Defined by a martyr complexBy Stephen Kriss
Having recently returned from Israel-Palestine, I am struck at how the martyr complex manifest there also remains ingrained within Mennonite identity. And I am more convinced than ever that we need to re-imagine how we tell our stories of struggle and grace.
I grew up among Mennonites in western Pennsylvania. I was raised in a home where Slovak was occasionally spoken, in a neighborhood where Slavic last names and thick accents lingered among onion-domed Orthodox churches and pierogie sales. My family became Mennonite through an earnest attempt to invite the sons and daughters of immigrant steelworkers and coalminers into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
As author Julia Kasdorf writes about growing up in western Pennsylvania, Mennonites weren’t the only ones with stories of struggle, persecution or martyrdom. The 20th-century immigrants to western Pennsylvania, though mostly economic migrants — Jews, Catholics, Orthodox — managed to escape the world wars. But even in that shared narrative were remnants of ethnic strife and mistrust.
In Israel, the martyr complex allows all sorts of aberrations of human behavior — with the justification of years of persecution culminating in the Jewish Holocaust. This a posture of long-term victimization that creates a myth of superiority in the midst of neighbors. It also cultivates a handed-down fear of those who are different. It’s an attitude I’ve seen among my Mennonite sisters and brothers too, sometimes even turned toward me as an Anabaptist convert.
As Mennonites recently began exposing research on the Nazi regime and Mennonite atrocities related to Nazi rule, I found my stomach and spirit wrought for days. I wonder, could even my own adopted nonviolent tradition show a willingness to move toward genocide and lack the capacity to extend grace? The research suggests Mennonite leaders were involved with the persecution of Jews in the Ukraine, retaliating against a community they considered communist collaborators.
Miroslav Volf, a Christian writer who comes from among my people in the former Yugoslavia, says the Christian story requires followers of Jesus to stop cycles of violence and to forgive. This process has multiple steps of nonviolence, confession and forgiveness. Mennonites, I’m afraid, have yet to embrace corporate confession and forgiveness very well.
In our engagement with Lutherans I have noticed our willingness to be martyrs in a way that short-circuits authentic reconciliation. Lutherans have confessed and asked us to forgive, but we have not readily confessed our own haughtiness. We have not confessed a lingering spiritual superiority. Instead, we have accepted the Lutherans’ apologies and, as Iris DeLeon Hartshorn says, given gifts that remind them of their atrocities rather than our shared experience of divine grace.
In Israel I saw what a martyr or persecution complex can do over the long haul. It creates polarities. It allows injustice. It creates a sense of rightness and blindness due to historic wrongs. It creates new enemies.
Zionist Jews don’t understand how Mennonites can’t see the similarities of our stories as a persecuted people who have wandered without a home. But our stories are written similarly in history.
We need to confess. We need to hold our nonviolent posture, remember our martyr narratives, and forgive together. Then we will be free to remember and love rather than harbor mistrust and fear.
Together we must move toward understanding ourselves as a people who are held by God’s grace. We are redeemed not by our own blood or sweat but by Christ alone.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.
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