Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a noted civil rights leader and prophetic preacher of our time, explained that every time there is advancement in social justice or civil rights, there is a reaction…a Reconstruction. This reaction is the push back of the status quo against the perceived, or quite real, threat to political or social power. What does this have to do with a blog post about the Inquisition? Well, in some ways we can see a linkage between the American thread of progress and reconstruction and the European history of religious tensions and rises in the activities of the Inquisition. This reaction to religious change serves as a dire warning against our own tensions, political and religious, and the danger they pose to the greater peace of people and nation. We will come back around to this in a moment. First, let’s be frank about the prevalence and damage of this thing called The Inquisition.
The activities of the Inquisition, and I am admittedly generalizing the history here, took place over centuries spanning the 12th to the 19th centuries. Its activities took many forms from torture to mock trials to public executions. From Medieval times to the dawning of the Reformation, the Inquisition was a dark shadow that loomed over religious tensions and political conflicts. It was a continuous and violent attempt at reconstruction in the wake of religious reform. It was also legitimized I some instances by claiming to be a piece of necessary Catholic Reformation aimed at reclaiming adherence to doctrine and practices held sacred by the church. No matter the legitimization or the reconstruction, it was a constant cloud of fear that moved throughout Europe and forever stained Christian history with the blood of its victims.
Most people have gained a certain understanding of what the Inquisition was and we are fairly certain that we just “aren’t like that anymore.” Of course, critics of the Christian faith are quick to roll out the horrors of the Inquisition as an example of the violence cause by religion. Somewhere between these two extremes lies a sense of truth about where we are and where we have been in ages past. Deeply held beliefs are a gift from God; however, they are a gift that requires a certain degree of stewardship and grace. In times of historical, and modern, upheaval lined to a set of deeply held beliefs there is a real danger that reason can be clouded by the powers of fear, zeal, and extremism. There are times when the status quo, the majority stakeholder, responds to change with violence and with oppression. The Inquisitions lengthy life span is testament to the power of push back as are its iterations in our modern context. Calm down! I am not going to assign the evils of the Inquisition in any general context to the churches of modern America. I am going to suggest that the pathology of the Inquisition still casts shadows.
We look back on something like the Salem Witch Trials, for example, with a sense of disbelief that something so extreme could be a part of our American story; but, they happened. Did they happen because an evil force permeated the colonies or did they happen because a burst of expressive women was just too much for the men of Salem to deal with? Were they a remedy for evil or a reconstruction? Aside from there mockery of justice as a concept, they were a reaction to perceived threats to social order and to the religious principles of the time. They were an inquisition.
Again, this is a seemingly ancient occurrence. How could it be linked to anything we know today? Religious overreaction is something that only occurs in less enlightened periods and among less sophisticated people right? Hold on there enlightened one. The assertion that religious reconstruction, push back, or whatever else you call it is a historical concept is simply not true.
In our modern age, we have seen vast social transformations that affect our understanding of faith. We have seen a faith system that once used the Bible as a pretext for slavery cast aside this notion. We have witness the rise of a religious understanding that no longer finds condemnation of LGBTQ people easy, simple, or even theologically sound. From Civil Rights to Roe v. Wade to gay marriage, we have seen an action that results in a reaction. We have seen successful and unsuccessful attempts at reconstruction, some of which are fueled by the zeal of an inquisitor. I would like to say that we no longer have these battles in violent ways or that we encourage an open and fear-free public debate; but, there is still a shadow that we see from time to time.
As much as we pretend to be free from the oppressive violence of the ancient Inquisition, we have also been witnesses to waves of violence resulting from both Reconstructionist zeal and misguided religious fervor. Preachers have voiced condemnation, damnation, and violence toward those individuals they dislike and they do so in a feed of social media that reaches too many too fast. Lone wolf bombers have attacked abortion clinics in an effort to use violence as a tool of their faith as though fear would stop a practice that is contrary to their moral understandings. Churches stand outside funerals holding signs that read “God Hates Fags” and calling for the death of Americans as a fitting response to God’s judgment on others. In other countries, we have witnessed the rise of theocracies that use violence and oppression as an accepted tool of power and as a means of maintaining a religious status quo that is forever under attack by a social evolution that has yet to slow down in response to a single drop of blood. Even here, even now, far too many public figures have claimed the blessing of God for far too many actions. Even here, even now far too many faces and places claim God’s blessing as though it makes them more authoritative or more worthy than other faces and places. This, my friends, is what it means to live in the shadows of the Inquisition. Despite our advancements, there is an ever-present temptation to slip comfortably into the extremes of a bygone age for the purposes of personal or political superiority. I want to say that history is history; but, there is still this shadow that persists. Perhaps the only real remedy for the shadow is noticing it’s there.