A main cause of philosophical disease—a one-sided diet: one nourishes one's thinking with only one kind of example.
Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Wittgenstein's admonition to philosophers is equally applicable to Mennonites. The stories we use to pass our heritage from one generation to the next must be shared carefully, lest they distort, create dissonance, or bewitch our intelligence by means of language. Stories shape the psyche and mold the community. Messages intended and messages received are not always synonymous. The difference in the context of the original stories and the applicability of the messages to the contemporary world can create dysfunction instead of supportive identity and historic continuity as depicted in Stephanie Krehbiel's article.
Stephanie's insightful, existential tracing of a central Mennonite
story line (martyrdom) is a
revealing case study. The
bloody theatre of martyr stories does not provide the images she
needs at this point in her life to carry forward the Mennonite tradition as she sees it. Stephanie
seeks symbols and stories that fit her understanding of the demands for action in 21st century
America—not an elevation of victims.
the first thing to look for in a cherished metaphor or archetype is utility. . . .
Is it helping me to create positive change in the world? . . .
I need stories that give me hope
In her lived experience the martyr tradition does not provide that story. It was not a useful story
to tell myself. She finds more hope in the archetype of the
warrior, though she is aware of the
dangers that lurk in that image as well.
Stephanie's revelatory personal story shows the deep impact that images can have on the
psychological state of individuals, the agony that deeply held community archetypes can create
in someone for whom they have become dysfunctional. It is this feature of her writing that first
struck me. Stephanie's reported experience shows aspects of the dysfunction of the martyr
stories for the 21st century, and a dissonance I suggested in an earlier article in Mennonite Life.
(December 1992, p. 9ff) More and more Mennonites live in, care about, and feel called to affect
the world to make it a better place. Doing so places us in a position of tension, even direct
conflict with deeply held Mennonite perspectives: the need to
be not conformed to the world,
to avoid entanglement in the world because such entanglement might involve compromise of
principles or beliefs. Traditional Mennonite theology and cultural thought is not necessarily
congruent with our daily lives. Traditional two kingdom theology and martyr stories may inspire
admiration but they do not necessarily provide a vision for the life to be lived today in the midst
Kierkegaard once said of Hegel that Hegel built a philosophical castle but was forced to live in the hovel back of the castle. It was his way of saying that the lived life often gives the lie to the symbolic language and beliefs we assume guide our lives. We are not the integrated whole selves we would like to be when there is a tension between the symbol systems we use and the lives we actually live. Kierkegaard may be speaking to contemporary Mennonite life, not just Hegel's.
The martyr stories are a part of the Mennonite heritage. They cannot be excised from our history. How can they be used appropriately? They must be transmitted carefully lest they be taken as providing the exemplar for Mennonites. What are some considerations that need to be kept in mind, aside from the analysis provided in my previous article that highlights the sociological/cultural context?
Martyrdom is not an inherent good. Being killed for one's beliefs, in and of itself, is no virtue. Martyrs are sometimes to be honored and sometimes to be condemned, depending on the context and the basis for becoming a martyr. We admire deeply held convictions when they are judged to be essential and worthy. We do not admire people who become victims and choose death for convictions that we consider false or peripheral or actions we consider immoral. We do not and should not honor dogmatic ideologues. Typically Christians do not honor people who are martyred for their Islamic convictions, their Buddhist practices, or their Hindu beliefs.
The failure to admire all martyrs exposes a hidden but usually unspoken assumption in those who display Mennonite martyrs as paragons of virtue. They assume the martyrs were holding to essential, true convictions and exhibited virtuous actions. Whether that assumption is accurate may be a great subject for discussion. How are beliefs and actions to be evaluated? What criteria are appropriate? Using the stories to deal with such a question might be illuminating. What is to be admired in their beliefs and actions, presumably not just that they became victims? Which convictions or actions are worthy of unending support? How does one know when compromise or even recanting may be virtuous, when becoming a victim is not the best option? These questions may put the stories to positive contemporary use.
Contemporary Mennonites face very different questions from the Mennonite martyrs. We
seldom, if ever, face decisions in which holding firmly to our convictions or actions leads to
death as the only option. In contemporary America our issues tend to focus on the grey boundary
lines between our religious heritage/convictions and the possible good that might come from
working within social organizations and political systems that are clearly immersed in the
world—be it education, mental health, business, farming, politics, etc. For example, when I was
CEO of Prairie View, we had to determine the extent to which it was appropriate for a
Mennonite institution to be driven by the credentialing requirements of the Joint Commission, of
the state Medicaid office, or the federal Medicare rules. Do any of these rules compromise our
heritage? If so, how should we proceed? We clearly were part of a
worldly system. Did the
good we could do for people outweigh any unease we might feel about tension with the
I drew upon key doctrines and stories of Mennonites in seeking to orient Prairie View's new employees to the religious heritage of Prairie View and to inspire employees to fulfill the service mission. The martyr stories were not among them. In fact, I cannot remember any leader in the three Mennonite church related service organizations of which I have been a part who used the martyr stores to ground the mission. Why? For the same reasons Stephanie finds the stories unhelpful. The mission of a service wing of the church is not to achieve doctrinal purity among its employees but fulfillment of a mission to help those in need of the service. Service organizations need stories that inspire activity in the world, just as Stephanie wanted such stories in her life.
The martyr stories tend to focus on a refusal to change rituals or faith statements in the face of
pressure. Were Prairie View and its employees judged on this criterion it would have detracted
from the mission, created endless arguments about doctrine while people suffered, limited the
employee pool, etc. Persons with theological differences were bound together by a common
To foster healing and growth in individuals and communities by providing behavioral and mental
health services with compassion, competence and stewardship in the spirit of Christ.
Service focuses on the active mission in the world without requiring conformity to a specific set of rituals or specific doctrines that motivate the person to be a part of mission—as long as the person is committed to the mission. The martyr stories focus on tenacity of commitment to specific doctrines and church practices. The latter focus can be detrimental to the commitment of the church to fulfillment of the service mission. Can you imagine how hampered Mennonite Disaster Service would become if the focus shifted to doctrinal and ritual purity as defined by some person or group rather than the commitment to restore the world after the tornado or flood?
The contemporary choices seem minor compared to the choices listed in the Martyrs Mirror—but they are the type of choices contemporary Mennonites face. Our choices seldom are between holding to convictions that lead to death or recanting our convictions. Should I run for congress? Should I own stock in Boeing? Essentially the martyr stories seem to be irrelevant since they are set in such a different decision context, or they hold up a model that is dysfunctional, if taken as guides for 21st century behavior.
Stephanie felt the need to move outside the symbols and images of the Mennonite tradition to
find an archetype she felt was hopeful and supportive—the archetype of the
warrior. That is
significant. It is an indictment of the paucity of alternative, relevant stories, at least as she
experienced the tradition growing up.
Warrior is apparently a helpful archetype for her. It is unlikely to be helpful for most
Mennonites, given the historical Mennonite perspective on warriors and war. Her failure to find
a hopeful image in the Mennonite heritage, however, suggests a challenge for Mennonites.
Where are the images and symbols that provide positive alternatives or at least correctives to the
messages projected by the martyr tradition? Where are the images that support the lived
experience of many contemporary Mennonites who are immersed in the world, see it as a
religious obligation to be active in the social order, and who see love requiring expression
through social and political systems, not just personal interaction or rejection of social and
political systems? This is a challenge for Mennonite historians and thinkers. As Stephanie notes,
the martyr stories are not likely to be those stories, especially if presented as
a one sided diet.
How are Mennonites to discover and use alternative models from the tradition? Where are they
to be found? I would suggest the images of
Mennonite service offer a fruitful area for
supportive images. What Stephanie seems to want are images for praxis and change in the
world—images of service to others for the common good, images of confronting evil in the
world. She wants images to support contemporary Mennonite behavior and life that is active in
solving issues of peace and justice in the world. Such images don't focus on the person's effort
to remain morally and theologically pure (one interpretation of martyr behavior) but focus on the
created order (the world), not just the church, as an appropriate area of activity whose purpose is
to move the world toward Shalom.
Surely there are stories in the Mennonite tradition of leaders who made the world a better place, leaders that could be held up as models of faithful people who did not choose to die, may even have been involved in some personal self-sacrifice but altered the created order—the world— in ways that should be honored and were consistent with a tradition which claims to follow a God of love. Such stories would seem especially appropriate and necessary in a tradition where one's behavior, not one's beliefs, are the final test of one's faith and beliefs. Perhaps Mennonites need another book, not for the defenseless but for the active: The Shalom Theatre or Servant's Mirror of the Committed Christians who, baptized upon confession of faith, and who practiced discipleship by following Jesus' model of care for the poor and oppressed in the world, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 2007.
Mennonites see Jesus' life as the model for faithful behavior. He was in the world bringing healing and love to others, in places where the pure and the pious often did not go. His life shows a social activist more concerned about the poor and afflicted than for preserving his own adherence to theological doctrine. He seems to have chided those so concerned. He expressed his theology in action.
The emphasis on
community inherent in the Mennonite tradition might offer additional stories
of leaders who worked diligently for the common good, even at great personal risk. The actions
may have been focused on the church community. However, the stories may have applicability
(provide an archetype) to those who now see God's will to act in the broader community—the
Evaluation of the martyr stories in terms of their impact on those within the Mennonite tradition is important, as Stephanie has done. There is a further question to be asked. What messages do the Mennonite martyr stories convey to those outside the Mennonite fold? An accurate answer would require focus groups and dialogue with others. One can offer some suspicions, however.
No doubt the stories may evoke a certain admiration and sympathy for the courage of the
Mennonites who faced death for their convictions. However, I suspect the stories reinforce some
stereotypes of Mennonites I have heard from some outside the Mennonite fold. Mennonites have
an self assumed moral and religious superiority that is displayed through
that is not welcoming, even
puts down those outside the fold. Our Mennonite forbears stood
firm in the face of death. How did your tradition behave? We have a level of truth and conviction
for which we are humbly proud. Our tenacity of belief shames your mainstream religion.
This need for alternative stories illustrates an important fact about language and about the
transmission of heritage. Language is filled with images, symbols, and stories. When they are
used singularly or force fed they can be destructive. Typically they place an emphasis on one
dimension of life and experience and need to be balanced with images, symbols, and stories that
draw our attention to other elements of reality. We know this in most of life and balance images
without much forethought. For some reason in religion, politics, and marketing (to name but a
few) we think it is necessary to provide a
one sided diet. It is a way of forming an identity and
distinguishing one group from another. Unfortunately it tends to highlight our differences and
distort the ambiguity and the fullness of life. In this case the
one sided diet of the martyr
stories without heavy focus on alternative images gives a distorted picture of virtue and of the
heritage—and dare one say, of the gospel—in which love of God and love of neighbor are to be
the hallmarks of one's convictions, not the level of tenacity of holding to theological
convictions, especially a tenacity that leads to death. At least that seems to be Stephanie's story.