In the reunified Viet Nam of today I was startled at first to stumble upon memorials for the martyrs of the American war which appear without warning often with an enormous socialist realist inspired sculpture, a few words from Uncle Ho and then the tiny grave sites. People visit the sites and remember the martyrs. Like the Viet Nam war memorial in Washington these shrines to those who died evoke respect and sometimes hope for families, friends, and nations.
I travelled to Viet Nam after a month in the United Kingdom, Holland and Germany where I visited memorials to the holocaust, one in Berlin and another in Heidelberg, site of a one time synagogue. In the UK on two occasions my hosts pointed out markers where people were once burned at the stake because of religious courage for doing things like reading an English Bible or illegal unfaithfulness depending upon which side you were on.
And in Holland my hosts were members of the doopsgezinden or the people who practiced adult baptism and nonresistance to evil in the 15th and 16th centuries, my own ancestors, referred to now as Mennonites. When I spoke at the Amsterdam Church my hosts brought out a centuries old printing of the Martyrs Mirror for me to view. I was told that it is retrieved every Sunday morning and placed on a table at the front of the church. I opened the massive 1200 page book and viewed some of the etchings. What might these people who gave their lives freely and sometimes singing be saying to me as lenten season approaches?
The ancient book of courage jolts the senses as the commitment to enemy loving is played out in the collected narratives. My hosts tell me that hardly anyone ever reads this book of stories from the people’s church long ago. But what about the stories, I gulp silently to myself, having read many of them in English translation as a child in my father’s study.
The Martyr’s Mirror collects stories from people who more than any other group in the 16th century were put to death for acting out their faith. The collection was assembled by a young man named van Braght who in his early thirties felt that these stories were exceedingly relevant for his generation which had become softened by affluence and had begun to neglect its martyr heritage. He sought to assemble a complete account of nonviolent Christian martyrs. “Read it again and again,” he wrote, and “Above all fix your eyes upon the martyrs themselves… and follow their example.”
Although the Anabaptists are today remembered for their nonviolent enemy loving in earlier times, elements within the movement then, impatient with slow progress, turned to organized rebellions and armed revolutionary activity. Like Muslims today this earned the movement the charge of terrorism and awakened the nations to fear. One such rebellion occurred in Munster, Germany in 1534-35. Thomas Müntzer the leader believed that a bloody rising of God’s elect to slaughter the ungodly would usher in the millennium especially for the downtrodden. The rebellion was defeated but the fear that it engendered lived on for at least a century. It a broader sense Munster was part of the peasant uprisings that preceeded and followed the uprising.
In Heidelberg my path unexpectedly crossed still another reminder of struggle for the poor and the death of a daughter of our own century. Elisabeth von Dyck, a Mennonite born in Uruguay moved with her parents to Germany as a child. In the 1970s she became involved with the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Faction. I probably would not have taken note of the fact that she was shot and killed in Nuremberg May 4, 1979 had I not been working at the time in the Philippines where her acts of armed resistance to advanced capitalism would have been respected by some.
When my German colleague told me that he knew her and attended her funeral at the Enkenbach Mennonite Church where I had spoken just two nights before I perked up. Thirty years ago my imagination had been awakened when I read in a prominent news magazine of her death at a safe house in a shoot out with German authorities. Now as I learned more about the person, Elizebeth, my mind flashed back to the Munsterite uprising more than four centuries earlier from a direct line of our religious forebearers. I felt a curiousity to know more about her and wished I would have been able to visit her grave site. No one mentioned her when I visited the church.
Why are most of the memorials to sacrifice for the greater good placed for soldiers who believe that the highest form of sacrifice is to kill “enemies” for the nation and the truth for which it stands. The Lenten season reminds me that the highest form of sacrifice is to accept the death, sometimes called martyrdom voluntarily without a hint of violent defence. By avoiding this opportunity I can slip into the life of defensiveness where others must die for me to protect me. It is good to honour them. They remind me and maybe even encourage me to embrace a better way. I hold to a higher striving for all humanity outside my single nation’s god. I hope I can be awake to the patience, the boldness and higher consciousness that the journey deserves.
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