Friday, March 28, 2008

Religion and Politics

They say two things you should avoid talking about in polite company are religion and politics. However, when discussing history from any perspective, especially the church's, it is impossible to avoid either. I bring this up because as one explores the various social communities on the Internet (Facebook, My-space, etc.) one invariably gets asked for one's political affiliation. It's always been a hard thing for me to nail down.

Since I would prefer to see governments in general kept as small as possible, and ignoring me as much as possible, I guess from a secular viewpoint I'm a Libertarian. But that's not entirely accurate as I'm not nearly as concerned with the government's ability to ignore me as I am with my capacity to ignore the government. Some would say that this makes me an anarchist, but that too is not an accurate label. I'm not against government, in fact I fully appreciate the need for one and want the best government possible, as long as it is no bigger than needed and leaves me to do my thing while it goes about doing its thing. "Render unto Caesar... " as it were.

I guess of all the terms I've heard to describe my approach, the best would be what Jacques Ellul called "Christian Anarchy"; Christians are not ruled by human governments but rather by Christ alone. This does not mean that we do not obey human authority, but rather that we obey them as far as we are able only because Christ expects it of us.

One aspect of Ellul's stand is that, as a result, Christians have no need to seek public office. Many Christian leaders, especially in the US, are of the opinion that followers of Jesus Christ have a duty to seek public office so as to ensure the laws of the land follow the teachings of the Bible. Ellul suggests this won't work because rather than bringing a Christ-like atmosphere to the halls of power, history has shown that political power is far more likely to twist the Christian politician.

Which brings me to this week's story. It's one of the examples from history that I believe Jacques might have had in mind.

Elizabeth Dirks was raised in a nunnery in East Friesland, where she learned Latin and read the Bible through and through. Convinced that monasticism was not the way for her she escaped with the help of the milkmaids and became a follower of Menno Simons. Simons was the leader of what is known as the peaceful arm of the Anabaptists, a group within the Reformation that opposed state mandated faith. They contended that the state could not force a person into belief, it had to be a personal choice. By the same logic they opposed infant baptism, claiming that an infant could not hope to understand the faith into which they were being baptized. Since no personal choice was involved the baptism was without meaning. This became the bone of contention between the government and the Anabaptists.

As one of the first Reformation women ministers, a deaconess, the civic authorities (read Catholic) arrested Elizabeth in 1549. When they found her Bible, containing notations from Menno's preaching, they believed they had the person they were looking for - the wife of Menno Simons. They were wrong. They were also wrong about Dirks' character. They thought they could intimidate this woman at her interrogation; they couldn't. The official record of her inquisition shows the examiners tried to get her to inform on those to whom she had taught Anabaptist interpretations of scripture. Knowing that this would lead to their arrest, she replied, "No, my Lords, do not press me on this point. Ask me about my faith and I will answer you gladly."

When she would not reveal who had baptized her or whom she had taught, they began to attack her beliefs. The records tell how she insisted church buildings are not the house of God, for our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and how the bread and wine are spoken of in the New Testament not as a sacrament but rather as the Lord's Supper. When asked if she were saved by baptism, she replied, "No, my Lords. All the water in the sea cannot save me. All my salvation is in Christ, who has commanded me love the Lord, my God, and my neighbor as myself."

Still refusing to reveal who had baptized her, she was taken to the torture chamber and a man named Hans applied screws to her thumbs and fingers until blood spurted from under her fingernails. Still refusing to reveal her friends, her agony was so great that she cried aloud to Christ, and her pain was miraculously relieved. So they lifted her skirt to apply torture to her shins. She rebuked Hans stating that she had never allowed anyone to touch her body and was not about to let herself be violated now.

Even so, they crushed her leg bones through her skirts with massive screws until she fainted dead away. In fact, the inquisitors were going to leave her for dead, but she came to and asserted her faith all the more. Finally they came to the realization that Elizabeth Dirks would never compromise herself. The authorities condemned her to die, but rather than burn her, as was customary for a heretic, they chose instead the irony of 'baptizing' her to death. She was tied up in a large cloth bag and drowned. It would become a common method of executing the Anabaptists.

Over the years, the so-called "Christian states", both Catholic and Protestant, hunted down the Anabaptists; declaring open season on anyone who opposed the sacrament of infant baptism or suggested that governments did not have the right to dictate the faith of their subjects. Believing God had placed them in authority, these Christian politicians and officials felt it their duty to protect the faith by whatever means necessary. History has shown it to be a common scenario. In this instance unnumbered thousands of people were slaughtered in the name of preserving the Christian heritage of 16th century Europe. Some of Menno's followers escaped by settling in Moravia where their descendants gave birth to a number of faith communities including the Mennonites (named in honour of Menno), the Hutterites, the Quakers, and the Brethren.

Elizabeth Dirks was executed for holding to her belief in a personal faith on March 27, 1549 - 459 years ago this week.


1. "Protestantism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 Mar. 2008
2. "Menno Simons." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 Mar. 2008
3. "Elizabeth Dirks Drowned as an Anabaptist", Christian History Institute, March 27th

Other Events this week in Church History:

March 22, 1638: Religious dissident Anne Hutchinson is expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony. Questioned about her teachings on grace, she insisted she had received divine revelations. When her examiners asked how she knew these came from God, she replied, "How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the Sixth Commandment?" Although Hutchinson repented of her "errors," her questioners decided she was lying and banished her from the colony.

March 23, 332 (traditional date): Gregory the Illuminator, so called because he brought the light of Christ to the people, dies. A missionary to his homeland of Armenia, he was instrumental in the conversion of King Tiridates, and much of the kingdom followed suit. Soon Christianity was established as the national religion, with Gregory as its bishop.

March 24, 1980: Roman Catholic archbishop Oscar Romero, a vocal opponent of the San Salvador military, is assassinated while saying mass in his country. Several men, believed to be part of a death squad, were arrested for the murder but were later released.

March 25, 1625: England's King James I dies. In 1604, at the Hampton Court Conference, James authorized the translation project that produced the 1611 King James (Authorized) Version of the Bible.

March 26, 752: Stephen III assumes the papacy after Stephen II dies. But Stephen III is sometimes called Stephen II, since the real Stephen II hardly counts: he died a mere four days after his election!

March 28, 1661: Scottish Parliament passes the Rescissory Act, repealing all church-state legislation created since 1633 (Charles I's reign). In essence, the act restored the Anglican episcopacy to Scotland and quashed Presbyterianism, which had been the national church since 1638. In 1690 Parliament again established the Church of Scotland as Presbyterian.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Cycle Continues

Among Protestants the word 'reformer' will call to mind one specific group of individuals operating either in close or distant orbit around Martin Luther. But the fact is, Luther was not the first to try to reform the Catholic church. Time and time again the church became corrupt over the centuries and each time God raised up individuals to address the abuses. Two such men were Robert of Molesne and Stephen Harding.

By the end of the church's first millennium monastic orders had become one of the driving forces in church life, and to be fair, the system worked well, most of the time. Contrary to popular belief the monasteries were not places where the religious holed-up and ignored the world. From within the monastery walls they reached out to meet the needs of the surrounding community. They provided education, medical services, emergency relief in times of flood and famine; they served as arbiters negotiating disputes and generally served the needs of the people in the name of Christian charity. The walls of the monastery were intended to protect the religious not from the common man, but from the all too common temptations that ruled the world at large.

There is, of course, one drawback to this plan. The religious communities, like the world around them, were made up of people. And people are easily led astray, even by the best of intentions. The problem was that as the monastic community did what they did so well, people began to reward them with various gifts, money being high on the list. Eventually civil authorities often just let them run things. As more and more responsibility was entrusted to them the religious orders become more influential in governing circles. With influence comes power and power, as they say, corrupts. The orders became wealthy and embroiled in the world's value system.

Robert and Stephen looked at the way things were and determined that the older orders were no longer following the example of Christ. Had not Jesus lived a life of poverty? Had not his disciples left all to follow him? Furthermore, Jesus had called the rich ruler to leave all to follow him and had taught that it was hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.

After unsuccessful attempts to turn the hearts of the corrupt, the two men, along with some like minded fellows, sought to escape the soul-sapping temptations of wealth and power, by organizing a monastery of their own at Citeaux in Burgundy. Their new monastic order, the Cistercians or "white monks" dedicated themselves to silence, austerity and manual work rather than scholarship. Intent on resisting the lure of the world, they refused to accept tithes, gifts, or lay patrons, seeking a plain, simple lifestyle without treasures or personal possessions. Unlike other orders where the bulk of the work was done by hired lay-people, they kept no servants, believing that work itself was a form of prayer. When not engaging in tasks such as farming, cooking, weaving and carpentry, their day was devoted to meditation, reading, and divine service. They allowed themselves seven hours of sleep in winter and six in summer. In summer they ate once a day; in winter, twice.

The order kept pretty much to themselves, as was intended, until, fourteen years after their founding one Bernard of Clairvaux would arrive at Citeaux (see woodcut at right). It was Bernard that realized the potential of what Robert and Stephen had started. He took their simple rules for monastic life and started another Cistercian monastery in his hometown. In the years to follow he would found an additional 65 monasteries throughout Europe laying the foundation for what would eventually prove to be one of the great revolutions in European civilization.

By the year 1300 there would be over 600 Cistercian monasteries and nunneries in existence. Their work ethic and their devotion to improving the lives of the people they served would lead to improved cattle breeds and the developments of several new methods of agriculture, which they eagerly taught to the farmers. The result was the transformation of the wastelands of Europe into highly productive farmland.

The efforts of the Cistercians left Europe far better off than they had found it. Other orders began to follow their example and the life of the common man gradually improved. They still faced hard times, by our standards, but for the 14th century farming life had never been better.

Life was also good for the Cistercians. Their influence grew with their contributions to society and that made them a very wealthy and powerful order. The administration of the order and its activities across the continent soon occupied more and more of the monks time. They withdrew from manual labour, leaving it to the hired lay-brothers that became associated with their monasteries. It was not long before allegations of greed and corruption were made, as they themselves had accused the older orders that had motivated their founding. The cycle continued, even as it does today.

The opening of the first Cistercians monastery at Citeaux by Robert of Molesne and Stephen Harding happened on March 21, 1098 - 910 years ago this week.

1. Gildas, F. M. "Cistercians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
2. Various encyclopedia articles, histories, histories of Christianity and internet articles.

Other Events that Happened this week:

March 15, 1517: Pope Leo X issues the infamous indulgence that would ultimately lead to the Reformation and the Protestant movement. Having drained the papal treasury indulging his love of lavious living and entertainment, Leo needed to raise funds to rebuild St. Peter's basilica. In exchange for donations he offered "to absolve you ...from all thy sins, transgressions, and excesses, how enormous soever they be...and remit to you all punishment which you deserve in purgatory on their account and I restore the innocence and purity which you possessed at baptism; so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut... and if you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death."

March 16, 1649 : Jesuit missionaries John of Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant are martyred in Quebec, Canada. When a tribal war broke out between the Iroquois and the Hurons they had been instructing in the Christian faith, the two men refused to leave their charges despite the warnings of the Huron chief. When the Hurons were over whelmed and slaughtered by the Iroquois the Jesuits were tortured to death over a two day period.

March 17, 1780: Thomas Chalmers, pastor and reformer is born. In 1843, angered by the restrictions and controls imposed on the Scottish clergy by the state, Chalmers led a third of the Scottish clergy and a half of the laity out of the church of Scotland and into the Free Church of Scotland (FCS), which he helped to found.

March 18, 1861: London's Metropolitan Tabernacle, the sanctuary of English Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, opens. Spurgeon had insisted that the enormous building employ Greek architecture because the New Testament was written in Greek—a decision that influenced church architecture throughout the world.

March 19, 1229: After negotiating a treaty with Muslims for Christian access to Jerusalem, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (coerced into participating in the sixth crusade by the pope) enters the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and crowns himself king. Unfortunately his peace treaty was denounced by members of both faiths, and Frederick was later excommunicated for making peace instead of war. Go figure!

March 20, 1852: Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, daughter of famous Congregational minister Lyman Beecher, publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin (which had been serialized in an antislavery newspaper). The book sold one million copies and was so influential in arousing antislavery sentiment that Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said upon meeting Stowe in 1863: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!"

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Simplicius and the Heretics

In the middle of the 5th century the Roman Empire had all but disintegrated. In the Western part of the empire Vandals, Visigoths, and Franks had replaced Roman power with puppet emperors, controlled by the aforementioned group, collectively referred to as barbarians. And as if that wasn't enough, Odovakar, a Herulian (one of the Teutonic tribes) had seized power in Rome.

It was in the midst of this turmoil that Simplicius, from Tripoli, was elected Bishop of Rome (Pope) to replace the recently deceased Pope Hilarius. (Go ahead, get it out of your system... Finished giggling? Good... let's continue.)

It is easy to understand why Simplicius was not looking forward to dealing with the political upheaval in the west, but as it turned out he need not have worried because, Odovakar treated the church with respect. This is not to say that Simplicius didn't have his headaches, he did, but they came from the Eastern Empire. The usurper, Basiliscus, drove Emperor Zeno from the throne. Needing Monophysite support, Basiliscus placed many heretics in key positions.

Monophysitism began as a response to Nestorianism. Nestorius, who was made Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, refused to call Mary Theotokos (Mother of God), because he believed the child in her womb was thoroughly human, declaring that His Divine Nature existed only before and after his incarnation. In direct opposition to this idea, Eutyches taught that Christ's human nature was dissolved in his divine nature "as a drop of honey dissolves in the ocean" and that this dissolution formed the one and only nature of Christ. This teaching was called Monophysitism (one nature) Each faction was, in their own way, attempting to preserve a part of the truth about Christ's person.

Eventually Pope Leo, called the Council of Chalcedon to resolve the issue, among others. The bishops decided that unless Christ is fully God, he cannot redeem us, and unless he is truly man, he cannot stand in our place. The bishops therefore issued a statement declaring, "We teach . . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation."

This declaration however, did Simplicius little good. In the 17 years since the Council of Chalcedon, the Monophystites hadn't gone anywhere. In fact their influence had grown, hence Basilicus' perceived need to placate them to hold power. To further demonstrate his support for the Monophysite position, the usurper ordered the acts of Chalcedon burnt, much to the pleasure of nearly 500 bishops. Simplicius found himself defending Bishop Acacius of Constantinople, the lone bishop who resisted the Monophysite error.

In Alexandria, Egypt, things were even worse. Not content with screaming at each other and making overt accusations about their parentage and sexual habits, (common elements of debate for the time) rivals in Alexandria tortured, murdered and assassinated each other. A Monophysite monk, known only as Timothy the Cat, butchered and roasted the patriarch of Alexandria three days before Easter, and triumphantly seized his office. In the early centuries of theological debate, agreeing to disagree simply wasn't an option.

That doesn't mean some didn't try. Emperor Zeno eventually regained his throne and defrocked the Monophysite bishops. However, Zeno had learned a valuable lesson about the political and even military power the Monophysites. So in an effort to arrange a compromise he issued the Henoticon (Act of Union) a document of faith that was worded vaguely enough to escape the charge of heresy while leaving the Monophysites sufficient latitude to retain their views.

But compromise was not possible. Simplicius' defense of the principles laid down at the Council of Chalcedon ensured that the orthodox view of Christ was retained in the West, and eventually accepted by many other factions of the church, including the Protestants. But the debate has never fully subsided; the Church of Ethiopia remains Monophysite to this day.

Simplicius was elected Pope on March 3, 468 - 1540 years ago this week.

1. Pope St. Simplicius. J.P. Kirsch. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV.
2. Council of Chalcedon. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III.

Other events this week in church History.

March 1, 1854: Pioneer missionary Hudson Taylor arrives in Shanghai, China. Taylor would found the China Inland Mission in 1865, other missions criticized his idea that missionaries should live and dress like the people they seek to evangelize, but it would prove to be an important contributor to his success.

March 2, 1938: Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of Germany's "Confessing Church," is sentenced to seven months in prison for opposing Hitler.

March 4, 1583: Bernard Gilpin, the English clergyman whose ministry in neglected sections of Northumberland and Yorkshire earned him the title "Apostle of the North," dies at age 66.

March 5, 1797: The three-masted ship Duff arrives in Tahiti's Matavai Bay, completing a 207-day voyage from London. The ship, commanded by Captain John Wilson, had aboard 37 artisans and pastors of the London Missionary Society (L.M.S.) and their families, who were to be resettled in the South Pacific on the islands of Tahiti, Tonga and the Marquesas.

March 6, 1475: Italian artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, famous for his paintings (the Sistine Chapel), sculpture ("David"), and architecture (the rebuilding of St. Peter's Cathedral), is born in Caprese.

March 7, 1274: Thomas Aquinas, one of the most significant theologians of all time, dies at age 48. Known for his adaptation of Aristotle's writings to Christianity, he became famous for his massive Summa Theologiae (or "A summation of theological knowledge"). In its early pages, he stated, "In sacred theology, all things are treated from the standpoint of God." Thomas proceeded to distinguish between philosophy and theology and between reason and revelation, though he emphasized that these did not contradict each other. Both are fountains of knowledge; both come from God.