The book was first published in 1660 and it documents many of the stories and testimonies of Christian martyrs, especially Anabaptists in the 16th century.
Some Mennonites still grow up with the Martyrs Mirror sitting on the coffee table in the living room, although I would venture to say that not near as many as in the past. Maybe that’s because it’s not an easy book just to pick up and start reading. Some would go so far as to say that the visual depictions of these horrendous scenes of execution and torture is the thing of nightmares. I have a friend who couldn’t sleep for weeks, perhaps still has trouble sleeping, after being shown a tongue screw and told how it works. Not only that, this same friend grew up thinking that if she didn’t become a martyr she must not be following Jesus. That is a heavy thing to carry as a young child! You can read more about her experience here: Staying Alive.
Mel Goering, in an evocative article called “Dying to be Pure: The Martyr Story” criticizes how Mennonites have idealized Anabaptist martyrs. He argues that Mennonites seem only “to feel good when they feel bad.” “Mennonites within the church,” he writes, “can always feel bad because they are not living up to the ideal. One is never allowed to feel good about accomplishments, lest one show pride.” Goering would go so far as to say that we, who are culturally immersed Mennonites, need different stories/models of faith. In his opinion, martyr stories within Anabaptist history do not provide guidance on how to be faithful while immersed in secular culture, in secular institutions, and in church related institutions immersed in secular life. “Contemporary Mennonites,” he writes, “need stories that assist with the development of character patterns able to have conviction in the midst of openness, to be effective without given up ethics, etc.” You can read his full article here: Goering article
These are the critiques that were swirling in my head the day Lonnie Buerge mentioned that he would like for an upcoming worship service at Rainbow to focus on and celebrate certain Christian martyrs. Lonnie first became intrigued with the Anabaptist martyrs while a student at Goshen College. Ever since then he has been on a quest to understand the lives and stories of these martyrs. His is a quest I admire: He wants to focus less on the gory details of their death and more on their lives and faith-what led them down the path of martyrdom.
Lonnie has spent considerable time over the past few months studying the lives and stories of martyrs across geographies, time and traditions. This project has culminated in a martyr presentation of sorts, which will make up most of our worship this coming Sunday.
I realize that the thought of hearing stories of martyrdom might not sound like the most uplifting thing to do on a Sunday morning. More than that, some of us might have reservations when it comes to putting certain martyrs on a pedestal, turning them into these perfect models of faith. And yet, I trust that Lonnie will present these lives and stories with humility, with curiosity and grace. He will invite us into a conversation with these historical figures, some of whom might leave us dumbfounded. You can read some of Lonnie’s reflections here: lonnie’s reflection
I will write another blog post about martyrdom next Sunday. (That is, assuming I make it until then! I say this because I have the following on my calendar: Martyr rehearsal, May 17 at 3:00 pm.)
Finally, I’m going to trust that no one will lose sleep or have nightmares as a result of this service except maybe Lonnie 🙂