A Taste for Martyrdom

Maria van Beckum martyrThis is the first post I wrote that explores our Anabaptist past. It was first published in November, 2014.

Mennonites trace their roots to the Anabaptists of the Sixteenth Century. Bit players in the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptists rejected both the Roman Catholic church and the major reformed churches led by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the like. 

As heirs of the Radical Reformation, Mennonites have no truck with saints and have stripped them and  the Virgin Mary of all the posthumous powers that the medieval Catholic had offered them.

We do, however, have martyrs. Unlike saints,  these dead martyrs won’t listen to our prayers and  intervene on our behalf. But our pantheon of martyrs does present us with some mighty impressive Anabaptist heroes that no one else has heard of. We have over a thousand martyrs listed in our own confessional tome of hagiography, er, I mean martyrology. This book is called The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith but we usually just call it The Martyrs’ Mirror for short. I don’t know a lot of people who have actually read the book from front to back but we all know it’s there and we’re all pretty proud of our martyred ancestors. If pressed, some of us can even name one or two them.

These days, when martyrdom hits the media, it’s usually in reference to Islam, terrorism and suicide bombing. As a society, we’re pretty uncomfortable with the idea of martyrdom. It suggests fanaticism and a threat to the social order to us. I used to imagine that it wasn’t like that in the sixteenth century — that life was just cheaper then and martyrdom just a thing that happened from time to time.

But I have studied history since then and have learned that it’s not that simple. The Mennonite party line is that Anabaptists were sent to their deaths because of their commitment to their faith. Which is true as far as it goes. Others will say that the Anabaptists were persecuted because the state powers found them threatening. The Martyrs Mirror has commentary to support either or both position, though it doesn’t really go into much detail as to the motivation of the persecutors except to say that Satan cannot stand the love of God and for people to “follow the narrow way”.  Which, quite frankly, isn’t much of an answer. I suspect that the neighbours and extended family members who must have denounced the Anabaptists to the authorities were not entirely Devil-ridden but were, like us now, deeply uncomfortable with the whole idea of martyrdom and these people who were prepared to die for their tenets of faith.

But we can debate the sixteenth century another time because now it is time for a drink. I’ve devised a cocktail in the martyrs’  honour because martyrs are so very important to Mennonite identity. We don’t delve too deeply into their psyche or even their theology, but we know that those martyrs were our heroes and there aren’t a lot of practicing Mennonites out there who don’t admire our ancestral martyrs for their stubbornness in the face of persecution and their unwillingness to compromise. Which would probably be phrased as “steadfast faith” rather than intransigence, but it’s all a matter of perspective.

The Bloody Martyr is a variation of the Bloody Mary that takes some of the flavours from the Russian Mennonite tradition and blends them with the traditional Bloody Mary. The recipe is a bit more involved than most of the ones I prefer and, I’ve got to admit, it’s not my favorite.  Perhaps I don’t have such a taste for martyrdom.

It’s a low alcohol cocktail, making it suitable as an accompaniment to brunch or faspa. If you have a homemade pickle handy, then you should by all means use one of these for your garnish. It doesn’t matter what kind.


The Bloody Martyr

1 ounce Russian Mennonite Borscht “thins”*Bloody Martyr Cocktail
3 ounces tomato juice
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 ounce vodka
Salt and pepper to taste
1 dill pickle for garnish

  1. Pour one ounce of chilled borscht thins into the bottom of the glass
  2. Add tomato juice, lemon and vodka, salt and pepper

*Borscht Thins:
Every Russian Mennonite family has its own recipe for this and the only things in common are: cabbage, tomatoes and dill. Don’t leave out the dill; you can mess with anything else but that. Cook up some beef bones with a couple of cups of water. Add a large can of tomato juice, an onion, some diced potatoes, sliced carrots and shredded cabbage. Add a handful of dill and parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Cook. Reserve 1 ounce of the liquid for every cocktail you wish to prepare. Serve the rest with bread for your supper.

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