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As modern persons reading Thieleman van Braght's Martyrs Mirror and studying Jan Luyken's etchings, we struggle to understand and find a vocabulary that gives meaning to this sprawling collection of martyr stories. The book eludes efforts at conventional analysis. We are drawn to metaphors in our search for meaning.
We Are in Awe
In these stories selected from the Martyrs Mirror, we come into the presence of several thousand Anabaptists who died as martyrs -- more than any other group in the 16th century. Rulers demanded these radicals' exile or death for rejecting infant baptism. Baptism for Anabaptists was a witness to a mature believer's voluntary faith covenant with God through Christ.
We are in the midst of a people who had child-like faith and yet were biblically wise. As we mingle among these Anabaptists, we hear them share a common core of beliefs: believer's baptism, authority of the scriptures, primacy of the New Testament, the discipleship of following Jesus, group discipline with compassion, living simply, separation of church and state, rejecting violence and war, and accepting the way of suffering and witnessing.
We See the Universal Sweep of the Martyr Theme
We marvel at the young editor Thieleman van Braght's majestic sweeping sense of history. For him, Christian history was the story of a martyr church. He begins with Jesus who was "born under the cross, brought up under the cross, walked under the cross, and actually died on the cross."
Van Braght transcended parochial history to portray Anabaptist martyrs as actors in a universal drama. Tertullian, early church father, has best expressed the martyr theme in history: "The more ye mow us down, the more we grow, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
The early martyr church could not be crushed. It grew rapidly despite periodic waves of persecution. In van Braght we witness the church of the meek becoming the church of the powerful. A new emperor, Constantine (306-307), conquered Rome and embraced the Christian Church. He forged an alliance of religious and political establishments. Christians, once a minority, emerged a majority. Some Christians protested the new alliance of church and empire. The majority labeled the protesting minority as "heretics" and punished them with exile, torture, and death. The once persecuted became the persecutors.
Was this then the triumph of the church or the fall of the church? Ever since Constantine, the choice between poverty and riches, lowliness and power has troubled the conscience of the church.
We Give Thanks
Three centuries ago, that busy young pastor van Braght gathered the martyr stories, searched city archives and wrote and edited a 1290 page volume. In his early thirties, van Braght saw his editorial calling as a ministry of passing on the faith. He wanted the Martyrs Mirror to be a means of recovering a virile, biblical faith for a generation softened by affluence and neglectful of a noble martyr heritage. "Read it again and again," he wrote. "Above all, fix your eyes upon the martyrs themselves . . . and follow their example." The story is told how he gave a copy of the Martyrs Mirror to his seven-year-old niece who was beginning to read. Faith incarnate in story.
We give thanks for the poet-artist Jan Luyken who lived close in time and spirit to the world of the Anabaptist martyrs. With his sensitive attention to detail, he opened windows of insight to the martyr stories: a chain on the ground -- an intimation of cruel torture; the baker's freshly baked bread on the shelf; the curious dog on the fringes -- Luyken's love for little creatures; the child watching bewildered as a parent is seized by the police. Luyken wedded image to work, thus illuminating our understanding of story.
We Are Captured by the Power of Image
We who pride ourselves on our tenacious fidelity to the printed word must be led by the Martyrs Mirror to reflect on this question: what has influenced us more profoundly, the 1290 pages of van Braght text or the 104 images of Luyken? Both are essential and complimentary. Here, unmistakably, image has particular persuasive power and communicative eloquence.
In a starkly simple etching of Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer -- hands of the enemy reaching out to the hands of the heretic -- the word becomes flesh. More loaded with moral wisdom and conviction than a scholarly dissertation, this image captures the ethics of the cross.
We Sense the Mystery
The martyr stories of van Braght are fragmentary, wispy scraps of recorded memory. One's mind wanders off into the mysteries of what is not reported. Those who were close and heard the martyr's death hymn: how did they report the experience to their families? The executioner: how did he explain his vocation to his wife? What doubts lurked in the mind of the martyr? What remorse rumbled in the soul of the magistrate?
And who were the anonymous martyrs, of whom there were thousands? There were those "who dwelt in the untrodden ways" who held firm in torture, gave a "good witness," but no one was present to record their stories. And yet we discern their assurance that God "knows even when one sparrow falls."
The stories of the martyrs were first told person to person. A few stories were printed as broadsides and widely distributed. Early stories were sung as ballad hymns. Entries of a marty's death in the Hutterian Chronicle/ often carry a notation such as this, "A song was written about him, which is still sung in the church." The martyrs came into the presence of death singing. In song they made their "good witness."