Heroes on Memorial Day

We live in a patriotic community. This fact is made more obvious in the celebration of Memorial Day. Some of our local churches will likely have men in uniform in their services this morning to honor those who have paid the ultimate price for their country and its freedom. Hearts will be stirred and good will toward service members and their families will be promoted.

These sentiments can be confusing to those of us who believe that it is wrong for Christians to participate in violence toward anyone, even in the service of our country. We know that God has ordained our civil governments as our authorities and that He works through these governments to provide a peaceful environment in which His work can flourish. We greatly appreciate the services of our veterans and families and the sacrifice they have given for our benefit. But are they to be our heroes? I would like to propose that we Anabaptists rather lift up the lives of those who have paid the ultimate price to serve their enemies and not to harm them.

One such hero is Dirk Willems. His story is particularly touching, because he forfeited a real chance to escape when he turned back to help one of his pursuers. Dirk was captured and imprisoned in his home town of Asperen in the Netherlands. Knowing that his fate would be death if he remained in prison, Dirk made a rope of strips of cloth and slid down it over the prison wall. A guard chased him. Frost had covered a nearby pond with a thin layer of ice. Dirk risked a dash across it. He made it to safety, but the ice broke under his pursuer who cried for help. Dirk believed the Scripture that a man should help his enemies. He immediately turned back and pulled the floundering man from the frigid water.

In gratitude for his life, the man would have let Dirk escape, but a Burgomaster (chief magistrate) standing on the shore sternly ordered him to arrest Dirk and bring him back, reminding him of the oath he had sworn as an officer of the peace. Back to prison went Dirk. He was condemned to death for being re-baptized, allowing secret church services in his home and letting others be baptized there. Dirk was burned to death on May 16, 1569. His tongue was not clamped. On the day of execution, a strong east wind blew the flames away from his upper body so that death was long delayed. The same wind carried his voice to the next town, where people heard him cry more than seventy times, “O my Lord; my God”. Time and again Dirk cried out to God. Finally, one of the authorities could not bear to see him suffer any longer and ordered an underling to end his torment with a quick death.

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