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The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin

Essay for 17 January 2005

Falling Out for Trifles

For Sunday January 23, 2005
Third Sunday After Epiphany

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Isaiah 9:1–4
           Psalm 27:1, 4–9
           1 Corinthians 1:10–18
           Matthew 4:12–23

Burning a heretic
Burning a heretic

           Exactly 500 years ago this week Jaime de Casafranca, a deputy to the treasurer of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel, was burned at the stake during the Inquisition (January 17, 1505). His wife was burned to death a few months later (June 23), and his mother died in a secret prison. Christians killing Christians.

           Christianity had turned so deadly in the sixteenth century that the English Protestant John Foxe (1516–1587) compiled a history of Protestant martyrs called Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Published in 1563, the book was hugely successful, and went through four editions in Foxe's lifetime. He himself fled England to Frankfurt and Basel when the Catholic Mary came to power in 1554. By the time he was an old man Foxe had experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of the first fifty years of the Protestant Reformation. In a sermon delivered outside Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, on Good Friday, 1570, Foxe lamented the chronic bloodshed:

But here (alack) cometh another mischief, as great, or greater than the other [ie, the Turkish invasion of Hungary and Austria]. For the Turk with his sword is not so cruel, but the bishop of Rome on the other side is more fierce and bitter against us; stirring up his bishops to burn us, his confederates to conspire our destruction, setting kings against their subjects, and subjects disloyally to rebel against their princes, and all for thy name. Such dissension and hostility Satan hath sent among us, that Turks be not more enemies to Christians, than Christians to Christians, papists to protestants; yea, protestants with protestants do not agree, but fall out for trifles.1

Christians have excluded, persecuted and killed those they deemed to be different—Jews, Muslims, gays, witches, heretics and so on. But what dispirited Foxe so much was that the bitterest enemies were Christians against Christians, persecuting each other over the slightest differences. And all, he observed with biting irony, "for thy name." With less than a decade or so of genuine peace, Europe of the Protestant Reformation endured almost two centuries of constant warfare.2

           The reading from the epistle for this week advises us that schism is not new. When the apostle Paul visited the Christians at Corinth during the years 50–52 AD, barely twenty years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, he encountered a badly divided community of believers. He described them in a letter he wrote to them a few years later: "My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, 'I follow Paul'; another, 'I follow Apollos'; another, 'I follow Cephas'; still another, 'I follow Christ'" (1 Corinthians 1:11–12, NIV). In the face of such mutual suspicion, exclusion, recrimination, accusations, and outing, Paul urged them to unity and agreement.

           Not all Christians distrust, demonize, fear, caricature and separate themselves from each other. We can also find voices of inclusion, embrace, toleration, and even celebration.

Cutbert Simpson on the rack
Cutbert Simpson on the rack

           About the same time that Foxe bemoaned Christian quarreling in London, Hungarian believers in Transylvania granted legal parity to Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and even to anti-Trinitarians. Today this sounds tame, but for that day it was a radically tolerant voice in the wilderness. At a meeting in Torda in 1568, they declared, "ministers should everywhere preach and proclaim [the Gospel] according to their understanding of it, and if their community is willing to accept this, good; if not, however, no one should be compelled by force if their spirit is not at peace, but a minister retained whose teaching is pleasing to the community...no one is permitted to threaten to imprison or banish anyone because of their teaching, because faith is a gift of God."3

           A few years later, when the Polish-Lithuanian monarch Sigismond Augustus died in 1572, the commonwealth faced the task of identifying a new monarch. That autumn, news had reached them of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Just a few months earlier that August, Catholics across France had unleashed a fury against Protestant Hugenots and slaughtered 4,000 people. At a meeting on January 28, 1573, the Polish-Lithuanian citizens vowed that such a massacre would never happen in their land. They passed the so-called Confederation of Warsaw, an early testament to religious toleration.

Since there is in our Commonwealth no little disagreement on the subject of religion, in order to prevent any such hurtful strife from beginning among our people on this account as we plainly see in other realms, we mutually promise for ourselves and our successors forever...that we who differ with regard to religion will keep the peace with one another, and will not for a different faith or a change of churches shed blood nor punish one another by confiscation of property, infamy, imprisonment or banishment, and will not in any way assist any magistrate or officer in such an act.4

The new monarch Henri agreed to this peace, and Poland-Lithuania enjoyed unusual calm for the next hundred years.

           Fast-forwarding to our own day, a recent effort called Christian Churches Together in the USA seeks to bring together five broad families of believers: Evangelical/Pentecostal, Historic or mainline Protestants, Orthodox, Racial/Ethnic believers (black, Hispanic, etc.), and Roman Catholics. Of course, any efforts at ecumenism can divide believers even further. Southern Baptists, the largest body of Protestants in America, sent "observers" to the CCT the last three years (the effort began in September 2001), but recently voted not to affiliate. On the other hand, the U.S. Catholic bishops voted 151–73 last month to become full partners, and will likely contribute funds to support CCT.

John Foxe
John Foxe

           A few summers ago I attended a conference in Mittersill, Austria, on theological education in Europe. The delegates were mainly young, seminary students from across Europe. One of the highlights of the conference each year is "culture night," when believers from each country celebrate their distinctive heritage in song, dance, skits, poetry, or any other way they choose. That summer the Dutch students, always a large contingent, did a masterful job of paroding their own Dutch Reformed propensity to split into increasingly smaller and inconsequential denominations, and, as Foxe would have put it, "all for trifles." The audience had to match a list of denominational names with absurd criteria, like typical length of sermons, style of music, formality of dress, type of breath mints, what constituted being acceptably late, and so on. I still remember the name of one of the denominations: "the really, truly, totally, absolutely, fully, re-, re-, reformed Dutch Church."

           Enjoying the rich community of fellow believers from some twenty countries and denominations, those Dutch seminarians clearly wanted to move beyond the Corinthian heresy of schism, division, slander, oneupmanship, and worse. So do I, and many others too. In memory of Casafranca's needless and shameful death, may their tribe increase. And so, a very warm, Christian welcome to Journey with Jesus readers who hail from 107 countries.


[1] Cited by Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2004), p. 335.
[2] MacCulloch, p. 648.
[3] MacCulloch, p. 254.
[4] MacCulloch, p. 332.