By Bill Leonard
“Afterwards it happened, before I had ever heard of the existence of [Anabaptist] brethren, that a godfearing, pious man, named Sicke Snyder, was beheaded at Leeuwarden, for being rebaptized. It sounded strange to me, to hear a second baptism spoken of. …”
So the 16th-century Catholic priest Menno Simons described a radical change in his theology that would ultimately lead him into leadership of a group of Anabaptists who eventually took his name, Mennonites. That spiritual journey began, at least in part, when Menno learned of the violent execution of Snyder, a wiedertaufer — rebaptizer — decapitated at the hands of Catholics for receiving believer’s baptism. I think of him sometimes, in the baptistery.
In 1553, Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician who denied the doctrines of the Trinity and infant baptism, showed up in Geneva to hear his nemesis, John Calvin, preach. Recognized and arrested, Servetus was tried for heresy and condemned to be burned at the stake. Calvin (and other Protestant reformers) acquiesced to the sentence, although Calvin apparently advocated the more “humane” mode, decapitation. Before Servetus’ arrival Calvin had asserted that if the heretic showed up in Geneva, “I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight.” I thought of Servetus this week when a “Jesus-only” Pentecostal student freely announced her anti-Trinitarianism in my class.
Those events came to mind when we learned that Peter Kassig, 26-year-old Iraq-war veteran and former Army Ranger, was decapitated by Islamic State militants. Kassig, captured while working in Syria with the aid organization he had established, converted to Islam and took the name Abdul-Rahman. That conversion did not stop Islamic radicals from beheading him.
Only days later, religion and executions collided in Jerusalem. The New York Times reported: “The Orthodox Jewish men were facing east, to honor the Old City site where the ancient temples once stood, when two Palestinians armed with a gun, knives and axes burst into their synagogue … shouting “God is great!” in Arabic. Within moments, three rabbis and a fourth pious man lay dead, blood pooling on their prayer shawls and holy books. The assailants, cousins from East Jerusalem, were killed at the scene in a gun battle with the police that wounded two officers; one [a Druze] died of his injuries. … Politicians and others around the world condemned the attack and the rising religious dimension of the spate of violence, which has been attributed mainly to a struggle over the very site the victims were praying toward.”
Amid these events, a United Nations report documented fatalities during the recent Israeli/Palestinian war: six Israeli civilians, among them a 4-year-old boy; in Gaza 2,000 dead, including some 500 children.
Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, the Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote: “To such heights of evil are men driven by religion.” Let’s face it. Religious people have been decapitating, burning, hacking and bombing each other to death in God’s name for a long, long time, no end in sight. Today, much public religion often seems committed to producing fanatics whose unilateral faith compels implicit/explicit destruction of “non-believers;” or creating atheists, who see all this and agree with both title and premise of Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Some Muslims may seem hell-bent on proving that truth right now, but we Christians have done our share for centuries.
In “Calvin’s Barbaric World — The Case of Michael Servetus,” John Piper offers one way of reading both historical and present day religion-attributed atrocities: “So the times were harsh and immoral and barbaric, and had a contaminating effect on everyone, just as we are all contaminated today by the evils of our time. … It would be foolhardy to say that we would have never done what they did under their circumstances, and thus draw the conclusion that they have nothing to teach us. In fact, what we probably need to say is that some of our evils are such that we are blind to them, just as they were blind to many of theirs. …”
Amid a shocking degree of evangelical relativism, Piper has a point. In every era religion criminalizes “the other” at some point. Yet, thank God, when faith and decapitation seem almost synonymous, some people see beyond their times, offering a higher vision of divine grace.
In 1524, another Anabaptist, Balthasar Hubmaier, wrote Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them, declaring: “The inquisitors are the greatest heretics of all, since, against the doctrine and example of Christ, they condemn heretics to the fire, and before the time of harvest [judgment] root up the wheat with the tares. For Christ did not come to butcher, destroy, and burn, but that those that live might live more abundantly. … A Turk or a heretic is not convinced by our act, either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer; and so we should await with patience the judgment of God.”
“Truth,” Hubmaier concluded, “is eternal.” You can’t kill it, even in God’s name. Catholics burned him at the stake in 1527. He was dead-right, then and now. “When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”