Today I’d like to tell you about a picture that has become important to me, and that is really inspiring.
On the picture, you can see Dirk Willems, a dutch Anabaptist, saving his persecutor, as he is about to drown as the ice broke beneath him.
The Anabaptists, for the most part these were peaceful citizens who did not believe in war and who became the forerunners of today’s Mennonites and Amish. The main complaint of the authorities against them was that they did not believe infant baptism had any value. They chose to be re-baptized as willing adults.
Although no other charges were proven against them, they were sentenced to death. For the men death was usually by fire; for women it was by drowning.
If you’re not familiar with the Dirk Willems story, it is a story from the 1500s that is recounted in a large volume of stories of people who died for their faith titled The Martyrs Mirror. While the book contains martyr stories going all the way back to Jesus himself, the bulk of the stories are of Anabaptists who either suffered or were killed for their faith.
As the story goes, in the winter of 1569, Dirk Willems of Holland was discovered as an Anabaptist and was captured and held prisoner. He managed to escape at one point and was pursued by his jailers as he ran from the castle. As he escaped, he ran across a frozen river. One of his pursuers followed him onto the river and, being heavier than Willems, broke through the ice and fell into the river.
Willems could have kept going but stopped and turned around and went back to save the life of his pursuer. This is the moment that is captured in the image. The story continues, however. After Willems rescues his pursuer, the pursuer wants to let him go. However, the head jailer, who is on the other side of the river, yells across to the other jailer and says, “If you don’t take Willems back into custody, you’ll be the one who burns at the stake.”
« Persisting obstinately in his opinion », Dirk was sentenced to execution by fire. On the day of execution, a strong east wind blew the flames away from his upper body so that death was long delayed. The judge present was « finally filled with sorrow and regret ». Wheeling his horse around so he saw no more, he ordered the executioner, « Dispatch the man with a quick death. » Thus Dirk Willems died, losing his life to save his enemy.
It is more than a touching story.
What’s nice with pictures, is that you can interpret them in so many ways. History is important, it gives us roots from which to grow – but it is important that from the tree we grow good fruit today. Otherwise, we only have roots and nothing else.
In a world where we’re torn apart, painting pictures in black and white, between « them and us », the enemy and us, where people who say that they are christian and follow the Prince of Peace and who have read the Sermon on the Mount sleep with guns next to their bed (and don’t even live in a warzone!) or think that taking their kids to a shooting range is normal; where violence is becoming normalized or has lost much of its shocking potential; where so still so much injustice abounds – it is an image for reaching out, for becoming a disciple with all that it may cost; for taking risks. It also an image of God who pulls us out and reaches out for us when the too thin ice broke beneath our weight, from all the weight we carry on our shoulders.
Reach out, forgive, seek understanding, shake off fear, trust, seek Peace.