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

The Intelligibility of Martyrdom: Stories, Parallels, and Meanings

by Robert Kreider

Robert Kreider is a senior Mennonite teacher, scholar, administrator, church leader and former editor of Mennonite Life. He is the author of My Early Years: An Autobiography (2002).

In reading Stephanie Krehbiel's essay I was deeply impressed with her writing gifts and her openness, her vulnerability. I feel like an outsider listening, nodding at times but hesitant to intrude into chambers of privacy. My first response is simply to accept her story with appreciation, thereupon seeking to understand it with sympathy. Beside it I would place another story, hopefully, authentic. But first, several introductory comments.

Having lived through much of the crisis-ridden twentieth century, my psyche has been battered too often to feel a tsunami shock in 9/11. We are survivors of the most violent of centuries: the eruption of World War II on September 1, 1939. . . the Fall of France. . . Pearl Harbor. . . Dresden. . . Hiroshima. . . the assassination of a President and Martin Luther King Jr. . . . What really troubled, angered me came in the wake of 9/11: the national worship service in Washington Cathedral where the President summoned God to gird a warrior America to wage a righteous war against terrorists—a Manichean crusade of Good against Evil.

Krehbiel reminds us of temptations and perils in telling martyr stories: demonizing the authorities and those who persecute, morbid interest in the technology of torture, pride in humility, self-love in being a victim, abandoning the calling to be agents of change, separatist snobbery, the pursuit of purity trumping other virtues, an unrelenting mood of grim obedience. George Orwell once counseled: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." If the above flaws are endemic to Christian martyrdom, it is a time for confession, repentance, and correction. In an aside to this cleansing, I delight in Krehbiel's gift of phrase and metaphor, plus a line such as this: "high culture snobbery (my own version of the two-kingdom ethic)."

We need to remind ourselves that the martyr motif is not unique to the Anabaptist-Mennonite experience. French Huguenots, German Lutherans, Dutch Calvinists, and English Puritans also had their martyr books. Among the 16th century editors and writers of martyrologies were Jean Crespin, Ludwig Robus, Adriaen Cornelius van Haemstede, and John Foxe. For generations Foxe's Book of Martyrs was the second most widely read book in England. Today in their liturgical calendar Orthodox Christians honor a martyr each day of the year. We dare not forget that the martyr story is rooted in the New Testament: Jesus tortured and executed on a cross, Stephen stoned to death, early Christians persecuted and killed.

Parallel to Krehbiel's story, I offer mine. Although we did not have a Martyrs Mirror in our home, I heard of good people being persecuted for conscience' sake. The stories were told, not as grim and scary, but as examples of strength and heroism. In the thirties our congregation hosted two families from the Soviet Union who had fled from Siberia across the Amur River into China and thence to Bluffton, Ohio—a life-imperiled flight. I read avidly Feeding the Hungry, an account of Mennonite Central Committee's relief among victims of war, terrorism, and famine in Russia. I grew up sensing that we were peaceful Christians living in a dangerously violent world.

In 1940 I was studying at the University of Chicago when I was required to register for the draft. Nazi armies dominated Europe. I saw photos of Rotterdam, where I had cycled two years before, now decimated by bombs. Pacifism seemed so feeble in resisting this ruthless terror. It is then that I read A. J. Muste's just published book, Non-Violence in an Aggressive World , where I found these captivating words:

"If evil rises up in its final, least rational, least excusable, most hideous form, then accept suffering at its hands and on its behalf. Let it nail you to the cross. Take suffering into your own soul; do not drive its sword into the flesh or soul of an erring child of God. Thus you will be showing the power of Divine Love, for God is Love, to outlast and outwit all opposition; not even death can force it from its path. And there is no power to overcome evil, to break the heart of sin, like the power of suffering love, the Cross. 'I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.'"

Like a conversion experience, those words laid hold on me: the power of the non-violent and meek . . . following in the footsteps of Jesus even if it means the Cross . . . the power of love in overcoming evil . . . called to be an agent of change without fear of suffering or death. In my four and a half years of Civilian Public Service this perspective was tested. I encountered painful experiences calling at times to take stands without fear of consequences. Stories of martyrs past and present can give assurance in taking stands of conscience.

If it seems that the martyr narrative has no or little relevance for Mennonites who are well assimilated into American life, I would urge that it can have poignant meaning for those, lashed by a harsh world, who seek to be morally strong in crisis. I think of a friend imprisoned twelve years on Robbien Island (South Africa) and who suffered what he calls "soft torture." I think of a farmer in a refugee camp in Honduras who lost his family to death squads in El Salvador. I think of the serenity of James Liu who was imprisoned and tortured by Red Guards in Maoist China. I think of my wife's mother and aunt who served among Armenian communities in Turkey decimated by massacres. I think of those who have viewed the Mirror of the Martyrs exhibit, which has circulated in sixty venues, and who have said, "This is our story, too."

We are shocked by news reports of U.S. chambers of torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and in secret places of extradition. The loathsome methods of the sixteenth century are not unlike the loathsome methods of the twenty-first. We know friends whose lives were imperiled in sieges of torture. Although a victim of torture is not necessarily to be classified as a martyr, stories of martyrdom bear witness to loathsome practices that today are an abomination in our nation's behavior.

Responding to a view that the Martyrs Mirror is uncomfortably death-fixated, society-alienated, persecutor-demonizing, consider an alternative perception. These images come to mind: a ferryman, Pieter Pietersz, in his boat off shore leading a group of fugitive Anabaptists—Pieter soon to be arrested and executed . . . Leonhard Kaiser plucking a flower on the way to his execution and then forgiving his executioner, who asked for pardon . . . Andries Langedul apprehended by police as he was reading his Bible . . . Anneken Jans, before her execution, writing a letter to her infant son counseling him to live as Jesus taught . . . Simon de Kramer, shopkeeper, refusing to pretend civic piety, and thereafter executed . . . Dirk Willems, escaping from prison, returning to save the life of his jailer and pursuer . . . and many more. Acknowledging selectivity, these are images of spiritual and moral courage under test that instruct and inspire.

Melvin Goering's article merits separate commentary because it identifies a related but different set of issues. With limitations of space, I have chosen to focus on questions posed by Krehbiel. Responding briefly and in summary to both Krehbiel and Goering's essays, I miss two elements. First, embedded and transcending the corpus of martyr stories is a master narrative that is "usable," the Gospel story of the life, teachings, and death of Jesus, who was tortured and crucified. Second, caught in a distresssingly tangled world of moral ambiguity, those who seek to follow Jesus need a fellowship of spiritual kinfolk for instruction, counsel, and empowerment. The Anabaptist martyr narrative doesn't make sense without the Jesus master narrative. Further, you can't do it on your own; an agent of change needs a base community.

Stanford/Notre Dame historian and devout Roman Catholic, Brad Gregory in his Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe sets this discussion in a larger context. In the concluding chapter his reflections suggest that the martyr narrative, indeed, may have been influential, relevant and usable:

"The act of martyrdom makes no sense whatsoever unless we take religion seriously. . . . When we do, the intelligibility of martyrdom hits us like a hammer."

"Martyrs were not esoteric. They simply believed—seriously and single-mindedly—what their respective versions of Christianity taught."

"Can we imagine them believing that the Bible revealed God's truth for humanity, but not thinking it relevant for every domain of human life. . . ?

"It is dubious history to locate past people who did things one finds offensive, suspect them of ulterior motives, apply the theory that explains what they were 'really up to,' and present one's findings as a building block in the ongoing quest for post-Enlightenment liberation, understood in secular terms."

"Martyrdom itself played a significant role in shaping the world in which such presentist scholarship flourishes."

I am grateful to be drawn into a discussion that continues.