Why Did Dirk Willems Turn Back?

Joseph Liechty

LATE IN THE WINTER OF 1569, Dirk Willems of Holland was discovered as an Anabaptist, and a thief catcher came to arrest him at the village of Asperen. Running for his life, Dirk came to a body of water still coated with ice. After making his way across in great peril, he realised his pursuer had fallen through into the freezing water.[1]

Turning back, Dirk ran to the struggling man and dragged him safely to shore. The thief catcher wanted to release Dirk, but a burgomaster – having appeared on the scene – reminded the man he was under oath to deliver criminals to justice. Dirk was bound off to prison, interrogated, and tortured in an unsuccessful effort to make him renounce his faith. He was tried and found guilty of having been rebaptised, of holding secret meetings in his home, and of allowing baptism there – all of which he freely confessed.

“Persisting obstinately in his opinion”, Dirk was sentenced to execution by fire. On the day of execution, a strong east wind blew the flames away from his upper body so that death was long delayed. The same wind carried his voice to the next town, where people heard him cry more than seventy times, “O my Lord; my God.” The judge present was “finally filled with sorrow and regret.” Wheeling his horse around so he saw no more, he ordered the executioner, “Dispatch the man with a quick death.”

A child’s perception of injustice

When I first encountered this story more than thirty years ago as a child, my attention was riveted on what happened to Dirk. For his great goodness he received in return imprisonment, torture, and death. That he should suffer such a fate violated my childish sense of justice and fair play. My notion of how the world worked was undone, and I needed to find a new understanding.

Trying to understand Dirk’s story as an adult, I have come to make some strong claims about its significance. I believe that in the Martyrs’ Mirror, a book filled with heroic examples of Christian obedience to Christ, the story of Dirk’s simple action is the embodiment of some of the great strengths of Anabaptism. I also believe Dirk transcended and healed some great weaknesses of Anabaptism. In this action he obeyed Jesus’ commandment to he perfect as his heavenly father is perfect – that is, to love fully and indiscriminately.

What would I do if . . . ?

1569 was a bad year to be an Anabaptist. The Martyrs’ Mirror lists a number of martyrs that year, some of whom lived close enough to Dirk’s home that he would surely have known of their deaths. I imagine the prospect of death was constantly with him, a steady part of his inner life. I imagine he frequently asked himself, “What would I do if . . . ?” or, more likely in his circumstances, “What will I do when…?” His ruminations must have been shaped to a great extent by the teaching of the little Anabaptist fellowships, one of which met in his home. With arrest and death ever-present dangers, Anabaptists spent considerable time preparing one another to meet them.

One source of instruction was letters from prison. A young purse-maker and minister of the word named Hendrick Alewijns, after his arrest in 1568, wrote many letters to his wife, three small children, and fellow Anabaptists. “There is no fear in love,” he wrote, but “fearless ones run through patience…not out of, but into the conflict that is set before us, and look not at the dreadful tyranny, but unto Jesus, the Captain, the Author and Finisher of our faith.”

Alewijns and other Anabaptists did not mean they sought persecution, nor did they deny themselves the right to flee from it. But even so, this fearlessness was a difficult expectation. I imagine that when Dirk considered how he might respond to capture, he conjured up an array of options, ranging from fleeing at one extreme to calm acceptance of arrest at the other.

I try to imagine what thoughts filled Dirk’s mind as he ran, followed closely by the thief catcher. Did fear and danger dull his mind or make it keen? In either case his thoughts must have been dominated by the effort to save his own life. In at least some small corner of his consciousness, he must have been considering what he had done in fleeing and what he might do if caught. Would he be able to brave torture? Would he renounce his faith? Such tormenting thoughts must have reduced him to so great a fear that, when he came to a body of water, he ran across the thin ice. He risked immediate death by drowning rather than submitting to the prospect of capture, imprisonment, torture, and death. But having saved his own life, Dirk turned back across the ice to save his drowning pursuer.

As a child, my attention seized first on Dirk’s sad reward of death for virtue. But my focus soon turned to an earlier point, less dramatic but more mysterious, when Dirk turned back across the ice. It is this action I can hardly comprehend, that I return to time and again. I am surprised that Dirk even noticed his pursuer had fallen through the ice. I would have expected his desire to live was great enough to drive him forward, ears closed and eyes fixed ahead. Even if he heard cracking ice or a cry for help, I would have expected the desire to live to send him fleeing. Why did he turn back?

Intuitive response to evil

I believe that turning back was not a rational ethical decision, but an intuitive response. The properties of thin ice may almost have dictated intuitive action by leaving him little time to respond. Even if the thief catcher somehow caught hold of a piece of solid ice, and Dirk had a few moments to consider, I still believe his decision was more intuitive than rational. No combination of mental calculations was likely to take him back across the ice.

Perhaps Christianity, with its teaching on loving the enemy, comes closer than any other religious or ethical system to requiring Dirk to do what he did. But where would the command “love your enemies” have led Dirk? He had no reason to believe he could save the thief catcher. The more likely conclusion would have been two deaths, and loving the enemy does not demand futile suicide. In those places where Jesus discusses loving the enemy, none of his examples comes close to requiring that one die for the enemy. If in fact there were others at the scene, the thief catcher’s compatriots, who could condemn Dirk if he had seen the man in distress as their business?

Perhaps chief among the considerations in Dirk’s mind would have been the doctrine of two kingdoms, a basic Anabaptist motif. “There were from the beginning of the world two classes of people, a people of God and a people of the devil,” wrote one Anabaptist martyr. The children of God “have always been persecuted and dispersed, so that they have always been in a minority, and sometimes very few in number, so that they had to hide themselves in caves and dens…but the ungodly have always been powerful, and have prevailed.”

When Dirk looked back on the thief catcher in the water, he saw not just a man near death, but a devouring ravening wolf. He saw not just an individual, but a manifestation of the kingdom of darkness, an agent of the devil himself. Anabaptists also frequently took an image from the book of Revelation. Martyrs, slain for the word of God, wait under the altar in heaven, crying to God, “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). When Dirk looked back, he might have seen an answer to the martyrs’ question – God delivering justice here and now. Or, he could have drawn on the image of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian captivity: his crossing of the ice was the Red Sea parted; the floundering thief catcher was horse and rider thrown into the sea.

Dirk had available to him sound biblical images to justify his running on and leaving the thief catcher to his fate. With the time he had gained, capture was far from inevitable. His crime in the Netherlands was not crime everywhere; he could have fled to other territories and reasonably hoped for a long and peaceful life.

Other examples of sacrificial love

Examining the usual range of sacrificial actions can take us some distance in explaining Dirk’s decision to rescue his pursuer. There are many examples of parents sacrificing for children. I recall the story of an American soldier in Vietnam who threw his body on a grenade, saving the lives of his comrades. Less frequent are accounts of people who gave their lives for someone unknown to them. One example is Father Maximilian Kolb, who chose to die in place of another innocent man in a Nazi concentration camp. Examples of people risking their lives for enemies are scarce indeed. A few years ago the South African bishop Desmond Tutu risked his life to save a suspected police informer from an angry mob. That is remarkable, but it is still a case of the powerful acting to save the weak, and that is a long way from what Dirk did.

We may understand better how radical was Dirk’s action if we transpose the Tutu and Vietnam stories into parallels of Dirk’s situation. In the Tutu story, we would have to imagine that the informer, having almost reached safety, turned back to save one of his pursuers. We must imagine that the American soldier, fleeing what he expected to be torture in a POW camp, risked his life to save a Viet Cong soldier. These transpositions are difficult to imagine.

I am convinced that the only force strong enough to take Dirk back across the ice was an extraordinary outpouring of love. The only kind of love I know that extends to enemies is the love taught and lived by Jesus. When Jesus’ earliest followers struggled to understand the mystery of his death, they found themselves extending the definition of love: Jesus had died for them “when we were God’s enemies.” We must allow that precisely this definition of love – a love that reaches so far as to die for enemies – had shaped Dirk’s character to such an extent that in circumstances of gravest personal danger he was able to express his love in an intuitive response.

Did the Anabaptists love their enemies? We may be sure they taught it; they were never ones to shirk Jesus’ hard sayings. They also had the example of Jesus in the way of the cross, which the Anabaptists generally understood as requiring the willing, non-violent acceptance of suffering. Their frequently cited experience of having been loved by God before they loved him must have reinforced the teaching and example of Jesus. At very least they had thrown away their swords, so they could not respond to their enemies in the conventional ways.

The enemy as wolf and lost lamb

Like a nation at war, Anabaptists needed to maintain identity and bind themselves together in unity through the stresses of conflict. To this end they had positive means: community, discipleship, and pacifism. But the Anabaptists also had negative ways of maintaining group cohesion. Like civilians uniting behind a war effort, Anabaptists were inclined to dehumanise their enemies by identifying them as entirely evil. They did this with the doctrine of two kingdoms: they were children of light, their enemies, children of darkness; they were lambs, their enemies, wolves. Today, when dualistic thinking is condemned as the root of many evils, the doctrine of two kingdoms has neglected merits. I would argue that without some form of a two kingdoms doctrine we are unlikely to understand fully Jesus’ teachings or the demands of discipleship.

Yet the two kingdoms doctrine on its own makes a sorely deficient worldview. Christians in the Anabaptist’s position are called to do the nearly impossible: to see their persecutors as both wolves and lost lambs, as both servants of evil and confused neighbours. The contempt for enemies inherent in two kingdom thinking, coupled with bitter experience, must have stained the Anabaptists’ souls.

It must have seemed to Anabaptists that terms of life were being dictated to them, and they must simply respond as well and faithfully as they could. The battle could hardly have been less equal as the Anabaptists struggled against the combined forces of Church and State with nothing more than spiritual weapons. When the weak attempt to love their powerful enemies, the results must be primarily passive and internal. Always hunted and sometimes on the run, they had no leisure to ask themselves, what can we do to express enemy-love in a positive way? If they could simply resist the spirit-deforming influence of hatred, they had accomplished much.

In these circumstances, the moment when Dirk stood poised between running on and turning back held a more than personal significance. The opportunity before him was a rare one, and he was choosing for all the Anabaptists who never had a choice either to run to freedom or to act on love for their enemies. The path Dirk took would be the testimony for a whole community of how deeply they had been penetrated by the love for enemies inherent in the cross they had chosen to bear.

In the next moment, when Dirk chose to turn back, he stood on holy ground, where things we normally hold apart were bound together. Dirk had accomplished the almost impossible: he had seen the thief catcher as both an agent of the devil and a helpless human brother. Only then was he free to fulfil the call to love his enemy – after all, lambs do not save wolves. He had acted on his own, and yet, perhaps, for his Anabaptist brothers and sisters as well. I expect that if we could ask Dirk why he turned to save the enemy, we would hear “Not I, but Christ in me.” Yet if Dirk was simply obeying what could not he disobeyed, his act has little meaning. In my imagination I can only resolve it thus: as Dirk walked across the ice, he was sustained but not compelled by the hand of God.

When I search the scriptures to help me understand what Dirk did, I go where I have always gone – to the hard sayings of Jesus and to the cross. I search for other passages as well, ones that speak of extravagant praise. The gospel of Mark records the story of a woman who poured a jar of costly ointment over Jesus’ head. The disciples were indignant at this appalling waste, but Jesus rebuked them, saying, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me…And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Like this woman, Dirk Willems has done a beautiful thing for Jesus. Wherever the gospel is preached, it is good that what he has done should be told in memory of him.

[1] The story of Dirk Willems is from a 1660 Anabaptist martyrology compiled by Thieleman J. van Bracht, translated as Martyrs Mirror (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1950), 741-42. A longer version of Joseph Liechty’s article on Willems appeared in Mennonite Life 45, no. 3 (1990:18-23).

Related Resources