new Mennonite Life logo    December 2006     vol. 61 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents

Staying Alive: How Martyrdom Made Me a Warrior

by Stephanie Krehbiel

Stephanie Krehbiel holds a master's degree in ethnomusicology from Michigan State University. Her ethnographic work on Mennonite congregational singing can be found in Sound in the Land: Essays on Mennonites and Music (Pandora Press, 2006). She lives with her husband and two cats in Lawrence, Kansas, where she writes and teaches yoga.

We are supposed to be cheerfully yearning for death and in the meantime, until that blessed day, our lives are meant to be facsimiles of death or at least the dying process.

A Mennonite telephone survey might consist of questions like, would you prefer to live or die a cruel death, and if you answer 'live' the Menno doing the survey hangs up on you.

—Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness(1)

We never had the Martyr's Mirror in our house. I've never asked why, but I think it's because my parents just don't think that tales of gruesome torture and death make for fun or particularly edifying reading. Perhaps they felt that generally speaking, there was enough depressing stuff in everyday life to keep us busy without dragging the Anabaptist martyrs into it. Maybe they both got their fill of Mennonite history from going to church and participating in the life of a Mennonite college—maybe they just didn't groove on sixteenth-century woodcuts. Whatever their reasons, I'm grateful. If they'd used it for bedtime stories, I'd be really messed up.

Due to this lack of zeal for Anabaptist martyr history from my immediate family, I didn't realize how passionate, negative, and unexamined my relationship to the martyr stories was until my twenty-fifth year. It was 2001, the year I started writing about Mennonites as part of my graduate work. So in September of that year, I had Mennonite history and culture on the brain already—after the 9/11 attacks, I found myself in the throes of a cultural and historical obsession I was dying to escape.

Prior to 2001, the last time I really got into it with the Anabaptist martyrs was during the buildup to the first Gulf War. It was my freshman year of high school. A few weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, my Sunday school began a semester devoted exclusively to the study of the Martyr's Mirror. While our public school classmates ran around in "These Colors Don't Run" t-shirts, threatening to beat up wusses, we contemplated the finer points of victimization. As far as our teacher was concerned, the martyr stories were the lynchpin of Mennonite identity. He presented us with overheads demonstrating the various functions of Inquisition-era torture instruments, graphic tales of stake-burnings and heads exploding from mouths full of gunpowder. I felt certain, as I left class those Sundays, that we were the only teenagers in America whose religious education involved diagrams of the tongue clamp.

I am trying to remember what I felt that semester. Given my current relationship to these stories, and my feelings about the way Mennonites use them, I imagine I must have felt trauma. I'm more easily traumatized now, though, having seen more of the world and its ugliness, than I was at fourteen. I remember that I was encouraged to identify with the martyrs, and when the inevitable anti-pacifist taunting came at school, that I did so. But martyrdom didn't actually mean anything to me, any more than war meant anything to me. I could play with them both as concepts and sites of allegiance without true emotional engagement. It's a gift of being young and sheltered, the chance to play like this. Since my country has gone back to war, it has not been so easy.

***

I hesitate to give my own post-9/11 story too much weight. So many people suffered, and continue to suffer, as a result of what happened on that day, and my own suffering has been mercifully unremarkable. But like many Americans of my post-Vietnam generation, I still view my life in two categories: that which came before, and that which came after. My experience that fall impacted how I think about almost everything, and transformed how I think about martyrdom; there is no place else to begin.

Simply put, after 9/11, I broke down. From a clinical perspective—a perspective I was obliged to seek, for only through mood-altering medication was I able to regain enough functionality to stay in graduate school—I suffered from generalized anxiety disorder and bouts of situational depression. It took a psychiatrist five minutes to come up with this diagnosis. Fine, I thought, whatever. I come from a generation of psychiatric patients; everyone I knew was on something for something. I found nothing exotic or shameful in the labels themselves. The clinical labels placed on my moods were the medical world's way of imposing sense on the chaotic place I was in, and I was content to accept this version of sense as a means to an end, that end being the medication for which I was frankly desperate.

Medication pulled me out a non-functional abyss, but even as I started moving through the world like a normal human being again, I found that almost everything I did in the course of a day took an enormous effort. The weight of dread made it hard to move, though I couldn't sleep, either. Campus was a minefield of obstacles; I found myself practically unable, for instance, to walk past the bulletin board at the back of the library that bore photocopied front pages of the Detroit Free Press and the New York Times, for every headline broadcasted how dark things were getting. It became a nightly ritual of will to walk past that bulletin board on my way to the parking lot, steeling myself, making myself breathe like I did in yoga class, then reading, while my guts dropped into my shoes, how a war was starting, how another terror warning was being issued, how the Attorney General was encouraging us all to police each other.

It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before, and yet it felt menacingly familiar, this atmosphere of fear and endless suspicion, in which neighbor spies on neighbor, in which difference and dissent are viewed as deadly pathogens. If there was such thing as a real world, this was probably closer to it than the version I'd been living for the past twenty-five years. Suddenly the cost of Anabaptist inheritance seemed clear. When a nation went nuts and the authorities whipped the populace into frenzy over threats both real and imagined, we were always among the hunted, weren't we? And the hunt had unquestionably begun; I had only look to my Arab and Muslim neighbors to see that. The city's mosque was plagued with bomb threats; houses in the Arab neighborhood were shot at; a Muslim friend of a friend was visited by thugs in the night and escaped assault only through skillful words and quick thinking. That, of course, was just in our city.

On the one hand, I knew my white skin and mainstream appearance gave me protection all too easy to take for granted, and in fact I'd been plenty critical in the past of middle-class, white Mennonites who played at being persecuted minorities. On the other hand, I had the martyrs, who I'd been encouraged, through methods both overt and subtle, to regard as my spiritual forbears. The martyrs, who said things like, "This is the true way to eternal life, which is found by so few, and walked by a still smaller number; for it is too narrow for them, and would cause their flesh too much pain."(2)

My ecumenical nature shuddered at the smugness of that, but there was logic in it, too. It was clearer than ever that "the world," as an Anabaptist might put it, was still ready with its stakes and racks and tongue clamps. I wouldn't have to qualify for the martyr Jan Jans Brant's version of the narrow path to be seen as a threat by a paranoid "patriot."

I had no problem seeing the faces of the old inquisitors in the Bush Administration or its lackeys; indeed I was unable to shake the association. The inquisitor was a potent archetype in my mind, fed not only by the Martyr's Mirror, but my teenaged fascination with the Salem witch trials, when I devoured The Crucible and every other piece of fiction I could find on the subject, disturbed but was unable to shake my identification with the pilloried, tortured, and burned. Now I had my own inquisitor, his imagined visage a sort of breeding accident between John Ashcroft and Savanarola. As my own personal creation, albeit one based in fact, my inquisitor had access to everything in my apartment. He read the titles on my bookshelf: my yoga books, my Marxist anthropology, my Mennonite hymnal. He read my e-mail inbox: messages from distressed, insurrectionist liberals, friends from Middle Eastern countries, the Palestine branch of Christian Peacemaker Teams.

I'd lost the sense of my home as a safe place, but campus remained just as terrifying, particularly when I was teaching. As it happened, I was leading discussion sections for a course on Rastafari, an intensely Biblical, separatist faith born out of crushing oppression. My job was to open my undergraduate students' minds to the concerns of the oppressed. As I heard them discussing the pros and cons of dropping nuclear weapons on Afghanistan, I realized what I was up against. They were so ignorant that it took my breath away; around them I felt to be in entirely hostile company, as though they might call the FBI if they didn't like my lecture.

If this seems excessive, remember how crazy things were in the fall of 2001. People didn't even trust the air they were breathing, let alone their teachers.

I wanted to stay silent, to protect myself, and this shamed me. The martyrs were glorified because they spoke with breathtaking confidence; every account I'd ever read in the Martyr's Mirror emphasizes the courage, even ecstasy, with which they faced their gruesome fates. "The Lord takes away all fear; I did not know what to do for joy, when I was sentenced," said Maeyken Wens, burned in Antwerp in 1573.(3)

Joy? Now looking back, I think this is the cruelest use of the Martyr's Mirror to which I fell prey: the idea that not only do our beliefs invite painful death, but that we should give it a rapturous welcome. Jesus Christ himself didn't live up to these standards. "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me," he said in Gethsemane (Matt. 26: 39). And on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27: 45).(4)

The martyrs occasionally expressed fear in their letters, but the Martyr's Mirror historians rarely permitted their heroes such lapses in faith. There's something spooky about Maeyken Wens, about George Raeck, who if the book is to be believed, "cheerfully stepped forward to the executioner, and exclaimed with a joyful heart, 'Here I forsake wife and children, house and home, body and life, for faith and the divine truth.'"(5)

I had just gotten married. As my husband and I walked side by side in peace marches, signed petitions and wrote letters to our senators pleading them to check Bush's authority, I pictured one of us captured, whisked to a secret prison somewhere, separating us as ordinary couples have been separated by cruel governments throughout history. I thought of Michael and Margaretha Sattler, of the thousands who vanished in the Dirty Wars supported by American politicians who were again in power, of the innocent Muslim men now being torn from their families by decree of our own so-called Justice Department. I had a good imagination, and obsessively pictured us in their shoes. It got bad; I feared for him whenever we were apart, even though we were rarely further from each other than the opposite ends of campus. Apparently, George Raeck's wasn't a brand of joy I had mastered.

I associated my Mennonite-ness with victimization. I'm not sure how that happened. No one who taught me what it means to be Mennonite, not even my old Sunday school teacher, meant to portray Anabaptism as an affliction that marks one for death. A strange thing, that a faith founded on the principle of adult baptism now felt imposed, a burden rather than a choice. I resented how the martyrs were taught to me, as heroes whose gory demises should somehow fortify me against evil. I longed to forget about them, but it was too late for that. Their deaths played in my mind as I lay awake at night. For all the fresh death in the news, it was still their deaths that made me imagine my own, and I wasn't a better person for it. I was becoming as suspicious as the red-blooded, flag-waving Americans I was so sure were out to get me.

Here again was the question of silence, which was such a temptation in those fearful moments. What kind of a person would I be, were I to give up my activism, duck under the radar? More importantly, what end would my silence serve? I remembered the slogan of the 90s AIDS awareness campaign: "Silence = Death." This had been a guiding principle through my years as an American liberal: we have to keep talking about what's happening, lest the truth be left behind in favor of someone's ideology. Yet from the martyr stories, I absorbed the opposite lesson, that to speak out is to invite death, even to welcome it. The moral confusion engendered by this message is surely evident in Mennonite history. For all our adulation of our rabble-rousing founders, silence enabled our survival across continents and centuries. I was stuck in that paradox now, unable to imagine a source of hope or faith that might set me free.

***

Stories get under my skin more than they should. Were I not cursed with such an overactive imagination, the martyr stories might have faded from memory, replaced by something newer, perhaps, and less troublesome. But I am who I am—a woman who hears a story of stake-burning and feels the heat of the flames, a woman for whom the press and cut of a tongue clamp seems not so far away nor improbable.

"Past lives," said a friend to me once. "Maybe you were one of those martyrs." Anything is possible, I suppose, but Jeff Gundy, in describing his own relationship to the martyr stories, offers less speculative reasoning I find more apt: "If you grew up with such tales shaping your view of the world and of human society, as I did, you might also find it hard to be easy in the world even when your own persecutions were limited to an occasional trivial remark…You might find yourself wondering who was really on your side, even as you were going about most of your days with very little to distinguish you from every other American. 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."(6)

Gundy's reflection points to what I consider one of the most morally questionable aspects of martyr pedagogy, if you will, as it's often practiced by Mennonites. It's the myth of exclusivity, the idea that these old histories are badges that distinguish us permanently from the general populace. This conceit may have been forgivable in separatists with little knowledge of the outside world. Today, however, we have no excuse for speaking or acting as though we're the only ones with a history—or present—of religious or political persecution. I don't mean to denigrate their courage, or make light of the horrors they faced, when I say that the martyrs were extraordinary in the most ordinary of ways; they died because they professed the wrong allegiance and refused to keep quiet about it, as have any number of people from any number of cultures throughout history. If anything, the martyr stories should remind us of our commonality with non-Mennonite others. I've rarely heard them used for that purpose.

But I'm not the first Mennonite to criticize the way these stories have been used. Melvin Goering's "Dying to be Pure: The Martyr Story" points out how ill served modern Mennonites are by the two-kingdom ethic celebrated in the martyr stories.(7)

Jim Juhnke's "Rightly Remembering a Martyr Heritage" takes on the Mennonites' tendency to demonize the descendents of our ancestors' oppressors,(8) and Julia Kasdorf's brilliant essay "Writing Like a Mennonite," while hardly a position paper, convinced me that I wasn't crazy for seeing the martyr stories as a means of stifling Mennonites' creative and political expression.(9)

In the non-literary realm, members of the Mennonite congregation I attended at the time of the 9/11 attacks cautioned against using the martyr stories as a paradigm for interpreting our relationship to the rest of the American public. If we did so, they warned, we would lose opportunities to collaborate with peaceable non-Mennonites. Of course they were right.

Yet how easily I fell into the paradigm myself. It troubles me, as I look back on the fall of 2001, that when the time came to be a real witness for peace and compassion, I was derailed by morbid, isolating fears. It's tempting to blame myself, or old Sunday school teachers, or various venerable Mennonite institutions, or even George W. Bush (who deserves so much blame anyway, a little bit extra can't hurt). In the end, what matters is that the martyr paradigm hurt me. It wasn't a useful story to tell myself.

***

My susceptibility to stories is my weakness or my strength, depending on how widely I read. If the martyr stories were the only great tales of moral struggle that I ever really internalized, I would have likely stayed in a state of paralysis. But the world is full of tales of moral struggle, and as I moved back into the world I found more of them, sometimes in unexpected places.

I once believed, as do many Mennonites, that the folklore and stories we repeat in our families and communities should be devoid of metaphors that cast the spiritual aspirant as a warrior and the spiritual struggle as a battle. (Violence, on the other hand, could be instructive—so long as our identification with the victim was made explicit.) Spurred on by my own spiritual crisis, however, I've come to see this view as a kind of fundamentalism. There's a reason why battle metaphors have so much appeal and narrative versatility: lots of things happen in battles. Infinite possibilities for decision-making occur, usually without the benefits of great moral clarity. Victims and perpetrators are sometimes the same people. Real life looks a lot like this.

The martyr stories are based in fact, but the dominant role they play in Mennonite faith and culture has elevated them to the level of folklore and myth. The martyr has become a central archetype in collective Mennonite identity; we're at the point where the way we repeat these stories says far more about who we are than do the histories themselves. It's for this reason that I cannot confront the martyr stories solely as history. (Indeed, I'm ill qualified to confront them as such, for I'm not an historian.) And from my standpoint, the first thing to look for in a cherished metaphor or archetype is utility. Is it making it easier or more difficult to react to my circumstances with compassion and wisdom? Does it give me flexibility to handle the unexpected? Is it helping me to create positive change in the world?

As is probably evident by now, I don't find the Anabaptist martyr a very useful archetype. For one thing, her sights are set so fervently on the next world that she gives me few clues about how to deal with this one; a morbid certainty hangs over her entire existence. Of course, there's no point in denying death, or the reality of violence. But the martyr keeps me fixated on violent death—not only its meaning, but its mechanics. I once brought my (non-Mennonite) graduate advisor a copy of Kasdorf's, "Writing like a Mennonite." After reading it, he remarked to me, with a degree of alarm, that the Martyr's Mirror sounded pornographic. My advisor, who did research in Haiti amidst social unrest and flying bullets, is not one to shy away from the realities of oppression and violence. I think, though, that he was correct in spotting the perversity of repeating the gruesome details of these individuals' deaths whilst maintaining a strong and persistent identification with their victimhood. Maybe it's easier for men to find inspiration in the martyr archetype without taking it so personally. As a young woman in this misogynist, pornography-drenched culture, though, I'm at no loss for narratives that depict splayed, exploited bodies that look like mine. The Martyr's Mirror offers me no refuge.

I suppose it's evidence that whatever force guides us on our spiritual paths has a sense of humor: after years of indulging in reprehensible forms of high culture snobbery (my own version of the two-kingdom ethic) I found the most powerful antidote to my martyr-induced malaise in television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer.(10)

Buffy is a supernaturally gifted young woman, charged with the mission of protecting the world from demons that embody real-world ills, from misogyny to militarism to petty bureaucracy. Though she's unique in her gifts, she's unable to save the world alone. Her friends are as vital to the narrative as she is, and it's their combined efforts that keep the insidious forces at bay. Buffy never gets a free ride, morally speaking; she can and does misstep, occasionally abuses her power, and struggles to balance action and compassion. The only given is her potential to change the world for good. Her success is always dependent on her ability to work with others, to engage the world rather than setting herself above and beyond it.

Buffy had a seven-season run, so there was plenty of time to address the complications that arise when confronting a complicated world with our high ideals. In one of the final season's episodes, for instance, Buffy has a rare moment of candor with a disconcertingly insightful vampire that she can't stop conversing with long enough to slay properly. She confesses her difficulty in connecting to the world she's sworn to protect. She feels unworthy of her power, as though it's something she should be punished for, and thus she feels unworthy of her friends. Yet she can't really value their opinions, she admits, because as the chosen Slayer, she feels her own knowledge, her own path, to be superior. Faced with this tormented logic, the vampire sizes her up. "You have a superiority complex, and you have an inferiority complex about it," he concludes.(11)

The only way to make that dialogue pithier, from a Mennonite perspective, would be to tell Buffy she had an inferiority complex, and a superiority complex about it. Either way, I recognize that tangle of humility and hubris, alienation and obligation, in the world but not of the world—what a relief to see it onscreen, shown for the mess it is rather than distilled into black and white categories that never hold up in real life.

Watching Buffy, I see the versatility of the warrior archetype, how it can accommodate, even illuminate, the realities of human error, doubt, and personal accountability. The warrior archetype also resonates with me because it's a model of action and resistance. The word "resistance" doesn't air well in some Mennonite circles; people associate it exclusively with violence, but I think this is a mistake. I know of no other word that adequately captures the action of standing up against oppression, even if that stand is peaceably taken. Perhaps "activism," but this word is mostly reserved for outward political action. "Resistance" also encompasses the movements of the soul. I don't embrace violence, but resistance is at the core of my being. If I don't name it, I fear I will lose it.

Of course, I'm not going to convince any Mennonites to start showing Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Sunday school, and that's hardly my intent. But I will say this: I need stories that give me hope. I also need stories that offer me agency, the power to act and to create change. The best stories, the honest ones, won't hide the sometimes deadly cost of defying oppression. But here's the point I believe is essential to morally instructive stories: the purpose of the action is to make the world a better place. Death may be a consequence, but death is not the point. The thing I dislike about the way the martyr stories are told in Mennonite circles is how we've come to focus on the dying, as though dying is a thing that makes us great. If that's really it, then we might as well skip the rest—we might as well just lie down and die.

***

In "Dying to be Pure," Goering asserts that Mennonites need to get over the aspiration to purity so celebrated in the martyr stories. "Promoting a more peaceful world, not just avoiding personal participation in war, requires deep involvement in social and political movements that soil the purity of intention and idea with the reality of action. Avoidance of such involvement, implicit in the assumptions of the martyr tradition, places purity of self above the cry of the poor and oppressed."(12)

I'd only add how high the stakes have gotten. If you're shrinking at my assertion that a Hollywood vampire slayer has given me more solid guidance than the martyred founders of my faith, all I can say is that despite its fantastical elements I find Buffy's world a lot more recognizable than sixteenth-century Europe. Buffy's world is on the verge of collapse, and only through the dedicated work of a motley, diverse, and decidedly impure community of ordinary people can it be saved. Like Buffy, the world I see around me is begging for action, not retreat or neutrality. I'm grateful for a story that not only asserts the agency of every person, even the seemingly powerless, but also demonstrates over and over the futility of thinking we're alone in our battles.

For all this, I can certainly understand the reticence with which peace-minded Mennonites approach battle and warrior metaphors (though I need hardly add they'd find plenty of them in the Martyr's Mirror). These days the Christian right seems more steeped in warrior language than ever: "prayer warriors," "culture warriors," "God's mighty warriors." The predecessor of these warriors, as far as I can see, is the medieval crusader, traveling to Middle Eastern lands to force people to Christianity with the end of a sword. A friend recently showed me a solicitation sent to her by that most unfortunately named of organizations, the national Campus Crusade for Christ. It described the pressing need for mission work in Iraq, explaining that young people there were in desperate need of Jesus. I'd argue that they are in desperate need of clean air and water, decent food, and personal safety, thanks in large part to the insane war inflicted upon them by politicians no doubt supported by the same well-intentioned people who wrote this earnest plea for cash. In the end, it seems the martyr and warrior archetypes both harbor the same dangerous potential: to make us locate evil solely in the Other and imagine ourselves pure, be we sword-bearers or victims.

But throwing out metaphor hardly seems a solution. We need metaphors like we need water—it's our literalism that gets us in trouble. So I'll carry the sword, though only in metaphor. Why? Because it represents power. I won't disassociate myself from power, though I know it can be abused. I have power. Intellect is power. Communication is power. Forgiveness is power. Teach me to wield power well, not to deny it.

The environmental and social justice activist Starhawk, a veteran of nonviolent direct action, deconstructs power in a way I find useful. "Power-over," as Starhawk defines it, is the power of greed and domination. This kind of power is threatening the survival of our planet, and obviously it needs to be confronted. Can we confront this power without a power of our own? We don't have to, according to Starhawk. In Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising, she writes,

another type of power exists as well: power-from-within, empowerment, our ability to create, to imagine, to feel, to make choices. When we act together in an empowered way, we develop collective power. Through personal and collective empowerment, we can fight against, dismantle, and transform the systems of domination that perpetuate oppression.(13)

I doubt I would have agreed with the early Anabaptists on everything, but I suspect that many of them understood power-from-within and used it consciously. How else would they have had the courage to defy authority with such flagrance? For that matter, who understood power-from-within better than their ideal, Jesus Christ? I've always been proud of Mennonites for trying sincerely to emulate Jesus' empowering work rather than fixating on his death and victimhood like the Mel Gibsons of the world. Why do we still do it with our martyrs? Surely martyrdom is not the most important thing they have to teach us.

I think it's time to claim our power, to stop thinking of ourselves as "defenseless Christians" when in fact our decisions impact this fragile planet as much as those of our neighbors. We are of the world, and the world can't wait forever.


Notes

1. Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness (New York: Counterpoint, 2004), 5.

2. J. Van Braght, Thieleman. The Bloody Theater or Martyr's Mirror of the Defenseless Christians (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 617. Words of Jan Jans Brant.

3. Van Braght, 983.

4. Biblical quotes taken from Revised Standard Version.

5. Van Braght, 646.

6. Jeff Gundy, "Cathedrals, Churches, Caves: Notes on Architecture, History, and Worship." In Scattering Point: The World in a Mennnonite Eye. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), 16-17.

7. Melvin Goering, "Dying to Be Pure: The Martyr Story," Mennonite Life 47 (December 1992), 9-15.

8. James C. Juhnke. "Rightly Remembering a Martyr Heritage." Mennonite Life 58 (September 2003).

9. Julia Kasdorf, "Writing Like a Mennonite." In The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001).

10. This show, which ran from 1997 to 2003, has garnered a great deal of academic attention in recent years. Rhona Wilcox's Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005) and Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Wilcox and David Lavery (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002) both explore the show's themes in more depth.

11. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Season 7, episode 7, "Conversations With Dead People." First broadcast 12 November, 2002 by UPN. Directed by Nick Marck and written by Jane Espenson and Drew Goddard.

12. Goering, 14.

13. Starhawk, Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising. (Gabriola, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2002), 231.



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