In Nuremberg, Stephanie and I were able to visit the Germanic National Museum. I wanted to go because they were showing the works of Lucas Cranach, the close friend of Martin Luther who almost singlehandedly invented the visual vocabulary for Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church. Today we would say that Lucas Cranach was Martin Luther’s PR department. Cranach was crucial to Luther’s success. He mass produced images of Luther to control how the world perceived him. Cranach also found ways to devise a new pictorial language for Protestantism. It was wonderful seeing all these different pictures of Luther at the same time.
However, Cranach’s work was not the only special exhibit on display. The museum was also hosting an exhibit on the mysterious monster myths from the Middle Ages through the present day. There were hundreds of works of art, from paintings to sculptures, to tapestries, modern film posters and videos, which traced the checkered paths of demonization of fictitious figures and histories. Walking through the exhibit was like entering into a foreign world, an extremely ancient world. Most of the art was from the late Medieval and early modern periods, and quickly you witnessed just how obsessed that society was with devils, demons, and evil. These figures were how people personified the unknown and all that caused them fear. Anything foreign to their everyday lives was demonic, from sickness and plague, to natural disasters, to foreigners, outsiders, and societal deviants. Pictures of monsters were how society educated people. It was an easy way of characterizing the groups of people who were intolerable and terrifying.
It is hard for us to inhabit this ancient world, not because monsters no longer capture our imaginations. They absolutely do. Today, much like then, monsters are everywhere. Most popular TV shows deal with superheroes and monsters. Halloween is one of our largest holidays. However, in our society, monsters have been de-demonized. Awe-inspiring dragons have become our friends and protectors. The Muppets have a late night TV show. Grimms work with Wesen. Zombies eat brains to help solve murders. Today monsters have lost their dreadfulness. It is hard for us to imagine a world where unicorns were perceived as a vicious race of creatures, where people were equated with the demonic beasts of hell, where tens of thousands of individuals were executed because they were suspected to be sorcerers or witches. But just a few minutes touring that exhibit reminded me that this was the world of our spiritual ancestors. A world they knew quite well because they were the ones portrayed as being handmaidens of the devil.
It is not surprising that the early Mennonites were often portrayed in pictorial form as being influenced by the Devil. Not only because they were perceived as people threatening the existing order, disrupting the status quo and instead longing for chaos and anarchy, but also because they challenged the prevailing understandings of infant baptism. And baptism, ever since the early church, has been understood as an act where the believer enters into the conflict between Satan and God.
In the liturgy of the early church, the baptism ceremony began with the priest breathing on the candidate being brought forth for baptism just as God breathed into the first humans to fill them with life. At this point, the priest would say; “Depart from him, you evil Spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.” After this prayer, the renunciation of Satan was then complemented by an acceptance of Christ. The priest would then ask: “Do you renounce Satan?” Then the candidate or a parent would respond: “I do renounce him.” Only after this renouncement, would the act of baptism proceed. Baptism was an act which freed one from the grasp of Satan so that he or she could receive the new life of Christ. There was a magical component to baptism and by rejecting infant baptism, it was easy for their opponents to claim that they were people who refused to renounce and then belonged to the devil. That is why we find a number of pictures of Mennonite baptism as being portrayed as a practice led by the devil.
Making matters worse, there were quite a few overly zealous and slightly deranged Mennonites who made them easy targets. In two weeks, we will be talking about the debacle of Munster and its aftermath in adult Sunday school. This is where a group of 2000 Anabaptists seized control of a city by force and tried to establish a New Jerusalem there. They instituted the community of goods, and also legalized polygamy. It was a horrible, failed experiment that completely tarnished Mennonites for centuries. And it was events like this which made it easy for the dominant society to demarcate all Mennonites as a people bewitched, as the Devil’s minions who needed to be eradicated. I guess it isn’t surprising that a few years ago someone made a movie about Munster called Mark Hellman, Demon-Hunter: Anabaptist Vampires. In the movie the long dead Anabaptist maniacs rise from their graves to terrorize the city once again. Now tell me that doesn’t sound like a can’t be missed, low budget cult classic. Unfortunately, it’s only in German.
We can tell just how widespread the meme of Anabaptist demon possession was by the fact that leaders like Menno Simons found it repeatedly necessary to respond to these charges. For example, Menno insisted: “We consider those possessed of the devil who speak the devil’s words, who teach the devil’s falsehood instead of truth, steal God’s glory for Him, and sadly deceive souls … we hate the word of the devil from our inmost souls … This is an evident sign that we are not possessed of the spirit of the devil but of that of the Lord. If we were of the devil as we are reviled, we would walk upon a broader road and be befriended by the world and not so resignedly offer our property and blood for the cause of the Word of the Lord.”
I hope by now that you are beginning to gain a glimpse of this foreign world to which our Mennonite ancestors belonged. This morning, I want us to look at and appreciate how some Anabaptist-Mennonites responded to this world. How as victims of so much demonizing and conspiratorial accusations themselves, some Mennonites were able to see how the powerful were rhetorically using the devil to colonize the minds of their society. They saw how society used monstrous figures to make people fear and oppress certain groups of people. So they began arguing that this act of violence against others, this act of marginalization and sacrifice, this is what is truly demonic. Some Mennonites came to understand that this act of labeling certain groups of people as witches or demons, well that is the demonic process from which we need to exorcise ourselves. We belong to a tradition that is skeptical of the devil, because our ancestors perceived how the world uses the devil to enact violence against others.
It is not surprising that the first Anabaptist who expressed his skepticism of a creaturely devil arose immediately after the Munster debacle – David Joris. Today we are not as familiar with David Joris as we should be. However, following the fall of Anabaptist Munster in 1535, two prominent streams emerged which pushed Anabaptism in slightly different directions. Both strongly advocated for complete non-violence. The stream which we are most familiar with was led by the former Friesian priest, Menno Simmons, who sought to organize Anabaptists into voluntary church communities. The other prominent leader was the glass painter and lay reformer, David Joris. Joris was a charismatic leader. He focused on combating human pride, elitism, and educationalism. There was an intense competition which arose between Menno and David Joris and for a short while, it appeared that Joris’ version of Anabaptism would prevail. Clearly it did not, or we might be called Peace Joris Church, which sounds awful.
However, it is odd that we rarely hear anything anymore about David Joris. I guess even among the persecuted, the winners narrate history. And when we do hear mention of David Joris, it is usually because he is the only early Anabaptist whose picture we still have – you can see it displayed at the Basel art museum. The other interesting story that may be told about him surrounds his death. Near the end of his life, David Joris moved to Basel to escape persecution. He changed his name, even became a prominent member of society. But about 2.5 years after his death, the authorities in Basel gained knowledge that he was an Anabaptist. So even though he was long dead, they dug up his grave and burned him along with all his art and his books.
But David Joris was a prolific writer. He wrote over 240 works in his short lifetime and one of his most radical beliefs was that Satan is not an actual being – a view unheard of during that time. Instead, David Joris maintained that Satan is the sinful nature of fallen humanity. The devil is you and me, whenever we are self-centered, whenever we put our needs above the needs of others, whenever we exclude or sacrifice others for our own well-being. In David Joris’ own words: “People are an enemy and devil to themselves.”
David Joris came up with his rather unorthodox interpretation by re-reading the story of Adam and Eve. He argued that the fall of Satan was actually the fall of Adam and Eve. They fell from heaven when they succumbed to the temptations of the flesh. The serpent was merely their inner thoughts, their self-centered desires. David Joris believed that each one of us daily undergoes the same struggle with our sinful nature. Each one of us struggles against our own devil. He also pointed out that Jesus called both Judas and Peter – Satan, when they put their own needs and desires above the well-being of others. The Devil isn’t some material being manipulating history and people. The devil is us whenever we are self-centered.
While I find David Joris’ readings of Scripture fascinating, I’m not trying to get you to believe him, but merely see what David Joris was trying to do. Joris was trying to stop people from identifying others as Satanic and instead focus more upon themselves, on their own desires and actions, and their need to cast out others for their own benefit. David Joris knew that the contemporary devilish understanding was causing the world a great deal of harm. So he sought to radically depart from orthodox concepts of the devil, in order to free us from the systemic violence which holds us captive. He offered a creative alternative which promoted a form of a religious freedom.
David Joris caused quite a stir, and for the next few centuries his ideas continued to ripple throughout Mennonite circles. For example, during the intense periods of witchcraft, when Mennonites were marginally accepted in society, we find them trying to free their society from the impulse to demarcate others as monsters, as Satan’s minions, as people perceived to be less than fully human. They tried numerous different ways of depreciating the devil’s agency in hopes of ending these acts of violence against others.
One example is the Mennonite printer, Jan Jansz Deutel, who penned a tract against witchcraft during the pinnacle of the witch trials. In this tract, Deutel doesn’t argue that the devil doesn’t exist. Instead, he tries to argue that the world was giving the devil way too much credit and power. The devil cannot do things which belong to God, nor can it assist people to do things contrary to nature. So clearly, all these witches whom you are hunting are not in collusion with the devil. Deutel tried to deny the devil its power in order to end the senseless persecution against individuals who failed to conform to societal standards.
Similarly, the Mennonite physician and preacher, Anton van Dale, wrote a number of tracts in hopes of ending the witch hunts in his homeland. Much like Joris, van Dale tried to dismiss the influence of the devil by insisting that the devil does not work through witches and magic. Instead the devil is present whenever we succumb to the temptations of pride, deceit, violence, unchastity and the like.
These are just a few examples of Mennonites speaking out against the claims of diabolical activity and witchcraft. There are many more. Why do these Mennonites speak out against the persecution of witchcraft? Because they knew the diabolical evil that the secular and ecclesiastical authorities could produce while prosecuting religious deviance. So they expressed their skepticism of perceiving the devil as a corporeal entity. They tried to stop the demonic practice of othering people by depreciating the role and power of the devil. And you know what, it appears to have worked. In the north Netherlands where Mennonites most vocally challenged the claims of demonic activity, the witch trials ended here much earlier than everywhere else. Many today attribute this to the fact that Mennonites were not afraid to be vocal about their unorthodox views on the devil.
Sadly, we still find people rhetorically categorizing people as demonic, especially during this political season. It’s still a tool used by many to strip away a portion of people’s humanity so that they can be dismissed, feared, or forgotten. Today, I’m thankful for our Mennonite ancestors who help us understand that these claims are just acts of violence which simply reveal that we are the demonic ones. The real enemy we face is the satanic idea which maintains that violence, sacrifice, and exclusion are a necessary part of the world we live in. There is simply no room for this in a kingdom which insists that everyone belongs to God and that we all have been created in God’s image.
But what I am most thankful for is that we belong to a tradition that isn’t afraid to question and reject truths which have previously been deemed as orthodox. We belong to a tradition which is willing to judge truths based on the fruit which they produce. The early Mennonites saw the violence that was being done unto them by fellow Christians, and they decided to challenge traditional and biblical authorities, and in the process opened the world up to new ideas and approaches which were more peaceful and just. Their depreciation and skepticism of the devil was merely one of the more interesting examples.
Today, more than ever, we need to own this part of our tradition. We need to look closely at all the effects which Christianity has on our world, and to not be afraid to dissent and pursue alternative ideas whenever our beliefs and practices are causing us to strip us or other human beings of a bit of their humanity. We must find the courage to push through the constraints of orthodoxy whenever orthodoxy causes us to enact violence onto others, and instead be more creative in promoting new forms of religious freedoms. So let us follow the example of our mothers and fathers in the faith, and continue to question and disrupt the beliefs and practices which marginalize and oppress others. And let us trust that in this challenging, God is working with us to bring about God’s kingdom of justice and peace.