Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reforming Reformation: Non-coercive witness

Church ruins at Heptonstall;
photo by David Sykes via Flickr
In a review for what looks to be a fascinating book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society by Brad Gregory, reviewer Kathleen Crowther summarizes a segment of Gregory's argument:
[In the wake of "sola scriptura"], the only way Protestant groups (and Catholics) were able to command assent to their particular readings of scripture was to back them up with political force; the "magisterial" reformers and Catholics managed to do this while the "radical" reformers did not. This led to "the coercive, prosecutory, and violent actions of early modern confessional regimes" (p. 160). Where caritas had once reigned as the central virtue in European Christianity, it was replaced in the early modern period by "obedience" to both divine and secular authorities. (Inner quote is from Gregory's book.)
Looking at the index, I know that Gregory makes use of Alasdair MacIntyre's work on the loss of the virtue tradition in Western societies after the Enlightenment, so his reference to the loss of caritas caught my eye, but so did the reference to confessional coercion, even violence, by Protestants and Catholics. Radical reformers, especially the early Anabaptists, were often the target of such coercion.

Now check out this working definition of "evangelical" by John Howard Yoder from The Priestly Kingdom:
I take the term in its root meaning. One is functionally evangelical if one confesses oneself to have been commissioned by the grace of God with a message which others who have not heard it should hear. It is angellion ("news") because they will not know it unless they are told it by a message-bearer. It is good news because hearing it will be for them not alienation or compulsion, oppression or brainwashing, but liberation. Because this news is only such when received as good, it can never be communicated coercively; nor can the message-bearer ever positively be assured that it will be received. (p. 55, emphasis added in bold)

A Yoderian read of Reformation history, and Christendom more broadly, adds an added (nonviolent) punch to an analysis like Gregory's. If the logic of coercion and control creeps into Christian witness, the Christ-like shape of our ethics is marred. The magisterial reformers got exactly what their corrupted theologic set them up for, and with the strong arm of the civil powers on their side they brought the sword upon those who disagreed. Such logic finds ways to avoid Jesus...
[T]he rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20:25-28)
I referenced this text in my recent post about election, but it's appropriate here, too. There is a resonance between Yoder's understanding of what it means to be "evangelical" and what Jesus was urging his disciples to keep in mind as they had delusions of heavenly grandeur. Yet in a sick turn of fate Christians in the Reformation became the very kind of tyrants Jesus was saying "no" to.

With Christendom now crumbling, and no civil billy club in the church's hand, will it hear anew the call to seek first God's peaceable kingdom? Can the church imagine what it might mean to be evangelical and learn to live, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, "out of control?" Do we trust God enough to show us that real power exercised in our life together as Christ's body must be shaped like Jesus and his cross?

(Thanks to my friend, Matthew, for bringing the Yoder quote out in class discussion today.)

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