So often we look back at history and think how absurd an event was – how something like that could never happen again – how we’re far too evolved to allow for such a thing to happen in modern times. We’d never allow for someone like Hitler to rise up again. We’d never allow such a thing as slavery to occur today. We’d never stand for the mistreatment of Native American people in the 21st Century. After all, we’ve learned from the past and evolved into much more civilized people. But have we really? Are the horrors of the past relegated to history or have they merely taken on new forms? Specially, are we still in the midst of an inquisition under a new name?
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, the Inquisition was a powerful office created in the 12th century within the Catholic Church that was designed to root out and punish heresy. In those days the Inquisitors would arrive in town, announce their presence, and provide an opportunity for citizens to admit to heresy. Individuals forced to testify, (often as a result of false accusations) would be given an opportunity to confess. If they did not, torture and/or execution were nearly unavoidable. If you were lucky you’d receive one of the lessor punishments of a pilgrimage or a whipping. In severe cases, imprisonment was a potential outcome, but over time such punishments would expand to church sanctioned torture and execution. Yes, you heard me right – the church sanctioned torture and execution. There were a wide range of potential tortures implemented by church officials including: starvation, forced consumption of large quantities of water or other fluids, or burning coals heaped onto various parts of the body. During the Medieval Inquisition, there were methods of torture used called strappado or “the rack”. Google it – neither one looks like too much fun. Those accused of being heretics also weren’t permitted to face their accusers and they received no legal representation.
Inquisition as a formal church practice for all intents and purposes came to an end in the late 1800s. But if we’re being honest it’s still alive and well within the modern Western Church. The term “heretic” is still widely tossed about to describe those we don’t agree with. What’s interesting is that the term heretic or heresy derives from the Greek word haireisthai meaning, “choose.” In its current meaning it refers to someone who has a belief that is contrary to our excepted Christian doctrine, which is the belief or set of beliefs that we hold to be true as taught by the church. A belief or set of beliefs based on what has been taught to us by the church. What is immediately problematic is that clearly a building cannot teach us much of anything. Here we are obviously referring to the human beings acting as representatives of the church. Therein lies the problem. What if the human beings representing the church are wrong? Then, by virtue of that fact, the doctrine by which the accusation of heresy is based is also wrong.
Most of us can look back with a clear view of history and agree that the motivations behind the Inquisition was wrong. Historians will tell you there were all sorts of factors behind the atrocities committed in the name of the church – paranoia, corruption, abuses of power, politics. And while we no longer torture or execute those we label as heretics, we now execute their character and their careers instead. Popular authors and pastors like Rob Bell have been accused of heresy by merely examining the way we view the concept of hell, when Christian pillars like C.S. Lewis and John Stott raised the same questions decades prior. Bell was lambasted just for daring to ask a question, proving you can’t even discuss one of the most important theological concepts without fear of having your career nearly destroyed. We still seek out and attempt to punish and destroy that which we disagree with instead of engaging in dialog. When we lack the ability to have honest meaningful discussions without nailing the other side to a cross, that should be our first sign that something is deeply and fundamentally wrong.
We may no longer burn people at the stake in the 21st Century, but we light their credibility and livelihood aflame. In this way, very little has changed. We still fear that which we don’t agree or understand. We’ve even found creative ways to use scripture to justify our right to judge others. We are merely mortals who lack the authority or humility to pass such judgement on our peers, yet we act in a way that suggests that we do. It’s a good time to remember that God is the one who has the final say. Not us. The best we can do in the meanwhile is to bring as much of the Kingdom here to earth as possible by loving others the way that Jesus taught us to love others.