Our victim mentalityBy Andre Gingerich Stoner
The stories of Anabaptist martyrs are at the heart of Mennonite identity. The Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society website observes that “historically for Amish and Mennonites, the Martyrs Mirror has been the most important book next to the Bible.” The Martyrs Mirror continues on the MennoMedia best-seller list. In some branches of the Mennonite family it is a common wedding gift.
We need to be careful not to make generalizations too quickly for all Mennonites, but especially for those of us of Dutch, Swiss or German descent, the martyr stories have seared into our psyches a deep sense of being persecuted victims. This shapes us in profound ways that often remain hidden to us.
A victim mentality leads to separatism. We cluster in out-of-the-way places, suspicious of people who are different. We describe commitments like discipleship, peace and community as “Mennonite distinctives” that we own, rather than as a natural part of a Jesus-centered life.
A victim mentality can lead to a quietism that hampers our witness and to a strange combination of self-righteousness and low self-esteem. Sometimes it seems Mennonites can’t quite imagine others being good enough to live up to our standards, while at the same time we can’t quite imagine that we are interesting enough for anyone else to want to hang out with us.
This sense of being a victim seems especially incongruous in our American context, where many of us have become affluent and carry white privilege and power. Despite the evidence, because of the martyr legacy we may still feel like victims. This mentality makes it hard for white Mennonites to be honest about the power and privilege we have, an important step in confronting the racism within us, our church and our culture.
How is it possible that experiences 500 years ago that none of us participated in personally can still have a grip on us? Perhaps an analogy can help. If a child is traumatized and never does the deep and hard work of healing, he or she may still act out of that hurt decades later.
The same is true for a community of people. If as a people we don’t do the hard work of forgiveness and letting go, we continue to act out of a sense of being victims. Other experiences remind us of that original trauma and reinforce it. And the way we tell our martyr stories will also re-traumatize us and nurture an ongoing sense of being victims.
The Lutheran apology for persecution of Anabaptists is an open door for us to let go of our victim mentality. But we have to decide whether we are ready to let go. For many of us it is a posture we have become comfortable with.
One way to move into a new space is to tell our martyr stories in a different way. If we tell these stories to show “that’s what those people did to us,” it only reinforces our victim mentality. Rather we should tell them as examples of what it means to follow Jesus. To help make sure that’s what we’re doing, whenever we tell an Anabaptist martyr story, let’s pair it with a martyr story from a different tradition, whether Catholic, Pentecostal or from the Black Baptist church. These traditions also have stories that can challenge us to follow Jesus more faithfully.
These are small but profound ways of letting go, of being freed from a binding past and of becoming more fully the people God intends us to be.
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of holistic witness and director of interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA.
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