Gelassenheit: Radical Self-surrender

As Anabaptism emerged in 1525, opponents of this new movement described those who became a part of this movement as “radicals.” They even described it as “the Radical Reformation.” Why did they describe this movement as “radical”?

In one way it seems fitting. The early Anabaptists did not seek to reform the church but to restore it to the way of Jesus–the way in which the community of Jesus was gathered and was taught. This way meant taking the teachings and life of Jesus seriously; to live according to his example. For example, given that Jesus was the Prince of Peace, it was a call for his followers to live by this same peace. When Jesus taught to love one’s enemies, it was a call to not seek ways of killing someone. Jesus, the kingdom that he inaugurated, and his invitation to participate in this kingdom is radical. Therefore to live by his example would be very radical!

There were several particular reasons why the Anabaptists were described as “radicals” in the 16th century. One reason was that to follow in the ways of Jesus required one to live according to his example. Menno Simons wrote in 1539 that “Whosoever boasts that he is a Christian, the same must walk as Christ walked.” A follower would need to make a voluntary decision to follow the way of Jesus. Second, was the conviction that to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, meant also being people of peace. This meant practicing nonviolence even if confronted by violence. “Pacifism” is the word used to describe this path of discipleship. They believed that God’s shalom (peace) would not come through violence. Third, the ways of Jesus, his kingdom, and thus the ways of the community–the church–seeking to be faithful to Jesus and the kingdom would lead to practices that would conflict with the principalities and powers. The focus of these principalities and powers was not, and would not be, the pursuit of the kingdom of God. This becomes apparent in that “the powers” normally use a top-down, authoritarian form of ruler-ship and power, whereas the Anabaptist understanding of church assumes a bottom-up, servant attitude towards the other. Also, the state could not depend on these radicals to participate in the call to war and killing. This was revolutionary. The call of the disciple of Jesus was to follow his will even if that put them into conflict with the will and desire of the state.

Although these attributes of Anabaptism were not thought to be “radical” by those who became a part of this community, the implications of being a community based on such principles proved to be something out of the ordinary in the 16th century. Because they were out of the ordinary as they sought to return to the roots of what following Jesus meant, they were described as “radicals.” Those within the Anabaptist movement sought to live the way of Jesus even if that led to death–an all too common result for being part of this community.

One trait, however, that often goes unnoticed, but which undergirds all of the other practices mentioned above, is that of gelassenheit. Gelassenheit is a German word meaning self-surrender and yieldedness to God’s will. “No true discipleship, no true following after Christ, was possible without it.” It was this spirit of gelassenheit that shaped the ethos of the community as a non-hierarchical community, based on mutual submission and servant-hood. It was the spirit of gelassenheit that shaped the character of the lives lived in service of God’s kingdom here on earth. Ultimately it was this spirit of gelassenheit that provided comfort to those confronted by persecution and death due to the way of Jesus. Indeed, it is self-surrender to God that enables us to confront greed, violence, and the politics of dominion and oppression with the upside-down logic of God’s power found within and through servant-hood, weakness, the foolishness of the cross, and even the fruit of death.

A community shaped by the spirit and practice of gelassenheit will act and look different. It is a community that seeks to serve others rather than rule over them; it seeks to walk with the least, rather than seeking to be one of the elite; it prioritizes the other instead of the self; it seeks to demonstrate God’s sacrificial love rather than participate in the self-protecting violence and hatred. Ultimately the spirit and practice of gelassenheit pursues ways to live in right relationships with others and with God, thus demonstrating God’s shalom (peace) in the world.

The spirit of gelassenheit, and the pursuit to practice it was viewed as a radical way to live. Surely, that is still as true today as it was then.

Andrew Suderman is a Mennonite Church Canada worker in South Africa and is the Coordinator of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa.

Menno Simons, “Foundation,” in Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, ed. Walter Klaassen (Waterloo, Ontario & Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1539), 99.

I have to thank my good friend and colleague Joseph Sawatzky for pointing this out to me.

Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, Third ed. (Waterloo, ON & Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1993). 74.