Friday, June 13, 2008

Basler Taufer, David Joris, and living with persecution

Before I came to Switzerland I thought that most Swiss Anabaptists were found in Zurich, where it all began, and Bern. These are the two primary sources of Swiss Amish and Mennonites in America today. But as I found out last week Anabaptists were also plentiful in Schaffhausen, which is where the Schleitheim Confession was written. I have also learned that they were active early in Neuchatel, which is where the 1/3 less fat cream cheese originated, I suppose. And finally I've learned that there was a lot of Anabaptist activity in Basel as well.
Today I mention one of the most colorful of Anabaptists, David Joris. He is the only early Anabaptist that I know of where we have a portrait of him, and his portrait hangs in the presitigious Basel Art Museum. The house below the portrait belonged to him when he lived in Basel.
Joris was a companion of Menno Simons in Holland, though often in conflict with him. Menno stuck closely to the Bible whereas Joris was more of a spiritualist. That emphasis on inner spirituality more than the outward appearances eventually led him to flee to Basel where he pretended to be a Reformed refugee. He lived under an assumed name and became extremely wealthy. This house is one of several that he owned, along with farms and even a castle, which I may eventually visit. All this time he remained in secret correspondence with his followers the Davidjorists.
After he died his real identity was discovered. So he was dug up from his grave at the church and his bones were burned as a heretic. People would pejoratively say that Basel only burned its heretics after they were dead. The current Basel folklore is that Joris' ghost haunts his home because of the way his remains were treated.
Joris is an extreme example, but the same day that I saw his home I read an article in the Mennonite Quarterly Review (Mark Furner, "Lay Casuistry and Anabaptist Survival in Bern" October 2001) about how Anabaptists managed to survive in spite of government opposition. We talk about Mennonites becoming die Stille im Lande, or the Quiet in the Land. But this article painfully exposes the machinery that helped create this situation.
Anabaptists were killed by Swiss governments from 1525 to around 1614, though the majority of those deaths were in those early years. But even after they had abandoned execution, persecution continued. Some of the methods included imprisonment, sometimes on starvation diets. The Zurich government eventually succeeded in expelling all its Anabaptists, and so Bern tried to do the same, but never succeeded.
What Bern tried to do was confiscate Anabaptist land and then force them into exile. But Anabaptists would then start giving their land away to their children, or they would make complicated arrangements with neighbors and friends. And while the government would tell them they are exiled, they would simply return again.
So what do you do if being an Anabaptist means that your property and your children will be taken from you, and you will be forced to leave your home country? Anabaptist had four strategies. The first was to simply avoid the authorities. And so there are the Anabaptist caves. They would also avoid going to the Reformed Church.
Secondly they would compromise on non-essentials, and defining non-essentials became difficult as the authorities put more pressure on them. Surprisingly many Anabaptists allowed their children to be baptized, and then they would just call it a meaningless ceremony. To not have your children baptized made you a suspected Anabaptist and created all kinds of trouble.
Thirdly, avoid being identified as an Anabaptist. And so if you were called before the church courts, because the Swiss Reformed Church had a kind of morals court that would make sure that everyone in the parish was behaving in a properly Christian way. And so if an Anabaptist would be forced to appear, they would avoid answering questions and even perhaps outright lie, to avoid being identified officially as an Anabaptist.
Finally some Anabaptists went so far as to say oaths or recantations of their faith. One way to do this was to show up for the oath ceremony and mumble. But as authorities became suspicious they would individually be forced to speak. And so they might say it while inside they tell themselves that they don't really mean it.
For obvious reason in our telling of history we focus more on the heroes who were willing to die for their faith. They are of course to be admired. But other people tried to find a way to be faithful in an impossible situation. David Joris became a facade in order to be both Anabaptist and successful. Others after him, though not as extreme, found ways to hide their identity.
I'm not sure what to do with this story. I won't say go thou and do likewise. But at the same time I sympathize with their predicament. What would I do if I was going to lose my family and my home and my country? What compromises would I make? Or rather, what compromises do I make? When the pledge of allegiance is said, I don't say it, but I do stand up and face the flag like everyone else. Am I just pretending to participate in the national oath while only myself and perhaps one other person in the place knows that I am not?

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