This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, so, for the last few months, I’ve been using these columns to examine some of the consequences of that event.
But, this time around, I’m going to have help with my column. That’s because, last month, Rick Habecker wrote a Letter to the Editor in response to my previous article. Rick’s letters frequently appear on the Opinion page of the Hill Country News, but, when he sent in his most recent epistle (you can read it for yourself at www.hillcountrynews.com, June 1,2017), he probably did not realize that he was providing me with a couple of perfect illustrations for this next column.
Because what I’m going to focus on this time around is the mythology of the Reformation. Now when I use the word ‘mythology’, I’m not suggesting that the Reformation didn’t happen; it most certainly did. However, when modern Protestants tell that story, they act as if it was the most important event in the history of Christianity.
In case you’re a little fuzzy on that history, what the Protestants did 500 years ago is break off from Roman Catholicism. That rupture eventually led to the formation of over 32,000 different Protestant groups, so the Reformation is definitely a huge deal, but it’s hardly the defining moment of Christian history. After all, the Faith was around for over 1,500 years before the Reformation ever got underway, and lots and lots of important things happened during that time. But a lot of Protestants see all of Christian history in terms of their five hundred year feud with Roman Catholicism.
And Rick is one of those Protestants. In his letter, he states that I am “a local Catholic priest”. But I’m not. I’m an Orthodox priest; I serve the Holy Orthodox Church. We were in existence for a millennium before the Roman Catholics; we predate Rick’s Protestant denomination by a millennium and a half. I identify myself as an Orthodox Christian in every single column that I write for the Hill Country News. I’ve been doing that for fourteen years now. But in Rick’s world, there are only Protestants and Roman Catholics and their five hundred year feud.
And that’s one of the big problems with mythology: when you approach history through that kind of distorting lens, you not only end up misunderstanding the past, you also miss out on a lot of what’s going on in the present day.
However, Rick’s letter also contains a second example of standard Protestant mythology. Because when folks like Rick tell the story of what happened back when all their different denominations were first getting started, they tell a version of that story which is designed to make them look good.
So, in his letter; Rick specifically focuses on “the torturing, maiming, and killing that for centuries the Roman Catholic Church used to keep the masses ignorant and Bible-less”, and then he adds: “along came men like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, and John Huss who put their lives and fortunes in jeopardy”. In other words, Roman Catholics used all kinds of violence in their effort to suppress the truth, but the Protestant Reformers bravely persevered in the face of this horrible persecution.
Now the Roman Catholics did use some really awful violence. But they didn’t do that because violence is somehow part of what it means to be Roman Catholic; they did that because they were living in the sixteenth century, and sixteenth century folks were just a whole lot more violent than we are. And a great many of the Protestant Reformers were, in fact, brave and persevering. However, they also were sixteenth century folks, so they used just as much violence as the Roman Catholics did. In fact, they not only did shockingly brutal things to Roman Catholics; they also did shockingly brutal things to their fellow Protestants.
For example, in January of 1527, not quite ten years after the Reformation got underway, Ulrich Zwingli, one of the Protestant leaders, oversaw the execution by drowning of a fellow Protestant, a man named Felix Mantz. Felix was bound hand and foot and thrown into an icy cold river. His crime was that he believed that only adults should be baptized. So, when it comes to violence, the bottom line is this: as soon as the Protestants had enough political power, they started behaving exactly like the Roman Catholics; they started persecuting people who disagreed with them, and they used all the methods that Rick mentions in his letter: “torturing, maiming, and killing.”
But that’s another big problem with mythology: If you use it to explain why your particular side is The Right Side, then, when the facts show up—and, trust me, the facts always show up—then you can easily give folks the impression that you just don’t know what you’re talking about.
So maybe a good way to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation would be to just walk away from the mythology and actually get educated on the subject. A number of high quality books on the subject have recently been published; some of them survey the entire Reformation; some of them focus on what the Reformation looked like in different countries; some of them deal with the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation; some of them are biographies of famous Protestants or Roman Catholics.
But maybe reading just isn’t your thing. That’s the case for a lot of folks, so if you would simply like to talk about the Reformation and the impact it continues to have in our lives, just get in touch with me. I’d love to visit with you about all that.
Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St John Orthodox parish in Cedar Park (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.