Martyrs Mirror as totem

February 29, 2012 | Editorial
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Mennonite poet and writer Julia Spicher Kasdorf wonders why Martyrs Mirror, the “big unreadable book,” as she calls it, is making a comeback in her generation of young Mennonites.  

Not only has the artwork of famous 16th-century Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems rescuing his persecutor from the icy waters of a Dutch pond gone viral on the Internet, she noted that it was marketed by our own Mennonite publishers as a gift edition in 2002 because of its value as a “treasured, if unread, object in mainstream Mennonite culture.” 

Spicher Kasdorf, irreverent about the Mennonite identity in her poetry but reverent about its theology, took her audience on a journey at a recent Conrad Grebel University College visiting scholar lecture, to see what “the big book has come to mean, and how these meanings have come to dictate behaviours initially related to nonviolence and then to self-sacrifice or self-denial.”

Since it is such an old book and harkens back to a time difficult to imagine in our modern era, she insists it still holds us in its grip because of the memory it fostered over the years, and “strongly influences our homes and the homes of other Mennonites like us.” It shapes a story that maps an ideology, however “invisible and unconscious,” for the “indigenous faithful,” giving us a dominant context while clarifying our identity to the point of knowing “what it means to be us.” 

Through our 500-year history, the stories of Martyrs Mirror have chided us back to our primary calling, she said, citing a young 17th-century Dutch pastor, Thieleman Janz van Braght, who reminded Mennonites in the Dutch Golden Age of their martyr heritage, “even as they were busy buying and selling opulent homes and gardens, wearing fashionable clothing sewn from expensive, imported cloth and hosting lavish banquets.” 

“How will they give up their lives when they can’t even spare their hot tubs?” might be the contemporary paraphrase, Spicher Kasdorf quipped.

Tracing the Mennonite ambivalence towards its martyr heritage through both the European and North American experience, our prophet-writer accuses us of “gawking with the crowd,” just as the bystanders did at a typical drowning chronicled in these stories, such as:

“A Catholic priest stands on the dock, on hand in case the heretic sees the errors of his ways; his eyes closed in prayer or disdain. Although he clutches a cross to his heart, he remains blind to the fact that this martyr follows the true way of Christ. A civil official stands beside him in a rich robe and hat, wielding the knotty rod of judgment. Church and state stand in cahoots, not to be trusted by us. Behind a pair of dandies dressed in rich doublets is the crowd of gawkers. Indeed, there must always be a crowd for this spectacle to be effective from any side’s point of view—either the martyr giving good witness or the authorities setting an example for the rest.”

Spicher Kasdorf suggests that, despite our current uneasiness with this “classic martyrdom,” these stories call us back to the Anabaptist ethic of everyday self-denial by which these persecuted forbears “abandoned self-interest to attend to the needs of the other.”  She sees this virtue not as out-of-date or impractical in our modern age, but, with James Lowery, calls believers to “heed Van Braght’s warnings to the Dutch Mennonites of the Golden Age, for their sins are also the sins of contemporary North Americans.”

Spicher Kasdorf sees Martyrs Mirror not so much an icon, but as a totem, representing us as a group by sustaining its identity and keeping its boundaries.  As a totem myth, the big book “transforms a history of disordered violence into rational sacrifice that engendered the group.”

She worries, though, that the next generation, even with a renewed interest in these stories, is more interested in “tugging at the contours of cultural memory than considering the suffering of historical figures.”

She sees this renewal of Martyrs Mirror not as a return to our ideology as much as, with Ian Hiebert, an artist growing up in the Mennonite community of Henderson, Neb., an attempt to “suppress the dogmatic safeness that traditions accrue over time.” She sees Hiebert’s series of drawings, “View from a Pond,” as holding up to us the mirror of Willem’s dilemma with three possible responses:

  • We do scholarly research.
  • We offer inadequate solutions or inappropriate technology.
  • We hide behind the security of our nation’s military solutions.
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