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

Staying Mennonite: Why Martyrs Still Matter

by Joseph Liechty

Joseph Liechty is associate professor of Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana.

I initially found responding to Stephanie Krehbiel difficult because I wasn't clear about her genre and intention. If "Staying Alive: How Martyrdom Made Me a Warrior" is intended as a singular personal narrative, an honest account of how Mennonite martyr traditions and post-9/11 politics got tangled up in one person's struggle with mental illness--an approach suggested whenever she just tells her story and draws no broader conclusions--then I would respond with gratitude for her honesty and generosity in telling her story and with sadness that it should have been so. If it is intended as a piece of smart-ass Mennonite-bashing, as suggested by the opening quotes from Miriam Toews, then I would just respond with dismissive irritation. The presiding genre, however, I take to be the personal account with lessons for all Mennonites. To this I respond with gratitude and sadness as concerns the personal account, and I dispute the lessons, at least some of the main lessons, she draws from her experience.

Straight thinking about the kind of issues Krehbiel raises requires working with a particular set of interpretive assumptions and practices. It begins with acknowledging that every important idea and practice can be misinterpreted and badly, even abusively, misapplied. When this is the case, we should give careful attention to how to anticipate such problems and how to convey ideas in ways that counter misapplications. Krehbiel internalized and interpreted martyr stories in ways that were damaging to her, and that is reason enough to think about how we pass on the martyr tradition. But problems associated with a tradition are not necessarily reason to abandon it; if they were, no tradition, no idea, no convictions could stand. As Krehbiel rightly says, "I won't disassociate myself from power, though I know it can be abused." The connections Krehbiel makes between the martyr tradition and her struggles seem to me a personal story and therefore a live possibility, but not at all necessary, inherent connections. We can recognize and counter possible problems associated with the martyr tradition, but we would be fools to abandon it, because it continues to teach important lessons about how the world works.

Certainly I don't dispute everything, starting with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm open to the possible value of warrior metaphors. There is some good New Testament warrant, and I would be interested in interpreting the martyrs as our nonviolent warriors--they embodied preeminently the resistance theme that is one reason warriors are attractive to Krehbiel. And I'm always intrigued with the possibilities of mining pop culture for meaning. In my own brief flirtation with Buffy (maybe seven or eight episodes, ca. 2000), I was captivated by the clever, witty script and interesting characters, but I eventually stopped watching because I got queasy about what I thought was the show's essentially amoral nature, exemplified by the frequent gorefests in which the only way of telling the good guys from the bad was that the good guys were cuter. But a friend of mine who has recently seen all seven seasons on DVD assures me that viewed across the whole seven-year arc, a complex and significant moral tale unfolds. I'm glad Krehbiel found it valuable, but, not unlike martyr stories, it would be possible to draw some pretty disturbing images from the show.

I also share Krehbiel's unease when a martyr's courageous acceptance of death slips into a joyful embrace of death, a dynamic common enough in the Martyrs Mirror, though far from constant. It makes me think, however, about the kinds of pressures that produced this mentality. The martyrs mostly did not "speak out" and therefore "invite death," as Krehbiel suggests, they simply accepted an Anabaptist understanding of faith, which immediately put them in danger, even though they often tried to live their faith in secret. The speaking out characteristic of the Martyrs Mirror mostly took place after Anabaptists had been arrested, when their fate was pretty much assured and recanting could not have saved them. It was about how they were going to die--with some measure of courage and dignity or reduced to an animal howl--not whether they would die. If I'm uneasy about approaching death with joy, I'm also reluctant to condemn those who expressed their dignity in this way.

But other of Krehbiel's interpretations of the martyrs seem wrong-headed, arbitrary, or at least unnecessary. "I associated my Mennonite-ness with victimization." Why? Why not associate Mennonite-ness, or at least the martyr tradition, with courage, the courage to stand up to an oppressive, dictatorial regime and survive as a people, which would be a sign of hope for oppressed people everywhere. She sees "one of the most morally questionable aspects of martyr pedagogy" as "the myth of exclusivity, the idea that these old histories are badges that distinguish us permanently from the general populace," which she sees as a common Mennonite interpretation. I don't, but the main point is simply that such an interpretation is entirely unnecessary. She wants to see the martyr stories "remind us of our commonality with non-Mennonite others." So they should, and so they can. Elsewhere she notes that "the martyr keeps me fixated on violent death--not only its meaning, but its mechanics." That is an understandable personal problem, but expanded into a generalization, it is a perversion of the martyr tradition, not an inherent part of it.

Krehbiel mourns what she believes the martyrs do to the Mennonite understanding of our place in the world, appropriating a quote from Jeff Gundy: "'You might always carry a faint sense of reserve, a suspicion of "the world," a thread of conviction that you were somehow not supposed to belong.'" But Mennonite convictions, long before they ever get anywhere near martyrdom, are quite sufficient to achieve the effect Gundy names. The central, invaluable truth of two-kingdoms theology is that the world can reasonably be divided into two kingdoms, those who follow Jesus' way of nonviolent love and those who don't. That's not the only way of dividing things, and there are complications. But it's true, and those who follow that way of nonviolent love will sometimes find themselves in tension with the broader community of which they are also a part. In the U. S., even early in grade school, the pledge of allegiance, an uncomplicated ritual affirmation for the politico-religious mainstream, might cause a Mennonite child some unease even if it is never apparent to others. Your family and your church probably don't have a flag. Neither do local Mennonite schools, and they sometimes draw suspicion and anger when they don't sing the national anthem before sporting events. The military isn't a career option for you; you may have no relatives who have ever served in the military, and if they did, they may have a different status in your family than in the families of your non-Mennonite friends. Some public holidays are unavailable to you, or only partially available. I work hard at being as much a part of the broader community as I can, in part so that if Mennonite convictions ever mean I need to stand aside in some way, there might be some chance that it won't be judged as mere standoffishness or ethnoreligious snobbery. But being Mennonite complicates belonging, and ejecting the martyrs from our tradition will do nothing to make the problem go away.

Krehbiel needs "stories that give me hope. I also need stories that offer me agency, the power to act and to create change." Hope is essential, agency is great when you can get it, and I'm all for stories that encourage both. But if agency is a necessary condition of hope, the result can too easily become despair. We can't always make things better. For many people in hard times and hard places, the extent of their agency is similar to that of the martyrs, to respond with the greatest integrity possible to their massively constrained agency. Perhaps many North Americans will never face this hard truth. But it is good that they should practice their own lavish agency in the awareness that it is a privilege, and the martyrs can help teach that.

If Krehbiel's genre is unclear, Melvin Goering's is obvious: it is the straw man. In "A One-Sided Diet: Martyrdom and Warriors," Goering identifies a problem that does not exist and then fails to recognize that the solution he proposes already exists.

The non-existent problem is that Mennonites have a one-sided, obsessive, and damaging diet of martyrdom ideology. We don't. Much of Goering's article is beside the point because he occupies himself with demonstrating that the martyrs don't provide a moral model for every situation modern Mennonites face--but I have never heard anyone suggest that they do. Read Mennonite Sunday school material. Read church bulletins. Read Mennonite sermons. Look through Mennonite hymnals. Read the two main church periodicals that I read, The Mennonite and The Mennonite Weekly Review. Look at the topics discussed in major church gatherings. Read Mennonite Life and The Mennonite Quarterly Review. Check the bookshelves of Mennonite homes. Scan the syllabi of courses at Mennonite educational institutions. You will find martyr traditions mentioned occasionally, though rarely, sometimes in appreciation and sometimes with some degree of caution. It would be impossible to interpret the approach as a one-sided diet of martyrology.

In proposing a solution to his nonexistent problem, Goering merges his concerns with Krehbiel's. "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." You will find just such stories in great abundance if you check again the sources mentioned in the previous paragraph. I think especially of a staple of my childhood, at home and in Sunday school, Elizabeth Hershberger Bauman's Coals of Fire, and of staples of my children's lives in the 1980s, at home and at church, Cornelia Lehn's wonderful books, especially Peace Be With You, all filled with stories drawn from across the ages and across traditions that illustrate creative, nonviolent ways to live lovingly in all kinds of situations. Discipleship as service is a powerful theme among Mennonites. This may be why for many modern Mennonites, the Martyrs Mirror is effectively the story of Dirk Willems saving his persecutor's life, one of the few instances in which an Anabaptist had a chance to offer a concrete act of love to his or her enemy.

Not that "images of service to others for the common good, images of confronting evil in the world" occupy a separate moral universe from martyr stories. Sometimes martyrdom is the cost of such service and confrontation. And perhaps, conversely, minds influenced by a martyr tradition can shape lives that exemplify these values. I think here of From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to Peacebuilding. The editors, Cynthia Sampson, a Christian Scientist, and John Paul Lederach, a Mennonite, and the publisher, Oxford University Press (2000), clearly thought that the nine case studies could be of interest and relevance to more than Mennonites, but the chapter most relevant for my immediate purposes is "The Religious Component of Mennonite Peacemaking and Its Global Implications" a reflection on all the case studies taken together, by Marc Gopin, distinguished conflict resolution specialist and an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. Based on long relationship with Mennonites, mostly North American, working for peace, Gopin identifies a distinctive and powerful approach to peacebuilding, and he links it in intriguing, suggestive, and I think mostly persuasive ways to "the historical Mennonite experience of persecution," (234) which leads, he says, "to a deep respect for Otherness, for the stranger." (239) "In a certain sense, each time [Mennonite peacemakers] work toward securing the legitimacy of Otherness and the identity of a threatened group, they reaffirm the spiritual depth of their own experience." (240-41) In Gopin's account, the martyr tradition that Krehbiel and Goering decry can have outcomes that I believe they would celebrate.

Goering understands martyrdom as being about "doctrinal and ritual purity," concern for moral and theological purity, "a refusal to change rituals or faith statements in the face of pressure." This is, I suppose, "one interpretation of martyr behavior," but it is grossly reductionist and I think essentially unfair. Interpret that same behavior as asserting the freedom to live as one has come to believe, as refusing to bow before tyrannical governments, as not letting violent intimidation and coercion get its way, as dying with as much dignity as they could muster, and their situation looks rather different. I don't understand how Goering thinks Anabaptists should have responded in the face of persecution. Were they to apologize for being so inconsiderate as to adhere to a faith that impeded social conformity, that the powers that be objected to?

Goering worries that martyr stories "create dissonance" for modern Mennonites. "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." But the "dissonance" and "irrelevance" of the martyr stories are part of their contemporary relevance--what must surely be one of the most narcissistic ages in human history needs to hear stories about those who are in some ways very different, stories that let us know that it's not all about us, that not every age and place luxuriates in endlessly proliferating choices and the illusion (now fading) of boundless resources. Some people face life and death choices, and that awareness is a useful part of the right framework in which to make the lesser but significant kinds of decisions we face.

Goering concludes by speculating on the effect of Mennonite martyr stories on people outside the tradition. Some might appreciate the martyrs' courage, but, he believes, martyr stories probably reinforce negative stereotypes of Mennonite snobbery: our ancestors are morally superior to yours, therefore we are superior to you. Maybe, but if so, it will only be a reinforcement for a problem that can exist anyway. A cohesive community can be snobbish about anything--its superior service ethic, its superior commitment to community life, whatever--and ejecting the martyrs from our tradition will do nothing to make the problem go away. What we can do is consider ways of making the Mennonite martyr tradition available to the whole Christian tradition. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, now St. Maximilian, volunteered to die in place of another in a Nazi concentration camp. That he was Catholic does nothing to deter me from embracing him as part of the broader Christian martyr tradition. And even though Thieleman van Braght told Dirk Willems' story in the Martyrs Mirror for the same reason he told many others--to the everlasting discredit of those tyrannous, ravening wolves, the papists--modern Mennonites have long since figured out that Dirk's story has a far deeper significance. Well told, Dirk's story and those of other Anabaptist martyrs can be available to the whole Christian tradition.

While the Mennonite martyr tradition can't give us guidance for all the issues we face, it remains valuable, even essential. It gives us insight into one way the world works: sometimes honest convictions and good works are rewarded with rejection and suffering, even death. Those of us who may never need to face this reality should still know that this is true of the world in extremis, and too many have lived and still do live in such a world. The martyr tradition tells us about one aspect of where we come from as a people. We need to know. It shows us that it is possible to meet the most difficult circumstances with courage, honor, and faith. It gives evidence that even the most powerful oppression can be resisted. In these and other ways, the martyrs show us that the ground of their hope, faith in Jesus Christ, can provide a durable hope for any who wish to embrace it.