Lutherans and Anabaptists reconcile in service of repentance and forgiveness

News Service
July 27, 2010
Stuttgart, Germany—Almost 500 years of guilt were formally laid to rest July 22 as representatives of 70 million Lutherans around the world asked forgiveness for the violent persecution of Anabaptists in the 16th century and for the way negative portrayals of Anabaptists and Mennonites have been allowed to continue within their communities and theological institutions. Representing the Anabaptist-Mennonite family, Mennonite World Conference (MWC) acknowledged their request and granted forgiveness.
            The landmark action came on the third day of the eleventh Lutheran World Federation (LWF) assembly, held in Suttgart's Liederhall conference centre. Through the adoption of the statement titled, “Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of Anabaptists,” Lutherans repented for violent persecution of Anabaptists and for the ways in which Lutheran reformers supported persecutions with theological arguments. Some 480 delegates from around the world acknowledged “the harm that our forebears in the sixteenth century committed to Anabaptists, for forgetting or ignoring this persecution in the intervening centuries, and for all inappropriate, misleading and hurtful portraits of Anabaptists and Mennonites made by Lutheran authors, in both popular and scholarly forms, to the present day.”
            The action, which LWF president Bishop Mark S. Hanson described as possibly “the most significant legacy this assembly leaves,” was the culmination of four years of work by the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission of the LWF and the Mennonite World Conference.
            On hand to witness the resolution were official representatives of Mennonite World Conference along with other Mennonite guests from Germany, France, Switzerland and Netherlands. There was also a record number of guests from other Christian groups, including Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventists, and Lutheran groups that are not part of the Lutheran World Federation.
            Sharing the stage throughout was LWF outgoing general secretary Dr. Ishmael Noko of Zimbabwe. In his opening address to the assembly, Noko announced that the action would redefine Mennonite-Lutheran relationships. “Only by rooting out the violence, exclusion and discrimination in our own tradition and practice...and by seeking to heal memories among us and between us and other church families, can we become credible and effective witnesses for peace and reconciliation in our wider societies.”
            In preparation for the vote, Hanson recapitulated the theme by saying the action would be “both communion-building and communion-defining” for the Lutherans. He emphasized that approving the statement was only one part of the action. “To ask for forgiveness of God and our Mennonite sisters and brothers is most fundamentally a prayer. So for the first time at an LWF assembly we will engage in a service of repentance immediately following this plenary session.”
            In his remarks Hanson also acknowledged the witness of non-violence of Mennonites in his native United States. “We have much to learn from you in how to be formed as communities of forgiveness.”
            Hanson paid tribute to efforts of the Catholic ecumenical bodies and the Reformed churches, who are also working toward a similar healing of memories with Mennonites.
.           Lutheran professor Joachim Track, head of the ecumenical commission of the LWF, presented the motion, which in the discussion time was given heartfelt affirmations from Argentinean, Nigerian and Canadian delegates. Following a time of prayer Hanson called on delegates to vote by standing or kneeling. The action passed unanimously, with Hanson and Noko on stage, and a number of delegates, dropping to their knees.
            Representatives of Mennonite World Conference were invited to the stage to respond on behalf of Anabaptist-Mennonites. Introduced by Larry Miller, MWC general secretary, they included Rainer Burkart, co-chair of the Study Commission; treasurer Ernst Bergen of Paraguay; vice-president Janet Plenert of Canada; president Danisa Ndlovu of Zimbabwe, and former MWC president Mesach Krisetya of Indonesia, who was part of early discussions that eventually led to the Study Commission.
            In the MWC response to the vote, Ndlovu faltered with emotion as he told the assembly that Anabaptist-Mennonites cannot come to this table with “our heads held high; we also stand in need of God's grace.” The response named the action as a fulfillment of the “rule of Christ,” binding and loosing according to Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18.
            “We believe that today God has heard your confession and is granting your appeal for forgiveness. We joyfully and humbly join with God in giving forgiveness. In the spirit of the rule of Christ, we believe that what we are doing together here today God also is doing in heaven.”
            Recalling the practice of foot-washing in some Anabaptist-Mennonite churches, Ndlovu, assisted by Janet Plenert, presented Hanson with a wooden foot-washing tub and a towel. Ndlovu said the tub was “a sign of our commitment to a future when the distinguishing mark of Lutheran and Anabaptist-Mennonite relationships is boundless love and unfailing service. We will learn to seek one another's good from a posture of vulnerability and mutual submission.”
            For many delegates, the postures of humility and service recalled the keynote address earlier in the day by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Williams linked the assembly theme “Give us today our daily bread” to the vulnerability God's people need in admitting their dependence on God, not only for food, but for reconciled relationships. “Forgiveness is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another's humanity,” he said.
            In his address, Williams named the action as an opportunity for such vulnerability. “For these churches to receive the penitence of our communities is a particularly grace-filled acknowledgement that they still believe in the Body of Christ, that they have need of us; and we have good reason to see how much we have need of them as we look at a world in which centuries of Christian collusion with violence has left so much unchallenged in the practices of power.”
From action to prayer
            Immediately following the action, the general secretaries and presidents of the LWF and MWC led a procession of all delegates and guests into a separate hall for a solemn service of repentance and healing.
            The service gave generous space for both Mennonites and Lutherans to share stories, prayers and music from their heritages. A mixed Mennonite-Lutheran choir from Ingolstadt, Germany, led the congregation in songs from both Anabaptist and Lutheran traditions. Wilhelm Unger, a Mennonite pastor and musician from Regensburg, sang a song about the cost of discipleship, from a text written by Anabaptist martyr Michael Sattler.
            Frieder Boller, president of the Association of Mennonite Congregations in Germany (AMG), told an early Anabaptist martyr story that highlighted the call to be ready to die for our faith. Theodor Dieter, director of Strasbourg's Institute for Ecumenical Research and co-secretary of the Study Commission, deeply regretted that leading Lutheran reformers, including Luther himself, had used theological rationale to justify persecution of Anabaptists, including capital punishment.   
Larry Miller, MWC general secretary, during his testimony, displayed a picture of Anabaptist Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer who had fallen through the ice. The image has become symbolic of Anabaptist ideals of loving the enemy.
            Miller acknowledged, however, that such stories have sometimes led Anabaptist-Mennonites to adopt the martyr tradition as a “badge of superiority.” “We sometimes nurtured an identity rooted in victimization that could foster a sense of self-righteousness and arrogance, blinding us to the frailties and failures that are also deeply rooted in our tradition.” 
            Following scripture readings and prayers for healing, several people from the MWC community came forward and covered the purple cloth on the altar display with a white cloth, symbolizing the movement from repentance to healing. They also placed olive branches around the altar, indicating a commitment to live in peace. Delegates passed bowls of oil from the Holy Land to anoint each other with the words, “God gives you a new heart and a new spirit.”
            As a way of looking to a future reconciled relationship, the worshippers were treated to another time of testimonials from the Lutherans of how they are already seeking peace. Colombian bishop Eduardo Martinez recounted how Lutherans and Anabaptist-related churches are already working jointly in confronting the violence in that country. 
            Michael Martin, a Bavarian Lutheran pastor and church officer, highlighted two decades of formal relationships among Mennonites and Lutherans in Germany, and of revisions to Lutheran liturgical resources to reflect greater understanding of Anabaptists. Susan C. Johnson, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada shared the podium with MWC vice-president Janet Plenert. They told of joining initiatives in Canada, from growing grain together to planning joint resources for study and worship.
            The timing and the location of the delegate action and worship service were heavy with symbolism. Stuttgart's Stiftskirche, the venue for the assembly's opening and closing worship services, was itself a sign that even in the 16th century the Reformers were not united in their persecution of Anabaptists. Johannnes Brenz, buried at the church, had argued vigorously that the state lacked authority in matters of faith. As Bishop Mark Hanson said in this action, Lutherans were now “reclaiming” the legacy of Brenz.
            The action comes just seven years ahead of 2017, when Lutherans and other Christians mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's posting of the 95 theses on the Wittenberg church doors. The reconciliation with the Anabaptists thus contributes to prepare the way for the celebration.
Byron Rempel-Burkholder
MWC news service
Mennonite World Conference is a communion (Koinonia) of Anabaptist-related churches linked to one another in a worldwide community of faith for fellowship, worship, service, and witness.