Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Remembering Dirk Willems: Memory and History in the Future of Ecumenical Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Remembering Dirk Willems: Memory and History in the Future of Ecumenical Relationships

Article excerpt


In 2007, as then-president of Mennonite World Conference (MWC), I led an MWC delegation to the Vatican at the invitation of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). Early in our week-long visit, our delegation was received in a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI, during which I made a brief statement, the pope greeted us, and we exchanged gifts. Each member of our delegation received a silver medallion. In turn, I presented the Holy Father with an icon of Dirk Willems, written by iconographer Jivko Donkov, (1) based on the copper etching by Jan Luyken of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist martyr that appears in the Martyrs Mirror. The etching depicts the moment in the account when Dirk, having escaped from prison where he was being held as an Anabaptist, turns to pull his pursuer out of icy water, after the latter has fallen through the ice that the prison-starved Dirk managed to cross. As the account goes on, the "thief catcher" then re-arrests Dirk, who is further examined about his beliefs and then executed.

After the visit, Mennonite historian James Juhnke engaged me in a lively email debate about the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of our gift, given the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Martyrs Mirror account of Dirk's martyrdom. (2) This would not have surprised me had I recalled Juhnke's own engagement with the Dirk Willems account, portrayed in his play "Dirk's Exodus." (3) I regret that I did not preserve a written record of that post-Vatican-visit conversation. Nor do I have a record of the exact words that I spoke when I offered the Dirk Willems icon to Benedict; however, my comments, in a few sentences, underlined that Dirk's story reflected an important commitment we share as Christians, that of love for enemy. This concept was referenced in my formal statement earlier in the audience, tied to Benedict's first encyclical, Deus caritas est. (4)

Beginning with the quintessential Anabaptist image of Dirk Willems, (5) this essay proposes a reconsideration of the how memory and history interact in the process of ecumenical dialogue. Environmental historian William Cronon comments on the interweaving of history and memory in the memoir Remembering Ahanagran by his colleague Richard White. White, an influential scholar of the American West, in this volume set out together with his mother Sara to tell her story. (An American ecumenical story it is--as Sara, a poor Irish Catholic immigrant, met and married Jewish Harvard graduate Harry White.) Cronon writes:

   The difficult lesson at the heart of this book is that memory and
   history have their different truths, neither of which can be evaded
   if we wish to know ourselves, each other, and the world around
   us.... Only the hard work of history can protect us from duping
   ourselves with memory's self-serving distortions. ... But memory
   too has its truths, and the search for "accuracy" can distort just
   as deeply if we fail to ask why people preserve the memories they
   do.... Our greatest challenge is to strive as best we can to serve
   the truths of history and memory both, without permitting either to
   negate the other. (6)

Engagement with questions of both history and memory was central in the official MWC-Roman Catholic dialogue, a five-year process that was the backdrop to our visit to the Vatican. For some Mennonites, as the record will show, the possibility of healing of memories was a central impetus for participation in the dialogue. For the Catholic delegates, in contrast, the importance of accurate historical readings was central, and this value became strikingly visible in the organization of the final dialogue report. In this essay, I will first re-read the text of that report, Called Together to Be Peacemakers, in relationship to how the dialogue process was reported in internal MWC documents as well as MWC's official periodical, the Courier. (7) I will then turn to the discussion of Mennonite theologians and historians over approaches to history and memory of the sixteenth century, carried on before, during, and following the official international Mennonite-Catholic dialogue. …

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