Most North American Mennonites have grown up with stories of how Dirk Willems, Felix Mantz, Michael Sattler, Anna of Rotterdam, and countless others met their deaths by drowning or immolation. In the 1500s, says the Martyrs Mirror, that fate was meted out by folks the Anabaptists called
deceitful, tyrannous papists —the state religious authorities of sixteenth century Europe. If the stories weren’t retold round the dinner table, then often van Braght’s volume sat heavily on the family bookshelf, or its stories of martyred Anabaptists were heard at church or convention. They died, the Mirror sometimes almost flamboyantly proclaims, as true Christians. Professing their faith to the end, even when tongue-screws were clamped inside their mouths to silence them in a final, fiery hour.
In comparison to their martyred forerunners, however, North American Mennonites are a comfortable lot. Few face active persecution for their convictions. Understandably, the stories seem at best only dimly relevant, and at worst, actively harmful mythology. In her essay
Staying Alive: How Martyrdom Made Me a Warrior, Stephanie Krehbiel articulates the questions a new generation of Mennonites are asking more and more openly:
The martyr has become a central archetype in collective Mennonite identity, she writes.
And from my standpoint, the first thing to look for in a cherished metaphor or archetype is utility: is it making it easier or more difficult to react to my circumstances with compassion and wisdom? Does it give me flexibility to handle the unexpected? Is it helping me to create positive change in the world?
Krehbiel answers no. She posits that these stories do little besides fashioning Mennonite thinking into a holier-than-thou victimhood mentality that celebrates gruesome death above all else.
I disagree. It is my argument that the Mennonite martyr history, though born of a vastly different historical context than the one in which we live, can still be profoundly useful as a foundational metaphor for modern Mennonites.
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It is impossible to weigh or appraise the martyrs’ stories without initially exploring the historical conditions surrounding them. Such a study quickly reveals how very different the lives of those early Anabaptists were from the lives of Mennonites today—at least those scattered around the United States and Canada.
For starters, writes C. Arnold Snyder in his landmark Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction, these first Anabaptists operated in underground congregations that usually met in homes, in groups of not more than ten. The political power of the day rested firmly in the grip of state religious authorities—Catholics and Lutherans—for whom the notion of separation of church and state would have been ludicrous.
Mennonites, by questioning infant baptism and service in the state military, were in fact questioning the core tenets of European society at the time. They were challenging the foundational principles—the very glue—of the empire (dogma that would not fully unravel until World War I).
Espousing Anabaptism in the sixteenth century, says Snyder,
was no 1 And for that insubordination, these Anabaptists were burned, drowned, and hacked to death. So when Krehbiel identifies that this is not her story, she is absolutely correct: North American Mennonites do not live in an environment resembling sixteenth century Europe.
purely religious option, but rather was a faith decision that directly confronted and challenged the social, religious, and political status quo.
For Mennonites outside North America (and Europe), however, the trials of the early Anabaptists can be disturbingly similar to their everyday lives.2 For folks in Africa and Latin America, many still reeling from devastating wars, the steadfast faith of early Anabaptists—even in the face of great suffering or imminent death—is both relevant and empowering.
Many Guatemalan Mennonites, for instance, recently and directly suffered through a thirty-six year civil war that took thousands of lives, destroyed 450 Mayan villages and made more than a million people internal refugees. At the Guatemala City-based Semilla Mennonite seminary, converted Mennonites like Pastor Mario Higueros describe the quiet confidence they draw from Anabaptist martyr stories, naming it as a primary reason for their conversion to the Mennonite faith. Faced with state agents of oppression, some Guatemalans like Higueros have turned specifically to the Mennonite faith as the kind of Christianity that speaks to their violent, repressive circumstances. Higueros argues that while
every nation claims God is on their side, Christians—and Mennonites specifically—ought to proclaim that God moves in lockstep with no country, but instead stands with those who suffer for righteousness—no matter what the nationality.3 The
utility of the martyr stories for Higueros and the rest of the most rapidly expanding part of the Mennonite church, is hardly a question. For the disappeared of Latin America, the martyr archetype can be so painfully close to lived experience—particularly since brutalization is often at the hands of state authorities—that it hardly seems a metaphor at all.
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Still, the question remains: can the martyr stories remain relevant and useful for North American Mennonites, even though they were forged in a distant context, one foreign to our time and place?
In evaluating the usefulness of the martyr stories, it seems instructive first to remember that Christianity itself centers on the bloodiest of martyr narratives: the crucifixion (and resurrection) of Jesus. 1 John 5:6-8 describes Jesus’ death as, in part, a baptism by blood. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan call attention to Christianity’s central symbol—the cross—as being an instrument of torture. And the central ritual? Eating the body and drinking the blood of the religion’s god. The bloodiness and brutality of the martyr stories alone, therefore, cannot invalidate their usefulness—unless we are willing to consider all of Christianity as too much rooted in gory violence and the celebration of bloody sacrifice.4
Most Christians, however, long ago decided that the story of Jesus’ death on the cross did not in fact demand their own bodily sacrifice in order for them to be faithful followers. Instead, some have emphasized the resurrection, both literally—like Augustine and other medieval theologians—or metaphorically—the way modern theologians like Marcus J. Borg have done. Others, like Thomas Merton, Dr. Martin Luther King, or Mother Theresa, have held up as central the life and teachings of Jesus, arguing for the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Still others, as Martin Luther did, have gleaned from the story the promise of everlasting life and Jesus’ justifying forgiveness of sins. And even among those who hold the bloody price paid by Jesus to be the crucial and defining aspect of the story, few modern Christians believe that Jesus’ gory death requires their own sacrificial slaughter.5
The stories of Jesus’ life and death remain powerful through the ages—full of that
utility which Krehbiel seeks—precisely because of their fluid malleability: they are organic, forming and engaging the circumstances of many peoples in many times throughout history. The Anabaptist martyr stories are similarly organic and fluid, as any
useful archetype or metaphor must be to have survived into the 21st century with enough power to generate so much controversy and ink! And this is why Mennonites in the United States or Canada should not yet jettison the martyr stories as cultural baggage from a long-gone past. They are flexible enough to be capable of carrying the markedly different meanings which different peoples and contexts have imbued them with.
For example, Mennonites could draw from the martyr history a vision of faith that focuses on pious death as the ultimate expression of good Mennonite behavior, or Mennonites could use the same martyr stories to celebrate defiance in the face of oppression, bravery in the face of fear, and nonviolent resistance in the face of terrible violence. Same stories, vastly different meanings. The difference is the context within which the archetype or metaphor operates, the needs which it must satisfy, how the story is told and for what purpose. This is the critical
hinge upon which the
utility of the martyr stories rests. And it is here that we find, gleaming, the chance to ensure that these ancestral archetypes serve modern Anabaptists as well and as creatively as they have served earlier generations.
For thousands of years, Jewish people have told the story of their captivity and exodus from the land of Egypt at the Passover service, known as the Seder—
The Telling. Throughout the Seder, participants are urged to absorb the story into their own lives as the Seder asks: Who are the Pharaohs in our lives and in the world around us? To what are we enslaved? What burning bush are we ignoring? What Moses are we failing to heed? What exodus must we undertake, and to what Promised Land? No doubt, the
Pharaohs of North American Jews are quite different from the
Pharaohs of Russian or Iranian or Israeli Jews. But all have
Pharaohs to confront, and no matter where they are in the world, Jews, via the Seder, attempt to learn the lessons that the Exodus story has to teach each new generation. This, after all, is how human beings have always made old traumas relevant and meaningful.
By thus taking ownership of the story of the ancient Hebrews—a story vastly removed, contextually, from contemporary times—modern Jews re-enact the Exodus in their own lives and use this ancient story to, in Krehbiel’s words,
react to circumstances with compassion and wisdom, find flexibility to handle the unexpected, and help create positive change in the world.
Perhaps, then, a similarly ritualized way to talk about the questions the martyr stories can raise for people of a Mennonite faith would be worth developing, rather than rejecting them out of hand because of a single unacceptable interpretation. What questions might Anabaptists ask as they retell and bring to life the martyr stories as 21st century metaphor: Who are the inquisitors of our day? What are the radical faith and political positions that we are ignoring? Who are the
deceitful, tyrannous oppressors of our day? What immolations of those with different viewpoints are we watching unfold before our passive eyes? When we watch our pursuing enemy fall through the ice, what do we do? In what ways can we stand up—even at the risk of severe punishment—to the powers and principalities that dominate our times?
Modern Mennonites may find vastly different meaning in the martyr stories than, say, their ancestors in Russia did a hundred years ago. Whereas the importance of being willing to die for one’s beliefs may have served Mennonites facing Stalin’s army well, in contemporary North American contexts, Mennonites might instead find meaning (
utility) in the fact that early Anabaptists had the courage to stand up to an empire. In a sixteenth-century context, standing up to empire could mean death.6 For those living in modern North America, it most likely does not—but that does not make the metaphor of the martyr stories — with all their audacity and courage—any less important. By contrast, for Latin American Mennonites who remember the
deseparecidos, or Congolese Mennonites who recall death squads stealing their loved ones in the middle of the night, it may be an important source of strength to read a story filled with tongue screws and burnings at the stake, a story about seemingly good, principled people dying at the hands of unjust authorities.
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It’s been almost four hundred years since Van Braght put down in words and print the stories of the early Christian and Anabaptist martyrs. He called his work a
mirror. Mirrors are meant to attract our eyes—and, in turn, they promise to show us something of ourselves.
Among Mennonites of every age and every region, the stories of the Anabaptist martyrs have room enough for multifarious interpretations and readings. This hardy archetype can provide strength in the face of political and social terror, and also reflect the way to everyday compassion and wisdom. What greater utility could one ask for in a foundational metaphor? For Mennonites migrating to the United States a century ago, The Martyrs Mirror served as a kind of steadying, comforting rock, reminding the immigrants that they, like their martyred ancestors, were not
of the world and so had to flee a Europe that demanded too much (to their sensibilities) worldly involvement. Even more recently, for Mennonites caught in Stalinist Russia, the book inspired courage to face-down an imperial onslaught. And for Mennonites today—whether in North America, Central Africa, Latin America, or elsewhere—the stories of the martyrs invite a gaze into the mirror once again.