A Review of
Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship
Charles Moore / Timothy Keiderling, Eds.
Reviewed by Fred Redekop
Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship is a disturbing book. The book comes out of a project called Bearing Witness conducted at Goshen College ( a Mennonite college ). The foreword is written by two people from Goshen College, John Roth and Elizabeth Miller. Charles Moore and Timothy Keiderling have organized the stories into time periods. The book begins with two stories of Stephen and Polycarp, and the first chapter is about Christians who live out their faith in the presence of the Roman Empire.
The second chapter focuses on the Anabaptist reformers, including the story of Dirk Willems, an icon for those in the Anabaptist/Mennonite World. Dirk was fleeing a policeman who chased him because he was an Anabaptist. They ran across the ice, and the policeman fell in. Dirk turned around and saved him. The policeman re-arrested him, and Dirk was sentenced to death because of his Anabaptist beliefs. In the Martyrs Mirror ( Thieleman Van Braght 1660 ) has a picture of this story. Nancy Heisey, President of the Mennonite World Conference, gave this icon/picture to Pope Benedict in 2009 as part of Mennonite/Catholic dialogue. This story is very important in the Mennonite/Anabaptist spiritual journey.
The third chapter contains stories titled “ early modern witnesses “ . These stories include mostly people from Europe and North America with one story from the Caribbean and Korea.T he final chapter is called “recent witnesses”. These stories are from all over the world, but mostly focusing on the global south.
The book is disturbing for a variety of reasons. In some of the stories, the editors have described the abuse, torture and death in very graphic terms. It seems like they go too far in their descriptions of the kind of death that the martyrs suffered . It is like martyr porn. I wonder why the editors decided to make the descriptions so vivid? If the torture and abuse is so bad, does that make the suffering of the person that much more important for their salvation? Is their salvation greater because they were tortured in more than one way? Does this kind of torture say more about the martyr or abuser or both?
A second disturbing thing about the stories is the complex nature of martyrdom. The martyrs that are chronicled in the book are, I think, Christians first in their lives. The perpetrators of the violence are not necessarily killing these people because they are Christians. They might see the persons as political threats. For example, the stories in the first part are about the people who in their statements of faith go against the Roman Empire. So, does this then change the way we tell the martyr stories? Although, these martyrs suffer greatly for stating their belief in Christ, I believe the stories of martyrdom are more complex than set out by the editors. The editors might be like the writer of the Gospel of Luke, with the desire to write what they have heard, in order for us to believe. It makes sense to write these stories in this way.
A final reason that the book is disturbing to me is because of me. I have lived a life of privilege here in Canada for most of my life. I am white, educated ( a Master’s degree ), middle to upper class, with assets close to a million dollars. I live in a very safe country. Our government will never persecute me for my beliefs. If I would refuse to pay my taxes, and explained it in terms of my belief in the peace of Christ , then maybe I could be seen as suffering for my faith. But, would this be about faith or about politics, or both ? And if I do act because of political motives, does that lessen my faithful activity? Thus, I cannot really identify with the contemporary martyrs in this volume.
I was a pastor in two Mennonite churches for almost 30 years, and I held up the martyr stories as the ultimate statements of faith. I may have been wrong. As I read these stories, I did wonder if I have any faith at all. My life as a follower of Jesus has been easy, and so do I have faith at all? If these martyr stories are the benchmark for faith, then I am left with nothing? My wife and I worked in a refugee camp in Thailand for three years. We worked alongside Indochinese refugees, listening to their horror stories. Some might see that as suffering, but it was not.
So, Bearing Witness is an important book because it calls into question my life as a Christian . What do I do with the story of the Church of the Brethren (EYN) in the last story in the book ? The EYN live out their faith in the midst of Boko Haram, a violent group in Africa who have been in the news when they kidnapped a large number of school girls in Nigeria. In the story it says, “ … from 2013 to 2015 alone, more than three times as many Anabaptist Christians died at the hands of Boko Haram than were killed in all the persecutions of sixteenth century.” The people of EYN continue to work at peacemaking despite the danger to their lives and the life of the church. I found this to be one of the best stories in the book.
I am left with many questions for my own life of faith. I could give money to help these various churches and people. I could continue to preach about justice and peace for Colombia, Syria, and Nigeria, among many places in the world. But, somehow it seems hollow. Maybe it is the people who are being persecuted that should tell the stories of martyrdom to me.
Fred Redekop is working in church and community relations for Mennonite Central Committee from a comfortable office in Ontario Canada.