Writing for Mennos or not

The thought has fascinated me from time to time that there were probably more Anabaptists who recanted under torture than not in Reformation times, and the question that follows is whether they were not as heroic in their own pathetic way as those staunch and stern believers who went to the stake or the river fiercely refusing to yield to their interrogators and staunchly proclaiming the nonresistant Anabaptist faith. The idealized Anabaptist martyr went to his or her death singing a hymn or preaching to the executioners, assuming his or her tongue had not yet been torn out or his or her mind driven around the bend by the horror of it all. The science of torture has advanced with the times so nowadays I understand they can bring you back from the refuge of insanity with drugs or electricity, but I always imagine, when I gaze into the mirror of the martyrs, that the first smoking caress of the red hot tongs on my flesh would send my mind straight to the moon and sort of nip the catechetical give-and-take with the inquisitor right in the bud. On the other hand, I can also imagine that it wouldn’t have taken much more than a little visit from the local constabulaiy to loosen my lips. I can hear it --— the knock on the door, the splintering of the wood as it’s kicked in —“I’ll talk! I’ll talk! Yes, I can give you names! All the names you want! Graber--— he baptizes adults in the duckpond at midnight! Detweiler! Yoder! Schwarzendruber!”

As a people who revere the founding martyrs, hang really horrifying caricatures of the Anabaptist heroes in seminary lounges, and are always ready to buy a new edition or treatment of the Martyr’s Mirror, Mennonites are trapped in an abominable psychic pretzel. While there is a rather outré theory going around that Mennonites are all screwed up in the style of abused children due to the founding Anabaptists’ experience of torture and abuse being handed down through the generations, I would submit that the problem is much simpler. There is simply too much of a cognitive dissonance between the experience of, say, Felix Manz and your average family in Franconia Conference in the year of our Lord 1997. This is true in a way that it is not for followers of Luther or Calvin. Lutherans have a plausible religious hero. Although certainly extraordinary in the strength of his defiance of Rome, Luther was, after all, a very earthy, believable human being and could in no way be seen as superhuman or supernatural.

In their 1990 collection of excerpts from Martyr’s Mirror entitled Mirror of the Martyrs, John Oyer and Robert Kreider briefly review the history of the big book and find that it has always served a didactic purpose for Mennonites: “story as a means of renewal and restoration. We come to the presence of the Martyr’s Mirror, and these selections from it, with thanksgiving for storytelling and with expectation that in the recovery of a martyr memory, a weary and uncertain people can renew their strength and vision.” Now this is fascinating ---- “a weary and uncertain people.” Do they mean the Mennonites? The North American Mennonites? The average family in Franconia in 1997? This is certainly an interesting perspective. To the best of my knowledge, the only thing uncertain about life in Franconia is whether or not we’re going to buy the second BMW. While it may be true that Mennos need renewal, I think far better descriptors would be “sleek” and “wealthy” rather than “weary” and “uncertain.”

The point here, if there is a point, is that the Mennonite narrative does in fact have a point and a good didactic purpose. The martyrs have not died in vain. Their story will renew and restore us. This is one of the one-dimensional Mennonite narratives and has inspired a certain genre of hagiography —“Conrad Grebel, Son of Zurich”; “Pilgrim Aflame”; the movie “The Radicals.”

The difficulty is that Mennonites have great trouble perceiving the multidimensionality of their psychic situation. The juxtaposition of the average Franconia family with some particularly nasty piece of torture from the 16th century induces a sort of muted neurosis. Consider some of the elements in this emotional milkshake: venerable Anabaptist saint barbecued to a crisp; a homeless dying and rising god who preached the power of powerlessness and that the rich would be consigned to hell; one BMW; considerable financial assets but you couldn’t really call me rich especially compared to those Wampler-Longacres down the road; a profound sense of humility; a profound sense of pride in my spiritual heritage.

The Mennonite story is not a narrative but a sort of consensual hallucination. Look in the mirror, take some Dramamine, and call me in the morning.

Volume XXIII


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