Sermon: “In Action – Reclaiming the Rebel Soul of our Mennonite Forebearers

By Helen Stoltzfus

I am sitting in a Direct Action training with 12 other Extinction Rebellion members.  Pre-COVID.  Extinction Rebellion – or XR – as it is called, is a climate activist group that uses nonviolent civil disobedience to raise awareness about the climate crisis and halt our march toward extinction of life.

We are getting trained on the rules of nonviolence, which include not harming property and making sure our speech is nonviolent – which includes treating everyone — police, bank tellers, security guards – with respect.   “I know this,”  I think to myself.

Several weeks later, I am dressed in an elaborate red costume as a Red Rebel, walking slowly up Montgomery Street during the week of worldwide climate action, helping to close down the businesses that invest and fund the fossil fuel industry.  I am walking because the world is on fire.   I’ve never done anything like this before, disrupting “business as usual.”  But there is something about it that I know, that resonates with the history of my ancestors, the stories of my own great-grandparents – that willingness to interfere with convention or law because one is committed to a higher moral principle.

Now 9 months later here I am – with you – in this time of chaos, uncertainty, uprisings, fascism, violence — in a time when I can’t even place a comforting hand on someone’s arm besides that of my husband.  I need sustenance.  I need soul food that will get me through these dark times.

Because I feel the darkness.  I have read books about our climate crisis and I have felt despair.   And urgency.

4 ½ billion years after earth was formed, and 2 million years after the first humans evolved, in this sliver of cosmic time, we face the extinction of all life on the earth.  Because of human actions.   Fossil fuel extraction and production is the #1 killer of life on this planet this second, this minute, this hour.  Just now, this second, 1300 metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere.  Now.  Now.  Now.  Every second.  40 billion tons of global-warming emissions every year.  40 billions tons – an unimaginable number equals the weight of all people on earth – times 22 earths.  Every year.

If we do not change our course, crops will fail, wildfires will spread, seas will rise, and flooding and deadly heat waves will increase.  Ecosystems will break down.  The food you want to eat will no longer be in the store.  The soil, air, and water will no longer sustain life because they are too toxic.  Millions – perhaps billions of people – will die.  Perhaps not in your lifetime.  Yet only IN your lifetime can you change the future of your grandchildren, your great-great-great grandchildren,and not just ours but  ALL the earth’s descendants.  Because if we wait it may be too late.  

Ok, deep breath, everybody. 

I believe that my ancestors still live in me, that I can see my ancestor’s hand when I look at my own.  If that is true, what is the wisdom they carry for me that I need to hear, in this moment?  Because I have had intimations of that wisdom.

I’ve been reading, re-reading our history, the Martyr’s Mirror and papers by our own Pat Plude and Jim Lichti.  And what speaks to me are the earliest stories of Anabaptists, the first years of our rebellion, before the layers of persecution, diaspora, more persecution, and assimilation buried the original spark.

Because our heritage was born in fire, not only the literal fire of being burned at the stake, but born of the passion that first lit the early Christians on Pentecost – as we heard about last week – that electric, transformative moment in which the Spirit of God appeared as fire and wind, kindling the desire among the early Christians to live according to Jesus’ life and teaching.

1500 years after Jesus lived and died, crucified as a lowerclass subversive by the Romans with the likely charge of political insurrectionist, our earliest rebel, our ancestors lived out their understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching by interrupting church services, verbally jousting with authorities, openly practicing their beliefs – such as baptizing adults, empowering women to lead, and defiantly preaching wherever they are not yet banished until they are arrested.

And for the first time in re-reading these stories, I realized:  the early Anabaptists did NOT have to go public with their beliefs.  They could have stayed home and discussed them around their dinner tables, shared them in confidence with a close group of friends, written them down and submitted them to town councils, I don’t know – posted anonymous letters on church doors.  They did not have to openly challenge, disrupt the status quo or break the law.  But they did.

How were they able to do this?  First of all, they practiced resilience.  They nurtured and strengthened in their common life together, not only in worship, but in their daily lives.   This resilience enabled them to withstand hours of questioning days of torture, years of imprisonment.  At least at the beginning.  

And resilience is what we have been exploring as a congregation the last few weeks : how we might create a resilient, regenerative community as we move into what some call a “Post-Carbon” future.   What is our long-term plan for sustaining ourselves and this community in what is  – no matter what we do – an economic, ecological and existential crisis unlike any we have ever faced? Covid: just a fire drill.  It is something Sheri spoke to us so eloquently about a few weeks ago and it is part of the holy work we must continue to do.  

But secondly, and  equally important,  our ancestors practiced RESISTANCE.   In action.  And because I have felt moved to engage in action – or as XR calls them “direct actions” – I am especially attentive to those lessons.  And here, as with resilience, we have been given a gift.  Our heritage provides us with a context, a map, a guide to how to respond to social, political, and religious chaos and upheaval.  

First:  our forebearers understood that living out the teachings of Jesus was ABOUT action and a willingness to be disruptive and nonviolent at the same time.   They showed up, in the physical spaces of authority, whether that was at church, the court, or public meeting places, to speak their truth – which is, according to groups like XR, the definition of nonviolent civil disobedience or Direct Action.

In 1525, an early Anabaptist leader, George Blaurock, breaks into a church while a baby is about to be baptized, interrupts the service, and shouts: “I speak on the authority of scripture!  To baptize an infant means no more than to water a cat!”

And this sent to me just this morning from my sister Ruth, a recent post on the website “Anabaptist Historians”:  On the 10th of February, in 1535, in the Netherlands, the Anabaptist Hendrick Hendricks Snyder addressed a group of seven men and five women and prophesied to them of God’s impending wrath. Then he cast off first the weapons and then the very clothes he wore, and threw them into the fire.[1] The other men and women followed suit and burned all their clothing as well. The group then ran into the city, shouting “Woe, woe, woe! Divine wrath, divine wrath, divine wrath!” Unarmed and small in numbers, the naaktlopers or “naked walkers” were easily captured by the Netherlandish authorities. They refused clothing even as they were escorted to prison, citing their intention to proclaim the “naked truth.”[2]

Now do you all understand why I might join a disruptive group like Extinction Rebellion whose first demand is “Tell the truth about climate”??

While we might find humor in some of our ancestors’ roguery, the actions by thousands of them were very serious.   As Jim Lichti says in his summary of these early Anabaptist years, “I think it’s difficult to grasp the extent to which Anabaptists were a boldly disruptive movement in part because religion, economics, and politics were still so intertwined with each other.”  

Here’s a story from the Martyr’s Mirror, a 16th century book that documents the martyrdom of centuries of Anabaptists.

In 1527  an Anabaptist woman named Weynken is brought before the governor of Holland, in the Hague. In 1527, she is told she must recant her heresies or she will die.  She states that she is not afraid of death.

Here is the verbatim dialog from the Martyr’s Mirror:

INTERROGATOR:  What do you hold concerning the sacrament?

WEYNKEN:   I hold your sacrament to be bread and flour, and if you hold it as God, I say that it is your devil.

I:  What do you hold concerning the saints?

W:   I know no other Mediator than Christ.

I:  You must die, if you abide by this.

W:  I am already dead.

I:  If you are dead, how can you speak?

W:  The spirit lives in me; the Lord is in me, and I am in Him…

I:  What do you hold concerning the holy oil?

W:  Oil is good for salad or to oil your shoes with.

Her friends beg her to recant.  One says:  Dear mother, can you not think what you please, and keep it to yourself?  Then you will not die.  It is as though she is saying – Listen it’s ok to believe these crazy things, but keep them to yourself!  You don’t have to go public!  

Weynken replies:  Dear sister, I am commanded to speak, and am constrained to do so; hence I cannot remain silent about it.

She is strangled and dies November 20, 1527.

So what is this disruptive thing that our ancestors insisted on?

Disruption becomes necessary when nothing else works.  Historically, disruptive movements are the only way to bring about urgently needed change.  

When the change that our ancestors sought did not happen through petition, debate,  and cooperation – which they tried – disruptive action became their only course.   

And that’s where we find ourselves now when we look at the climate emergency, which is really our failure to protect life – human, plant, and animal.  Decades of protests, petitions, lobbying and marches have failed to bring about the change that must happen if we are to continue on this planet.  Disruption is necessary because we have exhausted all other possibilities.  And time is running out.

But wait!  I hear you say:  I don’t like being disruptive,  I don’t like groups,  and I simply don’t have time.  Here’s my response as an XR volunteer, inspired by my ancestors.

No problem!!  We each need to decide if we have an hour, 5 or 10 in a given week to support ongoing climate work.  Show up when, where, and how you can.  We need tons of people behind the scenes to: make phone calls, write emails, take notes, make signs, bake cookies, bring snacks, design brochures, update the website, give money, help organize a “regenerative village” with gardens and solar panels at the next Action, showing the future we want to live in.  You don’t have to go out on the streets – only support those that do.  

And a word here about showing up.   You are each “showing up” in a multitude of ways and I want to honor all of that work.  I am focused on climate action, but I hope that none of you feel “guilty” for not doing enough or think that because you are not actively involved in some “cause” that you have failed.  There are so many ways to serve, to heal, to protect life in this time.  The great thing about community is that we don’t all have to do the same thing at the same time.  We are the body of Christ.  The ear does not need to be the foot.  The mouth is not better than the hand.

Which leads us to the next principle Anabaptists understood:  communities, not individuals alone, make long-lasting change.   As we face this global crisis, the question is not “what can I do”, but what can WE do as a group.

Action WITH OTHERS is the antidote to despair.  I encourage you to join  a group – I don’t care which one.  You might not love everything about it, but it may change your life.

Oh and did I mention communal fun??  It’s a little-known fact, but we activists actually have FUN doing really serious work.  If we didn’t, we would go mad – and we wouldn’t keep showing up week after week, month after month.  

There’s another very important lesson that I’ve learned in being part of XR – and which I have realized is also a deep part of my ancestors’ practice of sacred action.  They were not attached to the outcome of their actions.  The action itself is more important than the outcome.  That is, we ACT, without knowing  the results of our action.  It is no longer about hope, as any good climate scientist will tell you, but courage.  Not because we believe, hope, or expect that our actions will bring about the change we so deeply want.  But because we have the courage to act anyway.

This has been a big deal for me personally.  To let go of results.  I have come to believe more and more deeply that it is this principle more than anything else that guides us.

Is my action in front of Wells Fargo “effective?”  Did my phone call to Asset Managers at Blackrock to vote their shares against Chase make a difference?  I don’t know.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t give careful attention to strategy and deliberate on which actions I think might be effective, and it doesn’t mean that in fact we don’t have real successes (ask me about that later), but that is not my focus.I act because I must.We act because by NOT acting, we chip away every day at one of the most essential things that defines us as human: our agency, that impulse – that is morelike a reflex or centrifugal force – to automatically reach out and catch someone who is falling or put our arm around someone who is weeping.  These actions are what makes us human!  Yet this impulse  to act, to reach out — is one we constantly stifle, push down, dismiss as we swipe through one horrific news story after another or pass yet another homeless person on our way home.  We must put these impulses aside in order to get through our day.  But by constantly stuffing down those natural feelings in order to live a “normal life,” we destroy the very thing that makes us human, made in the divine image.

In Action – where rage, mourning, and yes – even crazy hope – have free rein, we become fully human.

These then are some of the gifts our heritage bequeath us:  Resilience, nonviolence, community, the willingness to act, even disrupt, the courage to act without knowing the outcome, and through that to reclaim our holy humanness.

It is easy to look back on our ancestors and hold up what is good, worthy of praise, but as Pat discusses in her article “Sacred Activism and Early Anabaptists” we must also look at the shadow.

In 1534, radical Anabaptists violently overtook the city of Muenster, creating a “New Jerusalem,” and forcing everyone to receive baptism and covert – or be executed. The rebellion was finally extinguished by authorities in 1535.  

Muenster remains a cautionary tale for us today.  The Munster Anabaptists believed they had the truth and that others must abide by their truth.  We too can become self-righteous about our cause and about our tactics.  We are the “good” ones.  They – whoever “they “ are – are the “bad” ones.  We can become progressive fundamentalists.  

And another shadow hangs over our history.  What happened to Anabaptists after their fiery beginning?  

We withdrew.

In the years, decades, and centuries that follow the birth of Anabaptism, Mennonites would be imprisoned, tortured, hanged, strangled, burned, and otherwise killed for their beliefs. 

Even after the laws and ordinances were lifted centuries later, the trauma of this violence remained in our bodies.   To be a rebel meant death.  Horrible suffering.  And so we withdrew, living in isolated communities, separate from the world. We made a kind of “deal” with authorities wherever we landed in diaspora:  in the Palatanite, in Bavaria, or in Russia, As Mennonites we agree to live  peacefully in separate communities, make your lands and businesses prosperous, not interfere with the state –   and in exchange – you, the government – will leave us alone, will forego military conscription of our sons, allow us to worship as we see fit – but protect us if our hostile neighbors attack us.   

A devil’s bargain?

This conflicting identity – between our rebel beginnings and our later “quiet in the land” is so eloquently described in Sheri’s poem that we read at the beginning.  

But it was  as “the quiet in the land” that Mennonites become most well-known: the sometimes curiously dressed group that keeps to itself and refuses to fight in wars.   

And now today, as Mennonites living in the Bay Area, I think we live in that tension between these two identities:  rebellion and passivity.   We hesitate to embrace the heritage of rebellion we have been given. 

  “Choose life,” God urges, “so that you and your children will live.”  Because isn’t that what we are all doing, isn’t that what I am fighting for, what we  all fight for – what we were out on the streets this past week fighting for:   the freedom to live, to live fully?  “I am here,” as one XR friend said at the beginning of a recent meeting, “to protect life and the sanctity of life.”

So what does it mean to choose life in apocalyptic times?  What does it mean to be a worthy ancestor ourselves in this momentous moment in human history, when the forces of death at times feel so powerful, so present?

For 500 years Mennonites have inherited and cultivated – however imperfectly – courage, commitment, and community.  Now the world desperately needs it – this rebel legacy, in our bones, in our blood, handed down to us from our forebearers who perhaps are– in this very moment – surrounding us as a cloud of witnesses, waiting to see what we will do.

May we claim the courage that God has already given us.