Posts Tagged ‘John Wycliffe’

John Wycliff’s Arguments for Pacifism

February 18, 2018

Last Sunday I put up a piece about the Lollard sermon, The Perversion of the Works of Mercy. The Lollards were the late fourteenth-early fifteenth century followers of the English theologian and reformer, John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was a kind of proto-Protestant, who denounced the corruption of the church, rejected the papacy and maintained that the Bible should be the sole authority for Christian doctrine. The Perversion of the Works of Mercy attacks the way people have turned away from performing their Christian obligations to feed, clothe, give drink to the poor, visit and care for the sick and prisoners, and instead do this all for the rich and powerful. It’s a powerful message for today, when the Tories’ official policy is to increase the tax burden of the poor, in order to give massive tax cuts to the rich. The Tories are also cutting benefits to the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled as part of this programme of making the rich even richer, while at the same time claiming that the destruction of the welfare state is all for the benefit of the poor themselves. It’s saving them from ‘welfare dependency’, and is encouraging them, in the notorious words of Norman Tebbit, to get on their bikes and look for work. It’s all part of the Tory and Thatcherite embrace of the Victorian attitude of ‘less eligibility’, which stated that conditions of state aid should be as harsh as possible in order to deter people from taking it up, and encourage them to take any job, no matter how low paid or exploitative.

Wycliffe was also a pacifist. I also blogged a month or so ago about a book I found on his pacifism in the Oxbow Bargain Book Catalogue. Wycliffe’s pacifism is also discussed by Basil Cottle in his The Triumph of English 1350-1400 (London: Blandford Press 1969). Here’s the passage where he discusses Wycliffe’s rejection of war, quoting the medieval theologian himself:

In each particular, Wyclif’s views are revolutionary, and his treatment of of war is typical of this: those who go to war cannot with justice say the Lord’s Prayer. ‘And before the seven axingis that Crist techith in the Pater Noster meneth … algatis to axe in charite, and thefore men that liven in werre ben unable to have their axinge; but thei axen ther owne dampnynge in the fifte peticioun, for ther thei axen that God for3yve hem ther dettis that thei owen to Hym, ri3t as thei for3yven men that ben dettours unto hem.’ [And for this reason the seven askings that Christ teaches in the Lord’s Prayer mean… at all events to ask in charity, and therefore men that live in war are unable to have what they ask; but they ask for their own damnation in the fifth petition, because there they ask that God may forgive them their debts that they owe to Him, even as the forgive men that are debtors to them.] But what was the situation in which the divided Church now found herself?-the Pope offering indulgences t6o those who would fight against the antipope (a subject extensively treated in a sermon on Martyrs) , and Bishop Despenser of Norwich leading his beastly and futile ‘crusade’ of 1383 against Flanders: ‘now men seyen that thei shulden, bi lore of ther feith, werre upon Cristen men, and turnen hem to the Pope, and slee ther persones, ther wyves, and ther children, and reve hem ther goodis, and thus chastise hem. But certis this came nevere of chastyment of Crist, sith Crist seith He cam not to lese lyves bu save hem. And hefore this is chastyment of the fiend, and never chastyment of Crist, that uside pacience and myraclis.’ [Now men say that they should, by the teaching of their faith, war upon Christian men, and win them over to the Pope, and kill their persons, their wivs, and their children, and rob them of their goods, and thus punish them. But certainly this kinid of punishment never came from Christ, since Christ says He came not to destroy llives to save them. And for this reason this is a punishment from the dreadful fiend, and never a punishment from Christ, who used patience and miracles.] Yet ‘blynde heretikes wanten witt as ydiotis, whan thei seien that Petre synnede not in smytynge of Malcus ere, but 3af ensaumple to preestis to fi3t’ [blind heretics lack understanding, like idiots, when they say that Peter did not sin in striking off Maclhus’s ear, but set an example for priests to fight]-though Christ prevented him from fighting further. ‘Lord, where this Pope Urbane hadde Goddis charite dwelling in him, whan he stired men to fi3te and slee many thousaund men, to venge him on the tother People and of men that holden with him?’ [Lord, did this Pope Urban have ~God’s charity dwelling in him, when he incited men to fight and kill many thousand men, to avenge himself on the other Pope and on men who belong to his side?] The friars, says Wyclif, preach to a bellicose text- that the English must get in first with their attacks on their enemies in other countries, for fear they do the same and sin be increased on both sides; a hideous doctrine of sinning so as to good.)

Cottle goes on to observe that ‘This new pacifism may have distasteful to readers who still enjoyed the memory of Crecy and Poitiers and to the old soldiers who must have figure among the 1381 malcontents’ (the Peasant’s Revolt). (pp. 235-6).

This hatred of war was shared by Sir John Clanvowe, soldier, diplomat, courtier, poet, crusader, and the author of the Boke of Cupide. This was so similar to Chaucer’s works, that for a time it was accepted as that great poet’s own composition. Clanvowe himself died in a village near Constantinople. Clanvowe wrote

‘The world holt hem worshipful that been greet werryours and fi3teres, and that distroyen and wynnen manye londis, and waasten and 3even muche good to hem that haan ynou3, and that dispenden oultrageously in mete, in drynke, in clothing, in building, and in lyuyng in eese, slouthe, and many oothere synnes.’ [The world considers them honourable who are great warriors and fighters and destroy and conquer many lands, and waste and give much property to them that have plenty, and spend outrageously on food, drink, clothing, building, and living in ease, sloth, and many other sins.] (Cottle, op. cit., p. 253).

Cottle himself says of this passage that ‘the attack here is almost on rank, and Clanvowe is disgusted that it is of these proud and vengeful people that ‘men maken books and soonges, and reeden and singen of hem for to hoolde the mynde of here deedes the lengere here vpon erth’. [Men make books and songs, and recite and sing of them so as to keep the memor of their deeds the longer here on earth.] (p. 254).

As I said with my earlier post about the Perversion of the Works of Mercy, I’m not putting this up to attack Roman Catholicism. I despise religious intolerance and don’t want to provoke any more sectarian religious hatred. I’m also deeply impressed with the various Roman Catholic organisations, clergy and lay people that genuinely work for the poor and those in the needy, and radical groups like Doris Day’s Catholic Workers. My point here is to show merely that religious radicals, like Wycliffe and Clanvowe, despised the way the poor were ignored and treated by the rich, and condemned war as fundamentally unchristian.

This is an attitude that attacks and refutes the vicious opinions of the religious right, with their prosperity gospel – that Christ wants everyone to be rich, and if you’re poor, it’s your fault – and is solidly behind the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. These wars aren’t being fought to protect America, Israel or anyone else. They’re fought purely for the profit of immensely rich multinational corporations, who hope to profit from the theft of these nations’ state industries and oil reserves. As the above texts show, they would have been thoroughly condemned by Wycliffe and Clanvowe.

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May’s Speech to Rich Tory Donors: This Is What the Lollards Warned You About

February 11, 2018

Sunday is the Christian holy day, so I thought I’d include here a particularly relevant piece of radical Christian polemic against the rich and powerful and their neglect and oppression of the poor from the 15th century.

A few days ago Mike put up a piece reporting Theresa May’s speech at a fundraising banquet for rich Tory donors. To get in, you had to pay £15,000 for a ticket. The long reign of Thatcherite neoliberalism in this country has led to a massive transfer of wealth from the poorer sections of society – the working and lower middle classes – upwards to the extremely rich. Thatcher, and her fanboys and -girls – have cut and privatised benefits and services to the poor, with the specific intention of making the bloated rich even richer, though tax cuts, massive subsidies, and exploiting the very state industries, that they have privatised and sold to them.

The Lollards were a proto-Protestant sect of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, who followed the teachings of the Yorkshire priest and reformer, John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was disgusted by the corruption of the church and society in his day. He advocated the Bible in English, holy scripture as the only source for religious authority, clerical marriage and proper concern for the poor. And he and his followers were bitterly critical of the friars, as they were generally perceived to have neglected their vocation of teaching and preaching Christianity to focus on serving the rich for their own material gain.

The text here is ‘The Perversion of the Works of Mercy’, which inveighs against the way Christ’s commandment to feed, give drink, and clothe poor people, and visit those in prison, as well as other holy works, have been so corrupted so that those, who feign moral rectitude and Christian charity now spend their time doing this for the rich and powerful instead. Here’s an extract. You should be able to understand the late medieval spelling and vocabulary.

Hou Sathanas [Satan] and his children turnen werkis of mercy upsodoun and discyven men therinne and in here five wyttis.

First Crist comaundith men of power to fede hungry pore men. The fiend and his techen to make costy festis and waste many goodis on lordis and riche men and so suffer pore men sterve and perishe for hunger and other myschevys. Ye, men that feynen hem [them] ful of charite and religion gadren proper goodis to hemselven and festen dlicatly lordis and laides and riche men and suffer here pore brethren begge for meschef and fare ful harde.

Crist comaundith to yeve drynk to thrusty [thirsty] [men] and wymmen. The fiend and his techen to puveye high wyn and spised ale and strong for riche men and lordis to make hem drunken and chide and fighte and foryete God and his lawe, and to suffer pore, that han nought of hore owene and may not labore for febilnesse or sikenesse and blyndenesse drynke water and falle in feveris or ellis perische.

Crist comaundith to clothe nakyd men and wymmen whanne thei han noght of here owene. Thereto the fend and his techen to yeve costly clothis and manye to riche men and mynstralis and shavaldours {Northern slang for robbers] for worldly name and suffer pore men have nakid sidis and schakynge lippis and hondis for cold that woo is hemwith the lif. Ye, prelatis and men singular religion, that taken the charge to ben procuratouris and dispenderis of pore mennus liflode, clothen fatte horsis with gaie sadlies and bridles and mytris and croceris with gold and silver and precious stonys, and suffren pore men and children perische for cold. And yit these prelatis and newe religious comen in staat of Cristis povert and his apostlis, and techen and crien that whatever thei han is pore mennus goode. Yit riche men closen dede stockis and stonys with precious clothis, with gold and silver and perlis and gaynesse to the world, and suffren pore men goo sore acold and at moche meschefe.

Crist trechith to herberwe [harbour, accommodate] pore men that han non houses ne penby to peye for here innys [inns, lodging]. The fend and his techen to herberwe riche men and lordis with grete cost and deyitte for worldly worschipe and suffer pore men wander in stormys and slepe with the swyn and many tymes suffer not hem come withinne here yatis, and so to fynde many excusacions and coloure this doynge, Ye, ypocritis of privat religion maken grete houses and costy and gaily peyntid more than kyngis and lordis bi sotil beggynge and confessions and trentalise and mayntenynge of synne, and herberwe lordis and riche men, and namely ladies, and suffer more men lie withouten or geten houslewth at pore men or ellis perische for wedris and cold.

Crist techeth to visite sike men and counforte hem and helpe hem of sustenaunce. The fend and his techen to visiten riche me, lordis and ladies in here prosperite and lykynge to be holden kynde [high born] and curteis, and to comforte eche other in synne and to have lustis of glottonye, lecherie and other schrewidnessis; but of pore men that ben beddrede and couchen in muk or dust is litel thought on or noght. Yit ypocritis of feyned religion vistien not fadirles children and modirles [motherless] and widewise in here tribulacion, and kepe not hemself unbleckid fro this world as Seynt James techith; but visite off riche men and wymmen and namely riche widewis [widows] for to gete world muk by false deceitis and carien it home to Caymes’ {Cain’s] castelis and Anticristis covent [convents] and Sathanas children and marteris [martyrs] of glotonye.

Crist techith to visit men in prison and helpe to delyvere hem in good manere and counforte hem bi almes-yevinge. The fend and his prresonen pore men for dette whanne thi ben not at power to paie and traveil night and day and liven ful harde and toylen with trewthe and susteynen wif and children…

From Middle English Religious Prose, edited by N.F. Blake (London: Edward Arnold 1972) pp. 239-41.

Clearly, this is a piece of sectarian polemic, and isn’t entirely fair. Historians have pointed out that the church was suffering serious poverty and neglect the time, which affected many of the lower clergy and monastic institutions, so that they simply weren’t in any position to perform their Christian duties of aiding the poor themselves.

And my point here is not to attack the Roman Catholic church, as I know many ordinary Catholics and Roman Catholic clergy are deeply involved in caring for the poor. But simply to make the point that the issues the Lollards inveighed against are still present and embodied in the Tory party and people like Tweezer. In the Middle Ages, it was the church that had the function of providing whatever welfare services there were to the poor, as well as the personal charity of great lords. But since Thatcher, public institutions and the welfare state – the modern, secular equivalents of these religious institutions, have been run down for the profit of the rich.

And there’s also a distinct religious parallel here too, though it’s with the evangelical Christian Right and their prosperity gospel. Tweezer is a vicar’s daughter, who claims that when she was a child she was a ‘goody two-shoes’. Lobster has pointed out just how many right-wing Christians gathered around IDS and now Damian Greene in the DWP. The evangelical Right in America believe that God doesn’t want you to be poor, for whom they have nothing but contempt. One particularly self-righteous Republican politico – it might have been Ted Cruz – even declared that the poor should be taxed more. ‘Because it’s what Christ would have wanted’. No, and this moron should read the Gospels before opening his mouth.

And I’m still furious at the way a large number of right-wing pastors made it clear that they didn’t care if one Republican candidate was guilty of molesting underage girls. He stood for their values, which were for the rich, and against the poor. And, of course, gays. Which shows how selective their concern over changes and violation of traditional sexual morality is.

These hypocrites have done as much harm to Christianity as Dawkins and the militant atheists. Many of the atheist polemicists are socially conscious people, whose rejection of religion is partly based on the way the religious don’t live up to their ideals. And as history has shown, and these pratts continue to show, all too often the atheists have been right in this criticism.

And in there moral condemnation of the fawning over the rich at the expense of the poor, the Lollards were right. And this text from six hundred years ago shows up the Tory party and its hypocritical supporters in the Christian religious right as it is today.

John Wycliffe’s Pacifist Theology

December 17, 2017

I’m sick of writing about the Christian right in this country and America – their hatred of the poor, their Zionism and their insanely dangerous millennialism, in which they look forward to the last, apocalyptic war between good and evil, personified as a conflict between the Christian West and Israel on the side of good, and Communism and Islam as the armies of Satan. Here’s a bit of more inspiring theology, at least for those on the Left, from one of the seminal influences on the Reformation.

John Wycliffe has been described as ‘the Morning Star of the Reformation’. He was a late 14th-century English vicar from Yorkshire, who proposed radical reforms to combat what he saw as the corruption of the Church in his day. He was against pluralities, in which clergy held many benefices, often in widely separated parts of the country, noting that this did nothing for the Christian cure of souls. It was set up, however, partly as a way of giving the lower clergy a reasonable income because of the poverty of parts of the church at that time. He argued that the Bible should be the only source of Christian truth, and that salvation was by faith alone, not works. He demanded an end to clerical celibacy, which he said acted ‘to the great prejudice of women’ and promoted homosexuality amongst the clergy. So, not a fan of gay priests then. He also went further in his criticism of the moral right of rulers to govern us when they themselves were guilty of sin. No-one had this right, and those rulers sinning had to step down or be removed. This has been widely criticised since, as it would have made government just about impossible. But it is a severe corrective to the moral double standards of the upper classes, who saw themselves as having an absolute right to rule, often committing heinous sins and crimes themselves, while claiming their right as Christian rulers to punish and uphold moral standards to those lower down the social ladder. This attitude continued into the 17th century, when the monarchists of the British Civil War defended the monarchy on the grounds that the king, as God’s representative on Earth, was above the law, but had the duty to expound it, and so could not be tried for its breach.

He also translated the Bible into English, radical act forbidden by law in England, though perfectly acceptable elsewhere on the continent, such as France. He was not a member of the Lollards, the early radical Protestant movement that grew up around his doctrines, though he was a powerful influence on them. It was the Lollards who produced the song attacking contemporary serfdom, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ In the 16th century, this was taken up and inspired the German peasants in their revolt against feudal overlordship: ‘Als Adam grub und Evan spann, wer war dann der Edelmann?’ Which is an exact translation.

I got the latest Oxbow books Bargain Catalogue through the post a few weeks ago. Among the books on medieval history and culture were two of Wycliffe’s. One was on the inspiration of scripture, the other was on his pacifist theology.

The book is John Wycliffe on War and Peace by Rory Cox. The blurb for the book in the Bargain Catalogue runs:

From the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo to the fifth century, Christian justifications of war had revolved around three key criteria: just cause, proper authority and correct intention. Using Wyclif’s extensive Latin corpus, the author shows how he dismantled these three pillars of medieval “just war” doctrine, demonstrating that he created a coherent doctrine of pacifism and non-resistance which was at that time unparalleled.

200 pages, Boydell and Brewer Ltd, 2014, 97080861933259, Hardback, was £50, bargain price £12.95.

I’m not a pacifist myself, as I believe that sometimes true evil can only be combated through violence. But I’m sick of the co-option of morality to justify the terrible greed and inhuman violence of colonialism and imperialism, especially in the latest attacks on the Middle East.

I realise that many of the readers of this blog have very different attitudes to my own on religion. I’m not trying to insult anyone else’s religious views here, particularly not Roman Catholics or the atheists, who read this blog. I am simply mentioning it as many Christians of radically different denominations and confessions have over the centuries come to pacifism in disgust at the horrors of war as organised violence. I fully recognise and endorse the contemporary Roman Catholic peace movement, which I’ve blogged about before.

I’ve posted it up the news of this book, as I thought it would interest and inspire the Christian readers of this blog, who share my opinions on war. And would also act as corrective to the militant bilge coming out of the American and British religious right and their aggressive, omnicidal militarism.