and reason and the spiritual and the political. 

Now it might be objected that such an explicitly theological account of truth risks turning  the church into a sectarian bubble that is unable to learn from those outside of its walls. On the contrary, I would assert that a more explicitly theological epistemology, in which we own up to our pre-rational commitments is much more amiable to dialogue that a stance that claims to be in possession of the absolute truth. An incarnational epistemology, because it brings together the uniqueness of the Christian revelation and the universality of human truth, does not assume it has the corner market on truth. The church can learn from those who do not know or follow Christ because we all share a common humanity. We all inhabit the same natural world and grasp at the same reality that is God; so on the basis of this common human experience, we should expect to be able to learn a great deal from our fellow human beings. At the same time, we also recognize that all of us engage reality from within a religious, traditional, narrative or cultural stance, and never from a supposedly neutral position. This adds another layer of richness to human knowing. The Church, while remaining faithful to its own story, can nonetheless reach out in dialogue to these other traditions. While the Church should avoid colonialism by being a church of weakness, it should simultaneously not let postmodern relativism keep it from proclaiming the gospel with the conviction that this is good news for all of humanity. 

We are now equipped to think through a question that was raised above, about the possibility of an Anabaptist Natural Law theory. In raising the issue, I hinted that Natural Law might be incompatible with the Anabaptist political theology we have sketched out. We can now see why this is the case. If Christians do not know how to rule, we cannot know an ethic such as Natural Law which would purports to tell us what Justice is apart from Jesus Christ and the story of Israel. The Church, as that community brought into being by faith in Christ, exists as a witness to the reign of God and the true end of humanity. There can therefore be no alternative conception of what human flourishing would look like, as revealed in ‘nature’, outside of the revelation of God in Christ. The Church, is a living witness to the new life of the kingdom of God in which the true end of our humanity is displayed. The rebellious Powers continue to tell different stories, pursue different ends and continue to enslave humanity, but the Church proclaims that in the death and resurrection of Christ, the Powers have been defeated. The Church lives and proclaims a life free from the dominion of the Powers and under the rulership of Christ. The proclamation of the gospel, the message that Jesus is King, is a challenge to the Powers and an invitation into the life of the kingdom of God. People cannot be brought into this life by coercion, but only by faith.

The issue with natural law theory is not in its insistence that we should live “with the grain of the universe,” Christians should certainly affirm that. But rather, the issue is with the claim that there is a universally accessible ethic that we should all be able to arrive at rationally, irrespective of our context, religious commitments and so on. Given the level of ethical and moral disagreement in our society, we can be skeptical that such an epistemologically self-evident moral order exists. Think about the issue of abortion. On one side of the debate, many Christians think it is obvious that the child in the womb is life worth protecting. On the other side, their cultural opponents think it equally obvious that the choice of the mother to carry the fetus to term or not, is paramount. What are we to make of such disagreements? Is it really the case that on side is more ‘rational’ than the other? Both could give ‘reasons’ for their position that would sound equally convincing to their supporters. Whats going on here is that moral reasoning is happening from different starting points and from within different traditions. The question is not, will we be irrational or rational in making moral decisions? But rather: 

What kind of rationality will we employ in our thinking? All rationality…depends on a tradition, is based upon a view of the world, a story and a way of looking at things. If God is dead, or at least retired, then that will make a difference in how ethics is practiced. If on the other hand, God is busy in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world by making the Kingdom present, then we can expect to come up with answers that will appear (to a more “rational” world) to be irrational.

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, 58.

If the Christian ethic, or some more minimalist ‘natural law’ is self evident and rational, it can be tempting to demonize cultural opponents and assume that they must be “irrational, less than human, or evil.” In reality “Their disagreement may be explained in that they do not happen to know or follow this Jew from Nazareth.” This shift from evangelist to culture warrior happens when the Christian ethic is abstracted from the biblical narrative and the community of faith and is seen in terms of universal rationality. An Anabaptist political theology is incompatible with such an epistemology because if our ethics were universally accessible, we would expect them to be enshrined in society. If Anabaptists knew of a meaning of Justice apart from that revealed by Christ at the cross and instantiated in the Church, we would know how rule. But since we know only how to repay evil with good, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we do not understand how to go about the business of punishing evildoers. Christians don’t have any kind of special knowledge that makes us better rulers, quite the contrary, we don’t know how to rule. 

The ‘State’ still looms large. I recognize the ambiguity of the term ‘the State,’ and the difficultly of maintaining the classical Anabaptist notion that the State exists only to punish evildoers. In our own day, the roles the State has taken upon itself are much broader than wielding the sword. Furthermore, writing as I do, in the midst of the COVID19 epidemic, questions of the “common good” are much more salient and concerns about ‘Constantinianism’ take the back seat. It is suddenly clear to many of us that mask wearing, social distancing and quarantining are measures that should be imposed and enforced by the government for the common good. Its clear that we need a more nuanced picture of what we mean by the State and what its proper role is. How are we to think of what the State is in a Democracy? What kind of a role can Anabaptists play in the modern State? Should Anabaptists vote? Is it problematic to rule if it can be done non violently? What can Anabaptists do or say about matters of civic, or even international injustice? Does our strict two kingdoms theology muzzle our prophetic witness? To  put these questions in another key, can there really be such a thing as a two kingdom theology, when this strict delineation of two separate spheres seems alien to the biblical witness. Instead, the bible speaks of principalities and powers, those cosmic forces—economic, political, religious—which assault us on every turn, and from which there can be no escape into a ‘pure’ sectarian realm. Christians are caught between ages—between the age to come and the evil present age—and this reality must be navigated faithfully. With such a picture, why couldn’t Christians attempt to navigate the political realm in a faithful, subversive way, just as Christians attempt (and usually fail) to navigate the realm of Mammon in a faithful way? 

Having raised these questions, its equally clear to me that most of them are beyond the scope of what I am trying to do here. In what follows, I will try to give something like a response to some of these questions, but will leave most of the issues on the table. Others have much more directly and thoroughly addressed these questions than I ever could do here. It also seems to me that these kinds of questions are best navigated by individuals and communities in their own particular way, as they try to respond faithfully to their context, from within a tradition. Anabaptist political theology will be largely ad hoc, as communities are thrust into situations which challenge their faithfulness, to which they must seek a non violent, non coercive response. 

Now, it might be the case that the questions above are the wrong kinds of questions. Questions generated from within an Anabaptist political theology that sees the Church as an alternative to the State and which thinks that the State exists for the Church rather than the other way around, would ask very different questions. As Yoder writes in Discipleship as Political Responsibility:

“The state represents human activity outside of faith; through the sword God acts. The church is the form of human action within the context of faith; through the cross God acts as well. Only the Christian cannot do both of them at the same time, as God can. The state is there for the sake of the church and not vice versa.”

John Howard Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility, 62

 In that light, and in leu of directly answering the questions above, I’d like to put forward a map of three distinct modes of Anabaptist political engagement. The lines between them are a bit fuzzy and it seems possible to do more than one of them at once, but they are also distinct enough to be helpful.

Patient Ferment: Because the Church exists as an alternative to the State and as the eschatological witness to the kingdom of God, its own existence is its primary political task. The societal change it brings is a secondary consequence of its primary task of faithfulness to Christ. In the memorable title of his book on the early Christians, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church”, Alan Kreider describes the mysterious growth of the early Church. He writes: 

“This was patient ferment, The patient God was at work…and God used not influential or powerful people but obscure fishers and hunters to achieve a huge end… As Origen spoke, the ferment was happening. It was brewing, but not under anyone’s control. It was uncoordinated, it was unpredictable, and it seemed unstoppable…The Churches grew… because the faith that these fishers and hunters embodied was attractive to people who were dissatisfied with their old cultural and religious habits, and then encountered Christians who embodied a new manner of life that pulled them towards what christians called “rebirth” into a new life.” 

Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, 12.

The church today grows in precisely the same way. Simply by being a faithful, countercultural presence, the Church is able to draw people into itself and patiently ferment the surrounding culture, spreading the seeds of the gospel that can grow into life giving trees. This patient ferment happens in free, uncoordinated ways, thorough relationships and chance encounters, and via “networks of agape.” This is the simple, faithful presence of ordinary Christians living strange lives and reaching out to people in a broken world. 

Non Violent Service: By non-violent service, I am thinking of the ways Christians can become involved in serving their communities to work for justice. The posture here is one of service rather than lording over, the paradigmatic biblical image being Christ washing the feet of his disciples. We might also ask weather direct political involvement (eg. “electoral politics, public protest, lobbying campaigns, and legislative action”) is actually the best way to be civilly engaged or work for social justice. Christians can do all kinds of things at the local level: volunteering, organizing a recycling program, picking up trash, visiting people, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, taking in refugees, supporting single mothers, helping addicts, ect. It is this kind of action, not the faceless bureaucracy of the State, that constitutes Christian political engagement.

Prophetic Proclamation: While Anabaptists don’t have an ethics of governance, an ideal form of government or a political theory, we must still hold the government accountable to God. Christ is the rightful Lord even over the Powers, and their rebellion is still a rebellion even if God can use them providentially to punish evildoers. For this reason, Christians should speak out prophetically against the injustice of the ruling authorities. For Anabaptists, who do not know how to rule, this will not be in the form of offering concrete proposals as much as calling out the the rulers when they neglect the poor, mistreat the refugees, wage war, steal from the people, or tell lies. It will be a weak, paradoxical kind of prophetic witness, in that it will hold up ideals rather than policy proposals and will proclaim the judgement of God to a ruler who has forgotten Him. In this, the early Hutterites, such as Peter Riedemann and Jacob Hutter can serve as examples. In a letter to the Moravia Lords, Hutter writes:

“You cannot simply deny us a place on the earth or in this country. The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it belongs to our God in heaven. Therefore, woe, woe to you Moravian Lords in all eternity…God has made it known through the mouth of his holy prophets that he will avenge innocent blood.”

Jacob Hutter, Letter to Moravian Lords.

Because the Anabaptist has no political theory except the eschatological kingdom of God, the prophetic proclamation can never be finished. The Powers, by their continued domination and violence, continue to evidence their lack of allegiance to the rightful King, and for that reason, they must always be reminded of the day when every knee shall bow. 

4 thoughts on “Towards an Anabaptist Epistemology: A Non Violent Way of Knowing

  1. The attack was a last ditch effort to get the church of Denmark to throw off the State and “make room for itself in world through struggle” – that’s what I think. All those objective, scientific proofs of Christianity wouldn’t make a person decide to become a Christian and stay a Christian without some subjective determination by the single individual. That’s why he stressed the single individual so many times in his discourses. All the objective fixes never work.

    “Imagine a hospital. The patients are dying off like so many flies. The methods are changed, now this way, now that: of no avail! What may be the cause? The cause lies in the building, the whole building is tainted. The patients are put down as having died, the one of this, the other of that, disease, but strictly speaking this is not true; for they all died from the taint which is in the building.

    The same is true in religion. That religious conditions are wretched, and that people in respect of their religion are in a wretched condition, nothing is more certain. So one ventures the opinion that if we could but have a new hymn‑book; and another, if we could but have a new service‑book; and a third, if we could but have a musical service, etc., etc., that then matters would mend. In vain; for the fault lies in the edifice.”

    Attack Upon Christianity IV (Diagnosis)

    Thanks for writing about Kierkegaard :~)


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