Tongue Screws and Testimonies
Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyrs Mirror
While Stuart Murray’s Naked Anabaptist gave us Anabaptism stripped down to its faith essentials, the creative writers who contributed to Tongue Screws and Testimonies probe the implications of Anabaptism with its clothes on. In stories, poems, and essays inspired by the Martyrs Mirror, they reveal the impact of a martyr history on its descendants.
On a personal level, what does it mean to be born out of or to join a faith tradition with a well-remembered history of blood and tears, of passionate conviction in the face of torture and persecution? What are the benefits and blemishes of communities set aside from the rest of Christianity by their memories of a particular time of violence? What parts of the martyr tradition do we tend to remember—and which do we forget? Most crucially, how does this play out in our own actions? As the Manitoba poet Audrey Poetker-Thiessen asks, “out of so many martyrs/how do we live”?
The Martyrs Mirror, Theileman J. van Braght’s compendium of stories, letters, and court records that catalogues the deaths of early Anabaptist martyrs, was first published in 1660. It is perhaps best known for the detailed etchings by Jan Luyken and for the story of Dirk Willems, who forfeited his own life to rescue his pursuer from icy water. As I started to gather poems and stories for the anthology, I was amazed to discover how many writers with Mennonite connections had written about the Martyrs Mirror. The book held an important place in their imaginations; the martyr stories and Luyken’s images left deep impressions.
For generations, the Martyrs Mirror was a fixture in Mennonite and Amish homes, as well as a traditional wedding present. It stood as a testament to Anabaptist conviction. But by the time I got married, friends laughed uneasily when they saw the Martyrs Mirror on my gift registry.
What did I want with this book of burnings and drownings? The book pierced me with a two-pronged fork. I’m a Mennonite by both birth and by conviction, and these stories had shaped both my genetic inheritance and my adopted theology. When a text has been so influential over the generations, it won’t stop affecting you just because you ignore it (or because you revere it from a distance, which amounts to the same thing). You have to keep it close. Like the other writers who engaged this book, I needed to acknowledge its place in my life.
Creative writers speak from individual, not institutional, experiences. As such, they are open to baring inherited wounds and highlighting the differences between our worldviews and those of the martyrs. They cringe when the Martyrs Mirror emphasizes revenge fantasies and prefer instead to concentrate on today’s collaborations with the former persecutors of the Anabaptists. They imagine fully the sensory experiences of the martyrs and try to guess at their inner thoughts. They hold in tension the past and the present, the martyrs’ lives and their own lives. They find outlets for that tension in poetry, eulogy, story, and humor. The range of responses in the book provides an honest survey of our attitudes towards the martyrs. Such a collection, however irreverent it may be at times, can’t hurt the martyrs, and it might help us.
In writers’ narratives about contemporary characters, the Martyrs Mirror has physical significance—the book itself is touched, venerated, lost, rediscovered, burned, has pictures clipped out of it; it even gets used as a weapon. It serves as a symbol of an entire faith culture, and as characters interact with it, they reflect the diverse ways that we descendants of the martyrs carry our history. How is the book physically present in our households, churches, and libraries today? How do we use it? To teach our children? To press flowers?
In a recent sermon at my church, I shared some of the tensions described in the collected works of Tongue Screws and Testimonies as writers grapple with our martyr history: These are stories of spectacular violence. Even when the martyrs inspire us, they can make us feel inadequate. Church members in North America rarely face death for their beliefs. I concluded that perhaps, in teaching the martyr stories, we shouldn’t ask children what they’d die for; we should ask them what they’d live for. What is so important to bring into being that we will cast aside all fear, whether it be fear of painful death, poverty, or social rejection? What are we being called to? When, like the ancestors of our faith, should we speak up bravely, regardless of the consequences?
Within the pages of Tongue Screws and Testimonies, writers suggest ways to live out of this martyr history. Some work the garden and cherish the earth, others emphasize service and relief work, or reaching out to immigrants. Others call for radical nonviolence, no matter what. Some celebrate reconciliation with historic enemies.
As North Americans, we are not oppressed but exalted in the world, and usually our privilege is to witness not with our deaths but with our lives. Yet for some, like MCC worker Glen Lapp, who served with love and conviction and was killed while providing medical aid in Afghanistan, this life witness ends in death. Such people deserve a special place in our memory. At a recent conference on the Martyrs Mirror at Elizabethtown, I sat in on a table discussion about the possibility of writing an update, or series of updates, to the Martyrs Mirror. Such an endeavor would commemorate those who found in their souls the perfect freedom to follow the way of Christ.
I doubt whether it is possible—or desirable— to separate our beliefs from our history. We need to embrace our martyr past honestly, recognizing its gifts and tensions, acknowledging how it has shaped our congregations and conferences, and always seeking ways for it to become part of our invitation, not an esoteric obstacle, to newcomers.