“Religion, O Diabolic”: Lamenting Religious Violence, Then and Now

Image courtesy flickr user Alex Lecea via Creative Commons

Paris has known religious violence before.

Over the course of two days in August of 1572, agents of the Catholic League butchered thousands of Protestants in the streets of Paris. The very phrase “St. Bartholomew’s Day” came to signal Catholic zealotry and to stand for brutality in the name of religion. Twenty years later, in Marlowe’s “The Massacre at Paris,” a character declaims, “begin those deep engendered thoughts / to burst abroad, those never dying flames, / which cannot be extinguished but by blood.”

In a century ravaged by religious violence, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre marks a tragic extreme. It disrupted the uneasy peace between French Catholics and Huguenots, defying European efforts toward pluralism. Then, and now, the event represents the evil people are capable of when they are told they are killing in the name of God. The precise number of casualties is hard to estimate (and largely depends on the ideological position of the source you are consulting). The numbers have been estimated between 2,000 to close to 70,000.

One fact that is known for certain though—in Arles, downriver from Lyon, it was impossible to drink the water from the Rhone for three months, since it was so polluted with the remains of the dead.

Now, more than four hundred years later, blood has been spilled in Paris by zealots as certain of their cause as those men of the sixteenth-century. In the restaurants and bars of the capital, the stadiums and theaters, men and women have once again fallen victim to a dark understanding of God.  Marlowe again: “My policy hath framed religion. / Religion: O diabolic.”

John Everett Millay, "A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew's Day" (1852)

John Everett Millay, “A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew’s Day” (1852)

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. And yet in those centuries marked by the wars of religion, there were still rays of light that shone through the cracks. For all of its violence, there was still a renaissance, and the birth of humanism. This was not just a project of the “Great Men” of canonical literature. Indeed recent scholarship has shown how much of religious pluralism happened among common people, who lived, worked, and loved each other despite religious difference. There is a fundamental truth—both historical and existential—in John Everett Millais’ painting A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew’s Day, depicting the tragic embrace between two lovers from across the denominational divide.

We must not rely on milquetoast claims that religion was not responsible for this. Yes, religion can be an awesome force, it can motivate people to write the Magnificat in E-flat major and to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or to spin the beautiful dervish-lines of Rumi—but it can also motivate men to murder those gathered to celebrate a wedding, or those who gather to watch a soccer game or a concert.

Facing this knowledge, and this darkness, we must reaffirm a different sort of faith, whatever our religious affiliations might or might not be. That is a commitment to the one faith that allows all other religions to practice freely, namely, that tolerant pluralism sanctified by secularism: the religion of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

These are the best of those French values, attacked this weekend. To paraphrase an American poet, there is nothing wrong with France that what’s right with France can’t fix. There is no figure that better embodies the French character than Montaigne, the writer who in many ways invented the modern person. A Catholic, he was horrified by the terror enacted in the Paris massacres. For him humanity is best if it stands before the divine with an attitude of skeptical humility, and if humans stand among one another with an attitude of fraternal love. That an era as blood-soaked as his could still produce someone as compassionate, good-humored, empathetic,  and curious is an important thing to remember during our own dark age.

As he said “C’est de quoi j’ai le plus de peur que la peur,” that is, “The thing I fear most is fear.”

In the kind of despair that can be the historian’s lot, it can seem that four centuries have scarcely passed at all. And yet as Paris survived that dark St. Bartholomew’s Day it shall survive the events of November 13, 2015 as well.