a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
Did you know that Unitarians can lay claim to both Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein? Come and learn how on our annual Partner Church Sunday.
- From Leviticus 19:33-34
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
- President George W. Bush, at a news conference, April 28, 2005
“The great thing about America is that you should be allowed to worship any way you want. And if you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship. And if you choose to worship, you’re equally American if you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim.”
We’re talking today about religious dissent and toleration – specifically in the context of our history as Unitarian Universalists. I always want to know the history of things, because history lets us know how we got to be who we are. If we don’t know our history it’s like having amnesia.
Now, despite what many of us learned in school and Sunday school, Christianity was generally tolerated by the Roman Empire, although there were some sporadic persecutions of Christians. But when the Christians gained control of the Roman Empire, the Christian Emperors persecuted all dissenters. Later, the Crusades tried to drive the Muslims out of Palestine. The First Crusade began by slaughtering Jews all across Europe. During a time called the Western Schism, there were three popes at once, all claiming to be the only pope, and the popes led armies into battle. Then, during the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics in Europe slaughtered each other in the Thirty Years’ War. Later, Puritans, Anglicans and Catholics fought a civil war for control of England. In the New World the Conquistadors put Aztecs and Incas and other Native Americans to death for being heathens. The Puritans of Boston hanged four Quakers, and the Puritans of Salem executed other people who were accused of being witches.
In other words, although there truly were many gentle and kind and loving Christians, religious toleration was an idea that took a long time to catch on.
Michael Servetus ~
For illustration, let’s consider Michael Servetus, who was burned at the stake in 1553. Servetus was not a Unitarian, although he is sometimes mistaken for one. Let’s start with that fact. So if he wasn’t a Unitarian, why should we care about him? We care because his writings opened up the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus for debate – and because his execution raised the issue of religious toleration in an intolerant age.
He was born Miguel Serveto, in Spain, in 1511, but is better known by the Latinized form of his name, Michael Servetus. He was one of the best map-makers in Europe. He was also a doctor, and was the first European to describe the circulation of blood in the human body. In 1528 Servetus was in Rome where he saw Pope Clement VIII.. The Pope wore a three-tiered crown and was seated on a golden chair, under a golden canopy, riding on his sedan chair while cardinals walked along side. Servetus was disgusted by the un-Christlike wealth and pomp that surrounded the pope. The Reformation was in the air, and Servetus had become a Reformer.
But Servetus wanted to go farther than the Protestants. He wrote a book questioning the doctrine of the Trinity – the idea that God is one person who is also three persons, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus is one person who is two persons, one fully divine and one fully human. He thought the doctrine of the Trinity was fair game because the word Trinity never appears anywhere in the Bible, and because the doctrine itself is not explained in the Bible. So in his book, On the Errors of the Trinity, Servetus said that both the Catholics and Protestants were wrong about the Trinity. To Servetus, God was one person who manifested himself in three aspects or modes. Servetus accepted the Trinity, but rejected the way it was being taught, and rejected the individuality of three divine persons in one God.
Now, if you don’t understand his theology, that’s fine. To make a long story short, what is important to us today are two things: first, he opened up the question of the Trinity. Once that question was asked, that created the possibility of Unitarian churches – where God was understood to be one, and Jesus was seen to be a very inspired and inspiring human being.
And the second thing about Servetus was that he was burned at the stake by Protestants, and that caused a reaction against religious intolerance. Although he had been condemned to death by Catholics in France, he escaped. But then he made his escape route through Geneva, Switzerland, which was ruled by the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin. And in 1553 Calvin had him arrested, tried for heresy, and burnt at the stake.
Religious tolerance ~
When the Protestants burnt Servetus at the stake, that raised questions of religious toleration. Protestants had been hunted by the Catholic Inquisition. The Catholics wanted to burn Luther and Calvin. But now the Protestants themselves had burnt someone for heresy!
One Protestant scholar, Sebastian Castellio, said that although he did not agree with Servetus, Servetus should have had a right to say what he believed. “To kill a man does not prove a doctrine,” said Castellio, “it only kills a man.” Rather than burning Michael Servetus at the stake, John Calvin should have answered Servetus’ writings with his own writings, and answered his reasons with better reasons.
Now, why had no one thought of that before? In Mediaeval Europe, religious difference was seen as a dangerous thing. Most people agreed that there is only one Truth. If I have the Truth, you do not. And heresy was worse than murder. If I murder you, you might go to heaven. But if I convince you of a heresy, I murder your soul for all of eternity. That’s much worse than merely killing your body. And heresy is also disloyalty to the government, because you are questioning the king’s religion, and the king was chosen by God.
So, before the modern era (1600), heresy was the worst crime of all. But today it is a founding principle of the United States that toleration is both good and necessary. It is good because to the modern mind, there are many thoughtful people who disagree with one another. If an idea is true, it should be able to hold its own in a fair debate. Even if an idea is partly right and partly wrong, we can learn something from it, and perhaps improve our own thinking.
And then there’s a practical matter. The Thirty Years War, fought between Catholics and Protestants, devastated Europe and spread suffering and misery. And in the end nobody won. No one was any better off; they were all worse off. And no one was any closer to the truth, just poorer and sadder. So toleration began to make sense to more and more people.
Then, the United States was settled by people of many different religious persuasions: Puritans, Catholics, Anglicans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Baptists, Jews, skeptics and non-believers. Our Founding Fathers also held a diversity of religious views. A few, like Patrick Henry, were evangelical Protestants. More, like George Washington, who would not kneel to pray and would not take communion, were more liberal Protestants. Some, like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were Unitarians who rejected the divinity of Jesus. And some, like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen, were Deists who rejected the need for Bibles and churches.
And so the Founding Fathers were not indifferent to religion. Most of them held strong religious views. To the Founders, religious tolerance was not religious indifference. Tolerance means that we value the right of another person to hold beliefs that we think are absolutely wrong. And so the Founding Fathers provided us with a greater amount of religious liberty and religious toleration than any nation before us had ever experienced. Religious toleration and religious liberty are our birthright as Americans.
Vampires and Unitarians ~
Now let’s go back, for a minute, to the years following the execution of Michael Servetus, and see what happened. Within fifteen years of his execution, there were Unitarian churches in Poland and Transylvania. That’s right, Transylvania. Vampires and Unitarians come from the same place. And because, much later, Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelly, a free-thinker who was raised by free- thinking Unitarians, we can reasonably lay claim to both Count Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster.
But I digress. In Poland, from about 1560 to 1660, there were a couple hundred Unitarian churches, although the name “Unitarian” had not yet come into use. They were officially called the Minor Reformed Church of Poland, and they’re known to history as the Socinians. They got that name, Socinian, because they were led by Faustus Socinus, an Italian theologian who fled to Poland seeking religious toleration.
Socinus (Fausto Sozzini in Italian) rejected the Protestant doctrine of Predestination, which said that, before time began, God decided who will be saved and who will be damned. Socinus said we have the free will to chose either good or evil. Socinus also said Jesus is not God, but was a great preacher and religious reformer who showed us how to live a godly life. He said that for us to live a godly life is more important than having the correct theology. And, last but not least, he said we need to use reason when we read the Bible.
So yes, he sounds like a Unitarian, doesn’t he? But in Poland, the window of toleration was closing. In 1598 Socinus was beaten by a mob and forced to leave Krakow. In Warsaw, in 1611, Iwan Tyskiewicz, a Socinian, was accused of blasphemy, tried and found guilty. They cut out his tongue, cut off his right hand, cut off his right foot, cut off his head, and then just to be sure, burnt him at the stake. In 1660 all Unitarians – that is, the Minor Reformed Church or Socinians – were given three choices: convert to Catholicism, go into exile, or be executed.
So in those days, we Unitarians were religious refugees, banned from Poland and Lithuania and even sometimes burned at the stake.
Some Unitarian refugees went to Holland, and others went to Transylvania, where the Unitarians were being tolerated. It was in Transylvania that we were first called Unitarians. There, a brilliant preacher named Francis David (David Ferenc in Hungarian) had argued the Unitarian cause at a public debate in 1568, and had been declared the winner.
King John Sigismund of Transylvania converted to Unitarianism and issued a decree of religious tolerance, the Edict of Torda. He was building upon an earlier edict issued by his mother, Queen Isabella. Isabella had granted toleration to both Catholics and Lutherans. King John Sigismund included Calvinists and Unitarians who, together with the already protected Catholics and Lutherans, would all have religious toleration. It was the most enlightened policy anywhere in Europe, and is was proclaimed by the only Unitarian king in history.
But John Sigismund died a few years later, and was succeeded by a Catholic king who didn’t much care for the Unitarians. The new king did honor the edict, but said he would not tolerate any new religious innovations. When Francis David prayed only to God, and would not pray to Jesus, he was accused of the crime of innovation, and in 1579 he was thrown in a dungeon, where he died. The Unitarians had been put on notice.
But the Unitarians of Transylvania survived. Today there are perhaps 80,000 Unitarians in Transylvania. The Unitarians of Transylvania are a Hungarian-speaking minority in Romania. They are also Protestant Christians, although with a distinctive Unitarian and liberal approach to Christianity. We have a Unitarian “Partner Church” in Magyarandrasfalva, a small village in Eastern Transylvania, right in the middle of Romania.
So, Unitarianism had a role in the gains humankind has made toward religious toleration. But
today, here in the United States, religious freedom is now under threat. During the political campaign Donald Trump promised to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. The Trump regime has issued a ban on people from coming into the U.S. from certain Muslim-majority nations, although he says he intends to make exceptions for Christians coming from those countries.
Mr. Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims are both un-Christian and un-American, as our texts this morning from the Bible and from President George W. Bush illustrate. George Washington wrote saying he would hire people of any religion, including Muslims, as long as they were good workers. Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, said that if we were to have “true freedom,” it must embrace Muslims and Hindus as well as Christians. Thomas Jefferson specifically listed Muslims, Jews, and Pagans among the people he said our religious freedoms should protect. Our nation was founded on the idea that we are made stronger by being a pluralistic society. That’s why the United States has always defended religious minorities around the world. And it’s why we have always opened our doors to the stranger seeking refuge, or the neighbor in need of help.
Mr. Trump’s attempt to ban Muslims, and his rejection of refugees, represents a complete reversal of the role America plays on the international stage. Trump’s religious nativism, his white supremacy and twisted logic, are not national security; they are an un-American and odious dereliction of our moral duty toward one another.
We should remember that, in the 1600s, Unitarians were religious refugees. As the passage we read from the Book of Leviticus said, “remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Families are fleeing violence and intolerance. I believe it is our duty, as religious people, to welcome refugees and those who have been shunned because of their religious beliefs.
Let me leave you with one last thought. Some wit has said that if Moses had been a Unitarian we would have the Ten Suggestions. But if we UUs do have a First Commandment it is this: Let other people be different. Or as Francis David, our Transylvanian founder said, “We do not have to think alike in order to love alike.” May that always be our motto.