Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Problem or Promise? Confessional Martyrs and Mennonite-Roman Catholic Relations

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Problem or Promise? Confessional Martyrs and Mennonite-Roman Catholic Relations

Article excerpt

Introduction

Two trends in contemporary Mennonite theology and church life are in significant tension. On the one hand, there has been retrieval and reflection on the constructive relevance of martyrdom, (1) and, on the other hand, there has been an increased ecumenical openness to Roman Catholics. (2) Attention to martyrdom is not surprising for a group whose origins are in sixteenth-century Anabaptism (3) and who suffered nearly half of the religious martyrdoms in Western Europe. (4) The discussion is not only about origins, however, but also about whether and how martyrdom might delineate a particular way of being Christian in the world. To cite but one example, Chris K. Huebner has argued that "[m]artyrdom names an approach to knowledge and a way of life more generally which assumes that the truth of Christ cannot somehow be secured, but is rather a gift received and lived out in vulnerable yet hopeful giving in return." (5) Yet, this constructive appropriation of the martyr legacy largely bypasses the fact that Anabaptists were put to death by other Christians, both Roman Catholics and Protestants. The problem with such "confessional martyrs" is that, in their original contexts, their memories were preserved by communities who believed that they fit the classic martyrological template of accepting death at the hands of those who hated the faith. In the present ecumenical environment, Mennonites do not want to say that Roman Catholics, for example, were or are haters of the faith.

The contemporary appropriation of Anabaptist martyrdom prematurely argues over how such martyrs are a model for us (as Mennonites or as Christians) without recognizing that merely naming them "martyrs" reinscribes the polemics of church division. The question must be whether it is possible for Mennonites to understand their Anabaptist forebearers as martyrs at all, and thus bearers of a witness for the contemporary church, and at the same time to move toward a healing of memories with Roman Catholics. My thesis is that any gifts that Anabaptist martyrs have to give the contemporary church--either the Mennonite Church or the wider church--cannot be received apart from facing the difficult reality that they were "confessional martyrs" who were killed by other Christians. There is no way forward other than a joint remembering and repentance that begins to refuse the logic of church division.

Martyrdom involves both dying for the faith and the recognition by the church of the veracity of a martyr's witness. Theologically, both aspects are significantly pneumatological: The Holy Spirit empowers the martyr to be steadfast and thereby confirm the truth of his or her faith and life; the Holy Spirit also builds up the church through the memory of such deaths. In Part I of the essay, I review recent Roman Catholic reflections on the ecumenical potential of martyrs and, significantly, a new martyrology. Although not addressing confessional martyrdom, this approach suggests ways that the framework in which martyrs are remembered decisively shapes their ecumenical significance. In Part II, I outline some of the factors of sixteenth-century Anabaptist martyrdom that both make this issue appear intractable and suggest a way forward. In Part III, I develop and critique five different approaches that Mennonites may take with respect to their martyr tradition and advocate for a particular combination of these. Whereas I write as a Mennonite and am explicitly addressing Mennonites, my approach is more broadly applicable to other groups who have participated in or experienced violence within the Body of Christ. Finally, as a Mennonite--and as a Christian living in a society tolerant of religious differences--I approach this topic with some trepidation. My intention is not to minimize the faithfulness and witness of the Anabaptist martyrs but, rather, to reframe their stories in ways that can teach and build up the whole church. Yet, I do suggest that the disunity of the church that is written on the broken bodies of confessional martyrs is, in some way, sinful. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.