Monday, May 28, 2012

Mennonite War Heroes

In 1569, Anabaptist Dirk Willems rescues his pursuer
and then is burned at the stake.

Were one to publish an account of “Mennonite War Heroes” it might be among the world’s smallest books. The official confession of faith of my church, a relatively small denomination that grew out of the non-violent wing of the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement, states,  “As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service.”

This simple statement, taken from Article 22 of "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective," sets us apart from all but a fraction of other Christians around the world, although more and more people of all faiths have begun to align themselves with the teachings of Jesus as Prince of Peace.

In defense of us pacifists it should be noted that one of the world’s largest books, the 1150 page “Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians,” chronicles the heroic deaths of thousands of our spiritual ancestors, mostly the peace-loving Anabaptists who were persecuted for being members of the more radical free church wing of the Protestant Reformation. They suffered and died in the courageous defense of a freedom we now take for granted, that people everywhere be allowed to assemble freely and to practice the faith to which they feel called.

In the sixteenth century this concept of freedom of choice in matters of religion was seen as dangerous and heretical by Catholics and Protestants alike. Just as parents of children born in Catholic-ruled jurisdictions were required to have them baptized and raised Catholic, so in Protestant or Reformed regions it was equally a crime (punishable by death or exile) not to have children baptized in their Protestant churches and thus registered as a part of the state-church system of the period. Without this official registration one was a non-citizen, and could not legally buy or own property, for example.

To the extent that we now lament this aspect of church history, we have all become “anabaptist.” But we may forget that it is this peaceable army of sixteenth century members of the “free church” movement (nicknamed “Anabaptist” because they re-baptized those who chose faith as adults) to whom we owe much of the freedom of religion we so much prize today. This was certainly not a privilege won by the sword-wielding forces used by state churches of the day to punish and eradicate those who dared to deviate from the status quo.

So on this Memorial Day, as I join others in mourning members of armed forces slain on battlefields around the world--sometimes in defense of freedom, often for causes far less noble but through no fault of their own--I will not forget to honor what I see as that truly “greatest generation” of the martyred. These multitudes of brave men and women, without killing or maiming a single human being, died in defense of the enviable freedom we have to follow our own consciences in matters of faith, no matter the cost, including the right and the obligation to say no to war itself.

In the name of God, and for the survival of the planet, people of goodwill everywhere need to join them in this kind of cross-bearing obedience to Jesus.

You might want to check out the book "Joining the Army That Sheds no Blood."


  1. Thank you for this commentary. I like the way that you use this occasion to lift up those who died for their convictions and eventually "won" the freedom to practice their faith without lifting the sword. I also like your redemption of the term "the greatest generation."

    I have to confess, I am always conflicted about how as a pacifist Christian I can respond to occasions like Memorial Day. Your essay helps.

    I also wonder whether Memorial Day has been subverted in recent times (or at least in my lifetime) to be a militaristic holiday when it used to be an occasion when we could also remember those who have passed from this life who made peaceful contributions to our families and society--mothers and fathers, elders who set a good example for us, and men & women who led our communities and nation in the largely non-violent, day-by-day business of living better lives through their civic involvements.

    1. Thanks, Mike, for your good insights. It pains me to see the day celebrated in a way that justifies and whitewashes the kind of butchery and mayhem war really represents. And I like your focus on memorializing the lives of other good people who have brought about change in non-violent ways.