Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, DMin, is moderator of Mennonite Church USA and director of field education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. She previously served with the Colombian Mennonite Church through the Commission on Overseas Mission and Mennonite Central Committee. She was pastor of Armenia Mennonite Church (Colombia) and was ordained in October 2004. She earned a Master of Arts in Religion studying at AMBS and Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico, and holds a DMin from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She will speak at AMBS Pastors Week on Wednesday, January 28.
Lately I find myself reading textbooks I bought at AMBS during the 1984-85 school year. I was dying to learn more about my Anabaptist roots as a Puertorican who had converted into the Mennonite faith in the mid 1970s while living in Puerto Rico. Among the many discussions I had with other seminarians, I came to the conclusion that the “believer’s baptism” was a political, economic, as well as a faith statement of its time. I was able to connect with my baptismal story, and with the many stories I read of the price the Anabaptists had to pay.
This 16th-century movement gave birth to the free-church and peace church denominations around the world. Born from the non-conforming, these believers escaped by withdrawing from society, and developing their own communities of believers in order to survive. But this movement was quite diverse, attracting many spiritualists as well—some non-Trinitarians, mystics from Catholic monastic life, and many more. Its leaders developed in many ways not heavy on theological works, but on pastoral letters. As described by historians, the Schleitheim Confession of Faith of 1527, with only seven articles, was not a dogmatic or doctrinal work but an ecclesiastical one: how to live in a faith community.
These Radicals, as called by some historians, were busy trying to be faithful to a truth they had found in listening to the Gospels—Jesus’ teachings. They questioned the status quo, for they felt oppressed by the “church and state” reality they lived in. They read the signs of their times and felt empowered in saying “No” together. But the Anabaptists obeyed by separating themselves from the oppressive social and religious structures of their time. Doing so they created their communal cultural expressions of faith.
Perhaps they would not describe themselves as courageous, but simply as a faithful people. The stories of those that lost their life in that journey have been highlighted in the Martyrs’ Mirror. Today, Anabaptists around the world have found each other because of the living faith of those that kept the faith alive—the missionaries running for their lives, seeking refuge in safer places, and planting the seeds of their faith in Christ within others. These missionaries wanted to imitate the New Testament early church that emerged amidst persecution.
What does Anabaptism have to offer today? The answer: how to be a community of resistance in our times. It all started by the symbolic act of practicing believer’s baptism and following Christ’s teachings by the letter: the hunger for truth, ability to question the practices of the established church traditions, and creation of faithful communities of simple living—maybe as simple as learning to articulate their prophetic voice back to the established Church and the State.
We all know they were not a homogenous group of people, but they needed each other in order to practice the truth they had found together. One of the most important articles was the continuing ability to say “no” to the sword. Today, as Anabaptists of the twenty-first century, how can we together resist the culture of death and killing that surrounds us, and keep faith alive?
Just as the “Church and State” were an undissolvable union in their historical times, today we marry political partisanship with the church, capitalism/materialism with faith, violence with Christianity, militarism with God’s will, and the list goes on. Our political and economic realities as expressions of faith blind us as Peace Churches. We have become culturally blind instead of culturally conscious. The Radicals of the 16th century taught us why the “Church and State” cannot be united. This is what their resistance taught us; what else can Radicals teach the world today? Perhaps we need a new baptism of fire in order to speak up?