PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Memorials, Martyrs and Convictions by peaceprobe
March 31, 2009, 7:24 pm
Filed under: Detainees, Peacemaker spirit

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.


7 Comments so far
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This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

Comment by matt

I like this. Mac

Comment by peaceprobe

Wow, I hadn’t known about Elisabeth von Dyck. I wonder if anyone has researched her and published anything about her story.

Careful that you distinguish between Thomas Müntzer’s leadership in the Peasant’s War, 1524-25, and the Musterite rebellion a decade later, 1532-35–two different historical events.


You are exactly right I missed the Munster uprising by ten years. Thanks for the correction. I have incorporated it into the text. Gene

Comment by Phil Stoltzfus

Gene, I don’t know whether you met Rainer Wiebe from Bonn, who was at the time pastor and held Elisabeth’s funeral. Rainer ran MCC’s Bonn office ad interim over the last several months. You might find a conversation with him interesting.

I appreciate your postings, out of the ordinary…

Comment by Hansuli John Gerber

Comment by peaceprobe

It is intellectually dishonest in the same piece to honor the Mennonites’ doctrine of non-resistance and praise the terrorist tactics and killings of the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Faction. (Also, as I recall the Munster
rebellion had a rather sordid history to say nothing of killing in order to bring about the Second Coming(!), hardly the “religious
heritage” of the Mennonites.) It dishonors the Mennonite martyrs burned at the stake in
Holland in the 16th century, some of whom were our ancestors, to compare them to modern day terrorists. Clarence


Dear Clarence,

Thank you for your forthright reminder of the details of Mennonite history. As a young seminary student 40 years ago I studied our history and I know that the violent expressions were generally expunged and regarded as at least exceptions and perhaps completely outside the history. Having lived in parts of the world where people’s wars become heavily mixed with religious conviction I know how faith and revolution become intermixed often very irresponsibly. I also know that Mennonites have often resorted to the use of police and military violence to protect their way of life and the life of the nation that they live in. I also deeply respect the often imperfect but sustained quest to live out an ethic of nonviolent love.

By including these expressions with the broad sweep of Anabaptist experience I think that we are reminded to be sensitive to our own tendencies to resort to violence in moments of enormous pressure. Participation in “good” wars, movements that are descibed as terrorist and expressions of violence reappear occasionally even in modern times among the children of Menno. By accepting and acknowleding this I believe we are more prepared for these junctions along the way. We can acknowledge our own tendencies to incorporate redemptive violence into our decisions. This is not what Jesus calls us to however we have the same tendencies as Jesus’ favorite deciple who just pior to the crucifixing of Jesus resorted to the sword. By acknowleding our “Peter tendencies” we are more alert for the way.

I wrote these lines this way to remind us to deepen our commitment spiritually and socially to the way of overcoming evil with love. By rigorously eliminating the less attractive tendencies of our history we pass over the opportunity to learn from it. I would argue that we honor the martyrs much more by acknowleding the stretching discussions of faith and practice that must of occured within their communities as they prepared for life and death decisions of faithful living.

Thank you for your questions. Gene

Comment by peaceprobe

Interesting trip, Gene. In the past year I’ve visited Auschwitz and Srebrenika. And speaking of Mennonites (I was C.of the Brethren), I chanced upon some pottery in the national museum in Budapest made by the Habans, described as “anabaptists, or new Cristians, the popular branch of the Reformation who professed communist principles” who first arrived in Hungary in 1622 from Transylvania and later, by 1649, from S.Tyrol (Alto Adige), Austria, and Bohemia. Their stoneware plates, bowls, tankards, and stoves were tin-glazed with Delft-like blues, late Renaissance flower motifs without religious symbol. If anyone knows more about the Habans, I’m curious.

Comment by Richard Stern

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