One of the most shocking realities in the study of Church history is the amount of killing and the number of violent acts that professing Christians have perpetrated on one another and upon their enemies. While many people embraced Christianity and quietly lived out the ethics of the kingdom of God, in each succeeding century a scarlet thread of bloody violence was also woven into the fabric of faith by fallen humanity, struggling to implement high and noble ideals. This part of the story of the Church must not be ignored. It must not be glossed over. It must not be justified as being acceptable behavior because the Church was caught up in turbulent times of social upheaval.
The search for vindication for engaging in brutality, in the name of the Prince of Peace, only reveals the truth that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). Violence begets violence. Unfortunately, more often than not, the origin of conflict cannot be identified so that balanced blame can be assessed. Once name-calling starts in the name of Christ, once persecutions are practiced, once fines for religious infractions are levied, once imprisonments are implemented, once burning and beheadings begin, an objective observer has trouble discovering the righteousness of anyone in the carnage that is left behind. The Church must recognize this dark side of itself and assess what is happening, even if the truth condemns (1 Pet. 4:17).
In the search for the origin of violence (Jas. 4:1), the Bible reveals that the affairs of man are part of the great angelic conflict. The Apostle Paul reminds the Church that, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). The demonic servants of the devil do not want to see peace among men, and so there is a spiritual stirring up of trouble (2 Cor. 11:15). The Scriptures are often taken and twisted by misguided souls who have not learned to handle properly the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15; 2 Pet. 1:16). Error rides securely on the back of truth. One of the most egregious examples of this is the Open Letter Martin Luther wrote in 1543, “The Jews and their Lies.”
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus, we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:
First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly and I myself was unaware of it will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know.
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead, they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. For they have justly forfeited the right to such an office by holding the poor Jews captive with the saying of Moses (Deut. 17:10 ff.) in which he commands them to obey their teachers on penalty of death, although Moses clearly adds: “what they teach you in accord with the law of the Lord.” Those villains ignore that. They wantonly employ the poor people’s obedience contrary to the law of the Lord and infuse them with this poison, cursing, and blasphemy. In the same way the pope also held us captive with the declaration in Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter,” etc., inducing us to believe all the lies and deceptions that issued from his devilish mind. He did not teach in accord with the word of God, and therefore he forfeited the right to teach.
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let them stay at home. . . .
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. The reason for such a measure is that, as said above, they have no other means of earning a livelihood than usury, and by it they have stolen and robbed from us all they possess. Such money should now be used in no other way than the following: Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred florins, as personal circumstances may suggest. With this he could set himself up in some occupation for the support of his poor wife and children, and the maintenance of the old or feeble. For such evil gains are cursed if they are not put to use with God’s blessing in a good and worthy cause.
Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3:19). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.” Three years later, on February 18, 1546, Martin Luther died in Eiseben, County of Mansfield, Germany.
A few months after the death of Luther, on May 29, 1546, Cardinal David Beaton, the new archbishop of St. Andrews in Scotland, was murdered in his bed. His body was first disgraced and then thrown into a dungeon. “Now, because the weather was hot,” John Knox later wrote, “it was thought best, to keep him from stinking, to give him great salt enough . . . to await what courtesies his brethren the bishops could prepare for him. These things we write merrily.” Knox approved of the murder; he believed that God used men as the instruments of His wrath and judgment.
Not to be outdone in religious cruelty was John Calvin (July 10, 1509–May 27, 1564, leader of Geneva, Switzerland).
Calvin strongly believed that punishing the wicked was the right and duty of the Church. Executing an unrepentant heretic was justifiable. The most egregious example of this belief was the public execution of Michael Servetus, a man who denied the Trinity and opposed infant baptism. The flames burned around Servetus for thirty minutes before he died. While Calvin did try to persuade Servetus of the error of his belief, while Calvin did warn Servetus not to come to Geneva, and while Calvin did not directly execute the man, but allowed the state to proceed, even so, Calvin’s ultimately compline with this murder is revealed in his own words. “But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come [to Geneva], I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.”
It can be argued that it is unfair to judge the cruel times of the 16the century with 21st century standards. I agree. But it is not wrong to judge the behavior of the Reformers in light of the 1st century, and the words of Scripture reflecting the heart of Jesus who said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:39). Paul wrote, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). The apostle whom Jesus loved wrote, “Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God” (3 John 11).
If it were legal to execute people today for doctrinal error, or a lapse in moral judgement, there would be many dead Christians. But then, Christians would be no better than the Muslims who do stone, beat, and behead people today for a religious transgression. There is blood in the stand in the Middle East based on a cruel and self-righteous religion. The Qur’an demands it. “Kill the idolaters wherever you find them, and capture them, and blockade them, and watch for them at every lookout . . .” (Qur’an 9:5).
May the Church of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the personification of divine Love, never hurt anyone, but reach out to help everyone, including those who wield the sword of Allah.