In the early 15th century, over a hundred years before Martin Luther opposed the Vatican, a Catholic priest named Jan Hus opposed abuses by the church and its clergy. He also advanced the cause of the Bible translator, John Wycliffe. Partly for the former, but mostly for the latter, he paid with his life. On July 6, 1415, he was fastened to a stake in the town square of Konstanz in what is now Southern Germany. Wood and straw were piled high around him, even up to his chin, in order to make a thorough work of burning him. When the fire was lit, with the approval of Emperor Sigismund, Hus perished in the flames while singing hymns as long as he was able.
Hus, a priest, was Bohemian and found opportunity to breathe light and life into religious practice because of the political climate within the church during his life. The Roman Catholic Church had two popes, one reigning in Rome and another reigning in Avignon in Southern France. At this time, Hus’s sovereign sought a position of neutrality between the two popes. We remember that king today in the well-known Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus.” During this window of opportunity, Hus was made rector of the University of Prague. He continued, as he had done before, to promote the ideas of Wycliffe and opposed indulgences and clerical corruption.
The Catholic Church, embroiled in schism with some supporting Avignon and others supporting Rome, attempted to heal the fracture by convening a Council at Pisa where they disavowed both popes and elected a third pope, Alexander V. Those included in this third papal succession are often referred to as the “antipopes.” Sensing opportunity, Hus, his royal protector and their followers transferred their loyalties to this new pope. However, this pope began a crusade against the claimed heresies of Wycliffe. He was unable to see them through as he died the very next year, but his successor, John XXIII, continued the crusade and consequently, the election of the antipopes only added to the volatility in the church. In an effort to impose uniformity of belief, Emperor Sigismund convened a council at Konstanz. Since much of the controversy was over the teachings of Wycliffe Hus was presenting and in order to assure Hus’s presence, he offered him a guarantee of safe conduct. Possibly because King Wenceslaus was Sigismund’s brother, Hus felt he could rely on the emperor’s promise.
The Archbishop of Konstanz was loyal to Rome and not the antipopes. He would certainly have no sympathy for those who allied themselves with them. Perhaps in a contest to see who could be more truly Catholic, Rome was also fighting the teachings of Wycliffe. If that were the case, in an atmosphere where each faction is trying to outdo the other in their zeal for the church, Hus had little hope of finding a sympathetic hearing for his views regarding excesses within Catholicism. After a protracted trial that eventually included imprisonment in the Archbishop’s castle, Hus was found guilty of preaching the heresies of Wycliffe and was condemned to be burned at the stake. A paper hat condemning him as an arch-heretic was placed on his head, and he was marched to the square and just as rhetorical flames had burned hot during his trial, real flames accomplished what the words alone could not.
In spite of these attempts to overcome schism and consolidate power within the church, Hus’s martyrdom galvanized opposition to Rome in Bohemia. In spite of four papal crusades to wipe out the followers of Hus, every crusade was defeated and the Czech Republic became mostly non-Catholic. While the Catholic Church has achieved more growth in recent times, it is in decline, today, with only about 10% of the population claiming to be Roman Catholic per the Czech Statistical Office. [i]
Many Protestants today see Hus as an early hero of the reformation. However, he may not have understood the modern opposition to the Catholic Church for no other reason than that it is Catholic. While each of these Protestant denominations may feel themselves the proper successor to Hus, it is unknown whether he would have felt comfortable choosing one denomination over another or would have rejected them all as schismatic. Maybe his position would be more in line with those who have been reformers but remained within the organizational structure of the church. That tradition was very early seen in the Christian church. For example, it can be seen in Paul’s confrontation with Peter (See Galatians 2:11) and his appeal to what has become known as the First Jerusalem Council over the issue of circumcision. (See Acts 15)
Hus was a persecuted martyr, but he lived five centuries ago. While we may view persecution as something in the distant past, we are faced with statements from the Bible that trouble our complacency. Paul wrote to Timothy, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3:12, NIV If this is the case, why are there no Hus’s being burned in the town square today? We may feel we are more enlightened today and do not burn people at the stake for their beliefs. But are we more enlightened, or simply more subtle in how we oppress those we disagree with?
Persecution could be seen as a three-step process. First, we are confronted with information that is new to us. Second, we judge that what we see is false. Third, we act upon that judgment to eliminate the error. On the surface, this is something we do many times every day without it rising to the level of persecution. For example, we find a mistake in our bank statement, and we work with the bank to eliminate the mistake, but this is not persecution. So how does the process rise to that level?
Since we are confronted with new information almost continually in our present digital age yet persecution is not universal, it probably does not happen at the first step. However, the second step is fraught with possibilities for going awry. We are so poor at judging that Jesus warned us about it. He said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1-2, NIV
The problem is not in making judgments about information. The problem comes when we elevate that judgment to be about people instead of information. When we begin to reject individuals as false instead of the information they may have brought us, then the individual becomes the problem, and we may feel the need to eliminate them rather than the false information. This is the mistake that was made regarding Hus. Eliminating him did not eliminate the problem. In fact it only made the problem more entrenched, because it eliminated the best avenue for communicating about it. When we make problems in society and the church about people instead of issues, we are only a hairbreadth away from the excesses of the Inquisition or even Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.” It is far too easy to extend the problem with a person to their entire people group. Perhaps this is why warning us about judging others was so important to Jesus.
Today we often see the same processes repeated within the church. We see disputes over music used in the church, and we see those disputes evolve from being about the music to being about the people. The attitude is expressed that if only so-and-so were no longer around, we could have the music we desire. If those who have such attitudes are in positions of power within the church, they easily move from such statements to actual persecution of those who do not agree with them. If possible they prevent them from serving on nominating committees or holding any influential church office, and if it is in their power, they would drive them from the fellowship in the belief that doing so would eliminate the problem. This is not the spirit of Christ, it is another spirit. (See Luke 9:53-55)
When we indulge that other spirit and make people the problem, we are setting our understanding on a papal throne of control over others’ lives. We ignore Jesus’ warnings about judgment. We also ignore that the judging of people is reserved to Jesus. He told us, “Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son.” John 5:22, NIV If all judgment of others is reserved to Jesus, how much will that leave for us? The correct answer seems to be “none.”
Although we often acknowledge that we have difficulty with control over our own lives and often do what we know we should not, we can fail to see the implications of this when we try to assert control over the thoughts and lives of others. Experience with exercising has taught me that if I struggle with a smaller weight, a larger one will only be more difficult. Therefore if I struggle with controlling my own life, how many more lives will I be able to successfully control? My personal need is to give control of my life to Jesus who can handle it well. Shouldn’t this be the answer for others, also? Shouldn’t I let God handle them rather than trying to do it for Him?
If I cannot allow that to happen then I may find myself in a position I did not expect. As Gamaliel said “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” Acts 5:38-39, NIV Emperor Sigismund and the Archbishop of Konstanz decided that they would not allow their ability to control others to be compromised and decided that eliminating Hus would restore control and uniformity of religious practice. History shows they were wrong. Perhaps we can do better today.
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