The witness of Dirk Willems

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April 11, 2013 by jmar198013

On April 18, 1992, Stanley Hauerwas addressed the graduating class of Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Goshen, IN. During the commencement address, Hauerwas remarked:

You are descendants of a people who knew that the only thing that Catholics and mainstream Protestants could agree about is that it was a very good thing to kill the anabaptists. You are a people who have been formed by a strange book called Martyrs Mirror.

In print, this commencement address has a footnote which explains the function of the Martyrs Mirror among the Anabaptist Christians:

Martyrs Mirror … was compiled in 1660 by the Dutch Mennonite Thielerman J. van Braght … As the title indicates, the book is composed of the stories of Christian martyrs from the beginning to 1660. The book has been used since its inception as a way to give Mennonites a sense of what makes them Mennonites. Hermeneutically, the book at least suggests Mennonite insistence that they stand in continuity with the church through the ages, not so much on the basis of “doctrine,” which is not unimportant, but on the basis of witness.

The full title of the Martyrs Mirror, by the way, is The Bloody Theater, or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon the Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Saviour, from the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660. A book with a title that colorful, with the sort of significance Hauerwas affords it, piqued my interest. Turns out Martyrs Mirror is to Anabaptists what John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (more commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) was to some of the folks who believed “that it was a very good thing to kill the anabaptists.” You can access the full text of the Martyrs Mirror here.

Probably one of the most enduring heroes of the Martyrs Mirror was a Dutch fellow named Dirk Willems. The Martyrs Mirror records the events surrounding Willems’ martyrdom as follows:

In the year 1569 a pious, faithful brother and follower of Jesus Christ, named Dirk Willems, was apprehended at Asperen, in Holland, and had to endure severe tyranny from the papists. But as he had founded his faith not upon the drifting sand of human commandments, but upon the firm foundation stone, Christ Jesus, he, notwithstanding all evil winds of human doctrine, and heavy showers of tyrannical and severe persecution, remained immovable and steadfast unto the end; wherefore, when the chief Shepherd shall appear in the clouds of heaven and gather together His elect from all the ends of the earth, he shall also through grace hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” I Pet. 5:4; Matt. 24:31; 25:23.

Concerning his apprehension, it is stated by trustworthy persons, that when he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thiefcatcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials … put to death at a lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time … In this connection, it is related as true from the trustworthy memoirs of those who were present at the death of this pious witness of Jesus Christ, that the place where this offering occurred was without Asperen, on the side of Leerdam, and that, a strong east wind blowing that day, the kindled fire was much driven away from the upper part of his body, as he stood at the stake; in consequence of which this good man suffered a lingering death, insomuch that in the town of Leerdam, towards which the wind was blowing, he was heard to exclaim over seventy times: “O my Lord; my God,” etc., for which cause the judge or bailiff, who was present on horseback, filled with sorrow and regret at the man’s sufferings, wheeled about his horse, turning his back toward the place of execution, and said to the executioner: “Dispatch the man with a quick death.” But how or in what manner the executioner then dealt with this pious witness of Jesus, I have not been able to learn, except only, that his life was consumed by the fire, and that he passed through the conflict with great steadfastness, having commended his soul into the hands of God.

Perhaps Willems’ story resonates so well because it sounds like something out of the Bible. The motif of a faithful person of God condemned to a gruesome death for their faithful stand against godless tyrants echoes famous figures like Daniel in the den of Lions, the three Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace, and the martyrs of 4 Maccabees. But the deeper significance of a story like Willems’–and what makes it valuable to Mennonites–is its character-forming, identity-confirming function. For Willems’ tale exemplifies the central Anabaptist virtue of peacemaking based on Christ’s word to “love thine enemies.” The story also assists in inculcating the virtues necessary to forming a nonviolent people, like faithfulness, patience, and self-forgetfulness. It affirms the values and virtues of Anabaptist Christians on two levels: 1) it describes what those values and virtues look like in practice, giving the people a mental icon by which they might imagine what their own faithfulness might require of them; and 2) it tells the story of a suffering martyr on biblical terms, thus allowing those who encounter the story to see the values and virtues of their people honored in the lives of the saints the scriptures. In the September 2002 edition of Mennonite Life, Mark Unruh observed along these lines:

In Mennonite fantasy stories the fundamental measure of right and wrong is an allusion to the Bible. Anabaptist theology makes the Bible the authority for human behavior. As a result, Mennonites have historically had great a deal of scriptural literacy among both the clergy and the laity. In particular they had a high degree of competence at extrapolating a moral lesson from a parable or story. That is important because Mennonite martyr myths allude to Biblical teachings and make use of a scriptural tone. The Dirk Willems story is an example of how Mennonite martyr stories tie to the Bible.

In the Willems story he sacrifices himself by turning back to rescue his pursuer. While many people would feel this story is unfulfilling because it does not conform to the idea that a good deed should be reciprocated (i.e. Androcles and the lion), Mennonites understand the story as illustrating the Biblical injunction to “Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 43-45). For Mennonites the rhetorical meaning of the story is not dependent on the response of the thief-catcher. Instead, the meaning is derived from Willems’ faithfulness to Anabaptist values. This leads to the second probe: how is success measured in Mennonite martyr stories?

In the martyr stories success is measured by faithfulness to Mennonite beliefs. Thus the stories often have extensive details of the execution, because the greater the suffering, the greater the demonstration of faithfulness. The Willems story tells that a strong east wind drove the fire from the upper part of his body resulting in a lingering death. The Martyrs Mirror says that the official in charge of the execution was so filled with “sorrow and regret” at Willems’ suffering that he ordered Willems put to a quick death. The account goes on to say, “his [Willems’] life was consumed by the fire, and he passed through the conflict with great steadfastness, having commended his soul into the hands of God” (van Braght).

In addition to the martyrs bearing the suffering inflicted on them without recanting, another common element of these stories is that the observers of their suffering sense the faith of the martyrs, even if they don’t understand or accept it. Thus, the official overseeing Willems’ execution might be moved by his suffering but there is no indication that it altered his beliefs or affected his future behavior. Mennonites would have seen a Biblical parallel in the crucifixion of Jesus. The three Synoptic Gospels all report a similar story of suffering in which, on the death of Jesus, a Roman centurion acknowledges Jesus’ righteousness. But, like the Willems story, the audience is left to wonder whether this scene had any life changing consequences for the centurion.

It is stories like these, which connect the lives and deaths of Anabaptist martyrs to the those of biblical martyrs, that make possible Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s keen insight into the patience required for discipleship:

The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience. The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and the other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.

Yoder’s insistence that “the key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience … The triumph of the right … is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculations of causes and effects”; correlates with Unruh’s observation about the Willems story that, “For Mennonites the rhetorical meaning of the story is not dependent on the response of the thief-catcher. Instead, the meaning is derived from Willems’ faithfulness to Anabaptist values.” When the Martyrs Mirror is one of the threads woven through the fabric of your people, it produces those who are able to make the sort of affirmation about patience as the key to discipleship that Yoder did.

In a Christian America that is prone to mistake “effectiveness” for faithfulness, we may not be able to imagine what “love your enemies” looks like on Jesus’ terms. We assume that nonviolence is an ineffective and therefore irresponsible ideal. It seems to me that if we were really to be honest about what most objections to nonviolence in Christian America amount to, it is this: Pacifism is bad stewardship. If such a notion becomes our basis for practical moral reasoning, we soon find ourselves incapable of imagining what a nonviolent solution might look like, and what it might require of us. We expend our imaginations trying to figure out how to kill our enemies without malice, and justifying our nation’s wars, instead of attending to the forms of enemy love to which we are called by Christ (Matt. 5.38-48). I do not believe that this is because we lack the courage nonviolence requires, but because we lack the imagination and even more so the patience. We know we are told to love our enemies, but without compelling stories of what that means, the word remains an abstraction. If we attended more to stories of ordinary saints like Dirk Willems, for whom the active love of the enemy meant sure death, I would suggest that they would begin to instill in us again the patience to imagine what loving our enemies well requires.

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4 thoughts on “The witness of Dirk Willems

  1. Jack Hairston says:

    Jeremy, here is a similar link you will enjoy:
    http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/jackie-robinson-and-the-pattern-of-jesus/
    Jack

    • jmar198013 says:

      I also think the Jackie Robinson story touches on some of the same issues that I brought up in connection to Dirk Willems. One thing that really struck me is that Robinson being chosen to break the color barrier was by design–what was needed was a disciplined person possessed of the virtues and imagination necessary for not retaliating. To me, when you look at the Civil Rights movement and the broader issues of racial reconciliation as a whole, it is most successful when it is an organic by-product of good Christian teaching and practice. Cases in point: Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia farm, and the heroic work of John Perkins in Mendenhall, MS. I also think back to the ministry of Paul, a key facet of which was racial reconciliation amongst Jews and Gentiles. The reality of sin in our world is that in the history of every society, whether it’s Jewish v. Roman, Jewish v. Samaritan, white v. black, white v. Native American, people have done such awful things to each other, there’s been so much suffering and bitterness, it just can’t be redeemed by human hands. I mean, how do you redeem the Trail of Tears or Auschwitz? God alone is capable of mending what we have torn. But praise be to him, he graciously allows us to play our parts as his laborers in the mending of the world. I think one thing being the church means is being the people God calls and empowers to extend forgiveness and reconciliation. The hopeful thing for us all is that the God of the cross and resurrection shares with us his resurrection power for the healing of the world. Our lives are animated by the power that raised Jesus. As Paul wrote: “If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life?” (Rom. 5.10) And again, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also,” (Rom. 8.11) I don’t know that Dirk Willems or Jackie Robinson, or anyone else who has given their lives (literally in Willems’ case, vocationally in Robinson’s) to making time and room for forgiveness has done so without the power of God’s Spirit in them and on them. And I don’t believe they’ve been able to do so without a community whose life together is animated by God’s Spirit, either.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    That is a lovely story, Jack. I’m bookmarking it.

  3. […] you ever heard of Dirk Willems? Dirk was a Dutch Anabaptist Christian in the 16th century. The Anabaptists, like us, practice […]

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