In this biweekly feature, we seek to encourage the local church by remembering the times when things were much, much worse.
“Defenestration” seems like an oddly specific word, one with no real reason for existing. How often, we might wonder, does the ejection of someone or something through a window come up, and why would you need a word to talk about it?
If you’re from Prague, though, you know the answer is “more often than you’d expect.”
Prague, in fact, has actually seen not just one, but multiple defenestrations, to the point that historians actually talk with gravitas about the First Defenestration of Prague (1419) and the Second Defenestration of Prague (1618). And even that doesn’t include at least two other famous-but-as-yet-officially-unnumbered Prague defenestrations, which occurred in 1483 and 1948, respectively. It’s almost like no one in Prague knows about window screens or something.
The Second Defenestration, which we’re chiefly concerned with here, was the only one with obvious religious roots—specifically, a complex web of religion, politics, and the hard-to-answer question of who was persecuting whom. The short version is that some of the Protestant subjects of the Holy Roman Empire threw a handful of Catholic regents out a third-story window, because that’s kind of how Catholics and Protestants got along at the time. The more complicated version goes something like this:
Following the Protestant Reformation, which was famously tipped off in Wittenberg in 1517, the Holy Roman Empire was thrown into turmoil and carved up into warring factions of Protestants and Catholics. To avoid a complete breakup of the empire, the various groups reached a compromise called the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which allowed the various territorial kings to determine the religion of their respective subjects—because what else were they going to do? Choose their own religion? That’s crazy talk.
This compromise held true almost everywhere in the empire—everywhere, that is, except in the province of Bohemia, because they felt the need to be different (or “bohemian,” if you will). The king there was Catholic, but he allowed for broad toleration of Protestants, permitting them to continue to worship and even build their churches on public land.
This arrangement held true . . . until it didn’t. After the throne changed hands a couple times, the fate of Bohemian Protestants was thrown into turmoil. In response, some representatives of the Protestant population met with some of the Catholic regents, and they were all like, “Y’all are still gonna let us keep building our churches on royal land, right?” And the regents were all like, “Yeah, haha, nah.”
And so the Protestants reacted how any one of us would have: they threw the Catholics out the window. I mean, obviously.
Despite the three-story drop, all three of them managed to survive—though how they did is lost to the mists of time. According to the Catholic propaganda of the day, they were borne safely to the ground by angels; according to the equivalent Protestant propaganda, they landed in a pile of manure. (Maybe we should split the difference and say they landed in angel manure?) Regardless, no one was hurt—so, no harm, no foul, right?
Oh—except the incident tipped off the continent-wide Thirty Years’ War . . . which, y’know, turned into a whole other thing.
I’ve been thinking about incidents like this a lot lately, especially as I see people around me screaming back and forth about what terms like “religious freedom” and “persecution” mean. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that ideas like these exist more in a relative sense than an absolute one—no one is ever 100 percent free or 100 percent persecuted. Really, the only thing I can say with certainty is that when people live together, there’s friction, and how they interpret the friction depends on which side of it they’re on.
To the Protestants here, the religious liberty they were accustomed to was being pretty severely abridged. They had been building churches, and then suddenly they weren’t able to. But from the Catholic perspective, the Protestants already had more freedom to worship than almost anyone else in the empire—did they really need free government land on top of all that?
Had I been there, I probably would have found it easy to take a side, to dig in my heels and start toppling my enemies over sills and out of casements. And that’s what people did, resulting in a generation-long war that ravaged a continent and killed millions.
It’s hard not to wonder if anyone thought it was worth it. I also wonder if maybe that’s why Jesus tells us to respond to persecution not by digging in our heels, but by falling to our knees. We all know the sermon, but here it is again:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Matt. 5:38-41)
Jesus says, “Lay down your arms.” Always. And don’t wait for the other guy to do it first. If everyone had listened during the Reformation, huge amounts of suffering might have been deftly avoided—in much the same way, say, that one avoids the plummeting body of a doubtlessly bewildered Bohemian.
But then we wouldn’t be able to use cool words like “defenestration.” So, kind of a toss-up, I guess?