Book review: ‘Bearing Witness’

Apr 25, 2016 by

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An elected public official who refuses to fulfill the responsibilities of her position is lauded as a martyr when she is briefly jailed. Businesses that discriminate against a class of people by denying them services claim persecution in the face of a public and legal backlash. Defenders bemoan secular tyranny when a nativity scene is banned from a public school’s holiday music program.

These are examples of what passes for Christian suffering in the 21st-century United States.

"Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship"

“Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship”

Which is why Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship shouldn’t be classified as a good book or an important book — it’s a necessary book. Through 36 accounts gleaned from two millennia of Christianity, the book provides much-needed reminders of what religious oppression can really be like for followers of the Prince of Peace and how they should respond.

But Bearing Witness, like any good history book, doesn’t just recount the past. It also addresses contemporary concerns. Some 350 years ago, Dutch Mennonite leader Thieleman van Braght compiled the Martyrs Mirror to warn against being seduced by his church’s easy, comfortable life after years of overt persecution. Likewise, Bearing Witness challenges Christians to live out their convictions of love and reconciliation in ways of such contrast to the fallen world that it could lead to great personal injury.

Like Katherine Wu, a Taiwanese Mennonite who ran a ministry for girls forced into prostitution and was severely beaten, presumably by the criminals whose business she threatened. Or like Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian minister who spent years in prison, including three in an underground cell with no light, because he refused to swear loyalty to the country’s communist government.

Bearing Witness is a project of the Bearing Witness Stories Project, an initiative of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen College in Indiana. The book’s editors, Bruderhof members Charles E. Moore and Timothy Keiderling, are on the project’s steering committee. Other committee members represent a variety of other North American Anabaptist groups.

The stories in Bearing Witness range from the stoning of Stephen to the trials currently being endured by the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria, the Nigerian Church of the Brethren group targeted by Boko Haram. Not every story ends in death, but each one is about personal suffering for the sake of Christ.

While all the stories are important and inspirational, some are curious choices. (All were vetted by the steering committee.) The criteria for inclusion were commitments to believers baptism and Christlike nonresistance. But among the profiles are at least three accounts of people (Anglican, Lutheran and Russian Orthodox) without any Anabaptist connections. That makes the selection process seem a bit capricious.

In the book’s introduction, Bearing Witness Stories Project staff members Elizabeth Miller and John D. Roth lament, “With the publication of the Martyrs Mirror in 1660 . . . the canon of Anabaptist martyrs was virtually closed.” Yet in Bearing Witness’ attempt to provide an update, seven of the 20 people from the Martyrs Mirror era are also found in van Braght’s book.

That’s not the only needless repetition. The book includes not one but three stories from the saga of Mennonites in Russia after World War I. They — and millions of others who also suffered horribly — absolutely must be remembered. But three stories are too much. The tragedy has already been repeatedly told in countless books, articles and public programs, not to mention in films such as And When They Shall Ask.

The larger problem with the number of non-Anabaptist, Martyrs Mirror and multiple Russian Mennonite stories is what could have been in the book instead. One goal of the Bearing Witness Stories Project is to stand with persecuted Christians across the globe. In that regard, the book succeeds fabulously, as it includes stories from places such as Croatia, Korea and the Virgin Islands.

But given Bearing Witness’ audience, accounts of faithfulness in today’s perilously comfortable North American environment would have been especially valuable. Of the 12 post-World War II stories in the book, the only one from the United States is Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farm fame. Others could have been drawn, for example, from war-tax resistance and not registering with Selective Service.

Such stories are needed to counter the militant notions of costly discipleship found with disturbing frequency in the U.S. anti-abortion, anti-LGBT and anti-gun control movements.

None of these shortcoming undermines the worth of Bearing Witness. But they do mean that the Bearing Witness Stories Project still has work to do.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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