Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Thursday, January 10, 2013

WILLIAM LAUD, THE PURITANS, ELIJAH, HIROSHIMA: The Danger of Extremism and the Need for Tolerance and Embrace of Diversity

(Homily at the Chapel of Christ the Lord, 815 Second Avenue, New York. 01/10/2013)

Today we commemorate the life of William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury (1633-1645) who was beheaded, following (among other things), the “surplice controversy.” Yes, the surplice controversy!

 Today, it is unthinkable, even ridiculous to think that a person, much more an archbishop can be executed for defending his sartorial taste on liturgical vestments but during the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, there were Christians in England, called the Puritans who strongly objected to the garment called the “surplice.” Surplice is “white, knee-length, fairly loose garment with loose sleeves” worn over a cassock, normally a black, floor length tight-fitting robe. The Puritans objected to the use of surplice for two reasons: “It is not mentioned in the Bible” and “It is what the Roman Catholics wore before the English Reformation.” Following this argument, a surplice is therefore “one of the props of idolatrous worship.”

Contrary to the argument of the Puritans, Archbishop Laud regarded the surplice as a seemly, appropriate and dignified garment that corresponded with “Anglican decency and order.” And so the controversial battle lines were drawn. The Puritans would disrupt services where surplices were worn and even went to the extent of stealing, ruining and burning the surplices and other vestments.

Under English law, it was part of the Archbishop’s Office to maintain order and punish offences against the Church, so Laud readily proceeded to punish the Puritan vandals and relentlessly prosecuted those who made scurrilous attacks against the custom and discipline of the Church. Combating the Puritans, Laud enforced a strict adherence to the Book of Common Prayer and included not only the wearing of surplices but also placing the Communion Table railed off from the congregation and the bowing when the name of Jesus was mentioned. 

To Laud, it was the properly Christian thing to do but for the Puritan radicals, those were reminiscent of pompous and medieval Roman Catholic practices and a return to their hated “popery.” When the political tides were turned and the Puritans rose to power following the English Civil War (also called the Bishops’ Wars, 1639-40) Laud was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London and condemned to die. He was mercilessly beheaded on January 10, 1645 on the Tower Hill, at the age of 72.

The story of Archbishop Laud and the overzealousness of the Puritans set amidst the turbulent times in the history of the Church of England remind us how zealous fundamentalism can easily degenerate into a dangerous trajectory of violence, even if it is acted “in the name of God.”

One of the classic examples of this unbridled zealousness is the story of Elijah, the prophet of Israel,  confronting the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Baal was the “fertility god” worshipped by the Canaanites, in contrast to Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. What made the very name Baal anathema to Elijah and the puritanical Hebrews was the religious program of Jezebel, the Phoenician queen, the wife of King Ahab who ruled Israel in the 9th century B.C.  It was Jezebel who introduced into Israel her Phoenician cult of Baal in opposition to the official worship of Yahweh (I Kings 18) during the fledgling era of Israel as a young Hebrew nation. 

In the kingly house of Ahab, the husband maybe the head but the wife was the neck, so whenever the neck goes, the head follows. Jezebel filled the king’s house with Baalitic prophets and killed many of the prophets of Yahweh to the boshet (shame) of the Puritan Israel. Elijah, one of the Yahwists, prayed that there be no rain in Israel as a punishment to their apostasy. As a result, there was drought all over Israel for 3 ½ years, during which time, the prophet Ellijah would taunt King Ahab and his followers with these words, “how long would you limp on two opinions? If Baal is god, follow him, but if Yahweh is God follow Him!”

The intermittent controversy resulted in the final contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah (also another Canaanite god) who “eat at Jezebel’s table” versus the one man of Yahweh, Elijah. Each of them would prepare a bull for sacrifice and cut them into pieces and lay them on the altar. The real and true God would come and consume the offering with fire. It turned out that the thousand prophets of Baal and Asherah were no match to this one true prophet, Elijah. He alone had the altar where the power God was made manifest.

What happened at during the contest was fascinating: “the power of Yahweh is far more superior than the power of the false gods of Baal.” What happened AFTER Elijah’s victory, however, was something that defied imagination. When the people was emotionally convinced that Yahweh was the true and living God, Elijah ordered all the prophets to be killed with a summon, “let not one of them escape.” They massacred all the 950 prophets of Baal at the Brook of Kishon.

The late Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama likened the overzealous action of the prophet Elijah to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 following World War II. The (Emperor) Meiji Restoration period (1868-1912) resulted in the emergence of Japan as a new and powerful nation but also in idolatrous “emperor worship.” The idolatry to power caused Japan to inflict intolerable sufferings to their neighbors in Asia, and ignited the War in the Pacific by its ignominious attack of Pearl Harbor. 

While it is true that the Imperial Japan needed to be stopped, the atomic bombing in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, according to Koyama was an “overkill,” similar to Elijah’s incantation, “Let no one of them escape!” For America, the country which prides itself as Christian and described by English-born Puritan John Winthrop as the “city on a hill,” the atomic narrative was a necessary evil. That it happened on a Wednesday, August 8, 1945, made the word “Ash Wednesday” a horrible reality as cities were flattened, 166,000 died instantly in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki---not counting the thousand who later die from nuclear fall-out and radiation.

 “Let no one of them escape” is a statement of extreme prophetic zealousness, even if done in the name of God. Someone said that when the name of God is invoked in a war, the war becomes even more cruel, recalling the Crusades and the religious wars in human history. 

It is interesting to note that after Elijah killed the prophets of Baal, he went into hiding in the cave, fearing the revenge from Jezebel. From the cave he expected God would appear from the earthquake, from the wind or from the fire but God did not appear there. Instead, there was a still small voice, saying “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It sounded like the voice who asked Adam, hiding among the bushes, “Adam, where are you?” There was no standing ovation for Elijah’s overzealousness. There was no clapping and patting on the back. As with Adam and Eve, Elijah’s action was a fall to the temptation: we can not arrogate unto ourselves the power that belongs to God alone.

So the story of Archbishop Laud who zealously persecuted the erring Puritans, the overzealous Puritans who pursued their revenge against Archbishop Laud, the overzealousness of Elijah in terminating the prophets of Baal, the Emperor Worship of Japan and the American action in dropping the nuclear bombs, cannot be a model in today’s world of globalized pluralities and diversities. 

Let me end with a story from Dickson Yagi, Director of the Council for Pacific Asian Theology:
 A postal worker hurried on his way to deliver a social message. It was the pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-cell-phone era. He followed the written address and rang the doorbell. A lady appeared. So he sang to her, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy Birthday Mrs. Brown. Happy birthday to you.”

“Thank you very much, “ the lady said. “But I’m not Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown moved down the street to that white house over there.”

The postal worker hurried down the street to the white house and pushed the doorbell. A lady opened the door and he sang again, “Happy birthday to you…Happy birthday, Mrs. Brown…”The lady said, “Sorry, but I’m not Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown is my mother. Let me go call her in the kitchen.”

At last Mrs. Brown came to the door. He sang again, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy Birthday Mrs. Brown. Happy birthday to you.”

A man standing on the sidewalk said, “I have been following you to hear you sing. How could you be so foolish as to sing ‘Happy birthday’ to three different women?”

The postal worker replied, “Objectively speaking, I may have sung ‘Happy birthday to three different women, but in my heart I always sang only to Mrs. Brown.”

Dr. Yagi remarked, “Of the hundreds of religions in the world, how can anyone be sure which one is really right? Wouldn’t the worshipers say exactly like the postal worker, “Objectively speaking, we may not have worshiped the right religion, but in our hearts we always know we worshiped the one, true and living God.”
 If we must survive as a human race, we must all learn to be tolerant of each other’s faiths, cultures and ways of life for so long as they do not harm.  As a matter of fact, if we are to survive and thrive as a People of God, we must learn to embrace diversity and transcend the boundaries of faiths, cultures and ideologies in the name of the One who holds all things together. Amen

1 comment:

  1. I particularly like the story at the end and final paragraph. I agree, let's see how we can encourage people of all faiths to strengthen their spiritual practices in this age of unprecedented crises and opportunity.