Henry Funk, whom I’ve been quoting the past few days, was only a generation of two removed from the persecution of the Mennonites in Switzerland. The reality of the possibility of suffering for the faith was real to him, and he did not shrink from it.
A few centuries have passed and Mennonites in North America have grown accustomed to thinking that persecution was a thing of the distant past, not really worth even thinking about today. Now we are beginning to wake up to the fact that the world around us has changed and the friendship and support for our faith that we thought was there is rapidly dissipating.
Genuine Christianity has been a persecuted faith throughout most of history. Of course there were churches that called themselves Christian and allied themselves with the civil powers. These churches were often persecutors of all who would not bend to their particular brand of Christianity. At the same time, there were wars between countries holding to different brands of Christianity and it became difficult to discern if the real cause was religion, political ambition, or a striving for economic advantage.
Anabaptists have stood apart from those waging religious wars and persecutions, but have often been the ones being persecuted. Despite the persecution, they have also been noted for their evangelistic fervour. Menno Simons wrote: “To this end we preach as much as opportunity and possibility affords, in forests and wildernesses, in this land and abroad, in prison and bonds, in water, fire and the scaffold, upon the gallows and upon the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writing at the risk of possessions and life, as we have done these many years without ceasing.”
Some people found a way to avoid persecution by conforming to the outward form of the state church, yet meeting privately to share their testimonies of faith. In the Lutheran church such people were called pietists, in the Roman Catholic Church they were called quietists.
One branch of those who called themselves by Menno’s name decided it would be better to be as quiet as possible about their faith to avoid persecution. About two hundred years ago they were invited to move to Ukraine, along with many other Germans, by Empress Catherine of Russia. Here they had peace, at the cost of renouncing any attempt to share the gospel with the Ukrainian people. They also lost the ability to evangelize their own people. They settled on self-governing colonies and people’s livelihood was tied to being a member of the church. How could they then deny baptism to their unconverted children? In time, the bishops and ministers forbade the reading, and even the possession, of Menno Simon’s writings.
Most of the descendents of these people still call themselves Mennonites, but what does that mean to them? In most cases it is simply a cultural heritage. The spiritual heritage, the evangelistic fervour, the willingness to suffer for the faith are a dimly remembered history.
Even among those who still retain a faith that is much the same as Menno’s and all the Anabaptist forefathers, the reality that such faith might entail a risk to life and property is hardly considered. I believe it is time to rediscover the theology of suffering. Do we have a faith that will not waver if it begins to cost us something?
The admonition in 1 Peter 4:12-14 was not only for that long ago era: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.”