In the Dirk Willems story, who represents Christ?

Jan 4, 2016 by

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In my office I have an Anabaptist icon. In some ways, it’s a piece of artwork that shouldn’t exist. Anabaptists and iconography have not traditionally been very good bedfellows. In spite of this fact, several years ago a series of icons was commissioned by a Bulgarian iconographer named Jivko Donkov, the result of which is a truly stunning piece of artwork that is made to outlive me several times over. The one that I have was given to me when I was installed as the pastor at a previous church, and it is based off Jan Luyken’s etching of Dirk Willems rescuing his captor and pursuer from certain death in an icy river.

Dirk Willems, Anabaptist icon

Dirk Willems, Anabaptist icon

Several months ago I was sitting in my office with my 2-year-old son, Levi, on my lap. As I typed away at the computer, he was playing with something on my desk. At one point he stopped and pointed at the Willems icon and said, “Look, daddy — Jesus.”

If you’re not familiar with the Dirk Willems story, it is a story from the 1500s that is recounted in a large volume of stories of people who died for their faith titled The Martyrs Mirror. While the book contains martyr stories going all the way back to Jesus himself, the bulk of the stories are of Anabaptists who either suffered or were killed for their faith.

As the story goes, Willems was captured and held prisoner in the middle of winter. He managed to escape at one point and was pursued by his jailers as he ran from the castle. As he escaped, he ran across a frozen river. One of his pursuers followed him onto the river and, being heavier than Willems, broke through the ice and fell into the river. Willems could have kept going but stopped and turned around and went back to save the life of his pursuer. This is the moment that is captured in the image. The story continues, however. After Willems rescues his pursuer, the pursuer wants to let him go. However, the head jailer, who is on the other side of the river, yells across to the other jailer and says, “If you don’t take Willems back into custody, you’ll be the one who burns at the stake.” Willems is then re-captured and eventually burned at the stake, thus losing his life to save his enemy.

For many Anabaptists, particularly for many Mennonites, this story has almost become a part of the biblical canon. Personally, I have told this story hundreds of times. What is interesting to me, however, is that when this story is told, almost universally Willems is seen as the Jesus character. The implied message is that Willems is loving his enemies just like Jesus loved his enemies, and that we should do the same. That’s why when my son said, “Look, daddy — Jesus,” I was very pleased, but not particularly surprised. It’s what he said after that that took me off guard.

Levi pointed to the icon and said, “Look, daddy — Jesus.” I said, “Where is Jesus? Jesus is on the water?” Levi then replied, “No, daddy; Jesus is in the water.” That’s when my jaw hit the floor and a significant light bulb went on in my head.

For virtually my whole life I had experienced and told this story thinking that Willems was the Jesus figure in the story. But what if he’s not? What if the jailer in the water is Jesus? What if the reason that Willems turned around and saved the life of his jailer was not because Willems was suddenly filled with the spirit of Christ, but instead Willems turned around because he recognized the spirit of Christ in his enemy drowning in the water?

This revelation out of the mouth of a babe has significantly shifted the moral of the Dirk Willems story for me. Previously the message was that we as Christians are called to be more Christ like and love our enemies just as Willems did. But now the message is that as Christians we are called to love our enemies because they hold the presence of Christ. This is a shift in perspective that might be small, but that holds the potential to turn our world upside-down. It already has for me.

Alan Stucky is the pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Wichita, Kan.


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