Five hundred years ago there was a group of Christians living in Europe known as Anabaptists. These are not to be confused with today’s Baptists, though the groups do share some points of common history. The name Anabaptist was not so much a description as it was a condemnation.
The Anabaptists were “anti-baptizers,” scorning infant baptism and a heap of other cherished church doctrines. Because of this, and their refusal to join their faith to the ruling civil powers, they were violently persecuted by governments, Catholics, and Protestants alike.
One such persecution broke out in Holland, and while there were some genuine fanatics in the Anabaptist tribe, the simple, compassionate, and the innocent were gobbled up as well (as is always the case). One such innocent was a man named Dirk Willems.
On a winter day a bailiff was sent to arrest Dirk on the charge that he had been holding secret religious meetings in his home and had allowed others to be re-baptized there (a capital offense at the time). Dirk ran for his life, with the bailiff right on his heels, throwing himself across a small ice-covered pond.
The frozen pond held Dirk’s weight and he crossed safely to the other side. The ice, however, did not hold for his pursuer, and the bailiff crashed into the freezing water. Dirk Willems instantly turned back and rescued the man from certain death. For this kindness, Dirk was arrested, tortured, and after refusing to renounce his faith, was burned at the stake on May 16, 1569, by the ruling Calvinists.
Here is the lingering question: “Why did Dirk Willems turn back?” Dr. Joseph Liechty answers, “It was not a rational choice…not an ethical decision. It was an intuitive response. No combination of mental calculations could have carried him back across the ice. The only force strong enough to take Dirk back across the ice was an extraordinary outpouring of love…the love taught and lived by Jesus.”
When Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you,” he was not issuing a commandment, easily followed like a driver heeding a traffic signal. He was calling his followers to go against the grain of human instinct, to embrace an alternative way of life, one infused with an automatic, “intuitive” compassion.
This is a spiritual formation to which to aspire: That when we encounter hate, suffering, injustice, frustration, or tribulation, to be able to respond with spontaneous, ferocious love. Where we don’t have to deliberate, ruminate, or cogitate about it. Our response – our compassion-shaped reflex – is goodness not hate, blessings not curses, and prayerfulness instead of vengeance.
Summarily, it is to be “compelled by the love of Christ.” That is the explanation for why Dirk Willems turned back, and it is a real solution for a real future, for “turning back” to the way of sacrificial love, is the only way forward.