Anabaptism and Liberation Theology

I am currently doing a final research paper for my English course, and I decided to write about Liberation Theology. In my paper, I am covering the main liberation theologies — Latin American and African American — and I am writing about some of the more contemporary developments of it. While doing my research on Liberation Theology, and while reading about the early Anabaptists, I felt the desire to write a small article for YAR on the subject.

While Liberation Theology is a complex subject (something that is even too complex for my research paper at times), it can be simply described as a political-theological movement within Christianity that interprets the Gospel as a liberating message from unjust social, economic, and political conditions. Many give Liberation Theology a distinctly Catholic tone, but it is really something that pops up in all Christian traditions. I specifically wanted to summarize a possible Anabaptist approach to Liberation Theology.

As stated, Liberation Theology is based upon liberation from unjust conditions in society, and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. If we look at the very earliest Anabaptists, there are some obvious parallels. As GAMEO states:

Some parallels between liberation theology and the 16th century Reformation movement are noteworthy, including the liberationist base ecclesial communities’ emphasis on creative protest (the so-called “Protestant principle”), the priesthood of all believers motif, and the central place of the Bible in the life and mission of the church. Indeed, some striking analogies between socioeconomic conditions at the close of the Middle Ages and conditions in 20th century Latin America (e.g., feudalism and unequal land distribution; rudimentary forms of national and international capitalism; urbanization; the ravages of war; a growing popular self-assurance; and newer means of communication) have been suggested as supporting the idea of a certain new Reformation or even a Radical Reformation — in the making. in this light, the contributions of the liberationist movement can then be seen as consistent with the legacy of the Radical Reformation of the 16th century at some key points. (Source)

Not only were the environmental factors similar between the early Anabaptists and Liberationists, but there are even many parallels in thought. The most obvious examples are Thomas Müntzer and the Münster Rebellion which essentially sought to establish a communist Germany. However, most forms of Liberation Theology are not violent. It is an unfortunate stereotype that ignores the real praxis of Liberation Theology, which seeks a more grassroots communal activism of solidarity with the poor and oppressed. While I find many within the established Anabaptist churches have lost this concept of radical solidarity with the poor, oppressed, and exiled, it is certainly part of the Anabaptist tradition.

Menno Simons stated something that expresses my point:

For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation. (Source, emphasis mine)

I have also found that the Anabaptist Network continues in this tradition when it states:

We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.

And later:

Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice. (Source)

While not many Anabaptists out there embrace Liberation Theology, I think that we should. I think that most Anabaptists (or most Christians in general) out there were simply born into it and thus do not really believe in it. For many, it is not about a reclamation of the New Testament church, as it is with Neo-Anabaptists like me, but it is simply a cultural religion. We have lost that charisma and social justice that gave rise to the Anabaptist tradition. Many of the founders of Anabaptism were accused of heresy, anarchy, and communism. I wonder how many today can say that. While this post is far from complete, I simply wanted to lay a foundation for an Anabaptist study of Liberation Theology, and I also hope to wake people up to the idea that the Gospel has powerful implications for our political, economic, and social institutions.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Kevin Daugherty

Comments (3)

  1. georgehillst

    You might find Schipani’s book helpful -a good few years since I read it but I recall it was really good:

  2. ScottC

    Kevin, not sure if I’ve taken an opportunity to say so before or not, but I’m really appreciating your posts, and I enjoy reading them.

    I agree that Anabaptists should embrace Liberation Theology–not necessarily wholesale, uncritically, or to the exclusion of other theologies, but certainly as an important part of both the conversation with the wider (non-Anabaptist) church and the conversation within our own ranks.

    Here, I especially appreciate your use of the Menno Simons quote to point out that the Anabaptist tradition unites faith and social justice in ways that should make us sympathetic to Liberation Theology.

    And it strikes me as I read your post here that the way Liberation Theology often gets identified with violent revolution and dismissed by its critics is very similar to the way the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation (at one time not so long ago, at least) have often (in several general religious studies books’ treatment of the Reformation) been identified with the violence of Muntzer and dismissed. I can’t say on the authority of any first-hand research that Liberation Theology and Anabaptists are equally undeserving of such reduction and dismissal, but I’d like to.

  3. Eddie Gonzalez

    My guess is if we were to go to mainline churches, including established churches with an Anabaptist heritage or link, and asked folks if Christians emphasize at some strong level solidarity with the poor, they’d say yes. But if we then asked them what that would look like, not everyone would be able to give a response. And among the responses we’d get, my guess is most would sound a lot like patronage (which is merely another form of domination and oppression): what we can do and are doing for the poor and oppressed.

    While, yes, we need to care for the needy, the sick, the widows, the imprisoned, the outcast, the downcast, that is not solidarity. It’s the necessary step of doing and loving, but it’s not the further step of solidarity. Until there is a change in the actual, practical identity of both us and “the least of these,” the situation will be nothing more than big daddy allowing the dogs to eat the crumbs and scraps from the meal. There would be no equality, no unity, no solidarity.

    I believe, as you do, Liberation Theology can do good within the Anabaptist realm. And it’s a shame that violence and certain negative vibes have been unshakably associated with LT. But, like with anything worth doing, it takes time and relationships. I believe a proper understanding of liberation can help us all better grasp how solidarity ought to look and act and feel.

    I am digging your posts, brother. Hope the paper goes over well. I’m in many ways envious that you have come to where you are (I’m not all that dissimilar from you) at a relatively younger age. Keep it up.

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