Anabaptists and Freedom of Speech

by Andrew Francis

How in any society do we let radical voices be heard? At what point does dissent threaten the stability and/or peace of a nation? Or a region? How should the law permit discussion of fundamental religious principles or issues of faith without offence being caused or incitement to wrong being alleged?

The UK’s Government recent defeat on the issue of inciting religious hatred, the reaction to the publication of a religious-themed cartoon in Denmark and the ensuing reaction across the world demonstrate that these issues affect everyone, not just those of faith or with principles about civil liberties. The jailing of Abu Hamza, the radical Muslim cleric, on 7th February 2006 for ‘incitement’ whilst preaching speaks of the need for leaders of faith communities to act responsibly. At what point does ‘radical’ become a threat to the majority?

The history of Anabaptism demonstrates what happens when those with radical, dissenting views become a target for the religious majority and mainstream. Rightly, those with knowledge of Anabaptist history can point to its earliest days and principles when ‘non-violence’[1] became enshrined in the movement’s very being. How much was that a reaction to the bloody scenes, witnessed by some of the first Anabaptist leaders, during the German Peasants’ War?

Historically, Christendom never treated its critics with a sense of grace or openness which Jesus expected: ‘…..turn the other cheek’. The Anabaptists did that and were openly persecuted, condemned, drowned, burned at the stake or beheaded, because their [the Anabaptist] view of church was different from the Church and State which made the rules. The oft-quoted example of Dirk Willems, the Anabaptist who turned back to save his pursuers from drowning in a frozen lake, tells of the ‘turn the other cheek’ Jesus, who is Lord and Saviour of all.

Anabaptism is about ‘peace-making’ as an active expression of Christian discipleship – that very ‘following after’ [German: Nachfolge, as expressed by many early Anabaptist writers] Jesus. One form of contemporary Anabaptism, the modern Hutterian Brethren, keep a book ‘He is our Peace[2] both in print and as a manifesto. This website is linked to Bridge Builders, an Anabaptist-inspired conflict mediation service. All this indicates that Anabaptist expressions of Christian discipleship are built upon building peaceable relationships and not inciting others to violence; dialogue and conversation are vital if understanding is to result.

These past few weeks have seen the UK Government’s defeat in a Parliamentary vote (twice) over its so-called ‘religious hatred’ legislation. It depends who you are whether the revised legislation is perceived as diluted or emasculated. But for Anabaptists, who know that issues of faith cannot be enshrined in law without ‘scapegoating’ someone, the hurt will be compounded if it is not built upon a society of religious toleration and respect.

Since then the Danish publication of cartoons, depicting the Prophet Muhammed as a terrorist, has caused violent protest outside some embassies across the world and intimidatory marches in London and protest elsewhere in the UK. The issue of ‘freedom of expression’ is at the heart of all these things. But what about the issue of ‘respect’? Rights are of no use unless exercised with responsibility. Those who continue to re-publish those cartoons under the so-called ‘right of freedom’ have to question what they have done with their own ‘responsibility to respect’. Anabaptists and other Christians may wish to pose Jesus’ own injunction: ‘Treat others as you would expect them to treat you’. I may have been living a sheltered life, but I have yet to find a Muslim who pokes fun at my Christian faith. I know several who will passionately tell me that I am wrong; in that there can be respect and freedom of speech, without threat of physical reprisal.

Now in Swindon, as when I lived in Beeston, south Leeds, I knew the local imams and several Muslims personally. Their faith was so central and vital that they knew martyrdom was a reality if persecution arrived. It was my experience of the church in Eastern Europe and my growing involvement with the Anabaptist Network that taught me to respect such radical yet hardly extreme acceptance of faith’s potential demands.

The 1660 Martyrs Mirror compiles reports of Anabaptist martyrs across the Low Countries. It has become almost iconic for some in its witness to those who stood for a particular expression of obedient Christian faith. At its heart, it tells of ordinary folk who so understood their response to Jesus that they were ‘obedient unto death’, their own, rather than calling for death or massacre of those who opposed their views. Their trust was in a ‘God of love’ rather than the ‘God of power’ we so often find in the Reformation’s magisterial advocates and even some of today’s fundamentalists – across the many faiths of Britain and the world.

At the end of that week of failed Government legislation and that Danish cartoon series, this writer found himself hosting a BBC radio debate between a gracious, reasoned member of the Muslim Council of Britain and a director of a leading Christian charity. In today’s world, we might find ourselves surprised by those who became our allies in protecting the rights to ‘freedom of expression’.

We also need to recognise the role of community in creating shared values of trust and respect. To hear the daily satellite broadcasts of some right-wing ‘cast-iron certain’ Christian preachers about how ‘God Bless America’ should respond to those who do not share their views makes uncomfortable listening. The jailing of Abu Hamza for alleged ‘incitement’ seems to draw difficult comparisons. ‘He that hath clean hands and a clean heart…..’ can leave many Christians wishing their own house would restore a Jesus order of being. Anabaptists can only be contrite that our witness has not been strong enough to challenge those of our brother and sister Christians when they want ‘free speech’ yet would limit it for others.

We can take heart in that the Anabaptist practice of ‘multi-voiced’ worship removes the power from a single preacher to that of the voice of the ‘community of disciples’. Often within Anabaptist-flavoured congregations, there will be dialogue, openness and laughter in both our worship and learning. Our ‘freedom of speech’ is never exercised without respect; in this we have a hopeful model to proclaim faith in a multi-cultural world, full of post-Christendom ideals yet still full of religious majorities who will want to use force and threat to advance their argument.

Many Anabaptists find the Bible’s testimony is one that shows the dialogue of faith must be conducted with openness and without causing offence to the seeker/conversation partner. That begins with Jesus in his conversations with anyone: do you remember the one with the frightened but questing Nicodemus by night or the sexually-active Samaritan woman at the well?

Even today’s fundamentalist Muslims will talk about their understanding of Jesus’ prophetic words……they read of Jesus the prophet in the Koran…..we encounter Jesus in the Bible and in our ‘communities of disciples’……in that, there is a meeting place and a new beginning.

[1] Cf. Fourth Article of the 1527 Schleitheim Confession. See John Howard Yoder (Ed.): The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1977), p12.

[2] Emmy Barth (Ed.): He is our Peace (Robertsbridge: Plough Publishing, 1994).