Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.

I am just supposed to let this all overwhelm me? – Thomas Müntzer

I don’t typically enjoy reading Reformation authors (not that I have read many). Unless I really want to spend the time tracking their logic I find the content has not aged well and reads like bad worn out pietism. Thomas Müntzer’s writings have largely evaded that experience. I really did not know much about him other than he is more or less shunned in mainstream Mennonite thought and history because of his involvement in violent revolts. In this post I just want to note a couple observations as I am about half finished his collected works (minus much of the liturgical pieces unfortunately).

Consistent in Müntzer’s correspondence and writing is his defense of the Word of God as living and ongoing in opposition to those who think that the letter of scripture is equivocal to God’s Word. Müntzer puts this in the strongest of terms stating, “What I disapprove of is this: that it is a dumb God whom you adore” (Letter 31). From there Müntzer uses scripture to show that the words of scripture are not sufficient or complete; that we do not live on bread along but what proceeds from the mouth of God;

“note that that it proceeds from the mouth of God and not from books. . . . [F]or unless it arises from the heart it is the word of man.”

And further,

“Think of your God as at hand and not distant; believe that God is more willing to speak than you are prepared to listen.” He goes so far as to say, in a letter to Martin Luther, that “Christ himself wants us to have the judgement over his teaching.” (Letter 40)

And again pointing the Lutheran biblical scholars,

The Son of God has said: Scripture gives testimony. The biblical scholars say: it gives faith. (A Manifest Expose of False Faith; see also preceding paragraph for how the ‘biblical’ position also foster injustice)

This approach to hearing God is meant to keep the teaching and meaning of the Bible out of the hands of those who can simply manipulate the words; or just as often against those who partition the Bible for their own purposes. Müntzer’s warning is as clear as it is relevant today,

“In our time [Christian authority] is only possible by interpreting the Holy Scripture in accordance with the spirit of Christ, seeing all the mysteries and pronouncements of God as a unitary whole. For none of these pronouncements, however clear and unequivocal, can be fully comprehended in isolation since they have, hidden within them, their polar opposite. To read them in isolation causes dreadful harm to others ad produces dregs from which all wicked divisions arise.” (A Manifest Expose of False Faith)

It should be noted that while Müntzer is typically addressing local authorities (Lutheran and Catholic) it is already evident in his correspondence that Müntzer departs from other emerging Anabaptists. This is particularly evident in the lengthy letter written by Conrad Grebel and those associated with him. Throughout his letter Grebel encourages Müntzer to give up anything that is contrary to the clear written words of scripture (even singing!). For as Grebel says, “Anything that we are not taught by clear texts and precedents should be as tabu to us if it written: Don’t do that, don’t sing” (Letter 69). This relates to Grebel’s unsettling and constant appeal for Müntzer to obtain ‘purity’ in all things.

For Müntzer the ability to hear the word of God is not self-evident but comes from the strenuous school of experience. This ability to listen comes after the necessity of doubt and subsequent struggle. This ability to hear the Word of God in the heart is not to be taken lightly and while I haven’t come across a more explicate framework for testing this ability Müntzer considers it crucial for Church leadership.

“All of us have to follow in the footsteps of Christ and must be armed with such thoughts [i.e. the suffering of Christ]. So fancy commentaries will be of no avail to those who imagine that by following their fleshly ways they vanquish those who trust their works [attack on Luther?]. In fact they, with their fraudulent faith, are poisoning the world much worse than the others with their clownish works. To clarify the distinction, then, they are still neophytes, that is to say, men who have still to be put to the test; they should not be charge of souls, but for a long time yet should remain catechumens, that is, diligent students of his divine work; they should not teach until they themselves have been taught by God.” (Letter 46)

Suffering is the primary teacher. This is not an uncommon statement in Christian thought and Müntzer’s writing definitely has some problematic views on suffering. In his writings suffering can be viewed as an unqualified good. But it should be stated that Müntzer’s implicit understanding of suffering in his writings is made explicit in his correspondence. Suffering seems inevitable in this corrupt world. In his correspondence, Müntzer makes clear that righteous suffering must be separated from the suffering inflicted by the wicked. Unjust suffering is not an unqualified good. Much suffering is at the hands of evil doers and Munzter is not willing to accept such guilt but places it squarely at the oppressor’s feet.

Müntzer’s correspondence helps clarify his view of suffering as well as the role of violence in his thought. Müntzer takes the notion of civic order and the sword with deathly seriousness (Rom 13 often cited). There is a sword to protect the people “but should that change, then the sword will be taken from them” (Letter 45). In a long letter to “the persecuted Christians of Sangerhausen” Müntzer councils the people that when responding to the violence and arrests they are facing not to consider it a judgment on their behaviour but to “act so that the guilt and the blame is theirs and not yours” (Letter 55).

In several places Müntzer asks the rhetorical question,

“Do we just hand over those who are ready to suffer for the sake of the Christian faith to the butcher’s chopping block in this unhumane way?” (Letter 57)

Much Christian and Anabaptist theology would potentially answer, ‘yes’.

Müntzer continues later,

“Should we win the friendship of the tyrants by leaving the cries of the poor unheard?” (Letter 57)

And again,

“Perhaps I am just supposed to let this all overwhelm me and suffer death, patiently letting the godless have their way with me and the afterwards they would claim that they had throttled a limb of Satan? No, not on your life!” (Letter 67)

There is no notion of a ‘third way’ in the face of violence and no valorization of suffering and death in the face of injustice but rather a resolved resistance as fulfillment of the Gospel. And finally as the correspondence leads tragically to the Peasants Revolt Müntzer pleads,

“In God’s name let the prisoners free; otherwise you bear the guilt for the blood of all righteous men which has ever been spilt on earth.” (Letter 67; see also Letter 70)

Looking back at ‘violent’ revolutionaries (John Turner, Malcom X, etc.) we are quick to criticize their methods as violent but in so doing fail to hear the underlying reality that “it is as clear as day that the godless rulers themselves have broken the common peace” (Letter 59). As James Cone would point out centuries later, “It is important to point out that no one can be nonviolent in an unjust society.” As Müntzer attempts to build his coalition he makes clear “that subscribing [to the covenant] is not directed against any government but only against shameless tyranny” (Letter 66).

There are definitely critiques to be made in relation to Müntzer’s notion of suffering but his correspondence makes clear that we must resist the suffering of injustice. We are not responsible for it and we need to name and hold accountable those who are. We will not escape force (the sword) and so it must be used in protection of the vulnerable and attempts must be made to remove those who abuse it. These actions will likely not keep us from experiencing suffering. On the eve of the fatal conflict Müntzer writes to the people of Allstedt,

“I tell you this this, that if you are unwilling to suffer for the sake of God, then you will have to be willing to be martyrs for devil. . . . make a start and fight the fight of the Lord!” (Letter 75)

We must understand our suffering rightly. Do we understand that the suffering experience by Indigenous and black communities to be coming from forces that are (perhaps more slowly) killing us with more ‘insulation’. As Fred Moten puts it in The Undercommons,

“The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you [white, privileged people], in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

Mennonites continue to have much to learn from Müntzer both in how we understand the Bible and revelation as well as in how we approached our relation to violence. The Word of God is living and we cannot escape force. We have attempted to evade responsibility in too many matters for the sake of purity. These were missteps. We have the resources, then and now, to correct course.

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