“History is the autobiography of a madman” – Alexander Herzen, father of Russian Socialism
James Foley, an American photo journalist, was recently beheaded and the video of which appeared online. ISIS appears to lay blame for the execution at the feet of the United States government. I’m sure the partisan side of my brain will kick in later on – as it already has for other pundits across America – for now, one major theme swirls to the top.
How America as a unified society, a quintessential product of the Enlightenment, comes to terms with a group of radicals seemingly from another age is a puzzle. This isn’t an original idea. It’s been tread many times since 9/11. In my mind, the stark contrast has never been clearer. President Obama stated, “A group like [ISIS] has no place in the 21st Century,” well, maybe not, but here ISIS is… beheading innocent people.
I call ISIS a group of radicals from another age because when I read of this horrific tragedy I immediately thought of the Anabaptist Munster Rebellion in 16th Century Europe. This is a connection worth making because it is about Christian radicals. If this makes our largely Christian Conservative readership uncomfortable – good. If you are uncomfortable you are learning.
In early 16th Century Germany, Martin Luther planted the intellectual seeds that has since grown into the Protestantism many of us know today. These seeds were allowed to grow, despite the Catholic Church, because it allowed nobles to gain power previously monopolized by the Vatican. During this time, there was an offshoot of Lutheranism called Anabaptism.
In 1534, the Anabaptists identified the German city of Munster as the “New Jerusalem” for both political and religious reasons. Politically, the Anabaptists interpreted the Bible in a way that we would label today as Socialist. Munster was to be established as the first bastion of a New World without material possession. Religiously, this is where Armageddon was going to happen, and a new Kingdom under God was going to commence very soon. These ideas were, in their eyes, one and the same.
The Anabaptists rolled into Munster and converted 1,000 people in a single day. Converted, in this case, means baptized. Anabaptists took their name from the Greecian term Ariabaptista, “Baptism” and “Over Again”. They believed that your first baptism as a child was meaningless, and being baptized with your full consent later in life was truly the first baptism. The Anabaptists had a few political allies in Munster who gave them cover, and their interpretation of the Bible spread rapidly.
Shortly, the Anabaptists had gained religious majority in Munster and everyone else was given an ultimatum: convert and give up your possessions to the commune… or leave. First, the Anabaptists went to all the Catholic Churches and destroyed their religious artifacts because they were forms of idolatry. Then they turned their eyes to those who had not converted. Now, many Lutherans and Catholics fled, taking only what they could carry. Others decided to stay and wait it out. The Anabaptists, peaceful Christians at first, decided that since the Armageddon was coming – via their interpretation of the Bible – they should help prepare the way for God. In other words, exterminate those who will not convert. The Anabaptists came into Munster, beheaded non-believers, established a theocracy, and engaged in war.
The Bishop of Munster, Franz von Waldeck, was kicked out in the early transformation and he came back to besiege the city. It turned into a situation much like what happened with Koresh in Waco, Texas – albeit on a larger scale. The outnumbered religious radicals grew increasingly pressured by the siege, and it ended with their ultimate destruction. The socialist ideals, put into practice, led the city down a path that socialism tends to follow historically. The “Chosen” leaders of the movement continued to eat generously while the rest of the besieged literally starved to death. Both religious cultism and political ideals were debunked.
There are many similarities between the story of The Munster Rebellion and what is going on in Iraq. The difference is: these events took place in 1534. This was a completely different, harsher, less enlightened Europe. To provide a little relief to the Anabaptists, you have to mention that the Catholics were burning Protestants at the stake during this period. And yes, beheading them as well.
Following the course of history, the Anabaptist Munster Rebellion is a footnote in the build up to the 30 Years’ War. The 30 Year’s War was fought in Central Europe between Protestants and Catholics and was one of the longest continuous military conflicts in modern history. It’s hard to describe exactly how devastating this war was to Europe. To put it succinctly, this war – spurred by religion but also fought for political control – did more damage than the Bubonic Plague. The amount of casualties and economic loss was catastrophic. The peace treaty was signed in Munster.
The European Enlightenment emerged from this traumatic experience, and gave birth to an idea that would forever change the West. It would intimately shape the founding of America, a country our Founders directly built off of the best ideas the Enlightenment had to offer. One of the most profound ideas was: Government and Religion should be separated.
A simple idea. An idea I would argue the West takes for granted now. It was an idea that the Anabaptists, the larger Protestant movement, the Catholic Church, all of Europe had never considered for a thousand years. Imagine: How could God’s earth and the corresponding Government’s that make up His earth not be one and the same? The Middle East, and Islam, has never had this transformation.
The 30 Years’ War and the ensuing Enlightenment exposed the idea that everything your King tells you to do, may not be God’s word. Prior to this idea, if your King thought that God had ordained that the neighboring region and all it’s economic benefits was divinely yours, then, by God, you are going to take it over. There’s no wiggle room, is there? If the neighboring kingdom didn’t want to give up the river, then the only option is Holy War! If Europe was going to avoid the utter devastation of the 30 Years’ War, thinking had to change.
It was not an idea that shaped the West in a generation. No. But it was an idea that in 1776, over a hundred years later, became part of the foundation of America. Today, as Americans thoroughly versed in this principle, we confront a radical group in the Middle East: ISIS, a relic of the past. Beheadings? Check. Destroying historical religious artifacts as blasphemous worship? Check. Religious and political motivations that are conceptually non-distinguishable? Check.
Is ISIS an indictment against Islam? No, that is an intellectual cop out. Sure, you can cherry pick quotes out of the Quran to try to prove Islam is a “violent” religion. What is that part in the Bible about bashing your enemies children’s heads against the rocks? As a Christian I know the feeling when an Atheist who has never really studied the Bible cherry picks certain “contradictions” in the Bible. Please don’t throw up your hands and lazily fall into this trap when you are digesting this most recent atrocity, or the religion of Islam. Many prominent and smart minds have already done so – repeatedly.
No, ISIS is a radical permutation of Islam, just like the Anabaptists were of Christianity. It also hearkens back to a past era. According to ISIS, a Caliphate must reign supreme over the Middle East and the world. Government and religion must be one and the same. Keep in mind, the Caliphates spent most of the time Europe was in the “Dark Ages” dominating a prosperous empire. ISIS is playing off of everything it can get it’s hands on, including this past history. ISIS is tapping into historical, economic, political, and religious fervor.
The Middle East cannot hide from Western influence, but the majority of inhabitants are in the same situation as the moderate inhabitants of Munster in the 1500s: either driven out, forcibly converted, or brutally murdered. They want no part of this extreme violence, but many do believe God’s Will should be reflected in every part of life – including Government. There is nothing inherently sinister about this, but it has led to a lot of sinister outcomes throughout human history.
The problem that America, Muslims, the World, is trying to figure out is: how to stop the spread of ISIS’ ideas. Before the 21st Century, the city could be besieged and all communication leaving could be dealt with. The ideas could be contained. Just like the Anabaptists, ISIS has both forced and willing converts, and the expansion is only all the more rapid – it is Global. The man who beheaded James Foley had a British accent. Further, Al-Qaeda tried to preserve it’s own power by denouncing them, but it appears they have decided to sign on for now.
President Obama has correctly labeled these ideas a “cancer” that needs to be cut out. But this is not a comparatively benign tumor like the Anabaptists in Munster. It is not as simple as besieging one city. Chemo cannot work. Dealing extreme casualties to the body of the Middle East – even if it takes out the cancerous part - is not an option.
No, we cannot sacrifice, or push away, the vast numbers of people that have been traumatized by the increase in religious and political bloodshed. After the 30 Years’ War, the French Revolution took place. A messy, indecipherable, affair at the time. Western powers did not know what exactly to make of it, but they didn’t exactly love it. The people outside of France didn’t exactly love how their leaders reacted to it either. Maybe I’m just an optimistic person, but that sounds a lot like the Arab Spring. It would be nice to see human history repeat itself in more than just beheadings and bloodshed. I hope that this is the traumatizing period of violence that the Middle East goes through to prepare for a dramatic change.