And ’tis to be noted by the way, that the Doctrines of King-killing and Deposing, which have been taken up onely by the worst Party of the Papists, the most frontless Flatterers of the Pope’s Authority, have been espous’d, defended, and are still maintain’d by the whole Body of Nonconformists and Republicans. ’Tis but dubbing themselves the People of God, which ’tis the interest of their Preachers to tell them they are, and their own interest to believe; and, after that, they cannot dip into the Bible, but one Text or another will turn up for their purpose: If they are under Persecution (as they call it,) then that is a mark of their Election; if they flourish, then God works Miracles for their Deliverance, and the Saints are to possess the earth.
-John Dryden: Religio Laici; A Layman’s Faith
It is justly noted that Christian believers in the Middle East have suffered and are suffering persecutions as well as legitimately argued that religious freedom is eroding in the West, an issue raised especially in the light of the recent ruling by the Supreme Court regarding the Little Sisters of the Poor. It seems for us axiomatic today to grant the victim of persecution the mantle of moral superiority and as the innocent party. From this axiom we would be tempted to infer that sufferers of persecution, by virtue precisely of suffering persecution, is somehow a mark of merit for their cause.
I wish however to explicate a curious dialectical relationship between persecution and “victimhood legitimacy”, especially in the particular case of the Anabaptists, the de jure divino Presbyterians, and the Roman Catholics, where they oscillate between their ability to persecute others as divinely sanctioned but not the persecution which they themselves suffer at the hands of their enemies. From there I would raise the question as to whether or not we can unambiguously infer a vindication of one’s cause simply by virtue of suffering persecution.
The Problematic Theological Principle
To understand the dialectical relationship, we need to grasp a core theological principle shared by the three denominations in question. That principle can be summarised as the identification of the Kingdom of God with a particular visible community. Once a visible community is perceived to be the location of the divine rule or as intrinsically possessing a divinely favoured status, then that community can, quite literally, “do no wrong”. By virtue of the fact that that visible community is the possessor of the Keys to the Kingdom, it follows irresistibly that other visible powers or communities which conflicts with them are rightly to be subjected or to be subdued by them. They after all possess divine rights or legitimacy, their enemies do not.
The Anabaptist and Disciplinarian Presbyterians Case
Although Anabaptism is known today mainly for their pacifism, what many are unaware of is that Anabaptism has both “war” and “peace” versions. Early Anabaptism initially started out as a totalitarian theocractic ideal where they actually conquered a city, known as the Münster Rebellion, and attempted to revive the Mosaic constitution. However once the Protestant princes defeated the Anabaptists and drove them out, they rapidly changed their tune to renounce all ambitions of civil dominion and pleaded merely to be left alone by the civil powers in their little corner of the world where they might aggressively reorganise the lives of their hapless followers without molestation from the civil authorities.
Although the Anabaptists would be severely persecuted by both Roman Catholics and the Protestants, it is important to know that the Anabaptists were always suspect because their theology, sometimes explicitly, but implicitly refused to accept the legitimacy of their civil rulers. Even as they asked to be left alone and no longer militarily defended themselves, it still remains the case that they refuse to accept the legitimate civil claims of their civil governors, making them potentially seditious.
During the English Civil War we can see a repeat of this pattern with the disciplinarian Presbyterians who also identified their Church with the Kingdom of God, and their presbyters as rulers of this mini-kingdom. When they seized power during the English Civil War, they attempted to rule the Commonwealth of England as theocrats, subjecting the civil rulers to their ecclesiastical ideals. The moment however they lost power, they were once more relegated to the sidelines and attempted to police the minute details of their members lives via their disciplinarian methods.
Overall we can see the same pattern, when they were in power, they did not hesitate to persecute and employ coercion in aid of realising their rule, when disenfranchised, they would withdraw into their little corner of the world, and while claiming the mantle of victimhood and unjust persecution, continue their business of imposing those ideals upon the members of their little sect.
The Roman Catholic Case and its Ambiguous Relationship to Power
Unlike Anabaptism and the Disciplinarian Presbyterians, the Roman Catholic Church has a long history of employing, and successfully, coercion and civil force to bring about their theocratic rule. The arguments of Unam Sanctam is well known and in the long history of the Roman Church the possession of political power by Roman princes under the Roman faith, as well as its aggressive use, has been considered to be divinely sanctioned. The papal bull Romanus Pontifex in particular is an excellent example of such triumphalistic reasoning:
The Roman pontiff, successor of the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom and vicar of Jesus Christ, contemplating with a father’s mind all the several climes of the world and the characteristics of all the nations dwelling in them and seeking and desiring the salvation of all, wholesomely ordains and disposes upon careful deliberation those things which he sees will be agreeable to the Divine Majesty and by which he may bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold, and may acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain pardon for their souls. This we believe will more certainly come to pass, through the aid of the Lord, if we bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who, like athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith, as we know by the evidence of facts, not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us, and subject them to their own temporal dominion, sparing no labor and expense, in order that those kings and princes, relieved of all obstacles, may be the more animated to the prosecution of so salutary and laudable a work.
Pope Nicholas V clearly believes that the Roman Church has the divine right to coercively subject the infidels to their rule in aid of the defence and increase of the faith.
Such a logic however poses significant problems for contemporary Roman Catholic narratives of being under unjust persecution by their enemies. Once they have decided to “get into the game” of using coercion against their enemies, they cannot very well complain when their enemies uses the very same methods and means which they have employed before. They can lament that they has lost the game but they cannot very well complain that their persecution or defeat is somehow unfair or unjust. They had no problems whatsoever playing the game of persecution and political coercion when they were winning and it is awfully convenient to renounce the use of persecution and coercion and quit the game after one starts losing.
Thus the parallels to the Anabaptist and Disciplinarian Presbyterians are clear. When the Romanists were in possession of material and political power, they will attempt to take over and rule the commonwealth, when the Romanists are disenfranchised, they would claim to be unfairly persecuted and that they have no theocratic or domination designs whatsoever and that they only want to be left alone to practice their faith without interference. Yar right, why should we believe you when for the last seven hundred years of your history you’ve precisely been trying to take over the world? And especially when the pope and Roman prelates today continue to interfere in political matters? Admit it, you tried to go for the world dominion thing but now you’re losing. But don’t pretend to claim under the mantle of unjust persecution what is in reality merely losing the political game one has been playing for a very long time.
Traditionalist Roman Catholics in particular, who share none of the neo-con Romanist’s willingness to reject some of the more problematic institutional experiences of their church, are very much inconsistent on this point. The traditionalist is necessarily committed to the “glorious past” of Christendom when the Church commanded substantial material and political power. And yet the traditionalists now are a persecuted minority, leading to an almost schizophrenic attitude towards the link between material and political power, they cannot make up their minds as to whether to take it as a sign of divine favour or not.
This sort of schizophrenic attitude, shared by the Romanists, the Anabaptists and the Disciplinarian Presbyterians, have already been noted from as far back as the 17th century by John Dryden as quoted at the start. When their denominations are in the minority or under persecution, that is a sign of their election and that the world hates the truth or cannot stand the light. But when their churches are dominant and use their worldly power to spread their rule, that is also a mark of divine favour and the saints are providentially poised to inherit the earth.
Conclusion: No Good Churches, only Saved Churches
All’s fair in love and war. When you claim to be at war with hostile powers, there’s nothing unfair about them defeating you with the same weapons you’re using. The language of unfair persecutions, so called, boils down to this: My tribe can do no wrong and the rightness or legitimacy of an act is derivative of who is doing it rather than on the intrinsic character of the act itself. When my tribe is doing the persecuting, that’s all right because it’s my tribe doing it, but when my tribe is being persecuted, that’s wrong because it’s not my tribe doing the persecuting. My tribe is somehow exempted from the common standards which are supposed to be applicable to everyone else. But of course this is simply special pleading and when one conveniently exempts oneself from those common standards, one loses the right to claim injustice in its application.
John Locke himself make this observation in his Letters Concerning Toleration:
These, therefore, and the like, who attribute unto the faithful, religious, and orthodox, that is, in plain terms, unto themselves, any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals, in civil concernments; or who upon pretence of religion do challenge any manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their ecclesiastical communion, I say these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion. For what do all these and the like doctrines signify, but that they may and are ready upon any occasion to seize the Government and possess themselves of the estates and fortunes of their fellow subjects; and that they only ask leave to be tolerated by the magistrate so long until they find themselves strong enough to effect it?
In other words, it is awfully convenient to claim tolerance for one’s religion, when it is weak with no ability to effect their theocratic designs, when that religion believes that it is exempted from the rules of mutual toleration and may break faith the moment they are in positions of power. In other words, don’t claim under the label of unjust persecution what is simply a defeat of one’s domination designs.
In the end what are we left with? I do not wish to trivialise the problematic question of the reality of material wealth, temporal power/wisdom in enabling and facilitating the spread of Christianity. I have an intense to the point of obsessive interest in the theological questions raised by the Prosperity Gospel and the role of British power in the Opium War enabling the spread of the Gospel in China, etc. However I consider such open and frank discussions about this problematic issue far more preferable to the sort of tribalistic cheer leading for one’s team for richer or poorer, etc. When my team is poor or persecuted that’s a sign of their genuine spirituality which despises worldly power and comforts, but when my team is rich and powerful that’s because we’ve been providentially blessed. This is obviously nonsense and convenient narrative switching.
In the end, there are no “good guys” in the arena of church history which can do no wrong. The Church, in the words of Luther, is simul iustus et peccator, at the same time sinner and saint. The Church has both perpetuated unjust persecutions as well as received them, it is has been both the wrong-doer and the victim. The task to which we should attend to is to analyse and understand the motivations and reasons behind the various actors of church history, both good and bad, not craft a fictional narrative about my infallible team who can do no wrong.
In the end one thing we can be sure of: the Church has ever been saved and justified, not because of her good deeds but despite their lack of them and occasionally very heinous sins. What we do know about the providential intention is this: not that the Church has never erred or be always on the right side, but that God will bring her through even her most grievous errors. For ultimately, the foundations of the Church is God, the Head of her is Christ and her life is the Holy Spirit’s.