“Remember that you were…” | November 3


Texts: Exodus 22:21-23; Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34;  Matthew 5:1-10   

Speaker: Joel Miller 

The picture on the front of the bulletin is one of about 100 images made from etchings, included within the Martyrs Mirror.  For the uninitiated, this book is a 17th century compilation by a Dutch author.  Its full title is The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians. Subtitle: Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, their Savior, From the Time of Christ to the Year AD 1660.  They just don’t make book titles like they used to.  The author was a Mennonite, a group taking its name from Dutch Anabaptist leader Menno Simons.  The Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians is a reference to one of the central teachings of Menno and Anabaptists of his kind.  That to be Christian is to embrace the nonviolent – or, as they would say, nonresistant – way of Jesus – the peacefulness spoken of in the Beatitudes –  thus giving up any claims to defend oneself with violence.  The large majority of the Martyrs Mirror focuses on the 16th century, when the early Anabaptists/Mennonites, the defenseless Christians, were a persecuted minority at the hands of other Christians within central Europe, mainly Holland/North Germany and Switzerland.  This copy lives in our church library, available for your perusal.

For the further uninitiated, every year on this Sunday, the first of November, in observance of All Saints and All Souls Days, I like to highlight a story from the Martyrs Mirror, or from our wider Anabaptist heritage.  There is a bit of irony in highlighting a saint within a tradition born out the critique of a tradition that reverenced the saints, but we’re all about walking that fine line between heritage and heresy, so onward we go.

The Martyr’s Mirror is organized chronologically.  This particular image is the last appear, making it the closest to our time.  It’s of Catherine Muller.  It was the year 1639 in the Knonau District of Switzerland, near Zurich.  The last Swiss Anabaptist martyr, Hans Landis, had been executed 25 years prior, and so Catherine will live.  But, as the image shows, she is being taken from her home and arrested.  She’ll be led to Zurich and imprisoned on the charges of being an Anabaptist.  The title under the etching simply reads: “Catharina Mulerin Apprehended.”

These last two years I’ve found myself thinking about these stories in a new light.  It was two years ago that we began our Sanctuary journey with Edith, and right away the questions of Why? started coming our way.  Why are you doing this?

Some have asked a more specific question: Is there anything about being Mennonite that compels the congregation to offer sanctuary?  The answer is ‘Yes,’ but unfortunately, or fortunately, people want to hear a bit more than one word answers.

In thinking about all this I’ve found myself going back to a refrain that occurs throughout the Torah, the first five books of our Bible.  We heard three versions of this refrain read right before the children’s time – from Exodus 22 and 23, and Leviticus 19.

Without repeating those, here are three more versions of that refrain:

Exodus 13: “Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’”

Deuteronomy 5: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 15: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.

These statements, along with the ones we heard earlier, appeal to memory.  They appeal to a certain form of memory as a way of shaping present action.  The command to remember comes with a “therefore” attached to it.  Memory, for the children of Israel, is the grounding of ethical orientation.  Collective memory informs present group identity and behavior.

The experience to which Moses and Yahweh point the people of Israel to hold in memory is the most oppressive time of their past.  When they were in Egypt.  When they were resident aliens, non-citizens, ethnic outsiders; and enslaved, oppressed, beaten down and exploited for their labor, carrying out other people’s commands, building other people’s dreams.

The memory of having been a migrant and sojourner, of having been a slave, impresses itself upon the present moment here on out.  Therefore…therefore the alien who resides among you shall be as a citizen.  Therefore…you shall keep the Sabbath – because you’re not a slave anymore and you’re free to not work.  God be praised.

The most tender expression of this memory-as-source-of-compassion is in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien (or sojourner); you know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

The Martyr’s Mirror is one of the ways Mennonites have remembered our Egypt.  This year I was drawn to the image of Catherine Muller Apprehended.

By her time the Reformed Church that Ulrich Zwingli had set in motion in Zurich over 100 years prior had long made its break with the Catholic Church.  Many of the first young radicals who came to be called “Anabaptists,” re-baptizers, had been students of Zwingli, but felt he didn’t go far enough in reforming the church back to what they read in the New Testament.  Just having access to a New Testament to study for oneself was a relatively new thing with the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of the printed word.  Along with re-discovering the peacefulness of Jesus, the Anabaptists were convinced that the only true baptism was one preceded by teachings which led to an understanding of what one was getting oneself into by being baptized as a follower of Jesus.  That meant infant baptism could not serve this purpose.  Because the church and the state were so closely wed, the religious rite of infant baptism doubled as a civic function of enrolling people into society as up and coming citizens, tax payers, and military personnel.  It’s how one became documented.  Societal cohesion through a common religious and civic life was vital enough to the Zurich city council that they had dug up an old ordinance that made re-baptism punishable by death.

This was all well before Catherine’s time.  Those first Swiss Anabaptists had either been captured and killed or had fled to the smaller hamlets, and throughout countryside.  They continued to meet secretly in homes and outdoors.  By the time Catharine was apprehended, execution had given way to the slightly softer tactics of imprisonment and property confiscation, all done at the whims of the authorities who decided who to make an example of and when.

We actually know very little about Catharine herself.  The entry for her in the Martyrs Mirror is only one run-on sentence, taking up a mere nine lines in the column.  It does refer to her as an old sister, so perhaps she had been causing holy mischief for many years.  Here’s the whole entry:

Catherina Mulerin AD 1639
The north wind of persecution rose now more and more in the Knonow district, which also appeared in the case of an old sister, named Catharina Mulerin; who having also been apprehended and taken to Zurich, had to suffer much there in prison, for the faith and testimony of Jesus Christ; but was afterwards, beyond all hope and expectation, released from bonds. (p. 1111)

The entry before her speaks of parents being separated from their children.  Which makes me wonder if this artist’s etching is intended as a composite story.  An official with a sword pulling someone away from their house.  A child tugging at his mother, another too frightened to act.  Someone observing from a window.  Someone with their back to it all.  In the background more officials knocking at another door to indicate this is not an isolated incident.  Even a dog who can sense something isn’t right.

This same image of Catharine Apprehended serves as the cover of the book Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers.  But the title page notes that Catherine is not profiled in the book.  There’s not enough known about her to profile.

So Catherine comes to represent all those from an era who are taken from their homes, who are separated from their families, who are imprisoned and treated poorly, who are held at the mercy of those in authority whose whims control the fate of those they oversee.

And there was still more to come.  The decades that followed Catherine saw another rise in zeal for church and societal uniformity, and with it the Tauferkammer, The Commission on Anabaptist Affairs.  The task of this Commission was to eliminate Anabaptists from the region.  Anabaptist marriages were not recognized by the state because they weren’t officiated by a Reformed minister.  This made their children illegitimate, doubly so because they weren’t registered through their baptisms.  And so inheritances were seized by the state.  The Commission commenced to monitor Anabaptist activity, including their finances, to confiscate property, part of which Commission members were able to keep themselves, to hunt and imprison, and, if the Anabaptists refused to be converted, to send them over the border with the charge to never return.  All of this is well-documented in Swiss archives, especially in the city of Berne which mimicked Zurich’s tactics.  They were called Anabaptist-hunters and they were largely disliked by the wider population, some of whom would shelter Anabaptists and give them aid.  This continued for about 100 years after the old sister Catharine Muller was apprehended, after the Martyrs Mirror was published.

Does any of this sound familiar?  I believe some of the words we use for all this these days include undocumented, detain, family separation, deport, and sanctuary.  Knowing perhaps only a name, or maybe no name at all.  Mostly anonymous others undergoing these trials and hardships happening both in another world, and right at our front door.

It’s not a one to one correlation, but this is a collective memory that can inform our present orientation to the world.

Remember that you were apprehended and pulled from your home and imprisoned.  Remember that you stood firm in your faith despite hardship.  Remember that you were targeted for removal, seen as a stain on the body politic.  Remember the hiding.  Remember the kindness of neighbors who gave you aid.

I’m guessing the majority of us do not trace our family history back through this particular lineage of Swiss Anabaptism, although I know some of us do.  I’m going to pull an Apostle Paul speaking to the Gentiles and say that doesn’t matter.  Much of Paul’s ministry focused on inviting those who had no family lineage to Abraham and Sarah, to become children of Abraham through faith and faithfulness, since it was Abraham’s faithfulness that was what it was all about from the very beginning, and not his family tree.

If you’re worshiping in a Mennonite church this morning, and I have on pretty good authority that you are, then this history, this story of Catherine and all those she represents, offers itself to you.  To remember as your own and to accept the therefore that accompanies it.  “Remember that you were sojourners in the land of Egypt, therefore you shall love the foreigner as friend, you shall recognize yourself in the plight of the other.  You will remember that you were once that person, and so in extending compassion you are extending compassion as if to yourself, as if to Christ.

That’s all a little bit too much for a sound bite if somebody asks you why we do what we do, but you can perhaps condense it in one run one on sentence.

There is of course some danger in well-educated middle and upper middle class folks who have received the full set of privileges of whiteness in this country to claim a martyr identity.  I do think it’s significant that the biblical command to remember Egypt is directed at people about to settle in to the land of milk and honey.  And the Martyrs Mirror was written to remind Dutch Anabaptists, doing quite well for themselves thank you very much in the Dutch Golden Age of commerce and toleration – to remind these folks where they come from.

The biblical charge of remembrance invites us to remember something that has perhaps not happened to us personally but which might shape us collectively as a people of compassion and justice.  To claim a bigger story.

We remember that we were once in need of refuge, and now we have refuge to give.  And we follow the one who taught:

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.

Blessed are the merciful.