Christians worldwide are currently observing Lent, a penitential season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Generally speaking, modern western Christians are prone to approach these disciplines as a matter of individual piety. But historically, these practices have carried much broader and more significant social, economic, and political implications. We often think of the Protestant Reformation as declaring an end to Lenten observance, and public fasts in general, but the reality is more complicated.
Parts of the world tremble again at religiously inspired revolutionary activity. Too easily do we forget that very similar forms of such activity have appeared in earlier periods of time, even if the content was somewhat different. Thus, in the nineteenth century, the socialists organised, while the anarchists threw bombs and carried out assassinations. And in the sixteenth century, Thomas Müntzer and the Peasants organised and theologised for the revolution, while the Anabaptists were seen as the extremists, the terrorists who had to be eliminated.
I am in the process of reading carefully through the works of the Joseph Stalin – or the ‘man of steel’, as he became known through his revolutionary code name. When I mention the fact that I am reading Stalin’s rather extensive works, people look surprised – surprised not because I am actually reading Stalin, but because they usually do not realise he wrote anything at all.
We had set out to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Müntzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’ from sixteenth century Germany. Given that it was Germany, we expected everything to be organised down to the last detail – guidebooks, maps of bicycle paths and walking trails, a Müntzer tour linking all the sights, clear signs at each point indicating what Müntzer did where and when and how, even a government agency that focuses on this radical theologian. We found nothing of the sort.
One Sunday around 1173, in Lyons, a wealthy financier named Waldo heard a traveling singer tell the story of St. Alexis, the son of a Roman senator who fled his family, became a beggar, and took to a life of prayer and service. Moved, he hurried to talk to a theologian, who told him of Jesus’ exhortation: if you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor. And so he did.