Charles E. Moore and Timothy Keiderling, eds., Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship, Plough, Walden, NY, 2016. 226 pp. $14.00. ISBN 978-0874867046.
What does it cost to follow Jesus? Mark, the earliest Gospel writer, explored this question in his first story of Jesus calling disciples. Mark tells us that Simon Peter “left [his] nets and followed” Jesus (Mk 1:18), but there’s more to it than simply leaving a fishing business behind. At his core, Simon Peter was a fisherman. In a sense, leaving his nets to become a disciple cost Simon Peter everything. A few verses later, John, one of the “Sons of Zebedee,” leaves Zebedee behind to follow Jesus. For a relational person like John, the evangelist who talks so deeply about Christian love, leaving Zebedee in the boat costs him everything. That’s always the metaphorical cost of being Jesus’s disciples—it costs everything.
From the very beginning, the Christian community has discerned a need for stories of costly discipleship and examples of people who traded everything to follow Jesus. Jesus himself encourages an awareness of the cost of discipleship (Mt 13:44; Mk 8:34; Lk 14:25–33). The earliest Christians recognized that stories of costly discipleship help maintain identity, values, and ecclesial trajectory. They developed ascetical movements and circulated numerous martyr stories, describing the various ways God’s people paid the ultimate cost for following Jesus.
In the Anabaptist tradition, our collections of martyr stories are primarily found in the Martyrs Mirror, compiled by Dutch Mennonite elder Thieleman J. van Braght, first published in 1660. Van Braght hoped to reawaken complacent and comfortable Anabaptists to the costs of following Jesus. The Martyrs Mirror quickly became an indispensable part of Anabaptist identity and education, but its stories conclude in 1660, leaving an ever-widening gap in the accounts of ongoing costly discipleship. Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship seeks to address part of that gap by recording stories of costly discipleship that span the globe and the centuries.
Bearing Witness, produced by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism’s Bearing Witness Project at Goshen College, adds to the legacy of the Martyrs Mirror in more ways than one. Not only does it contribute stories after the 1660s, it also expands global representation beyond European and early Christian localities. Its thirty-six stories recount the experiences of Christians who—like those in the Martyrs Mirror—are (presumably) committed to believers baptism and nonviolence as they embody faithfulness to Christ despite suffering persecution and (often) death. The stories range from Stephen, the earliest Christian Martyr (of Acts 7), to the recent persecutions of the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria, a Church of the Brethren community currently suffering persecution at the hands of the Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Every story recounts the faithfulness of Christians who recognize that following Christ is worth it, even though it costs everything. The short stories fit nicely into more than a month’s worth of daily reflection, meditation, or devotional reading. A few minutes a day of immersion into the experiences of our global sisters and brothers provides a wealth of impact. In the words of John D. Roth and Elizabeth Miller’s introduction, “Rightly remembered, these stories can challenge Christians everywhere to a deeper understanding of discipleship, to closer relationships with congregations experiencing persecution today, and to greater courage in their own public witness” (xvi).
Bearing Witness also reveals a few additional needs for our North American Anabaptist experience. It’s not strictly a supplementary update to the Martyrs Mirror, which is good since Bearing Witness has a slightly broader goal in mind (and it repeats several stories already contained within the Martyrs Mirror). While Van Braght’s goals might have been similar, recording the global experiences of Christians wasn’t nearly as centralized as it is for the Bearing Witness project. Van Braght sought to persuade a specific contextual community toward specific values and actions—namely, how to follow Christ in seventeenth-century Europe.
Bearing Witness is a worthwhile contribution to several projects, and it also reminds us that Anabaptists living in the Global North would benefit from a compilation of costly discipleship stories in our contexts to awaken our own imaginations and follow Christ more faithfully. In its valuable pursuit of global stories, Bearing Witness leaves a gap for North Americans to add our stories as well (Clarence Jordan is the only US American story from the paast century). We, the Anabaptists in the Global North—especially those of us who reside in contexts of militarism, complacency, and institutionalized injustice—must add to the legacy of the Martyrs Mirror with our own stories and contextualized examples, as both a testimony and a blueprint for those who will come after us.
In the end, following Jesus is always costly, but it only costs one little thing—that’s “all.” Following Jesus just costs “all.” It always costs us our whole life, whether we summarize it as “nets,” family, professions, or our safety. Jesus doesn’t even demand we “abandon” these things; we just have to hand over control to him. Peter went fishing again, and Zebedee’s name reenters the story a few more times, but the point is always that Jesus now controls and leads the course of life. Sometimes faithfully following Jesus means paying the cost one day at a time, while occasionally it means paying the cost all at once . . . but it always costs the same. It always costs “all.”
The beautiful thing about the fact that it only costs “all” is that anyone can afford it (even if it’s harder for those of us who have a lot; see Mk 10:23–27). The contribution of Bearing Witness is nothing short of the reminder that a continuous string of Christian sisters and brothers have handed all they had—their very lives—over to Jesus and they resolutely call to us from the other side to remind us that “following Jesus is worth it all.”
Trenton T. Voth is a PhD candidate at the Toronto (Canada) School of Theology, focusing on New Testament studies. He and his family are also members at Toronto United Mennonite Church.