What a Difference a Few Years Make

Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity. It may not be surprising that Islamic theology in relationship to the Qur’an is 600 years (or maybe less) behind Christianity’s relationship to the Bible.

Much has been made of President Obama’s inclusion of the Crusades in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Astute conservative commentators noted that while certain groups within the more fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an are indiscriminately killing people (both Christians and Muslims) now, the Crusaders were fighting a few battles in the Holy Lands to repatriate them from Muslim conquest a thousand years ago. (Okay, not entirely astute as the last Crusade ended a bit over 700 years ago, but what’s the problem with being off a few centuries here or there for the sake of political rhetoric?)

It is worth noting that the Fourth Crusade included the sacking of Christian Constantinople in 2014. This was somewhat in response to the Massacre of the Latins (tens of thousands of Roman Catholic residents) in Constantinople in 1182.

What President Obama failed to note was that open warfare and often indiscriminate killing was the norm amongst European Christians much more recently. Like the internecine warfare and terrorism between Islamic interpretations of the Qur’an (even today, ISIS has been responsible for the deaths of many, many more Muslims than Christians), differing interpretations of the Bible were the basis of the wholesale destruction of much of early modern Europe.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal if we were only referring to territorially limited situations. For example, when Edward VI (the son of Henry VIII) took the English throne as a 9-year-old boy, his aggressively Protestant regents picked up for theological reasons the destruction of Catholicism that Henry had begun for political reasons. More churches and monasteries were destroyed. Books and manuscripts were burned. However, when Edward died at the tender age of 15, his Catholic sister Mary started rounding up and martyring Protestants. Mary tended to like burning as a method of execution.

When her Protestant sister Elizabeth took the throne five years later, there were no martyrs for 12 years, but then things ramped up again. It was even made a capital crime to leave England and be ordained as a Catholic priest in another country. One Thomas Holford was executed along with 13 others for violating this law in 1588. Blessed Thomas was lucky to just get hanged. The usual method was to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

ISIS really don’t have anything on Christians when it comes to executing Christians for their faith.

Things settled down in England for a while until Charles I. Then there was that whole English Civil Wars thing. Charles was married to a Catholic and was a closet Catholic himself. Parliament was fundamentalist Protestant. That’s what set the whole thing going and tore the country apart for nine years. More churches destroyed. More books and manuscripts burned. Lots of people dead.

As that whole issue was smoldering, some Protestants left to set up colonies in the New World where they could have freedom of religion, and write their own laws. The crypto-papist king just wasn’t killing the right people.

In Puritan New England, adultery and sodomy were made capital crimes, though admittedly often those convicted of adultery were merely fined and publicly whipped. Male sodomy and bestiality was usually punished by execution. And even if you were seen at the wrong time and place with someone of the opposite sex (called “lascivious carriage”) you were publicly whipped, so as to deter you (and presumably others) from the temptation of committing adultery or fornication. Sounds just a little bit like Saudi Arabia today.

Burglary was punished with branding a big letter “B” on the culprit. If there was a second offense, the “B” was then branded on the forehead.

And religion was so freely practiced that even in the more secular Virginia colony, failure to attend church twice each day for morning and evening prayer services was punishable in the first instance by the loss of a day’s food. A second offense was punishable by a whipping.  Three strikes and you faced six months of rowing in the colony’s ships.

But that’s just our English and American ancestors. On the European continent things got much worse. While the English were just getting ready for their civil wars, central Europe was in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War.  This resulted in an estimated 8,000,000 deaths. That’s 13 times the number of deaths in the American Civil War. That’s 40 times the number of deaths from war casualties and war-related disease in the English Civil Wars.

For 30 years, Catholic rulers and Protestant rulers rampaged across Europe for control. The landscape changed dramatically in the destruction of it all. It only ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia and the principle that whatever the religion of the ruler was, that was the religion of the area he ruled. If you wanted to be Catholic, you needed to live in a Catholic country (principality, duchy, or whatever it was styled) and if you wanted to be Lutheran, you needed live in a Lutheran jurisdiction. Freedom of religion was the freedom to move to where your religion was practiced. 1648 was 367 years ago.

It was only 16 years ago that the Good Friday Agreement brought most of the terrorism in Northern Ireland (and carried out in England) to an end. That terrorism was done in the name of Catholicism on the one side and fundamentalist Protestantism on the other. People listened when other Catholics and Protestants insisted this had nothing to do with actual Catholicism or Protestantism.

Those people were familiar with some of what Catholics and Protestants actually believed and knew better than to lump all Christians together as simply worshipers of God and followers of Jesus who read an infallible holy book, the first three-fourths of which glorifies and encourages killing and even genocide. No one called it “Christian terrorism” or decried the leaders who refused to do so.

Does any of this make Christianity bad or wrong? No. Does it make religious faith, organized or disorganized, bad or wrong? No. But it is time to get current events into a bigger historical, geographical and theological picture.

Where will the whole spectrum of Islam be in 350 years? Who knows. Would Christians of 350 year ago have imagined Christianity to be where it is today? It would have been inconceivable.

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