Sermon: Transforming Martyr Trauma

Sermon by Sheri Hostetler during our series “Becoming a Trauma-Informed Community,” Sept. 10-Oct. 8, 2017.

A reading from The Martyr’s Mirror:  “The Story of Maekyn Wens, and Some of Her Fellow-Believes”

“The north wind of persecution blew now the longer the more through the garden of the Lord, so that the herbs and trees of the same (that is the true believers) were rooted out of the earth through the violence that came against them. This appeared, among other instances, in the case of a very God-fearing and pious woman, named Maeyken Wens, who was the wife of a faithful minister of the church of God in the city of Antwerp, by the name of Mattheus Wens, by trade a mason. About the month of April, A. D. 1573, she, together with others of her fellow believers, was apprehended at Antwerp, bound, and confined in the severest prison there. In the meantime she was subjected to much conflict and temptation by so-called ecclesiastics, as well as by secular persons, to cause her to apostatize from her faith.”

I’m going to paraphrase here, because what follows, I think, is too traumatizing to bring into this space for some people. Maekyn refused to refute her faith and consequently, a few days, was given a death sentence. Before being led to the stake, she had her mouth screwed shut — which was not uncommon during that time. Otherwise the Anabaptist martyrs would speak or sing as they were being burned at the stake, and were so compelling that they often ended up converting people to their movement as they were dying.

The testimony continues: “Hence the Lord shall hereafter change their vile bodies, and fashion them like unto His glorious body. As it says in Philippians 3:21: “Christ will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”


I don’t know about you, but I feel a little sick right now.  My heart is beating faster, and my insides feel a bit shaky. That story, any story, from “The Martyr’s Mirror,” a book published in 1660 that details the stories of Anabaptist martyrs, subtly but really traumatizes me. Even with this highly abridged version, in which I cut out the most violent parts, I can feel it in my body.

Our Mennonite tradition was born from horrific violence. The Anabaptist movement — which is the umbrella term for the movement that produced modern-day Mennonites — arose in a time of tremendous “Christian-versus-Christian” violence. After Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church, there were deadly wars for several generations. And Mennonites were especially targeted by  this violence, from both Protestants and Catholics. Between 4,000-5,000 Anabaptist women and men were put to death in just five years, between 1529 and 1534.  As Elaine Enns says,  “For much of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, Anabaptists were essentially undocumented people, who could not legally own property or were denied citizenship.” This is why so many of them became immigrants. The Dutch man, Thieleman J. van Braght, who collected the stories for the “Martyr’s Mirror” wrote in 1660 — 135 years after the founding of Anabaptism — that “never in the preceding fifteen centuries did any persecution continue for so long a time without alleviation, never was there in so short (though actually long) a time so much innocent blood shed, never were there in so small a space so many dark prisons, deadly tribunals, scaffolds, fiery stakes and other instruments of death erected and made use of as were at this time in Germany and in the Netherlands” (and also in Switzerland).

Do you think this kind of traumatic formation doesn’t have an affect on our psyches? Can a people endure that sort of violence for that long and not have its repercussions become a part of our identities and our culture? Iris DeLeon-Hartshorn, who works on transformational peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA, says: “Trauma is generational; it becomes part of our DNA, so to speak. So you could say our martyrs have become part of the DNA of Mennonite identity.” (From a sermon Iris gave at Blossom Hill Mennonite Church in Lancaster, PA, Nov. 11, 2007.)

In fact, there is scientific evidence to suggest that this is literally true. Epigenetics is a relatively new field of study that looks at how life-threatening experiences such as war, torture and famine change the chemical coating of chromosomes, though not the actual gene structure. “This coating becomes a sort of cell ‘memory’ and is passed on, like other genetic characteristics, intergenerationally.” For those of us who are biological descendants of the persecuted Anabaptists, we may well carry a physiological “footprint” of that trauma within us. In the same way, others of you may carry the footprint of traumas your ancestors experienced.

But I’m more interested in the cultural and spiritual, rather than physiological, “footprints” of that martyr trauma, Specifically, I wonder about the ways this trauma has become part of the DNA of Mennonite identity and culture in ways that might not be helpful to our vocation of justice and peacemaking in the world. I wonder if this martyr trauma keeps us from both effective solidarity with victims of violence today and also keeps us inflicting violence on each other and ourselves. And I wonder also if a history of similar martyr or other generational trauma continues to impact folks in our community not from European Mennonite ancestry, who, while earnest in their desire to follow a path of peacemaking, also have work to do to resolve some of that trauma.

So first: effective solidarity. Iris  — who is of Latina/Indigenous descent and a Catholic convert to Anabaptism — years ago told me that she just assumed Mennonites of European descent, with our history of persecution and dislocation, would be really open to doing work around racism and immigration and and looking at how we unjustly received lands from Indigenous People. That a people who had once experienced oppression would naturally become allies with those experiencing it today. Sadly, she concluded that “many Mennonites are too wounded to really engage in just peace issues.” (From the above sermon.) She came to wonder if many Mennonites had never fully resolved, integrated and moved beyond our founding martyr trauma.

Iris has called upon the work of political psychologist Vamik Volkan in understanding this martyr trauma and its persistence in the Mennonite psyche. Volkan came up with a concept called chosen glories and chosen traumas that has become crucial to the practice of effective peacebuiding between opposing groups. He says:

“Chosen glories are those historical references that bring glory to an ethnic group, such as a victorious battle or a famous leader. ” (I think of Cinco de Mayo, Chanukah.) “They serve to bolster a group’s self-esteem, but in large-group psychology, they are not as important as chosen traumas.  When an event occurs in an ethnic or large-group’s history in which a severe loss of people, prestige, or land is suffered, the extreme humiliation associated with the event prevents the group from successfully mourning its losses and resolving conflicts associated with the trauma.  Because they cannot be mourned, they are passed on from generation to generation in many different ways, not just through story-telling, (but) in an unconscious fashion.  Chosen traumas…. are the main barrier to successful negotiations between opposing groups.” (From an interview with Appalachian University, quoted in Iris’ sermon.)

Mennonites and Amish suffered decades, centuries, of persecution — a loss of people, prestige and land. These losses have also afflicted Mennonites more recently, including during and after the Russian Civil War, in Russia. And until the Vietnam War here in the U.S., Mennonite men refusing to go to war were jailed, sent to “CO camps” and sometimes physically punished for their conscientious objection. My Dad remembers getting bullied as a child because of his pacifist stance. These more recent injuries, I think, serve to keep alive our “chosen trauma” in the psyches of Mennonites of European descent (of which I am one). And so we remain stuck — frozen — in this martyr identity, despite being in very different historical circumstances. This stuck self-perception as victims or as powerless people keeps many European-descended Mennonites from understanding and acknowledging their actual power and privilege today and from using it in solidarity with today’s victims. The psychologist John Mack calls this the “egoism of victimization,” in which communities that have survived significant violence are only able to see their pain but not that of others.

And: violence toward each other and ourselves. This is very personal for me. I spent years healing from the subtle but real violence of my pacifist Amish-Mennonite community. The silencing, the not naming of truths, of diversities that didn’t fit into the community’s self-perception as a “pure and holy people, united in mind and heart;” the parts of myself that had to be cut off or deeply hidden because they did not conform to this communal self-perception;  the enforcement of conformity through the threat of emotional violence, mostly enacted through public shaming or exile. We didn’t literally shun people, like some Anabaptist groups did, but our subtler version of it nevertheless effectively enforced conformity. How interesting that the very things that were done to us during times of persecution — the literal silencing of our speech through the use of tongue screws; being punished for deviating from acceptable truth; being exiled and publicly shamed for non-conformity — all these things that were done to us, we turned around and did to ourselves. Is this unresolved trauma?

Our planning group was talking about this violence that Mennonite communities can inflict on each other, especially the violence of rejection or expulsion from the tribe. This touches a primary fear, a primal trauma in us as humans. Think about how we lived for  most of our history. Community was the best way for us to stay safe from predators of the human or animal kind. As Bart said, “We need to be protected from the tiger. If we are expelled, we are on our own, and if the tiger comes, it’s coming for me.” Therefore, I would rather stay in the closet than be kicked out of the tribe. I would rather be totally disempowered than kicked out of the tribe. We are social animals, and anything that “shuns” us from the collective can be traumatizing.

I believe there may be other ways this “martyr trauma” continues to influence Mennonite identity and culture. In our martyr stories, there is a sharp contrast between good and evil, between the kingdom of the devil and the kingdom of God. The options were not ambiguous, and you had to choose to be either in the kingdom of God or the kingdom of the devil. The idea that good and evil might reside within the same person seems unthinkable. (I am indebted to Melvin Goering’s article, linked below, for many of these insights.) This narrative of good verses evil — a typical mindset of people who have experienced trauma — can result in an elevation of purity as an ideal. The Mennonite martyr tradition placed a heavy emphasis upon remaining pure, on not being tainted by the world’s corruption. In this black-and-white world, as Melvin Goering says, “There is no room for compromise or for accommodation, either to save one’s life or to provide for the continuing needs of family, friends, community or church. Personal purity of belief and action are of paramount importance.” This drive for purity justifies a strict discipline within the church, justifies violently separating oneself from those who are not pure and who can thus taint the church with their impurity. I wonder for how many of us, whether of European Mennonite ancestry or not, this drive for and insistence on purity and/or suffering — this perfectionism — is painfully familiar although impossible to achieve?

This drive for purity and perfection also fosters what Goering sees as one of the more interesting psychological features of Mennonites of European descent. “It seems,” he says, “that Mennonites are only feeling good when they feel bad. If purity and perfection are required, Mennonites can always feel ‘bad’ because they are not living up to the ideal.” I wonder how much that still influences some of us today? As the poet Ann Hostetler says, in her poem “Stigmata,” “The portraits of the  martyrs are images… that keep the sounds of our foremothers and fathers visible, wounds we choose to pass on, saying ‘This is how others suffered for you. No matter what you do now, you can never suffer enough.’”

How might our vocation as peace and justice makers be empowered if we could resolve, integrate and move beyond this martyr trauma? What energies might be released? A Mennonite Latina woman named Janet Trevino-Elizarraraz has some ideas about this. She took a seminar called “Transforming the Victim Mentality among European Heritage Mennonites” at a recent Mennonite convention. There, she learned about, as she put it, the “heavy weight Mennonites cary within themselves (because) of the Martyr’s Mirror tradition.” She also learned about the community’s silences around receiving land unjustly from Indigenous People. She mused that until this deep shadow work of resolving martyr trauma is undertaken, the modern immigrant movement — of which she is a part — will continue to be distant to European Mennonites. But, she said, “As I listened to my brothers and sisters of European descent, it was clear that their stories could be (transformed in a way) powerful enough (to bring about) the necessary healing.… The healing could be the key to unifying them and the modern immigrants that are coming into the church today.”

Resolving martyr trauma does not mean we need to give up our stories. At their best, the martyr stories teach us that our faith is to be taken seriously, that it should have real consequences in how we move in the world, that what we’re doing here is not some kind of feel-good, Sunday self-help seminar.  They teach us that there are some principles worth sacrificing for, that our lives have significance and meaning beyond working, consuming, sleeping, repeat. We are a part of the great work of building the realm of God on earth, and that work ennobles any risks we may take, any discomforts we may endure in the doing of it. The martyr ancestors goad us on, encouraging us to be more bold, more bold, less perfect in work of building up the new world.

This, at least, was the message I received from one of those martyr ancestors. About 20 years ago, on a flight back to California from a visit to my home in Ohio, I got this “download” in the form of a poem. Perhaps a martyr ancestor really was communicating to me. Or perhaps my “cellular memory” in the form of chromosomal coatings was speaking. Or perhaps I was just tapping deeply into the martyr archetype, during a period when I was in the midst of healing the wounds from that archetype and reclaiming the power of it for myself. All these years later, this voice still speaks compellingly to me, and perhaps, to you.

The Woman with the Screw in Her Mouth Speaks

When people are starving, they go inside. This is the only way

to survive. Conserve. Save. Go to the quiet place in yourself

and wait for the day food comes. Wait without hoping,

for hope takes energy and you have very little to spare.


We went inside, too, but we wrapped our silence around a kernel

of fear. This fear fed us, and for this we were grateful. It made us

shrewd and cautious, not dim-witted like those who starve,

nor desperate. For us were the orderly rows of corn, the tight cluster

of farm buildings. Our barns were clean and painted white, bright white.

No one was going to find a blemish, an opening, a crooked row,

a reason. For the most part, outsiders would not see us, and

when they did, they would see only perfection.


And now what has happened to you? Some of the ancestors

are not pleased. They fear for you; some fear for themselves.

They would tell you not to be messy and bold. Don’t take us down

with you, they say. But listen to me. We oldest ones remember: The dying

was worth it, every pain. We were chosen to bring something new

into the world. They had to keep us from singing. They had to keep us

from singing.


Note: Elaine Enns has done groundbreaking work on trauma among Canadian Mennonites and its relationship to “restorative solidarity” with marginalized people today. Her article — cited in the above sermon — is worth study. 

For more on martyrs and the role they play in the Mennonite psyche, see this article by Stephanie Krehbiel, along with a response by Melvin Goering. Also see James C. Juhnke’s article on “Rightly Remembering a Martyr Heritage.”