Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Forces of Light and Darkness

This is part of a series on the roots of Christian Violence. You can find the other parts here. Reading the previous part (A House Divided) should be enough to put this post in context.
The Folly of Appraising Christianity
The Unpayable Debt of Salvation
and following on from this piece Protecting the Weak

The Forces of Light and Darkness

“Now this is the message that we have heard from his Son and announce to you: God is light and there is no darkness at all in him. If then we say that we are in fellowship with him, yet at the same time live in the darkness, we are lying both in our words and in our actions. But if we live in the light – just as he is in the light – then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son makes us clean from every sin.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and make us clean from all our wrongdoing. If we say that we have not sinned, we make a liar out of God, and his word is not in us.”
-Today’s English Version, 1 John 1: 5-10

“Children these are the last days: You were told that an Antichrist must come and now several antichrists have already appeared; We know from this that these are the last days.
Those rivals of Christ came out from our own number, but they had never really belonged. If they had belonged, they would have stayed with us.”
 -New Jerusalem Bible 1 John 2:18-20

Consider the usefulness of the above verses to an inquisitor. Take note that there is no grey. You are either with the light or the dark. Take note as well that Johns anti-christs “claim fellowship with Christ” and are “from our own number.” These are the classic reds under the bed, not a clearly separate enemy.

John, the author of the above letters also wrote the Revelation of St. John. This final book in the Christian canon expands these themes of light and dark to illustrate a final conflict between an army of darkness led by an anti-christ and Christ’s true and persecuted church. God’s intervention routs the forces of the anti-christ and through the unleashing of terrors over the earth (plagues and more) makes a final testament to their power before humanity.

Although there are specific messages to historical churches in The Revelation Christians tend to see this book as prophecy yet to be fulfilled. The ambiguity of who Revelations addresses means Christians have regularly understood their immediate situation and their doctrinal conflicts in the light of this prophecy. There is an army of darkness full of false promises and a few who stand in the light of God’s truth.

Now 1 John and Revelations can be interpreted in all manner of ways. The light can even mean the light of compassion. However for the inquisition (as it would for the later reformers) being in the light meant sharing the doctrines of the true church without doubt. The same dichotomy was also celebrated by the other side as well who saw themselves as the forces of light. The effect has been to exaggerate difference and attribute a sinister agenda to ones opponents. They are not part of the work of the true church like us but serve Satan (wittingly or unwittingly). John supports this interpretation in referring to the earliest Christian heresy of Gnosticism;

“There are many deceivers about in the world, refusing to admit that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. They are the Deceiver, they are the Antichrist.”
        New Jerusalem Bible 2 John 2: 7

The first crusade refers to an intra-Christian war with the losers remembered by the name Cathars. The Cathars (they just called themselves good Christians) took some biblical passages literally and treated other passages as metaphorical but not the same ones as the Roman Catholic Church. Chiefly they felt that no-one should be called Father but God and they considered the transubstantiation of the Catholic eucharist into Gods actual body and blood as blasphemous. The Cathars also had extreme renunciative practices – they fasted and avoided most meats. They held that our souls belonged to God but that our flesh had been crafted by the devil and they rejected the authority of the Old Testament. None of these views made them anything other than model members of their towns and villages according to the French nobles with Cathars on their lands.

What the Catholic Church said about them was something quite different. The Cathars were accused of worshipping a black cat and kissing its bottom as well as that of the devil in human form. They were accused of participating in sexual orgies and keeping several wives. Most bizarrely they were accused of suicide. This was an odd charge given that they were hunted down and put to the death for it. One very early case collapsed when a witness was to say they had seen a noble riding to an orgy on a giant crab. The noble refuted it and the witness recanted leading to the inquisitor being driven out of town.

This was nothing new. The Cathars were related ideologically to the Bogomils. Of them we have an eleventh century description of incestuous orgies, the offspring of which were supposedly drained and burnt and their ashes turned into a drink.

Ultimately if no actual heresy existed then it was possible to create one. Historians now believe that the Heresy of the Free Spirit was an invention of the inquisition. This groups chief doctrine was that having been saved we could do whatever we wanted to sexually. Such rampancy of sexual licentiousness in the churches enemies is no mistake. While the celibacy of the Inquisitors may have contributed to their fantasies of sexual depravity this is also a reflection of a vision in Revelations, a woman drunk on the blood of God’s people, titled “the Great Babylon, mother of all prostitutes and perverts of the world.” (Revelations 17)

Although this vision is strongly indicated as referring to a city other meanings come to mind when we read “Every one of her shows and orgies are to be matched by a torture or grief” (Rev.18:7) She is to be “burned right up” and the kings who fornicated with her will watch “the smoke of her burning”.

Johns’ was the language that enabled men who had devoted their lives to God to burn hundreds of Cathars at a time - approximately four hundred Cathars died in 1211 in the largest mass burning. One Abbot who later was to become an arch-bishop destroyed a whole walled city of at least seven thousand people in order to get to about two hundred Cathars. He famously proclaimed “Kill them all, the Lord knows those who are his own.”

Believing that our side is completely in the light and our opponents are completely of the dark is not something we have left in the past. The similarity between the Salem Witch Trials and the 1950's House of Unamerican Activities is the point made by The Crucible. The suspension of basic rights for suspected terrorists in The United States, and the permission of torture shows this kind of thinking is still alive and well. There’s also no way that Christianity began this type of thinking. It was used against them before they gained power.

However this thinking also springs from the last book of the Christian Bible, The Revelation of St. John and his other writings. This author continues to speak to modern Christians. For two thousand years he urges them to watch out for a great and evil worldwide conspiracy in service to the devil. John writes beautifully on the importance of love in Christian communities but he suspends that love when it comes to those “bearing different doctrines.”

“If anyone comes to you bringing a different doctrine, you must not receive him in your house or even give him a greeting. To greet him would make him a partner in your work.”
- New Jerusalem Bible 2 John 2: 9-11

They are in league with the forces of darkness after all.

My partner in her wisdom pointed out that I should acknowledge my debt to one source in particular "The Grand Inquisitors Manual, A History of Terror in the Name of God" by Jonathon Kirsch. In fairness to him I should also say Kirsh doesn't come to the same conclusions as I do (nor involve Johns' writings), not necessarily because we disagree but because we are asking different questions.


  1. Tony, you are right that the ideas of light and darkness, of truth and heresy and of God and Satan are able to be used for great evil. But why is the potential for misuse ever a good test for whether something is true or not?

    You seem simply to point out how it's been used to cause pain, ignore the ways it is used to relieve pain, and then finish with a silly mocking statement, as if it's so darn obvious that the devil doesn't exist that to mention it seems to win your argument.

    It sounds just like your preaching to yourself in the end, and it doesn't do much for an interesting topic like the one you're tackling.

  2. Simon, this series is emphatically NOT about questions like whether the devil is true.
    The question of this series is clear... why are Christians such a bloodthirsty lot?
    It may be that Christian violence against heretics is justified precisely because they are anti-christs in league with the forces of darkness ruling the world. In the Cathars case it still seems unlikely they were orgiasts given what we can deduce. Perhaps the irony is that the actual Anti-christs ran the inquisition. Again NOT the topic.
    Whatever we think about the devil it would still be the case that Johns depiction of his specifically doctrinal opponents as anti-christs (rightly or wrongly) and his black-and-white language picturing a deceptive war is a root of Christian violence. It goes back to him. And that's what this series is about.