I had never heard of Dirk Willems until last week, when I attended Irish Baptist Networks and Contemporary Christianity’s conference: ‘Prophetic Voices from the Margins: The Contemporary Witness of Celts, Anabaptists, and the New Monastic Movements,’ on Friday 9 November at Ballynahinch Baptist Church.
The conference featured lectures from Williams and Roy Searle of the Northumbria Community, who teased out what is best – and most relevant – about those three traditions over the course of the day.
A unifying theme was that all three Christian movements seemed to arrive on the scene when so-called mainstream Christianity, and the surrounding culture that supports and to some extent reflects it, is under duress.
For Williams and Searle, these movements called Christians back to more authentic ways of living during times of stress and change – as illustrated by the story of Dirk Willems.
I’m disappointed to say that I hadn’t heard Willems’ story before, even though I consider myself something of a ‘fan’ of Anabaptists. Much of my admiration is down to my reading of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, and my research on the influence of Anabaptism on Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) during the Northern Ireland Troubles (which is explored in my first book, Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland).
Dirk Willems (died 16 May 1569) was a martyred Anabaptist who is most famous for turning around to rescue his pursuer, who had fallen through thin ice while chasing Willems after his escape from prison, to then be tortured and killed for his faith.
Willems was born in Asperen, Gelderland, Netherlands, and was baptized as a young man, thus rejecting the infant baptism practiced at that time by both Catholics and established Protestants in the Netherlands. This action, plus his continued devotion to his new faith and the baptism of several other people in his home, led to his condemnation by the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands and subsequent arrest. Willems was held in a residential palace turned into a prison, from which he escaped using a rope made out of knotted rags. Using this, he was able to climb out of the prison onto the frozen moat. Willems crossed the ice, at which point a guard noticed his escape and gave chase, but during his pursuit fell through the ice. Willems turned back to save the life of his pursuer, thus being recaptured and held until he was burned at the stake near his hometown on 16 May 1569.
Williams framed his re-telling of Willems’ story with three questions that he says Anabaptists have asked themselves down the years:
- Why did Dirk Willems turn back?
- Was Dirk Willems right to turn back?
- Would I have turned back?
Williams said that Willems’ turning back was most likely down to his spiritual formation as part of the beleaguered Anabaptist community, whose adherents focused on living out the values practiced in the Sermon on Mount, such as ‘love your enemy.’
For Williams, the fact that Willems’ ‘reflex’ action was to rescue his ‘enemy,’ rather than keep on running away and therefore save himself, demonstrated that Jesus’ life was embodied in Dirk’s own. The question then becomes: How do we as communities develop those reflexes?
The story of Dirk Willems, and the questions Williams raised around it, reminded me of the work of contemporary philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins. Rollins challenges us that the test of our faith is not in what we say we believe, but how we act when put to the test. For me, this is the most important point of Rollins’ book Insurrection.
Indeed, Williams compared Celts and Anabaptists to the contemporary Emerging Church Movement (ECM) of which Rollins, as well as new monastic movements, can be considered parts. In the coming days, I’ll be exploring further insights from the conference and some parallels and links between these older prophetic voices, and the ECM.