15 September 2009

Why should Christians celebrate John Calvin's Birthday?

Alternative title: Open Letter to my first year theology professor.

Michael Servetus was an renowned heretic in Calvin's time - who was executed like most out spoken heretics during the 1500's. The Spanish Inquisition was actually seeking Servetus for his writings against the Trinity - and had sentenced him to death by burning. But what makes this pertinent is that it was in Calvin's Geneva that Servetus was executed.

Some how when we were talking about Calvin in my theology class at seminary, Servetus's name was brought up. I stated something like: "Servetus is the guy that Calvin killed for disagreeing with him." my professor was quick to offer some explanation with a very defensive tone: "You have to understand that is just what was done with heretics back then." He also stated "Calvin didn't kill him, Calvin's followers did."

That shut me up as a freshman in my first theology course, but the though lingered in my mind for a very long time - something seemed a little off. Calvin's action, or at best his inaction around the execution of this man and many Christians propensity to ignore or glaze over this action is a perfect example of what kept me away from Christ for so many years.

What finally brought me to Christ when I was 27 years old was reading the stories of Jesus told in the Bible: Jesus lead by example - and did not carry out acts of violence on people. The turning over of the money changers tables was the most violent thing he did [Matthew 21, John 2] (and maybe the withering of the fig tree [Matthew 21]). But he did not work to assure the conviction and execution of those who critiqued his theology. Even when Jesus' "people" (the apostles) carried out violence - he spoke out against it. (See Jesus' arrest in Matthew 26)

Also, the common way to deal with some one who contradicted the powers that be in Jesus' day was also execution - there were "Messiahs" before and after Jesus who had attempted to carry out the same violence that Calvin was party to.

But the actions of Calvin towards heretics are not the paths that Jesus took.

"He didn't make them do it. That's what everyone else was doing." Many reformed Christians and Theologians offer these arguments on behalf of Calvin in unresearched, un-resourced, and self serving documents. Here is a good example:

This article is not just slanted, but completely void of any citations - something I would use if I was defending some one from an accusation of murder. This article has the standard mixed message that most defenses of Calvin offer: 1. Calvin wasn't all that involved in this "matter". 2. And if he was involved what's the big deal? Every one was doing it? The article and these common arguments are written more to assuage fears of people who have devoted their lives to Calvin and his theology then to actually explore the facts of the matter.

If there are better defenses of Calvin's actions - please point them out to me, but this article uses the blanket generalizations that all the other articles/arguments I have seen and heard. I do not wish to set up a straw man - so if there is a better argument out there - please let me see it.

Arguments like this are also what kept me away from Christianity - they are uninformed, unresearched, and unwilling to bend in light of new information. The commitment is to proving the goodness of Calvin at all costs.

Stating that Calvin had very little involvement as my theology professor did completely ignores Calvin's own words in the matter. Calvin's own writing: Defense of the orthodox faith in the sacred Trinity outlines clearly a justification for the execution of heretics.

Additionally "He didn't make them do it. " and "That's what everyone else was doing." are not legitimate excuses for any Christian ever. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, and do use these justifications for our less proud moments, but Calvin was clear that the persecution of Servetus was not one of those moments for him.

Many people exclaim the gift that John Calvin's theology is to the world. My question is: If your theology encourages you to actively seek the persecution and death of those who oppose you in thought, then isn't there something fundamentally wrong with your theology? By my estimation, if you believe that you have to protect God's work through executions, then you have missed the mark. You have not read and understood the prophets, and you have not read and understood the accounts of our Savior's life. God is so much bigger than us, and does not need protected.

I hope to make clear that this is really a question, and that I am open to recieving new information about this - I am not committed to feeling that Calvin is a detriment to the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but in my experience and from the information I have seen he is. His theology not only approved of the executions, but this same theology seems to encourage his followers to deny or defend his actions - instead of repenting from them. Paul said it best: it is in our weakness that we are strong. [2 Corinthians 12]

We must be honest about our Christian heroes - if our theology does not allow for this, we have missed a very important part of the story of God. My greatest Christian hero is Martin Luther King Jr. He cheated on his wife. I admire MLK deeply, but I will not deny or justify his betrayal of his wife. I don't think that he would justify it either, but rather repent of it. Again I say: it is in our weakness that we are strong.

Last updated 9/17
(FYI - I came up with the idea for this post a few month's ago when people were celebrating John Calvin's 500th birthday also, I have made some revisions to this post and will continue refine this post with the help of any one who wants to answer my initial question - that is my revised title. So you may find that issues in the comments are now addressed, and the comments don't make as much sense anymore, that is because I am changing the article ;)

10 September 2009

Sharing/Borrowing as a Spiritual Discipine

I have been participating a loosely connected intentional community with several other Christians. One of the practices that we talked about using was sharing resources. With my anti-consumerist leanings, the idea of using products people owned instead of buying additional products sounded very practical and beneficial, and I didn’t see it as a spiritual discipine at all. My wife and I have many of those little things that people only occasionally need: sewing machine, an extra 100 feet of hose (got it out of the trash), some camping gear, etc. We love being able to share our things. It just made sense, but didn’t look like a spiritual practice to me.

That was until some one else had something I wanted. I have just recently taken to bike camping – where you get to the campsite on a bike, and strap everything you need right on the bike. So one family in our intentional community has a wonderful, light, and tiny tent. I used it for my first trip this year and it worked great! The consumer/independent person in me says that I should get one of my own. But they tell me that I am welcome to use it any time (and I am positive that they mean that). The chances that we would both be camping the same weekend is relatively low, but for some reason I can’t help but look at similar tents in my spare time and then look for deals on Craig’s List.

Now that I have wanted to use it for a third time, I realized that I really hate having to ask to borrow things. It is not like they give me a guilt trip, or that I don’t like loaning our things out to other people. There is something oddly humbling about borrowing other peoples’ things. Through this experience, I can see sharing very clearly as a spiritual practice/discipline.

There is a huge difference between loaning out my stuff, and asking some one else for theirs. When you are the loaner, you are the one in some way with the power. We also get to be the “generous” person and not the needy one. When we loan other people our stuff we can kid ourselves and tell ourselves that we are not an obligation, but that is not the case. Children are an obligation to their parents, parents become an obligation to their children, husbands to wives and the body of the church to God.

There are two specific thoughts I have around this whole thing:

1. There are some monastic communities who obtain their food by begging.
2. When we visited Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston Illinois (a Mennonite Intentional Community) we learned a lot about sharing. This community has many members who share a common purse. Their paychecks go directly to the community and they are given stipends. The individuals don’t technically own anything – the community does. As we were talking about the challenging nature of this with members of the community David Janzen said something like “It is easier to let Jesus be Lord over the things that you hold in common.” I don’t want Jesus to be Lord over the tent. I want to be Lord over the tent.