Everybody’s Favorite Anabaptist Hero

Dirk WillemsThis post was first published on July 2015. I haven’t changed it much.

I have this idea to do a superhero comic strip called The Adventures of MennoMan and GodGirl where the intrepid heroes embody all our gender and cultural stereotypes, have their own issues at home but nonetheless go out every now and then to save the world from its spiritual ruin.

I haven’t got much further than the concept.

I’m actually not a big fan of heroism. In my experience and study, elevating individuals above all others causes more harm than good. But that’s just me; it’s not a general Mennonite thing. We might cluck our tongues and shake our heads at mainstream celebrity culture but we have our own superstar theologians, activists and, of course, our heroes from the more distant past. We don’t seek so much to eliminate the notion of the hero as to redefine it on our own terms.

Given the name of our denomination, it’d be perfectly reasonable to imagine that our name-sake, Menno Simons, would be the principal hero in our collective memory. And there are some who want him to be. But as we all know he wasn’t really our founder and many of us are not all that clear on what exactly he did, he makes a bit of an ambivalent hero.

He wasn’t even a martyr.

Nope, the People’s Choice Award for Anabaptist heroism goes uncontested every year to Dirk Willems, that humble yet courageous young man who prefaced his martyrdom with a thrilling escape from a prison castle, and a dash across a frozen river during which he turned back to rescue his enemy who had fallen through the ice. We LOVE this story. We use it for teaching moments, our colleges commission paintings, and we reprint the old woodcut of him over and over again. We even put him on T-shirts.

Of course we love it. It’s the kind of story we all eat up. I don’t just mean Mennonites — our culture can never get enough of the hero saving the enemy trope. I’m just waiting for the Disney version of the Dirk Willems story. In that version, he would of course survive in the end and persuade the Duke of Alva to put an end to religious persecution, probably following a romance with a lively free-thinking young woman of the ruling classes. Which would, admittedly, change the story a fair bit. But we’d still have the essential bit: a virtuous Anabaptist reaching across the frozen river to save his enemy, proving a love of enemies. Or something.

That is obviously not the way it turned out. In one version of the story, the rescued bailiff wanted to pardon Willems and Dirk was executed only after the bailiff was reminded of his duty. Other versions deny any second thoughts on the part of the thief-catcher and focus more on the tortures that met Willems afterward, reminding us — his descendants — that no good deed goes unpunished and that we should never expect fair treatment from the secular authorities. This second version is a better one for understanding Dirk as a hero fighting against an uncomplicated villain, but the former is pretty compelling with its hint at worldly redemption and a conflicted human standing in for the villain.

Which is truer depends entirely on your understanding of Truth.

But we’re not talking about truth here. We’re talking about heroism. And in either case, Dirk needs indisputably to be my model for a Mennonite Superhero (never mind that other groups of Anabaptists have as much claim to Dirk as we do). He’s the perfect hero for our time, speaking both to our Anabaptist past and the current cultural moment that seems to love heroes who spare the Peter Pettigrews and Javerts in our midst.

It’d be nice, though, if we could move beyond those moments; I have difficulty envisioning any more than a Dirk gif, repeatedly turning back across a river. Even a stock comic book superhero needs more personality than that.  What would he do? Allow himself to be captured by supervillains only to repeatedly escape and save them over and over again? Because that whole martyrdom thing really cuts short any character development.

Like I said, I haven’t worked it all out yet. But I’ve made a cocktail for good old Dirk. It takes the Tom Collins formula and tweeks it a bit, using Genever instead of English Gin as a nod to Dirk’s Dutchness and a couple of dashes of rhubarb bitters just because. Drink up. It’ll give you the courage you need to foil your own escape through acts of human kindness. It won’t make you a superhero and it won’t make your enemies into supervillains. But, well, maybe that’s ok.


The Dirk WillemsDirk Willems Cocktail

2 oz Dutch Genever Gin
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
carbonated water
rhubarb bitters

  1. Fill a “Collins” glass 3/4 full of ice.
  2. Add genever, lemon juice, simple syrup and a couple of dashes of rhubarb bitters (it’s ok without the bitters, too). Stir.
  3. Fill the glass with carbonated water
  4. Garnish with a lemon slice and a cocktail cherry.
  5. Drink.
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