On this holiday when Americans celebrate independance from British rule, I’m thinking about how autonomy is prized in our culture and to what end we’ve taken it. It seems to me that early on, the desire to be free of extra-governmental rule got mixed in with a desire for possession of land and people and things. The autonomy of the settlers trumped that of others’ as they dominated the “new world,” and buying power was real power in the young democracy. The result today is a lonely scenario in many ways; a fractured society in which the individual is charged with healing thyself according to our supposedly unlimited choices. Everyone is supposed to figure things out according to their own desires. We are supposed to have the buying power to do whatever we want to do, and that is supposed to make us happy. I don’t think it’s working out for everybody.
The way of Jesus is another way. It’s a human way, based on the understanding that I’m a created being, invited into loving partnership with God and others. I don’t have to be a slave to autonomous desires that might run me off a cliff, or keep me isolated in my own zone. I’m part of a bigger, hopeful story, and today I’m grateful for how anabaptist Christians, in particular, have been living this story for a few centuries. Here’s three reasons I appreciate them:
1. They resisted religious law. At the beginning of the anabaptist movement, the European church had aligned itself with governmental power and was enforcing religious rule. (This is antithesis to the way of Jesus.) The reformers to the church-state loosened things up but interpreted scripture in ways that seemed to come up with some new laws, one of which implied that people were either in or out with God from jump-street, because people are predestined (to either be restored to God or not). Anabaptists said no: Christ died for all, leaving each person free to accept or reject his salvation. They were named “rebaptizers” by their enemies because they maintained that baptism required responsible adult confession of faith, so infants can’t actually be “baptized.” They formed a new society composed of regenerated persons who gather into a free covenant relationship with one another. This is why in Circle of Hope, we make agreements with one another, not rules. The letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life. Love is the only rule, because Jesus is the rule. Americans are notoriously religious, but if Jesus is not known at the center, then the religion may be based on law—which is old news and anti-freedom.
2. They practiced love. The application of love, according to their understanding of discipleship, was nonresistance to all human relationships. Within their own circles, early anabaptists practiced brotherhood and sisterhood that went beyond the sentimental into the practical. They shared possessions, property, and households with those in need. This kind of love is still the antidote to our “autonomous” state that hoards most of the resources in the hands of the 1%. Taking caring of one another and holding our possessions lightly frees us up, truly. Circle of Hope has a common fund for this reason. From the outpouring of the love of God through Christ and his sacrifice, we’re enabled to share on whatever level we can. We’re part of a growing family that is held together by more than our DNA.
3. They promoted peace. Although they often paid with their lives, early anabaptists renounced the sword. They mourned the loss of human life by capital punishment and warfare based on their understanding of Jesus and his purpose—saving love. The communities they formed valued peace within, based on peace with God and trust in God. Early anabaptist Conrad Grebel wrote, ” Moreover the gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves…they must reach the fatherland of eternal rest, not by killing bodily but by mortifying their spiritual enemies. Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them…”
On this July 4th, I celebrate the many gifts of my life and hope for freedom beyond autonomy. While our tax dollars supply heavy weaponry around the world and ISIS is on the prowl and Boko Haram burns churches in Nigeria and 12-year-olds possess guns in my neighborhood, we need a different kind of independence. Real freedom is characterized by interdependence with God and one another. I am grateful to be building an interdependent community in Christ that practices love and resists injustice. I’ll light some sparklers tonight in the joy of being that light.