Over the long course of Christian history, the most depressing thing—because repeated so often—has been how tragically far short of Christian ideals we ordinary Christians so regularly fall. Over the long course of Christian history, the most remarkable thing—because it is such a miracle of grace—is how often believers have acted against the pride of life to honor Christ. Of all such "signs of contradiction," the most completely Christlike have been those occasions when believers who are strong—because of wealth, education, political power, superior culture, or favored location—have reached out to the despised, the forsaken, the abandoned, the lost, the insignificant, or the powerless. Christianity has sometimes made a difference by surrounding the use of power with humility.
Throughout Western history, power has been a far more potent narcotic than the multitude of physical means that humans have used to get high. Power feeds on itself. It is never satisfied. It is almost never relinquished voluntarily. (The Roman Catholic Charles V, who in 1556 gave up the Holy Roman Empire for a monastic life of prayer, and the Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, who in 1915 resigned as Secretary of State to protest what he considered warlike policies, are rare exceptions proving this rule.) Power nurtures the idolatry of self. It turns those in its vicinity into sycophants. It thrives in environments that stifle the fruit of the Spirit. Power, like its near kin wealth, breeds burly camels grossly unprepared for threading the eye of the needle. Power corrupts. And it almost never apologizes.
Yet in the year 390 the most powerful human being in the Western world apologized. In the winter of 1076-77 the Emperor of Germany apologized. On July 12, 1174, the strongest ruler in Western Europe apologized. Historians have studied and restudied these events many times. Their work has made it impossible to regard these apologies romantically. Each was an act of calculation, which helped someone in power stay in power, as well as an apology. So, like most of the rest of the benevolent actions in human history, these events were not occasions of pure goodness. Yet even regarded with due realism, they were still remarkable. What makes them most remarkable is that they were not only apologies to other humans, but also apologies to God.
The Christian faith, at least in some meaningful respects, was at work in each of these occurrences. The fact that they were acts of repentance as well as of apology—acts taken out of sorrow before a holy God and in deference to the gospel revealed in Jesus Christ—provides at least a partial explanation for why they took place.
In the year 390, the Roman Emperor Theodosius, acting out of frustration at balking resistance to his rule, ordered the massacre of a considerable number of citizens in the Greek city of Thessalonica. When he returned to Italy and went to church, his local pastor denounced him as a notorious public sinner and refused to serve him the Lord's Supper. This pastor was the famous Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who only shortly before had played an influential role in the conversion of Augustine. Less than a century earlier, the Christian church had still been illegal. When Ambrose took his stand, most adults in his congregation had personal memory of imperial Roman attacks on orthodox Christians. Theodosius, one of the last great Roman emperors, could have blown Ambrose away with ease. That he did not, that he submitted to the public penance prescribed by Ambrose in order to be restored to church fellowship, seems to have occurred substantially because of Theodosius' Christian convictions. He had done wrong before God and needed, therefore—emperor though he was—to make a public repentance.
The case of the German Emperor Henry IV was not as spiritually clear-cut. Henry had long quarreled with a series of popes before being excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII in February 1076. Henry's decision to admit that he was wrong depended in part on his fears about losing control over his subjects. But it probably had some kind of Christian root as well. With motives that were mixed, Henry nonetheless crossed the mountains in northern Italy during the next winter and stood three days barefoot in the snow before the Castle Canossa, where the pope was in residence. On January 28, 1077, Gregory received the emperor, accepted his apology, and restored him to the church.
With Henry II, King of England and much of France, we return closer to the purer motives of Theodosius. In 1162, Henry had maneuvered to make his crony Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury. But instead of playing his part as a loyal minion responsive to the wishes of the king, Becket struck off on his own course and did what he thought was best for the English church. By making Henry's life difficult, Becket put himself in danger. Late in 1170, after Henry had denounced Becket within the circle of his own advisers, several of Henry's knights took the king's imprecations as commands, crossed the Channel into England, and murdered Becket in the cathedral at Canterbury. The public was outraged, but quite apart from that outrage, Henry seemed smitten by his act of wanton violence. His public penance at Becket's shrine did bring public opinion back toward his side, but it also seems to have been a genuine act of repentance.
The history of Protestantism has also witnessed acts of this kind. One of the most memorable came in Puritan Massachusetts after the disastrous Salem witch trials of 1690 92. Samuel Sewall of Boston was one of the judges of the court who was swayed by "spectral evidence" to convict and then execute 20 New Englanders as witches. Judge Sewall was a dignified Puritan layman whose diary has been a treasure for historians of the period. Several years after the events in Salem, as Sewall's conscience continued to trouble him for his part in the Salem tragedy, he was moved to action by hearing his son recite a passage from Matthew 12, which included this verse (7): "But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless." On the morning of January 14, 1697, Sewall passed a statement to his pastor in Boston, who then read it as Sewall stood before his congregation. The statement acknowledged that Sewall, as a judge in the proceedings, bore much of the guilt for what happened. But it went on to affirm that he "Desires to take the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other sins." As it happens, Sewall was joined in his repentance by jury members and a few of the ministers who had whipped up the hysteria. But as the most powerful Puritan to make such a confession, his was the most remarkable.
The kingdom of God is promised to those who become like children. This promise certainly does not refer to the notorious self-centeredness of small children; much more likely it refers to the capacity of many children to readily admit their mistakes. Not many of the high and mighty in the Christian history of the West have been willing to become as little children with respect to the power they wield. The ones noticed here—as well as others like Oliver Cromwell or Jimmy Carter—have been among the regrettably few exceptions. That there are any exceptions at all is, nonetheless, enduring testimony to the transforming power of the gospel.
Mark Noll teaches history at Wheaton College.
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