The Camel Saloon Gallery

AE Reiff: Mennonites, Muslims and Martyrdom

In 1958 I wrote the following:"There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false." I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
                          "Art, Truth and Politics," Harold Pinter's Nobel Lecture, 2005.


Were a citizen to learn good from evil, distinguish the real and unreal in order to oppose murder by the powers, it would not be from art which blurs the hard distinctions between true from false. Pinter citizens up in his Nobel speech to the opposing forces who practice torture, a reality we all might get since economics is a motive of both worlds. The hands that wrote the plans that pushed the switches and opened the doors are not coming to the play unemployed. Denounce it out of self righteousness, defensiveness, the webbed relation of art and politics, blame it on profit, live off its carbon positive life, only the martyr and extreme communicant will give up wealth for poverty, fast, walk, pray and be tortured. No need for martyrs to pronounce doom on evil, doom awaits them. How many deaths does it take to create mass murder, Pinter wants to know? Only one: your own.

   The real life and death causes of extreme sacrifice, pacifists and militants who background this moral in all regions and times, now focus on Pinter's America and the West. Two sides of uneconomic coin oppose the cultural West of every Greek myth, Proteus everywhere, Dionysius liberated, Orpheus inebriated. Let us call them Mennonites and Muslims, lack of self defense and counter offense, who think the knock at the door, the firing gun, the sirens are for them. Iraqis and Mennonites pray at start of day, before they plow a field or eat a meal. They pray on the way to market and mosque that they may live or die. They pray past the hospital up the way to school. Hospitals, markets are full of victims, fuller than prisons. When American reporters honk their horns they get out their prayers.

   Pinter wants to attend this theatre, but what happens when you and I are next in line? Does he say it will never come to that? What if it does? What can we do, what preparation make when escape is impossible? Unsafe when administrators target terrorists to protect us, collateral damage won't make us safe. Administrators aren't changing insurgents by extracting information of their attempts to harm. The loyal opposition says they wouldn't torture anybody, but are the next embodiment of the duplicity with which governments swarm.

   The aftermath of Iraq must be like the Nickel Mines schoolhouse the Amish bulldozed after its children were killed. That anti-memorial did not celebrate the event, it removed it, returned the murder house to pasture. This is the psychology of pietists who deny the world. But nobody would care about Amish or Mennonite if Muslims didn't practice a strategy like and unlike, a spiritual and physical warfare against the world. Mennonite and Muslim martyrs deny western cultural exaltation. They're not going to the openings of plays. They are prototypes of ourselves when we follow Pinter to where the distinction blurred in art between the true and the false no longer exists and we must choose the good. Choose the good! What happens to you citizen on the day the common man is sacrificed for the common good?


Mennonites and Muslims illuminate oppression in Germany, Argentina, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan and Iraq. Societies complicit in events against minorities feel superior when minorities die, but individuals ask the only question any Mennonite can. "What do I do when I face injustice, torture and death?" Mennonites ask it again today, not how can I put up with my anger at oppression, but "can I forfeit my life?"

    "What happens to me if I don't have to forfeit my life?"
    "How can I live as though it were possible to live in war and peace?"

    The stickup here for Mennonites who accommodate the world where "no hard distinctions" exist between "what is true and what is false," is that in that Babylon they lose their faith. Muslims of a different Babylon feel the same. Not to mistake art for life, Mennonites sought truth in another theatre, one not so "elusive." It was called The Bloody Theatre or Martyr's Mirror (1660), and told of the time of trouble, persecution and death and what to do when it was past, which for our instruction means what to do when it's about to start up. If opposite Pinter's, this Bloody Theatre was also opposite the tragedy-pacified Athenians who purged their feelings of pity and fear. Before Pennsylvania, Mennonites weren't pacified, they were crucified, left their "flesh on the posts" of the "strait gates" (Bloody Theatre, 6).

    This Theatre analogy applies to Iraq where they too "gave themselves up," "overcame," "sacrificed their bodies." Husbands "consoled," parents "instructed" (Bloody Theatre, 356) with their blood, tempted with "enticements," "false imaginations," fears. For those conscience-seared in the modern movements of liberty, civil rights, natural disasters, refugees, war, "what did you do" is the only truth told in this drama. "What did you do?" The answer isn't uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche (Pinter). It isn't I saw it at the Strand. Who died in your family, what zone were you in, what storm, for suffering knows no bounds. What did you sacrifice? In the search for conscience such questions become our own.

    In like manner of "hard distinctions," anti-western Muslims keep themselves pure and unspotted from the West, keep away from foreign traditions. The West's justification of its anti-authoritarian self is that it's just following that impulse toward acceptance Western apologists think is right. They understand your disaffection. They respect your rights, even if their purpose is annihilation, to make you over into themselves. But the Muslim will not allow the West to redefine him; there is no common ground between orthodox and heterodox. Jihad considers itself indigenous. Western prejudice also insists that indigenous is right, has protected the indigene by burying him outside the walls.


A self-righteous torturer is like a burgher in Switzerland, a lieutenant at Abu Ghraib or a warrior of jihad. He doesn't feel the humanity of a fellow, hear in those screams his own shocking pain, see in the homelessness of people in his alley his own homelessness or the immigrant's hopes in his own. These are classified out to a dehumanized class. Amazingly the torturers of Mennonites, the burghers, left their names in the public records of those towns much as Americans left their self-incriminating videos. But the US Army could never identify all its malefactors any more than it could identify the terrorists. It depends on which side of torture you're on. Soldiers think they save lives, defend public welfare with thumbscrews and guns. Talk they say, talk.

    The burghers were willing to let Mennonites go if they talked. What could you say, that you now believed in infant baptism and their authority to regulate your conscience, would gladly reveal your friends and family in order to survive? Terrorists and insurgents get such grace. Grace means humiliation. So what, you say, as long as we're safe from alarm; we're not Mennonites and we're not Muslims, which makes little difference in the mind of the enemy and accuser, the torturer, the war maker against groups. Submission for the greater good is axiomatic. Accommodate, give in or get killed.

    It's not so obvious you're suffering if you're not. Peacetime lapses of Mennonites juxtapose those during persecution and sacrifice. They did not seek pain, suffering is not exactly choice, but the Mennonite was always to choose to suffer, even if circumstances didn't afflict. Even in times of peace he was to live as though in time of war. So he lived like the Iraqi in Pennsylvania, prayed before market, before school, before work and during, but it was much clearer psychologically to be outwardly afflicted than to live in times of ease. Can you have integrity only when you don't have prosperity? Do you find like in a play, you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort (Pinter)?

    Mennonites had two varieties of lapse. Under conditions of the old country they could turn in cowardice against their fellows, mothers and fathers and recant that hideous nonconformity, a kind of captured Al Qaeda, and save their lives. Under conditions of the new world, when persecution was neither obvious nor imminent, they could fall into immorality when they were not being persecuted. How's that for middle ground? Who has time for theatre when danger is near? In Iraq your life is in danger from war, like the Mennonite in Switzerland, but in America your life is in danger from the pride, flesh and greed that assaults peace lovers. Nineteenth century deacons committed adultery and slander, dissension, drunkenness, carousing. Popular offenses of the 21st posture are lack of conviction, the blind eye. Do you see the homeless in the alley?

    Mention of Mennonite lapse comforts a world engulfed in supreme sacrifice. Sins of the flesh afflict the modern, though we think forbidding free speech is greater and are appalled anybody, let alone millions, could disagree. The Bloody Theatre explains these lapses. The cause of their fall in times of peace was that they were not being persecuted enough: "As soon as a little breathing time set in, they again began to lean towards the world; the parents became rich, the children luxurious and wanton; the world caressed them, and in course of time they became respected and lifted up; the reproach of the cross was relinquished, and the honor of this world stepped into its place" (Bloody Theatre, 362). If you're not going to resist you can put your hands down.

    It's hard to see the allegory ourselves. The Catholic mystic is bound up with the Mennonite who says, "If you then find that the time of freedom has given liberty and room to your lusts, persecute yourself, crucify and put yourself to death, and offer up soul and body to God" (Bloody Theatre, 361). Doesn't that seem medieval, the irony of having for your inspiration a book of torture? Persecute yourself! Bloody yourself! Do anything to recover your soul. In opposition to the cultural West, Mennonites and Muslims prefer the excluded middle: "true Christians have never persecuted the innocent, but were always persecuted themselves" (Bloody Theatre, 357). The true Christian was a forced ascetic: "though outward persecutions now and then cease, yet every Christian is called to sufferings and conflicts. . . each must live, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit; each must suffer in the flesh that he may cease from sin" (Bloody Theatre, 361).

    Those who join in this suffering with the Mennonite, ask and re-ask, "Can I give up my life if need be?" "Will I betray the faith?" "How can I persecute myself in order to live as though I were being persecuted?" Such introversion invites the faithless to doubt. Its corollary might be repenting credit accounts, consumer debt, eating out and refinancing the home. But then the dollar would fall. Could the Mennonite persecute himself by feeling guilty? This benchmark of every dysfunction has beset the American. Will I betray the faith? For the modern and for Pinter, faith means integrity.

    Lighthearted talk desecrates the dead, but Anabaptist martyrs of all kinds helped gain freedoms for the civilized, sacrificing their lives to break the monolithic Church and Empire and their descendants faced corruption because of those freedoms. Catechisms of the survivor require examination "whether . . . you have not lent your tongue to please frivolous, worldly men with vain and useless talk. . . whether you did not defame your neighbor's good name. . . by lying and deceit ministered to avarice" (Bloody Theatre, 361-62).

    Thomas Merton explains how Mennonites practiced a self surrender which contradicts self-realization: "if you seek it you do not find it, if you stop seeking, it is there. But you must not turn to it. Once you become aware of yourself as seeker, you are lost. But if you are content to be lost you will be found without knowing it, precisely because you are lost, for you are, at last, nowhere" (Cables to the Ace, 58). Mennonites call this gelassenheit for the martyr and gelassenheit for the farmer. Hans van Overdam wrote from prison in 1550: "We. . . suffer our temporal bodies to be burned, drowned, racked, or tortured, as it may seem good to you, or be scourged, banished, or driven away, or robbed of our goods, than to show any obedience contrary to the word of God. . . ." It was a communion of brothers sharing suffering and death, not so different from suicide bombers. God-submitted, you have to give up.


"Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay?" Psychiatrist Robert Coles agonized over Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazis. When asked "what would you do under such circumstances, under Hitler, if you were there, back then," Coles could only reply, "not one of us was able to answer with any moral confidence" (Coles, 198-99). That is the dilemma. The psychiatrist counsels "social adjustment" to Bonhoeffer, who was as diametrically opposed to accommodation as ever Mennonites and Muslims. Counseling adjustment to "normality," not to continue "the essential 'madness'. . . that won't settle for the rewards of social conformity," Bonhoeffer's friends at Union Seminary couldn't talk him down. He returned to Germany, opposed Hitler, was executed. Niebuhr says, "we looked up to him as if he'd been sent to inspire us" (Coles, 201), but didn't go back to Germany with him. As Crito Socrates, they urged him to escape. There is something more than life, says Socrates, the difficulty my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid
unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death (Jowett).
Niebuhr, Coles, Crito, modern Mennonite congregations, the audience far and wide see this problem outside, focused by someone else, not within themselves as their own. It makes them as uncomfortable as Shiites and Sunnis. The externalized conscience, like the accommodation of art by life, is a metaphysical stickup, a robbery with the mind. Mennonites mourn their weakness, fear they can't choose sacrifice. In such rhetoric a woman who wanted to be a missionary until Jim Elliot and his friends were killed by the Auca confides she considered herself a coward the rest of life, through breast cancer, divorce, child rearing. Die or betray! What would you do? It's odd how we are made human. The test isn't whether you die, but how you live.

    In life, art and the tolerance of the not necessarily true or false, reporters are the moralists who define national purpose. They don't teach the hero as commonplace among unnoticed acts of surrender, that conscience leads to will in little life acts. What have you done, the critic accuses, as if heroism were a PR event and you can't see in the face of a man his cards. The trick is not to answer. It would be a good joke to call Socrates and Bonhoeffer anti-intellectual pietists because they wouldn't be persuaded by the majority, call them hyper-individual, holy-group separatists because they would not accommodate, give in to consensus. Who wants to be a moral hero? There is a robbery in progress.

    Psychologists of the secular think Mennonites harbored a death wish by making people murder them, as opposed to the Muslim militias, but that both are filled with self-loathing for persecuting themselves or others. Warring ideologies say that if only the stubborn would let go of that fixed idea they could be let live in peace. We will all start to sound like Mennonites if culture can do anything to anybody to avoid facing itself and then blame you for it, invade Iraq and blame Iraqis. The It-Self in every institution of culture, government, science and religion puts the individual to death or disgrace for not conforming. Socrates can answer for Mennonites. Me, he says, you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser and not to give an account of your lives. In Mennonite terms the unclean garments the It-Self wears are just opposite the garments worn by the Lamb. Socrates says he wants to do nothing common or mean when in danger, nor to use any cowardly way of escaping death, even in war, so he refuses escape and all the petty evasions of his sentence urged upon him. Had he lived in Switzerland he could have been drowned in a bag.


How do Mennonites answer that in persecuting themselves they are not filled with self-loathing? They say the inner world forced to integrity when the outer is threatened enables them to live, that when all is tranquil the certainty of that inner world evaporates, overcome by the everyday. The problem is how to live intently in the commonplace. This prison accounts validate. Solzhenitsyn is dense with detail, absorbed in the present. Ivan Denisovich keeps moving, it keeps him sane. But his life is packed by Solzhenitsyn into one day. Real prisoners' lives are packed into an age and it is an age of suffering. The prison camp novels of B. Traven present unrelenting time without action, work or comrades, loneliness, suffering, vacancy and an infinite time to doubt. The martyrs do not know their end, but the fire of persecution wonderfully focuses their thoughts. In Viktor Frankl's three years in death camps each small choice saves his life. Each expression of intent heals. The inane falls away. Each breath is a new existence. The martyr book sharpens that edge. Every commonplace must be miraculous, each moment gratitude.

    But all is lost to the thief in a principle beyond accommodation. For Jacobo Timmerman, editor of La Opinión in Argentina, it was "the privilege of combating fascism. . . I refused to leave the country" (17), "elongated time. . . hovers over me oppressively in the cell." (3). Of the counseled accommodation of psychology, "some people hold that the only possible response to totalitarian repression-whether Fascist or Communist-is to go underground or into exile. Both of these solutions were contrary to my philosophy. I thought it necessary at the time to go one step further: to attack the leaders of extremist military groups directly" (20). It sounds like surrender when he says the best method to adopt in torture, "the long human howl," (32) is an attitude of "absolute passivity" (33). "I did not utter a word. . . I refused to think. . . I was a professional stoic" (36). His withdrawal technique, as he calls it, "playing the martyr" (37) was complete, exactly what Mennonites advised one another in the Bloody Book, "I did not answer," "I tell him no. . . I tell him no" (40).

    There was nothing ambiguous about what Borges heard when he attended the trial of those torturers of Timmerman and the desaparecidos, "if you tell me that this was one of the milder testimonies, I can't imagine what the others must have been like" (Borges, 474). You don't have to be subjected to such depravities to be sick of farce enacted upon mind and flesh. It was one of several last straws for Borges. Two months later he learned he had cancer. Three months after he had settled in Geneva where he died and was buried, the level of moral blindness in Argentina was that appalling. The prisoners were "served Christmas dinner at a long table set with linen tablecloth, cutlery, and a porcelain service, by the very men who routinely tortured them and would torture them again the following day" (Borges, 474). Borges turned irrevocably from the culture of the sword, in essence a pacifist, and with world enough and time for all we know a Mennonite. Pinter sets art apart from this world but what world does art describe if the citizen needs to know and fight evil, murder, injustice, but art can't tell the difference?

    The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians. Thieleman J. van Braght, tr. from the Dutch Edition Of 1660 by Joseph F. Sohm. Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1964.
    Robert Coles. Lives of Moral Leadership. NY: Random House, 2000.
    Viktor E. Frankl. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.
    Thomas Merton. Cables to the Ace. A New Directions Book, New York, 1968.
    Jacobo Timmerman. Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. 1981.
    Edwin Williamson. Borges A Life. NY:Viking, 2004. 

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