“How many 16th-century Anabaptist women can you name?” the author asks.
Well, there’s Maeyken Wens, tongue-screwed, who handed a pear to her young son before she was burned at the stake. Without even cracking the Big Book, I see the teacher, Ursula of Essen, her bare back forever flogged with a bundle of branches; Anna Jansz of Rotterdam, just before her execution, passing off her infant and a bag of money to anyone in the crowd who would take him; Catherine Muller, led from her house in Zürich by a magistrate wielding an enormous sword, while a daughter hangs onto her skirts, pleading, and the family dog rises on its hind legs to bark; Anneken Hendriks bound to a ladder, eternally tipping into the flames. In Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda Huebert Hecht – published 21 years ago by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, still available for purchase on Amazon – you’ll find accounts of many more women, along with historical research that establishes the radically egalitarian roots of the Anabaptist movement.
Of course, the question about naming Anabaptist women was buried in a parenthetical line on page 2 of my print-out of an article devoted to something else. It’s a little swipe at the sisters, but for all the right reasons: to demonstrate sexist gaps in our common knowledge. The question hit a nerve anyway, because I am weary of seeing women’s work underpaid and overlooked, and when the work of our Anabaptist mothers gets dismissed, even for rhetorical purposes, well. . . .Why would a historian with a laptop ask such a thing? (Just Google “Anabaptist women,” and you’ll see what I mean.) Is the casual eclipse of women martyrs another consequence of collapsing Anabaptist history to the troika from Zürich, and Martyrs Mirror to that serviceable Mennonite meme of inarticulate, corporeal self-sacrifice, Dirk Willems?
There I go, posing a fake question myself! In fact, I have already speculated about why Willems became such a superhero. Women account for about one-third of the martyrs in the Big Book, Snyder and Hecht estimate. As is often the case, women’s work is not absent or even invisible, just overlooked. So I would appreciate more history, not less of it, more research, fewer identity-making legends and ideological lessons. If we really embraced our European origins, we might celebrate a spiritual and social movement that sometimes broke the constraints of sex and class already in the 16th century. (That’s the origin story I claim, and I’m sticking with it.) Following that ideal, Mennonite Anabaptism crossed ethnic boundaries and oceans, a Christian confession that, at its very best, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, gives shelter to the homeless and hope to the hopeless, and consequently has become embodied in the different particularities of race, culture and location around the globe.
But I’ve used almost a third of my words on this digression, and have not even reached the topic that interests me most in Ben Goossen’s fascinating, ambitious essay. For one thing, I’m drawn to his tracing of 20th-century European uses of Anabaptist martyr memory – to model military service and sacrifice in Germany during the First World War, and to create continuity and coherence for the trauma experienced by Mennonites in the former Soviet Union. What he calls “militarist themes of sacrifice, manhood, blood, and glorious death” I have also sensed in milder American appropriations of martyr memory, especially during the Second World War, when harassed conscientious objectors were compared to Anabaptist martyrs and challenged to follow their manly examples. (Following early Christian constructions, Martyrs Mirror portrays both men and women as “manly” in the face of execution.)
As a Mennonite-identified writer, I’m especially intrigued that such vivid critiques of the glorification – let’s just call it “fetishizing” – of Anabaptist martyrdom came from a Russian Mennonite novelist. Hans Harder’s “let the dead bury the dead” attitude reminds me of many similar positions voiced by contemporary American and Canadian Mennonite writers, especially poet Jeff Gundy, gathered in the anthology Tongue Screws and Testimonies, edited by Kirsten Beachy. The salty phrases Goossen quotes come from a letter Harder wrote in May 1935 to negotiate terms of his work as a literary agent on behalf of Cornelius Krahn, who was seeking to secure a European publisher, probably for his dissertation on Menno Simons. The letter also contains a number of Harder’s complaints about Mennonite leaders on both sides of the Atlantic (for example, “Horsch of Scottdale is a pietist”). What I see in this letter is an author and editor who cares deeply about the Mennonite church and beliefs. I cannot help but draw analogies between that very different time and place and some contemporary Mennonite writers. See, for instance, Daniel Shank Cruz’s earnest appeals for peace and justice within and beyond the church in his article about Stephen Beachy’s boneyard in the 2016 issue of this journal.
According to GAMEO, Harder (1903-87) was born in the Mennonite settlement of Alexandertal on the Volga, but after the Russian Revolution, his father moved the family back to Prussia. As a young man, Harder studied at the university in Konigsberg, a city that would be destroyed in the Second World War and resettled by the Soviets as Kaliningrad. During the 1920s and ’30s, he worked as an editor and writer and published novels about Mennonite life in Russia. He left the Mennonite church to join the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) in resistance to National Socialism. Al Reimer’s introduction to a “free translation” and expansion of Harder’s No Stranger in Exile, published in 1979, claims that the author “withdrew from the Hamburg Mennonite Church because it contained many avowed Nazis.” However, Harder joined an affiliate of the Nazi party in 1938 and served as a writer and translator for German forces in Russia. The biographical sketch in Reimer’s translation of No Strangers in Exile omits these details and calls Harder “a man of strong principles and fearless integrity.” After the war, Harder worked as a professor of sociology in Wuppertal until his retirement in the late 1960s, when he became an elder and minister of the Mennonite church in Frankfurt, deeply devoted to peace activism.
From what I can gather from Harder’s two letters to Krahn in the 1930s, and Gerhard Rempel’s construction of Harder’s biography, Harder’s frustration with the early 20th--century Mennonite fetishizing of the Anabaptist martyrs may have been more complex than a simple critique of “worldly festival making.” Further, I wonder if he deserves a more nuanced analysis than Goossen’s invites through the “SS officer” characterization. The long arc of Harder’s life may even call for more generous views of relationships between present-day Mennonite writers and church institutions and leaders.
In any case, I see a connection between Harder’s impatience with fetishizing the Anabaptist martyrs and similar attitudes by contemporary Mennonite writers, and the ideas of Grace Jantzen (1948-2006). A Continental philosopher of religion who died a Quaker in England, Jantzen grew up in a Mennonite Brethren community in northern Saskatchewan. (She is not profiled in GAMEO, but a biography can be found in her Guardian obituary.) When I first read Jantzen’s Foundations of Violence, I felt I had at last met a profoundly Mennonite mind. Her ideas offered intellectual ground that resonated with the commitments of my Mennonite faith tradition, but that were not merely defined by Anabaptist history or the New Testament. Indeed, Jantzen freed me from whatever martyr blood might have chilled my veins.
Much of Western culture, beginning with the Greeks through Christianity to the present, suffers from an illness Jantzen calls “necrophilia,” characterized by a fascination with death and violence, including warfare. This fixation compels us to denigrate the body, sexuality and sensuality, and attracts us to worlds other than this one – mystical, heavenly, extraterrestrial – diverting our energy from ministering to immediate human conditions in the present. Necrophilia is gendered, in Jantzen’s view, bound to a masculinist symbolic and fueled by anxiety about the maternal female body and sexuality. She argues for a balanced integration of “natality” that values the pursuit of beauty, creativity and desire, characterized by an attitude of nurture and care. Attention to “newness” honors imagination and birth at least as much as death – fitting for followers of a Savior who said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and believers in a God who loved the world so that he offered his only son to put an end human sacrifice.
Thinking about Jantzen, I appreciate Goossen’s exploration of the political implications of “500 years.” Without ignoring European history, I opt for his second alternative: a celebration of beginnings, many stories! Mennonites with European roots need the vital church cultures created by our sisters and brothers of color and those living in the global South at least as much as non-European people need us. How much do most members of the fractured Mennonite church in the United States think about 16th-century origin stories these days? How many American Mennonites hear echoes of the 1930s in the intolerance, fear-mongering and scapegoating of our current President? During the 20th century, martyr stories bolstered a peace commitment in times of war for North American Mennonites. The young, taking their cues from a warring nation, wondered whether they too would be willing to die for their principles, and engaged in direct action both at home and in war-ravaged Europe. Now let’s ask what we are willing to live and act for, especially given the enormous challenges we face as a global community – war, mass migration, climate change – and which our brothers and sisters in the global South will surely suffer most.