Last week, when I read this headline; Christians Now Have Powerful Champion in White House, referring to Donald Trump’s alliance with the Christian right, it gave me pause.
Nearly 500 years ago, in 1558, that headline would have read: Catholics Now Have Powerful Champion in Holy Roman Empire, referring to the ascension of Ferdinand I to the throne. The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe. Ferdinand I, a staunch Catholic, reinforced the Catholic Church’s sweeping powers and decreed that all of his domain must be re-Catholicized.
Ferdinand loudly proclaimed, “though the world perish, let justice be done.” Justice as defined by the Emperor meant you either returned to the Catholic faith or were condemned to death. It was a warning aimed primarily at our Hutterite forefathers but included other religious minorities. The Emperor’s slogan has an eerie resemblance to some of the rhetoric we are hearing today.
Ferdinand harboured a deep hatred for Anabaptists who had broken away from the Catholic Church in alarming numbers during the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptists were proponents of adult baptism and the movement included Hutterites and had gathered significant momentum. From his throne in Vienna the Emperor ordered bands of men on horseback to hunt them down, jail them and try to revert them back to the faith. Failing that, they were to be tortured on racks and publicly burnt at the stake.
Thousands died this way. Ferdinand succeeded in getting rid of all non-Catholics in Austria. In the outer reaches of his Kingdom lesser Nobility refused to do his bidding and protected Hutterites because they were gifted craftspeople and of great value to their local economies. That did not please Ferdinand. He sent his emissaries to threaten these Nobles applying such unrelenting pressure that eventually, with a heavy heart, they evicted all Hutterites from their lands.
The lesson is that religion and politics are a lethal mix.
The dictionary defines a Christian as “a person who has received Christian baptism or is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings.” If that is true, then for modern Christians it’s worth examining how Jesus interacted with governments. If we are to believe in Christ’s miraculous powers its almost impossible not to believe that He could have influenced the administrations of King Herod, Emperor Tiberius or the actions of Pontius Pilate. Inexplicably Jesus was too busy ministering to the poor, healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. According to the Bible, Jesus’ abject disregard for any of the politicians of the day cost him his life. And it was through death that He saved the world.
Hutterite history is a cautionary tale of what can happen when governments become beholden to religion. It speaks to the necessity of an arms length reach between church and state. The Christian right clamouring for political influence in the White House seem out of step with the teachings of Christ. Certainly, all religions have matters that require consultation and dialogue, but faith can’t be legislated. It has to be inspired. If Jesus was on earth today possibly the last place you would find him is elbowing his way in to see Donald Trump or any other elected official for that matter.
Catholic Bishops and government representatives in Innsbruck, Austria have recently acknowledged that what they did to our Hutterite forefathers was wrong. They have offered Hutterites an apology and erected a beautiful memorial in the heart of Innsbruck in memory of our ancestors who courageously gave their lives. It has opened the door to forgiveness and healing. In my next column I will tell you that story.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her award-winning books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available in book stores and at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org
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