These hymns were inspired by the miserable prison conditions that Anabaptists faced in early Anabaptism -- the founders of the movement carried today by Mennonites and Brethren -- and extolled the virtues love for one's tormentors, persevering despite persecution, and even martyrdom.
When kidnappers took 12 missionaries from Haiti and five of their children, it was not surprising that those who share the Christian tradition would draw upon these values when they participated in prayer vigils around the clock.
While the families and supporters of captors expressed hope for their safety, they also stressed different themes: "Love Your Enemies." "Forgive Them." "Pray For the Kidnappers."
The hostages' families released a joint statement that described the situation in welcoming terms. The statement was issued by Christian Aid Ministries. It stated that God has given loved ones the opportunity to live out the Lord's commandment to love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and do good to those that hate you. It is located in Ohio's Amish heartland, Holmes County. The organization has been operating in Haiti and other countries for almost four decades.
These statements might seem odd or even inconsiderate to people who would expect prayers to be focused on the well-being and comfort of their loved ones.
These statements are deeply rooted within the unique religious tradition that conservative Anabaptists have -- a group which shares some beliefs with mainstream evangelical Christians like salvation through Jesus but has many distinct beliefs.
Conservative Anabaptists are primarily seeking to live apart from mainstream society. They are distinguished by their plain clothes, with women wearing head covers. They are known for their "non-resistance” to violence and evil, which goes beyond refusing to serve in the army. They have a rich tradition of martyrdom, which is well-earned since their forebears were subject to severe persecutions in the 16th century Reformation, when they were considered too radical to Catholics as well as fellow Protestants.
Particularly, Anabaptists draw on the biblical Sermon on Mount, which includes some of Jesus' most radical statements and counter-cultural sayings: to love enemies, live simple, bless persecutors. Turn the other cheek. To endure sufferings joyfully
Wayne Wengerd, who is a member of a steering group that represents the Amish church-state relations, stated that "Living out the Sermon on the Mount Principles is one of the key tenants of our faith." "That is something we take literally."
He stated that these principles require that "we do good for those who persecute or hurt us" and that "we pray not only for those that share our faith but also those who are not."
Wengerd, who is from Wayne County and lives near Holmes, stated that it would be an error to consider such a mindset blind to the suffering of the kidnappings.
He said that people are still worried, they are conscious of it, they talk about the matter, pray for good results, and they do hope for some sort of relief. However, Christians and followers of Christ know that persecution is inevitable.
The missionary group was returning from a visit at CAM's orphanage when they were kidnapped. If ransom demands are not met, the 400 Mawozo gang threatened to kill 16 Americans and 1 Canadian missionary group.
CAM claims that the kidnappers are Mennonite, Amish and other conservative Anabaptist communities throughout Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. CAM's core missionary staff, donors, and volunteers are conservative Anabaptists.
Wengerd stated that Anabaptists use resources such as "Ausbund", a hymnal which includes 16th-century prison hymns, and "Martyrs Mirror" for "reminding me of the cost of discipleship within Christ's kingdom."
"Martyrs Mirror," tells the story of hundreds of Anabaptists who gave their lives for their faith. Dirk Willems is a 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist. He fled authorities in winter and turned around to save the life of a follower who had fallen through ice. Willems was nevertheless arrested and executed. It is still taught that Willems' example of sacrificed love for an opponent is a common one.
Marcus Yoder is the executive director at the Amish & Mennonite History Center in Holmes County. He said that he tells groups visiting the museum the story about Dirk Willems often. One tour featured a survivor from the Nickel Mines shooting.
Yoder said that she recalled her daughter crying and clinging to her mother. "Her father used the story to talk with his family about forgiveness. These bits of our history are a part of our worldview and theology for a long time.
Yoder, a Mennonite minister said that these examples should not obscure the pain of those whose loved ones have been kidnapped. He said, "I can't imagine the pain that these families are going through."
Steven Nolt is a professor of History at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. He recalls attending one of the Nickel Mines funerals and hearing the preacher say, "We don’t understand, but we accept what happened as God’s will" and that "It’s not God’s will that people kill other people."
Nolt said that this seems contradictory. It is a reflection of a deep belief in "divine providence", which says that while believers may not always understand why things happen but "can know what God desires and how humans should live."
Hart Dunkard Brethren Church pastor Ron Marks in Hart, Michigan said that it was "our Lord's commandment" to pray for the persecutors of one's family members and seek their conversion. He said, "That would have been the ultimate positive outcome to this ordeal."
Many outsiders have praised Anabaptists beliefs in forgiveness.
Advocates for victims of sexual abuse in Anabaptist churches say that it can have a dark side. After the abuser confesses, victims and their families are sometimes forced to come to terms with each other.
Hope Anne Dueck, cofounder of A Better Way (an Ohio-based group that offers education on sexual abuse and advocates on behalf of victims in Anabaptist church settings), said the current focus should be on safety of hostages.
Two years later, the scandal of sexual abuse involving Jeriah Mast (one of CAM's long-serving missionaries to Haiti) erupted. In Holmes County, he was sentenced to nine years imprisonment for previous abuse of two boys in Ohio. His judge also stated that Mast had confessed to molestation of at least 30 Haitian boys at sentencing.
Dueck stated that the current hostage crisis has "caused a lot of pain among survivors and advocates for those who have suffered sexual abuse or grieved the loss of Jeriah's victims."
She strongly supported the current prayer chain for hostages, but she lamented that there weren't 24/7 prayer chains for Jeriah and his victims.