Then I would put the book back on the shelf and return to other childhood interests. Occasionally I would ask about the stories and would get respectful serious confirmation that yes, these people who lived courageously and died by the thousands were in fact my ancestors. Then I would go about my life on the farm, engage in baseball fantasies and play football. Sometimes I took a long walk in the woods to try to understand what it would be like to live in a world where my convictions could get me killed. I was more than a little troubled by the thought that I might not have the courage to follow through. I was also troubled by the thought that I might have that kind of courage. Which was worse?
One of the dangerous things that Anabaptists did was that they read the Bible and noticed what it said. This was one source of their courage. Because of the inherent content of the Gospel, it is described as an offense, meaning that it is a challenge to the authority that governments and institutions would like to see go away. The Anabaptists read about losing life in order to save it. Like their distant enlightened modern cousins they may have initially wondered what was meant by the phrase, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) I don’t think that they understood this as referring to a new kind of commercial or organic fertilizer. Their lives demonstrated this teaching as referring to the end of life for a specific living seed, a symbol for Jesus and followers.
Anabaptist conviction and witness carried the threat of death because Anabaptist practice was out of sync with the time. The Anabaptist understanding of faith did not smoothly interface with political and social systems of the Holy Roman Empire. Anabaptist commitment to voluntarism and nonviolence was an offense to the system. The early church also had problems like that. Religion and empire worship were intertwined and there was little tolerance for deviation from the norm. Something in the world view or faith among these folks, the Anabaptists gave them calm and courage. Although they argued for freedom of belief and rights, they could not have known that their work was part of the bedrock that in future centuries would lead to a fundamental change in the way people understood rights of all kinds. Their willingness to accept death was a product of a comprehensive view that the meaning of an individual life reaches beyond the boundaries of this earthly body.
The early church and Anabaptist conviction was expressed in a time that predated the enlightenment. The enlightenment taught us that the only reality is material reality, that life ends with death, that everything is explainable if you just have enough scientific knowledge. Such a perspective is very different from one that says some part of us goes on beyond this earthly life. Today this extension of physical life is discussed with the language of energy, light, and even physics, specifically quantum physics, all avenues that may not be completely disconnected from the stuff of salvation which we read about in the Bible.
Our modern notions of Human Rights and economic rights have been formed in a milieu of modern materialism. Economic rights say that it is your good fortune to live in a time when the accumulation of wealth is good. You get there by being smarter, working harder or just being lucky to be born in a place where the momentum is on the side of wealth, your personal wealth. A liberal Human Rights perspective says that the material manifestation of life must be preserved at all cost. It states that life is valuable, deserving of respect and honor. The taking of life is bad by the state or by individuals or groups but sometimes it is necessary. The pacifist works on this continuum but simply pushes it out a bit further by saying that it is never right to take life. Today most pacifists function unconsciously within the world view of the enlightenment
Today we are placed on the earth as Christians in a time when there is a fierce struggle for the our souls. It is good to occasionally check in with the people in our ancestry who thought there were things worth living and dying fcr. Their lives – allbeit in historical periods with very different world views – help us get a hold on the deeper meaning of the life, faith and world wide perspectives waiting to be revealed within us. Their lives also helps us to get back to the often analyzed but rarely lived Gospel which describes the power of light, which I take to be the light of God or if you please the God world view. Light is always more powerful than darkness. Telling truth when everyone is around you is lying is dangerous but very powerful. Once that truth is out, it is almost impossible to stop it. Something has to be done. Either you get rid of the truth teller or you start rumors. In modern times you can use the media for this. The truth teller is naive, misled or ungrateful to the military that is the source of power.
It should not surprise us that peacemakers who are killed in dangerous situations evoke hostile responses. Most of our world does not yet function out of a world view that is confident that light will prevail and that light flows through our material bodies and beyond. Such a perspective is an irritant. But we know the perspective of light points to a hopeful way out of violence by reminding us that we may not be chained forever to the limits of our material imaginations.