As part of my research for the workshop on Global Anabaptism that Jessica & I are facilitating in December, I watched the 1990 film The Radicals which depicts the formation of the Anabaptist movement in Austria/Switzerland in the 1520s. In particular it focuses on the journey of Michael & Margaretha Sattler from being cushioned clergy in the Catholic church to leaving to pursue the radical spiritual path they found in Jesus and the Bible. This leads them to become Anabaptists where they quickly become leaders in the movement and, just as quickly, are imprisoned, tortured & killed by the Catholic empire for their non-violent stand against the state.
As I was watching this I was drawn to the context of the time period. The Western (Catholic) empire was in a time of fear and uncertainty, taxing people to their breaking point to fight a war against the Ottoman (Islamic) empire invading as far as the gates of Vienna. The Western state did anything it could to prop up its war machine in the name of protecting its citizens and offering security. If it’s people were starving, that was still better than being massacred by those “barbaric” Islamic armies.
It dawned on me the similarities between the world then and the world now. This was the world where Anabaptism was formed and spread (and was persecuted!). Anabaptists refused to fight, believing it was immoral because of the bible. They refused to baptize infants, a registration of service to the empire, and argued that people should be free to become Christian by choice and under no external compulsion. They took the Bible so literally, that they could not resist violence with the sword, nor defend the Catholic territory in the name of Christ.
In the film, Michael Sattler makes the claim that he would rather fight with a Turk, genuine but ignorant, than fight alongside a so-called Christian using Christ as a facade for violence. This was a very unpopular and brave stance, and was incredibly counter-cultural for its time. Threatening the powers in this way also ensured he had a short life.
Are things really all that different now, almost 500 years later? Western powers and people still fear the Arab world; they only see through the lens of ISIS or al-Queda (which apparently is making a comeback). Solidarity is encouraged and enforced through “days of mourning”, and flag displays are placed landmarks and profile pictures. Governments are shutting down whole cities, and using soldiers to protect the eerily silent streets. Bombs of retaliation are dropped, and revenge is sworn. And we are to support this.
We may even be non-violent and wishing for peace, as long as we don’t get in the way. Centuries old language such as “barbarian” and “savage” are once again used against the Islamic fighters, while the Western fighters are called brave peacemakers. ISIS kills innocents, while Western soldiers only kill the guilty; so the story goes. We ignore the intellectual reasoning behind the evil ideology.
If peace has replaced Christ as humanity’s saviour in the West, then fighting “in the name of peace” now is the same as crusading “in the name of Christ” was centuries ago. Our violent actions in the world are evil. Do we recognize that we cause this violence when we kill the parents of Muslim children? Do we recognize that we create terrorists in our own backyard through our lopsided distribution of wealth in our neigbourhoods?
This is geopolitics in religious garb. Religion is merely the symbol of the deep divides that still exist between us, no matter how much Westerners proclaim “Peace, Peace” or “Christ, Christ”. Changing or taking out the religion does not take away deep-seeded, generational problems. I’m fearful of who we will become if we keep ignoring this.
And what is our radical response? What is our resistance of love equivalent that the Anabaptists had 500 years ago? How can we resist, and get ourselves imprisoned and killed for our refusal to serve the state’s machines & censorship? What is our scriptures that we follow? What does our messiah call us to?
The world is forcing us to choose between the West, and all its wealth, security, hypocrisy & xenophobia, and ISIS, and all its violence, chaos, religiosity & xenophobia. Gee, can I have a third option? If people are only given two choices, with both responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, then these wars will be repeated again and again generation or generation. Any one of us, or our children, or our children’s children, could eventually lose our lives in this violence. When that happens, it won’t be ISIS’s fault – it will be all of ours. We spoke peace; when there was no peace.
If there’s one cruel reality we learn from seeing the world perched on our screens, it’s that all lives aren’t truly equal. It’s a truth we must confront within ourselves; no matter how much we talk about the love of humanity and all lives being equal, we don’t actually respond and act in a way as if they were. We’re hypocrites.
What’s the difference between a bombing in Beirut and a shooting/bombing in Paris? What’s the difference between a passenger plane being blown out of the sky over the Sinai region in Egypt and over Ukraine? What’s the difference between drowned Eritrean & Sudanese children washing up on a Mediterranean shore and a 3-year old boy? What’s the difference between a missing blonde-haired blue-eyed young woman and a missing aboriginal woman?
Don’t lie to me and tell me there is no difference. There is.
There is a hierarchy, and it’s mostly “white”, “civilized”, and “modernized” on top. Everyone else on the bottom. It’s our own ignorance about ourselves that is the culprit; we don’t see how flawed we really are. It’s why the marginalized people need to get violent to get “the world’s” attention. It’s why ISIL resorts to more and more extreme symbolic massacres to stand out in a sea of violence. It’s why we call Arab fighters barbarian and savage, and why we call Western fighters brave peacemakers.
We even see this on social media. The difference is seen in the twitter battles between those who tweet #blacklivesmatter and those who tweet #alllivesmatter. The difference is shown in whose flag we fade our profile pic into. We think we can make large blanket statements about humanity and the world, and be absolved of our sins in the process, while ignoring the cowering fear we have about those different from us. Talk is cheap. Words are empty. You show by your actions and by emotions who it is you really love. And it’s not them. It’s the people who are most like you.
You don’t make the world a better place by wishing upon a star. You make your world a better place by going down into the muck of human suffering, and understanding the people who are dragged down by it.
You don’t make the world a better place by singing songs about global love and world peace. You make your world a better place by loving your enemy, and walking with the people who you’d like to put beneath you.
You don’t make the world a better place by playing church; you make the world a better place by following Jesus where you would rather not go, and loving those whom you would rather not love.
But these are just my empty peaceful words; how am I actually living them out?