new Mennonite Life logo    Spring 2007     vol. 62 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

A Third Way: Vulnerable, Sacrificial and Active Witness in the Martyrs Mirror

by Hannah Kehr

Hannah Kehr graduated from Bluffton University in May 2007 with a degree in Communication in Church Organization and a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. This essay references work that she produced as part of her senior honors project entitled "Redeeming Redemptive Suffering: A Rhetorical Analysis of Vulnerable and Sacrificial Witness in the Martyrs Mirror". She has recently relocated back to Goshen where she is planning to work and to get married at the end of May.

In conversations that I have been a part of, it has often been noted that the study of theodicy, or the question of why we suffer, is typically taken up by those who are "left behind" or who have had to watch others suffer, sometimes to the point of death. I am one such person, and the question of why we suffer and what role God plays in our human suffering has long been a question that has plagued me. Indeed, both of my senior years (in high school and now in college) have been marked by death. First, approximately six years ago, during the summer following my sophomore year of high school, one of my best friends was diagnosed with a very serious form of brain cancer. This event marked the beginning of a two year journey that I would walk with Joyce, which eventually culminated in her death at the end of my senior year. My high school and college years were marked by events such as "9/11", the Iraq war, conflicts in Sudan, violence in Bosnia, and many other tragic events. And now, most recently, I have been a part of the Bluffton University community as we have struggled to make sense of the unexpected and accidental deaths of seven individuals, five of whom were students, killed when a bus carrying the Bluffton baseball team plummeted over a guardrail in Atlanta.

All of these events have led me to ask those age-old questions, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and "What is the nature of suffering?" In my senior year, these questions led me to the prominent historical Anabaptist text, the Martyrs Mirror. I was engaged in a process of reading and writing about the Martyrs Mirror with the intent of discovering what the stories of the martyrs, texts about people who endured pain and suffering to the point of death, might possibly have to say about these questions. Through my study, I have come to believe that the Martyrs' Mirror does contain some unique and pertinent implications for the ways that we think about suffering and that it can be a helpful tool for us as we struggle with these difficult questions about the meaning of suffering, the struggle for life, and the affirmation of resurrection.

While engaging in my own study of the Martyrs Mirror, I was well aware that this text has undergone some criticism in recent years suggesting that the Martyrs Mirror is a harmful text not relevant to the situation of twenty-first century Anabaptists. One such critic is Stephanie Krehbiel who, in her article entitled "Staying Alive: How Martyrdom Made Me a Warrior," published in the December 2006 edition of Mennonite Life, suggests that the Martyrs Mirror is a text that promotes passivity and non-action, and fails to address the suffering that occurs on a regular basis in a broken world.

Like myself, Krehbiel seemed to find herself overwhelmed with the realities of suffering in the world after the events of September 11, 2001, and she claims that these events "transformed how I think about martyrdom." She goes on to suggest that the archetype of the martyrs is simply not a helpful one for twenty-first century Anabaptists. She states,

I think this is the cruelest use of the Martyrs Mirror to which I fell prey: the idea that not only do our beliefs invite painful death, but that we should give it rapturous welcome . . . from the martyr stories, I absorbed the lesson, that to speak out is to invite death, even to welcome it.

As an alternative to these seemingly troubling stories of martyrs operating as passive victims, Krehbiel turns to warrior stories, such as those played out on the popular television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer in order to find "stories that give me hope."

In contrast to this view which makes a clear distinction between the stories of the seemingly "passive martyr" and the "active warrior," I would like to suggest that the Martyrs Mirror instead provides us with a third posture for engagement with the world. From my study of the Martyrs Mirror text, I would like to suggest three characteristics of the witness of the martyrs as it is described in the Martyrs Mirror that can help to illustrate the ways in which the martyrs exhibited agency and engagement with the powers that be: voluntary vulnerability, radical witness, and revolutionary sacrifice. Through this reconstruction of the witness of the martyrs, I hope to show how the Martyrs Mirror is a book that, instead of teaching us to be passive members of society, can help to redefine our traditional conceptions of redemptive suffering in a way that is vitally relevant to an engaged twenty-first century Mennonite and Anabaptist peace witness.

Before I analyzed specific aspects of the martyrs' witness, I came to the conclusion that the suffering and brokenness that is at work in the stories of the Martyrs Mirror is related to the suffering and brokenness that is at work when people die from cancer, endure other forms of "everyday" and personal suffering such as divorce, and when countries participate in wars. I have been influenced in this view by Walter Wink, who in his book, Engaging the Powers, offers a persuasive view of suffering and brokenness. Wink uses the Biblical concept of "Principalities and Powers," or the spiritual aspects of institutions and entities, to address structural evils and suffering in the world.(1) By defining the brokenness, violence, and corruption in the world as a result of these fallen Powers, Wink opens the door to linking the experiences of suffering on a variety of different levels. This link between suffering in both the human and the natural worlds is expanded upon by Angela Montel in her essay, "Violent Images in Cell Biology" from the book Teaching Peace. Using the work of Nancey Murphy, Montel outlines the common origin of suffering when she states, "suffering is the result of the proclivity of [both] human and nonhuman creation to depart from the will of the creator."(2)

By adopting a theory of suffering that acknowledges the interconnectedness between different types of brokenness, one can assume that perhaps the powers that were at work in bringing about sickness and personal suffering are symptoms of the same brokenness that led to the death of the martyrs in the sixteenth century. If this is true, the Martyrs Mirror text is one that is directly addresses the types of suffering that humans are experiencing in the twenty-first century.

Therefore, the witness of the martyrs can be taken as one example of a way that we can possibly engage the powers that be today and seek to redeem painful situations that are marked by suffering. First, it is important to recognize that the martyrs were not without their doubts and resistance towards death. Perhaps one of the best examples is Dirk Willems. Initially, Willems was running away from a thief-catcher in order to escape imprisonment and execution and obviously was not willing to simply turn himself over to authorities. He was not actively pursuing his own suffering at the hands of the authorities when he returned to rescue the man who was pursuing him, but instead was exhibiting a care and compassion for the suffering of another human being that surpassed his concern for his own life. Willems' story is one example of the way in which the martyrs exhibited agency and radical care for the other, as opposed to a passive acceptance of death.

One of the primary characteristics of the witness of the martyrs was a willingness to assume a posture of voluntary vulnerability, an idea similar to the concept of "revolutionary subordination" as outlined by John Howard Yoder. In the stories of the martyrs we see what voluntary vulnerability looks like when it is lived out. The martyrs were a group of people who chose to be radically subject rather than to fight against the system that was persecuting and executing them. However, this action of the martyrs should certainly not be considered passive. The radical part of their subjection meant that they strove to live in accordance with the gospel of Jesus and to speak and act in ways that exposed the flawed and corrupt nature of the existing systems and powers. Rather than impose their new kingdom ethics on others, the martyrs strove to live in a way that offered the liberating view of the peaceable kingdom brought by Jesus as a gift to others which they could willfully and voluntarily choose to accept.

Secondly, the stories of the martyrs can be viewed as a form of radical witness. As already illustrated, in her essay Krehbiel expresses her concern that the stories the Martyrs Mirror tells are of individuals who are making a choice for death and are therefore leaving behind a harmful legacy which encourages dogmatic adherence to principles at any cost and stresses the importance of suffering with Christ. First of all, this view is operating out of a utilitarian, or outcomes-based logic, which fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value of acting faithfully in accordance with one's beliefs despite the fact that an act may or may not effect broad change immediately and despite the fact that it may or may not lead to death. Secondly, it is important to recognize that the accounts of the martyrs recorded and set forth in the Martyrs Mirror illustrate the many ways in which the martyrs engaged in a unique and audience-oriented witness which sought to prove to the elites, magistrates, and others in power that they did not possess sole ownership of the means of action, agency, and ethical deliberation. Instead of weeping and lamenting, the martyrs chose to use their executions and trials as venues for witnessing to and living out their faith. One clear sign that this witness served to undermine the state can be witnessed in the accounts of Anabaptists who were executed in secret, such as Jacques D'Auchy who was put to death in 1559 and executed secretly at night. The usual function of public executions is to frighten the audience, or those who witness the execution, into behaving in accordance with the rules laid out by the sovereign powers. The fact that Anabaptists were executed in secret demonstrates their threat to the sovereign powers at that time, along with their capacity to turn what had been intended as a public reinforcement of magisterial power into a revolutionary subversion of overextended and idolatrous magisterial power.

Third and finally, the martyrs exhibited an alternative way of witnessing to the state when they offered themselves as a revolutionary sacrifice. Perhaps this language of sacrifice has been some of the most controversial and troublesome language that people have identified in the Martyrs Mirror. Krehbiel notes,

The martyrs were glorified because they spoke with breathtaking confidence; every account I'd ever read of the Martyrs Mirror emphasizes the courage, even ecstasy, with which they faced their gruesome fates.

Truly, it is impossible to miss the use of sacrificial language throughout the text. However, perhaps instead of viewing the martyrs' celebratory discourse on sacrifice as simply a celebration of death and an unconditional and passive willingness to die, one can view the sacrifice of the martyrs as an act of agency.

Given their situation, the decision to offer oneself as a sacrifice in the midst of imprisonment and great persecution could be described as an act of revolutionary subordination. During their imprisonment, an option for escape was not open to the martyrs unless they agreed to recant their Anabaptist beliefs. Having rejected recantation, the remaining decision for Anabaptist martyrs was to go to the stake unwillingly in accordance with the expectations of the sovereign powers, or to subordinate themselves to the actions of magistrates in an act of radical discipleship and sacrifice, thereby undermining the power of the magistracy and insisting on the power of the resurrection beyond the authority of the sword.

Perhaps an act of sacrifice is the one act of agency that is available to those who are captured and imprisoned. As David Toole states in his book, Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo: Theological Reflections on Nihilism, Tragedy and Apocalypse, "there are times when death itself becomes the last bit of contested terrain."(3) By constituting one's death as a sacrifice and a form of deliverance from the tribulations and pain of the world, one can identify with something that exceeds the body and with a liberation that is beyond the control of the worldly powers, or any human or nonhuman power associated with sin and death, for that matter.

As these alternative postures illustrate, perhaps the martyrs can help to illustrate for twenty-first century Anabaptists and Mennonites a third stance by which to engage the broken world. According to Stephanie Krehbiel in her argument against the martyrs, if we accept the martyr stories we must endorse a passive and morbid stance of engagement with the world. She argues that rather than martyr stories, she needs warrior stories. She states, "I need stories that give me hope. I also need stories that offer me agency, the power to act and to create change." This argument presumes that the martyr stories are inherently passive and tell tales about individuals who had little or no agency. This argument also implies that an active witness must involve a forceful imposition of a conviction, and it fails to acknowledge that the actions of the martyrs can be viewed as radical challenges to the powers that be and as a vivid witness to the kingdom. As Menno Simons states, "our weapons are not swords and spears, but patience, silence, hope and the Word of God. With these we must maintain our heavy warfare and fight out battle."(4)

Truly, the Martyrs Mirror is a text that can help to redefine our traditional conceptions of suffering and is vitally relevant to a twentieth century Mennonite and Anabaptist stance of engagement with the world. It suggests an alternative stance for engaging injustice and fallenness in the world--that is, a stance which is certainly not passive, but also does not presume to impose the good news of the gospel onto those who are not ready to hear it. In short, the Martyrs Mirror is truly a radical and relevant text.


1. Walter Wink. Engaging the Powers. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 3.

2. Angela Horn Montel, "Violent Images in Cell Biology," Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, Ed. J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), 229.

3. David Toole, Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo: Theological Reflections on Nihilism, Tragedy and Apocalypse, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 261.

4. Menno Simons, "Reply to False Accusations 1552," in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, translated by Leonard Verduin, edited by John Christian Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 549-550.