Wednesday, February 28, 2007

What Do We Do With the Past?

The conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq today has similar (though not identical) parallels with what western Christianity wrestled with during the time of the Reformation. Sadly, as one reads the accounts in Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Martyr's Mirror, one cannot avoid the fact that there was a time when Christians persecuted Christians. There are still places where this takes place (e.g. Chiapas, Ethiopia), but such persecution is incredibly rare today and makes up only a tiny percentage of the persecution suffered by Christians. Even rarer are situations where Christians persecute those of other religions. As in the early church, Christians today are primarily the recipients of persecution, not the instigators. This is an undeniable fact that only those with a deep grudge against Christians would try to deny.

However, the dilemma that I face is what to do with the past. As a mission, do we continue to promote books like John Foxe's Book of Martyrs with its testimonies of how Protestants were martyred by Roman Catholics? What of the magnificent Martyrs Mirror with its wonderful stories of how Anabaptists refused to deny their convictions and were slaughtered by almost everyone else, including the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Churches? Do we sell Blood Of The Martyrs, Seed Of The Church which recounts testimonies of Catholic martyrs who were killed by Protestants?

As a mission committed to being nondenominational, these are difficult choices. For several years, we have sold Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Our US mission is coming out with a special edition of it in the spring and we had to decide whether to promote it ourselves. But in recent years especially, we have come under fire whenever we offer this book for sale, from both Catholic and Protestant readers of our newsletter. They suggest that we are selling a book that is anti-Catholic and that it is inappropriate for us to do so. In a similar vein, I would love to make Martyrs Mirror available to our readership. In many ways, it is a much superior book to Foxe's (and much bigger!). Baptists and Mennonites might like it but what will some of our Reformed, Catholic, and Lutheran friends say?

It is almost as if some Christians today would rather than we ignore and/or forget the mistakes of our past and pretend that they never happened; that Christians have, at times, acted rather contrary to the teachings of Christ. It is far more comfortable to only refer to the incidents of persecution today where Christians are the victims than to look back when terrible atrocities were wrongly done in the name of Christ.

Do we dishonour the sacrifices of those who died during those days with such historical neglect or selective reconstructionism? Or is this an unnecessary digging up of the dirt from the past? I am inclined to think the former, to make these books available and challenge my fellow brothers and sisters whose predecessors may have been persecutors to learn from the past, to be grateful that we have moved beyond it, to thank God for the faithfulness of those who suffered and died (even at the hands of our co-religionists) and to commit ourselves to the principles of religious freedom today.


crooked deep down said...

I wholly agree! It is altogether right for us to reckon with what our spiritual forefathers have done and be apologetic about their sins. We can learn a lot about how to work together well and love our brethren from the past mistakes that have been made and we can overcome a lot of hurt by bringing things up and working them out.

Eunice said...

We should not ignore the past nor should we be obsessed by it. I find I am challenged by the mistakes and triumphs of the past. When we face the sins of our past we are forced to deal with our pride and smugness.

Anonymous said...

This is unrelated but I wasn't sure where else to post it.
Are you going to send out a prayer alert for this:

Glenn Penner said...

We only just received notice of this ourselves. It will probably be in next week's Persecution and Prayer Alert (VOMC's weekly email news service).

Lawrence said...

The past is a record of what we humans are capable of doing - good or bad. Remembering our religious past is not digging up dirt - rather it is an act of homage to those who bought for us, with their mistakes and their sacrifices, the freedoms that we now enjoy. We need to be able to remind ourselves of this as a means of both encouragement and discouragement in the choices we make (and especially to remember the concept that the road to hell is paved with good intentions).

Books like Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Martyrs Mirror allow Christians to contemplate the consequences of imposing and defying intolerance. I have read only Foxe's Martyrs and would agree that it is anti-Catholic. Other books will show other perspectives. Each is a child of its time and, as with many a contemporary account, it holds the heat and the passion of those who lived through the events. The question to be posed is - so what? The way in which the books are written is in itself an insight into how easy it is to become intolerant. In their content, and the manner of their writing, they become both encouragement and warnings from the past.

The greatest concern I have is that choosing to do away with these books is to deliberately erase from the recorded memory of the Church episodes of total loyalty to Christ. Perhaps it is possible that those who prefer to see these books disappear are as uncomfortable with the portrayals of uncompromising loyalty to Christ as they are with the criticisms of branches of the Church and its leadership (and by inference its membership).

Access to books on persecution is essential to understanding. If a concession was made to avoid embarrasment to one denomination or another how long would it be before this precedent was followed by other concessions that then became extended so as to avoid embarrassment to other religions and states? Where would it end and at what point would VOM cease to have relevance?

If Christians cannot cope with uncomfortable episodes where we persecuted our own brothers and sisters how can we talk about the intolerance of others towards Christians?

Glenn Penner said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful response. lawrence. I agree with you entirely. Your comment that every book "is a child of its time" is significant and well worth remembering. I am presently looking through a recent book on Catholic martyrs and am finding it a very gracious response to the persecution that Catholics suffered under Henry VIII. This graciousness is definitely a result of the authors' modern sensitivitiy to the fact of Cathlic persecution just prior to that and an understanding that this was a historical mistake