by Terry M. Smith
What if I’d lived in 16th century Zurich? I would not have been baptized at the home of Feliz Manz, nor would I have challenged Zurich’s city council. I would not have been burned at the stake.
Rather, I would have consented to attend Reformed services and, if married with a family, to have my children baptized. It is pure fantasy to think that I would have exhibited Anabaptist heroism of the type that inspires 500 years later. Yet this fantasy is only a minor one.
The real fantasy is much greater than this. It is to think that I would have been alive long enough to make any of these choices at all.
Infant mortality rates were much higher then and medical services much poorer. Being born three months prematurely and then having pneumonia, I would have died as an infant and, possibly unnamed, been placed in a small grave and then replaced.
If I had lived for a few years, my physical limitations would have forced me, if fortunate, to be perhaps a cobbler’s apprentice; at worse, to beg on the street. Education, regular employment, marriage, and children would likely have been but bitter dreams.
Four related surgeries during my childhood and as a teen would not have happened; my limitations would have been clearer. A third of a century of marriage, 20 years of education (eight higher), a call to the pastorate, 20 years in the national office, and an enjoyment of the outdoors would not have happened.
This is the only time in history in which I want to live because it is the only time that I would have lived.
Looking around at the world’s situation, much is troubling. Yet I also know that I have received much of Christ’s grace, Canadian privilege, white privilege, and male privilege—as complicated a package as this is. Much of my life is good even as it includes a few obstacles that seem challenging to some observers.
What does this mean? The key question is not what I would have done five centuries ago, but what I am doing today. My privilege involves an obligation to stand up now for people less fortunate. The question includes the risks taken for others today.
One last thought. Many people five centuries ago, under pressure of potential banishment, agreed to attend Reformed services and to present their children for baptism. It’s wrong to think that all of them somehow deserted Christ—to view them as akin to Demas or Judas.
They were not forced to choose between following Christ and not following Christ. They were forced to choose between following Christ as a Reformed member or as an Anabaptist. These choices are not on the same level.
Apparently one of my relatives was born in 1530 in the canton of Berne, five years after and 125 kms away from the start of the Swiss Anabaptist movement in Zurich. By the time of his birth, the movement was active in Berne where many Anabaptists suffered.
If the information about a possible relative is accurate, I don’t know what choices his parents made then. But I know this: their choices during the Reformation were actual, not fantasy. This makes me respect people then who served Christ, both those who stood in a bonfire and those who did not.