Here’s the scenario (which happens to be a true story): I’m stuck in some slow moving traffic, and the guy in front of me has a couple of bumper stickers on the back of his four-wheel drive. With time on my hands, going nowhere fast, I had a quick read. The first one said, “Witches do it in circles”. The second one read, “Last time we mixed politics with religion, people got burned at the stake”.
Now those are a couple of provocative and in-your-face bumper stickers alright. And as bumper stickers, they were just rather silly, uninformed clichés. The trouble is, for many secular leftists, much of their argumentation and rhetoric reads no better than bumper sticker clichés. They are happy to throw out reckless and silly assertions, without any backing or evidence, and expect their opponents to somehow seriously deal with them.
Leaving aside the silly sexual innuendo of the first sticker – going back, I suppose, to the Beatles’ tune from their 1968 White Album, “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road” – let’s examine the second one. This is just a mishmash of foolishness, reckless accusations, and anti-Christian bigotry. It is wrong on every count – be it historically, theologically or socially.
The reference to being burnt at the stake can actually point to several episodes in church history: the Inquisition in Europe, or the witch trials there and in New England. Both were unfortunate episodes in the life of the Christian church, but both have also been blown way out of all proportion by the secularists.
So what about the Inquisition? There were actually three main waves of the Inquisition. The first was initiated in 1163 when Pope Alexander III told bishops to stamp out heresy. The second began around 1472 when Isabella and Ferdinand helped establish the Spanish Inquisition. The third occurred when Pope Paul III started hunting down Protestants, especially Calvinists, in 1532.
Let’s consider the case of the Spanish Inquisition. It really kicked off in 1478 when Pope Sixtus IV issued a bull to establish an Inquisitor in Seville. By all accounts, this was not a bright spot in church history. But a sense of perspective is in order.
First, a careful examination of the historical record reveals that at tops, around 2000 people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition. This is 2000 too many. But this works out to an average of less than six people a year for the 350-year period. That is a far cry from the numbers often claimed, and a far cry from the many millions a year killed in the name of godless communism or ruthless fascism.
Second, this is simply a perversion of Biblical Christianity. We should not throw out the baby with the bath water here. No Biblical command is found to torture and kill heretics in the New Testament. Jesus never did it, or approved of it, nor did any of the early church believers.
This is a case of some who call themselves Christians – often very loosely – doing things that are fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As such, we can acknowledge it was wrong, and seek to not let it happen again. But it cannot be put down to what happens when true Christianity is in positions of influence, or what must occur when religion and politics are mixed.
Third, as careful historians like Henry Kamen have pointed out, the Inquisition trials were fairer and more lenient than their secular counterparts. Often the sentence was quite lenient, such as a period of fasting or some community work.
And what about the witchcraft trials? These took place in Europe and in the New World. Consider Europe for a moment. Historian Rodney Stark has spent a fair amount of time examining the various witchcraft trials in Europe during the fourteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. If we take one period, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Stark concludes that in total there were only 935 defendants in these two centuries. That amounts to less than five per year.
And he reminds us that most witchcraft trials took place when both political and ecclesiastical power was weak. When there was strong centralised church or state power, witch hunts were severely controlled.
Consider also Puritan New England, especially in Salem at the end of the 1600s. Again, we need to say yes, the church was at fault to some extent. But, several considerations need to be kept in mind.
First, the numbers are not fully clear. Critics claim that the church burned five million women as witches altogether over the centuries. But some of the most recent estimates put the number of people killed for witchcraft at about 150 to 300 per year throughout all of Europe and North America, three quarters of whom were women. Over a period of about 300 years, this comes to 30-100,000 people. That is a lot of people. But again, compare deaths in the name of atheism to get some perspective here.
Similar things can be said about the Salem witch trials in particular. There just were not that many of them. It seems the best figure we can come up with is no more than twenty-five! And of those, some died in captivity, and only nineteen were actually sentenced to death.
And many of the Christian leaders – Puritans included – were strongly opposed to them. While religious leaders believed in witches, so did everyone else of the day. But it was often Christian ministers who opposed the trials. Cotton Mather went so far as to say it was “better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned”.
Moreover, perspective is again important here. Soviet, Chinese and Eastern European communism is estimated to have killed 100 million people in the twentieth century. Hitler’s campaign saw the death of 6 million Jews in a decade. Pol Pot of Cambodia killed around 3 million people in a year or two. The real mass killers in human history have been people acting according to atheist ideology.
And history provides some other sobering examples. For example, the pre-Columbian Aztecs sacrificed about 15,000 people each year (out of a much smaller population base than Europe).
Also, Christians – and other people – believe that there really are such things as witches. Putting them to death is not the answer, but it was not just a case of superstition and myth. Those who seriously practice witchcraft do exist, and some can do real evil. We know of very real Satanic cults and covens operating in various places, with actual reports of ritual abuse and murder known to the police.
While it is true that we find in Exodus 22:18 the command to put witches to death, we must remember that such an order is nowhere to be found in the NT. Thus Christianity cannot be directly blamed for such deaths.
And it’s a good thing too…
Lastly, the implication of this silly bumper sticker – and so much secular reasoning – is that the mixture of religion and politics is only always a bad thing, necessarily resulting in disastrous outcomes. This too betrays a woeful ignorance or deliberate distortion of the historical record. There have been plenty of occasions when such a mixture has resulted in tremendous good in the world. Thus it is a very good thing indeed that religion and politics have been allowed to mix.
Consider just a few of many examples. The leaders of the fight against the slave trade were primarily Christians, whether Wilberforce and the Clapham Society in the UK, or preachers like Finney and the Wesleys both there and in the US. And the modern civil rights movement of course was based in Christian political involvement. Martin Luther King had no problem with taking his Christian faith into the political arena.
Blacks the world over are very thankful that Christians believed that their worldview had something to say to the social issues of the day. They would still be in chains and treated as second class citizens if the secularists had their way and managed to keep Christian influence out of politics.
Thus the next time you see a silly bumper sticker like this, bear in mind that it pretty much reflects the bumper sticker thinking of many of the God-haters and secular jihadists. Making reckless accusations is always so much easier than dealing with the actual evidence.