Intolerance—From Past to Present
THUD . . . thud . . . thud. The iron bar struck heavily on the limbs and chest of Jean Calas. His broken body was then exposed on a horizontal cartwheel in a public square of Toulouse, southern France. Thereafter it was burned to ashes.
Calas died on the wheel as a convicted murderer. The previous day, March 9, 1762, this Huguenot (French Protestant) was found guilty of murdering his son so as to prevent his conversion to Catholicism. A solemn burial service honored Calas’ son as a Catholic martyr.
French philosopher Voltaire, however, suspected that Calas had been a victim of Catholic intolerance. After proving that Calas’ son was actually a suicide, he launched a three-year campaign to arouse public opinion throughout Europe. Voltaire’s strategy worked. He finally succeeded in getting the French authorities to review the case, and on March 9, 1765, Calas was declared innocent posthumously. This glaring case of anti-Huguenot prejudice became one of the world’s causes célèbres. It prompted Voltaire to write his famous Treatise on Toleration.
Intolerance—Good or Bad?
Few would try to justify such bigotry, prejudice and murderous intolerance. Nevertheless, under certain circumstances intolerance has its place. Murder, stealing, rape and kidnapping are all things considered intolerable in most societies, and rightly so. And the same has been true in the past when it comes to religion. When giving the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel, Jehovah God declared himself to be “a God exacting exclusive devotion.” (Exodus 20:5) As a result, God’s people ‘tolerated no rivalry’ of false gods. (Numbers 25:11-13; see also 2 Kings 10:16.) False worship was therefore a capital offense.
Bear in mind, however, that as Sovereign, God certainly has the right to decide what he will and will not tolerate in matters of religion. Humans do not have this prerogative. Thus when the Israelites executed the depraved, demon-worshiping Canaanites, they did so under a divine mandate. (Genesis 15:16; Exodus 23:23, 24) Nevertheless, God did not commission the Israelites to traverse land and sea to wipe out false worship in other lands. Nor was the Christian congregation given authority to execute nonbelievers.
The intolerance that led to the death of Jean Calas—and countless millions of others—is therefore not from God. ‘But surely the world has outgrown such intolerance,’ some might reason. What does history teach? How did intolerance start? Is there reason to believe it will rear its ugly head again?
The Persecuted Become the Persecutors
The notions of “freedom of religion” and “separation of Church and State” hardly existed in antiquity. Ancient rulers were often considered to be either priests of the main divinity or gods themselves. Conquered peoples either adopted the gods of their conqueror or were allowed to continue worshiping their own gods. In fact, often people worshiped the same deities under different names.
Not so with the conquered Jewish nation, however. After their nation’s fall in 607 B.C.E., dispersed Jews gave their host governments the problem of a religious minority that demanded freedom to worship God according to their own religious laws. The result? Often bitter persecution. Nevertheless, with the advent of Christianity, the Jews seemed to forget their own experiences and became avid persecutors of Christ’s followers.—Acts 3:14, 15; 4:1-3; 8:1.
Christians, too, followed this sad pattern. At first, they were victims of Jewish intolerance. Soon they met up with opposition from other quarters. Their refusal to worship pagan gods or deified state rulers brought the early Christians in conflict with the central and local authorities of the Roman Empire.
In course of time it became a capital crime to bear the name of Christ, and large numbers of Christians were put to death. Waves of persecution continued until 313 C.E., when, for political reasons, joint Emperors Licinius and Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, establishing religious toleration within the Roman Empire. Constantine eventually made “Christianity” the privileged religion of the Roman Empire—a bold attempt to consolidate a disintegrating empire by syncretizing paganism and Christianity.
“Christianity,” however, was split into rival sects. Two cities, Byzantium (later named Constantinople) and Rome, each claimed to be the home of the true church. Both were intolerant of those disagreeing on doctrinal points. The persecuted had again become the persecutors.
Catholic canon law states: “Most firmly hold and in no way doubt that every heretic or schismatic is to have part with the Devil and his angels in the flames of eternal fire, unless before the end of his life he be incorporated with, and restored to the Catholic Church.” And up to this day the oath of allegiance of Roman Catholic bishops states: “With all my power I will persecute and make war upon heretics.” Thus intolerance was built into Catholic thinking. But justifying this attitude, the authoritative French Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique states: “Being the guardian of revealed truth, faith and morals, the church cannot tolerate the spreading of any teaching that is harmful to the faith of the faithful.”
Thus the Catholic Church has often hounded down “heretics,” judged them and then handed them over to the secular authorities for punishment. The New Encyclopædia Britannica writes: “In the imperial church [after Constantine]—especially after the emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century—heresy became a criminal transgression punishable by the state. The enemy of the church was likewise viewed as the enemy of the empire. Thus, bishops at the imperial synods of the 4th to 8th centuries attempted to declare as heretics the minority of dissenters and to eliminate them as enemies of the state.”
The church also used the secular authorities to show its intolerance toward the Jews, the Muslims, the Cathari and the Albigenses (massacred in a “holy war” in southern France in the early 13th century), heretics and European Protestants. True, most of this blood was shed by the “secular sword.” But in his bull Unam Sanctam, issued in 1302, Pope Boniface VIII decreed that the “secular sword” must submit to the “spiritual sword” of the church and “be employed for the Church . . . under the direction of the spiritual power.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 15, page 126) So the Catholic Church cannot escape responsibility for the blood shed as a result of its policy of religious intolerance.
The Catholic Church, however, did not hold the monopoly on religious intolerance. Led by theologian John Calvin, Protestants carried out their own reign of terror. Swiss-born Protestant historian Philip Schaff admitted: “To the great humiliation of the Protestant churches, religious intolerance and even persecution unto death were continued long after the Reformation. In Geneva the pernicious theory was put into practice by state and church, even to the use of torture and the admission of the testimony of children against their parents, and with the sanction of Calvin.” And when his theology on predestination and the Trinity was challenged by Jérôme Bolsec and Michael Servetus respectively, Calvin had the former banished from Geneva and the latter arrested and tried as a heretic. Servetus was burned at the stake. Other “heretics,” too, were burned in Calvinist Geneva, with the approval of such Protestant theologians as Theodore Beza.
Martin Luther, too, showed great intolerance. He not only became “notoriously anti-Semitic [anti-Jewish]” but even had four “witches” burned in Wittenburg.
Soon France and Germany would be torn asunder by ferocious religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries—atrocities being committed by Catholics and Protestants alike.
The Rise of Secular Intolerance
‘But certainly man has learned from his past mistakes,’ you might say. And, indeed, the churches of late have demonstrated a more tolerant attitude than in the past. Nevertheless, as The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “The legacy of Christian intolerance and the methods it developed (e.g., inquisition, or brainwashing) operates in the intolerance of the ideology and techniques of modern political revolutions.”
Yes, whereas in some respects there is a decline in religious intolerance within Christendom, our generation has seen an upsurge in political and racial intolerance. Such secular intolerance is indeed a “legacy of [apostate] Christian intolerance.” The Nazi Holocaust, or extermination of some six million Jews, is one example of this. And Hitler is quoted as justifying his intolerance of the Jews by saying: “I am just carrying on with the same policy which the Catholic church had adopted for 1500 years.” Other dictators since Hitler have used brainwashing and mental and physical torture in their fight against ideological “heretics.” Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, have often taken the brunt of such intolerance because of their political neutrality. In Cuba one Witness was stripped naked, wrapped in barbed wire and placed on top of a roof as human bait for hungry mosquitoes. In yet another land, five Witnesses were arrested and subjected to severe threats and beatings over a period of days. One had to be hospitalized as a result of his injuries. In three countries in northeast Africa, Witnesses were subjected to arrest. (Up to 5 percent of them in one country!) Many were tortured, and three were even killed. Yes, fanatical political rulers have learned much from the churches about silencing dissidents.
But could it be, though, that the churches themselves will become the victims of secular intolerance? Just how deep rooted is the claimed tolerance of our day? And what about ecumenism? Is it a sign of greater tolerance or merely of greater indifference toward religion? Finally, how does all of this affect us as individuals? Is it possible to have strong religious convictions without being intolerant? These questions will be considered in the following article.
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‘The legacy of Christian intolerance operates in the techniques of modern political revolutions’
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Intolerance Knows No Boundaries
“Few Muslim nations . . . are models of toleration. But are they alone in this? The Inquisition and the wars of religion covered Christendom with blood, and the devout people who founded the United States viewed the Indians and the blacks as something less than human. The same is true today of their cousins in South Africa. As for the worshipers of Reason, unfortunately their reign coincided with the reign of the guillotine. ‘Scientific socialism’ [communism], when in power, has done no better.”—French newspaper editor André Fontaine, writing in Le Monde.
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Title page of first edition of Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration, Paris, 1763