For much of their history, Anabaptists faced violent persecution at the hands of their fellow Christians. Labelled as heretics, bounties were set on for their capture. They were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. They were often burned at the stake or beheaded, the punishment varying with their willingness to recant their faith. Officials even declared it a crime for others to give Anabaptists food or shelter.
In 1569, a Dutchman named Dirk Willems faced imprisonment and execution for being re-baptized as an adult and for hosting Anabaptist services in his home. While in prison, he created a rope out of strips of cloth and escaped, fleeing for his life across a frozen pond. A guard gave chase and, during the pursuit, fell through the ice into the freezing water below. Rather than continue his flight, Willems turned back and pulled the guard to safety. This act of mercy moved the heart of the guard and for a moment it seemed he would let Willems escape, but a nearby Burgomaster witnessed the event and insisted on strict adherence to the laws against Anabaptists.
A statement by the court recounted his aforementioned “sins” and then states:
“all of which is contrary to our holy Christian faith, and to the decrees of his royal majesty, and ought not to be tolerated, but severely punished, for an example to others; therefore, we the aforesaid judges, having, with mature deliberation of council, examined and considered all that was to be considered in this matter, have condemned and do condemn by these presents in the name; and in the behalf, of his royal majesty, as Count of Holland, the aforesaid Dirk Willems, prisoner, persisting obstinately in his opinion, that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues; and declare all his property confiscated, for the benefit of his royal majesty.”
On May 16, 1569, Willems was burned at the stake.
I’ve thought a lot about Willems story over the years. I can’t imagine the faith and compassion it took to return and save the man who meant to kill him. The action goes against all common sense and all human instinct. He might have lived if he only kept running. Instead, he turned around walked willingly into the arms of death. How foolish! But then… “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8 :36-37)
I admit that I don’t have Willems faith. I want justice when I am wronged, and if not justice, at least revenge. This is, I think, the human response. This response embraces the wisdom of the world. Still, I can’t help but wonder, what if we were all willing to turn around? What if we were willing to go back? What if we tried to pull our enemies up to safety and life rather than leaving them to drown? What would the world look like?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)