Worth Dying For?

I sometimes talk with students who visit Lancaster County to learn more about Amish culture. Recently, I was with a school group at the Amish Experience Theater. There they saw "Jacob's Choice," the story of an Amish boy and his struggle to decide whether to remain in the Amish faith or live in the "outside" world. Part of this presentation also involves the Anabaptist martyrs, the 16th century forefathers of the Amish and Mennonites, who were often imprisoned, tortured, and put to death for their religious beliefs in adult baptism and the separation of church and state.

One famous story, that of Dirck Willems, tells of this man's escape from prison. While Dirck was fleeing across a frozen pond, his captor in hot pursuit fell through the ice into the freezing water. This would have been Dirck's chance at escape and freedom, but following his Christian ideals, he turned back and saved the drowning man's life. Dirck was then taken back to town and eventually burned at the stake as a heretic.

This powerful true story aroused some questions in the students' minds. One student asked why Dirck turned around to save the man who was chasing him. I explained that Dirck must have thought saving a man's life, regardless of the consequences, was more important than his personal freedom. He was acting on his moral convictions and religious faith. Some students obviously found Dirck's decision to "love his enemy" hard to believe, even foolish.

Another student asked why Dirck was put to death. "He was a good man, exclaimed the student. "He saved someone's life. Why did they kill him?" I explained that he was disobeying the laws of the state and the church doctrines of that time. His ideas were considered radical and dangerous.

Another student raised his hand and asked, "Why didn't he just change his beliefs?" I explained that some people believe so strongly in an idea that they are willing to die for it. I mentioned two of my heroes, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Here were two men who held strong beliefs, but did not use violence to bring about change. They, like the Anabaptists, suffered the consequences of their beliefs. Ultimately, they died for them.

Later, I thought some more about these comments. Surely 450 years ago there were people who had the same thoughts as these students do today. Some found the words of Dirck Willems and his death at the stake a testimony to his faith. Others probably watched Dirck burn and wondered why he didn't just utter the few words that would have saved his life and set him free.

Finally, I fear that we may look at these stories from the past and congratulate ourselves that we are now more enlightened and civilized. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. People are still imprisoned today all over the world, simply because of their beliefs, words they wrote or said to others. People are still mocked, even killed, because they are "different" from others, or don't conform to "traditional values." Some of the worst atrocities in human history have taken place in the 20th century.

But the proper course of action is not to flee the horrors that threaten to overtake us, but rather to turn, confront them, and do what we know is right. While few of us may have this kind of courage, those that do can make a difference. That's why we still talk about Dirck Willems 450 years after his heroic act of faith and love.

Amish Country News Publisher's Message by Brad Igou (2000)


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