This Conflicted Body
Below is an excerpt from my recently released book Participating Witness: An Anabaptist Theology of Baptism and the Sacramental Character of the Church. It’s been published by Wipf & Stock in their Princeton Theological Monograph series. The book is a revision of a doctoral dissertation, so it’s not bedtime reading. That said, I do hope it makes a contribution to the current conversation about the church and its essential practices. Constructive Christian theology today must be ecumenical (or it’s not Christian), and I think Participating Witness does this without succumbing to a bland, lowest-common-denominator approach to Christian unity. We’ll see what readers think. Here’s the excerpt:
According to the Martyrs Mirror George Wagner was killed on the eighth of February, 1527 in Munich. He died in the center of the city after being tied to a ladder with a bag of gunpowder around his neck and pushed alive into a bonfire. His crime was failing to recant his controversial beliefs, including his disavowal of the ability of priests to forgive sins, his denial of Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharist, and his rejection of the idea that baptism had salvific power. While Wagner was in prison, authorities tried to convince him to renounce his heretical views. His wife and children were brought to visit in an attempt to remind him of what he was in danger of abandoning if he chose to continue rejecting official doctrine. Wagner gave up his life instead of his convictions, and as it was remembered, just before his death he said, “Be it done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Wagner’s words echo the traditional baptismal formula, yet this was not a baptism in water but in his own blood.
Many of the stories of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist martyrs are stunningly and fantastically violent. The bodies of these Christians were tortured—stretched and torn on the rack, their tongues squished in screw devices, they were strung up by their wrists; and they were killed—drowned, beheaded, and burned alive. In the case of Michael Sattler, the well-known ex-Benedictine and framer of the Schleitheim Confession, the prosecuting court’s decision read: “In the case of the Governor of his Imperial Majesty versus Michael Sattler, judgment is passed, that [he] shall be delivered to the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution, and cut out his tongue; then throw him upon a wagon, and there tear his body twice with red hot tongs; and after he has been brought without the gate, he shall be pinched five times in the same manner.” This was carried out and his body—his ‘heretical’ body—was burned to ashes. A number of his friends were killed as well. Several days later Margaretha, his wife, was drowned. Stories like Wagner’s and Sattler’s, which may well number in the thousands, are all the more haunting because the cruelty was inflicted on Christians by Christians.
Throughout history and across the breadth of geography, Christians have victimized and killed each other. The North African rigorist movements inspired by Novation and Donatus in opposition to Catholicism were the occasion for some of the earliest. The so-called ‘Wars of Religion’ in Europe, as well as civil wars in England, France, and the United States, even both World Wars are additional examples. The twentieth-century Rwandan genocide is a terrible and recent witness to the fact that this feature of Christian existence continues. As Lee Camp reminds us, before falling into monstrous chaos Rwanda was thought of as a shining example of the success of Christian mission. Yet, without forgetting this litany, the violence of the sixteenth century uniquely challenges the thesis of this book. This is because it is from that tearing apart of Christianity in Europe that the Anabaptist movement emerged. The frame of Anabaptist life and thought was bent by the experience of those generations and contemporary Anabaptist theology must take this into account.
However, the mode of intra-Christian relationship has not remained static since the sixteenth century. In the almost 500 years between that century and the present Protestants, Catholics, and Anabaptists have generally come to recognize each other as Christians, or at least as ‘separated brethren’. In light of this mutual acknowledgement we must admit the century in which the Protestant Reformation began was in all its upheaval a century not only of the fracturing of the church and of martyrdom but also one of fratricide. Seen from the twenty-first century the painful irony then is that baptism, the sacrament of cleansing and welcome, was contested in such a diabolical way that the boundary between martyrdom and fratricide evaporated. In the drowning, decapitation, and burning of ‘heretics’ at the hands of Christians, the waters of baptism joined many to the death of Christ. As self-professing followers of Jesus tore at each other’s bodies, they ripped apart the body of Christ—the same community about which the last chapter spoke so idealistically. Given this history and our contemporary view of it, a troubling question presents itself: How can we say God is at work in the baptisms of this conflicted body? In prior eras, when it was not accepted that the other’s claims to the Christian faith had any serious validity, this question might not have arisen. Now it cannot be avoided.