Tuesday, 1 October 2013

When It Doesn't Pay to Have the Courage of Your Convictions

     As I pointed out in my last post, it doesn't always pay to have the courage of your convictions. Of course, we all say we admire the person who does. We also say it takes a big man to admit he was wrong.
     William Miller was one of those people who believe the Bible was written in code, and he had found the key. He was actually able to predict the second coming of Jesus to the day and the hour - apparently oblivious to the fact that the hour differs according to one's position on the earth. To quote the inimitable words of C. S. Lewis: "Thousands waited for the Lord at midnight on 21 March [1844], and went home to a late breakfast on 22nd followed by the jeers of a drunkard." Afterwards, one of his disciples, Samuel Snow persuaded him that the correct date would be 22 October 1844. But when the earth still turned after that day, Miller at least had the sense to call it quits, and admit he had been wrong. But for a New Guinea prophet, having the courage of his convictions came with a high price.
Manus Island, c 1947
     In 1946, former police sergeant, Paliau Maloat founded a politico-religious movement involved in improving the food supply, finances, and general wellbeing of village life, while starting up the Baluan Christian Native Church, with rites and ceremonies borrowed from Roman Catholicism. He became a respected community leader, and a representative in the pre-independence parliament. He had nothing to do with any cargo cult, such as those described in my previous post.
    Suddenly,  up jumped a prophet by the name of Wapei [wah-pay], and began a movement called The Noise. Paliau's secular policies were unnecessary, he announced.  Jesus was about to come back on a boat, crewed by the ancestors, bringing heaps of material goods ("cargo") for all and sundry. He even specified the Sunday on which the boat was to arrive. A frenzy gripped the whole of Wapei's village. Nobody worked. They destroyed their valuables, they prayed, they fasted, they confessed their sins, went into convulsions, and acted as if possessed by spirits. And . . . nothing happened!
     All right, I was wrong, said Wapei. But Jesus will definitely arrive next Sunday. And, he added, he would bet his life on it. He told his brother that, if the boat should fail to arrive, he should bash him over the head with an axe. What the brother thought is not recorded. Sibling rivalry and/or animosity seldom reaches the stage of wanting one's sibling dead, let alone becoming his executioner. Nevertheless, the people waited. The waited all day Sunday. And when the day was over . . . Wapei's brother split his skull with an axe.

Antioch, 1098 - 9
     It was the First Crusade, and one of the Provençal pilgrims had a servant called Peter Bartholomew, who "was known to his fellows as a rather disreputable character, interested only in the grosser pleasures of life." According to his later testimony, during the earthquake of 30 December 1097, he was quaking with fear and praying when there suddenly appeared before him a tall, beautiful youth and an old man. The old man introduced himself as St Andrew, and directed Peter to go to the crusader leader, Count Raymond and Adhelmar, the Bishop of Le Puy. The bishop he was to reprove for his slackness in preaching, and to the count he was to reveal the site of what would be one of the holiest relics of Christendom, the lance which pierced the side of the Saviour on the cross. Then the saint took Peter in the spirit, and in his nightshirt, to the Turkish-occupied city of Antioch, and into the mosque which had once been the Cathedral of St Peter, and showed him where the lance was buried.
     Of course, Peter was afraid that the high and mighty would ignore him, so he kept his silence, and got involved in other affairs, only to have St Andrew appear several more times to remind him of his duty. The upshot was that, on 10 June 1098, after the city had been liberated, and was now in turn under siege from the Turks, he brought his message to Raymond and Adhelmar. Adhelmar was unimpressed. He was skeptical of visions by the riff raff and, in any case, the Holy Lance was known to be in Constantinople. (It later made its way to Rome. There is another Holy Lance in Vienna, but that is another story.) However, a priest also received a vision confirming Peter's account. To cut to the chase, they excavated the cathedral and, after the workmen had come up empty handed, Peter himself jumped in and brought up the Lance.
     I could go on now with a long and complicated story. Suffice it is to say that, the crusaders broke the Turkish siege and, over the following ten months, Peter interrupted the flow of crusader politics and strategy with a series of new visions. Some began to openly call him a charlatan. The Normans were especially hostile, while his own Provençals were pleased to hail him as a messenger of God. Now, say what you like about Peter Bartholomew, but by now he genuinely believed his revelations and, like Wapei, had the courage of his convictions. He demanded a trial by ordeal. I shall now quote Runciman.
     The ordeal took place on Good Friday, 8 April [1099]. Two piles of logs, blessed by the bishops, were erected in a narrow passage and set alight. Peter Bartholomew, clad only in a tunic, with the Lance in his hand, leapt quickly through the flames. He emerged horribly burnt and would have collapsed back into the fire had not Raymond Pilet caught hold of him. For twelve days he lingered on in agony, then died of his wounds. As a result of the ordeal the Lance was utterly discredited, save only by the Provençals, who maintained that Peter had passed safely through the flames but had been pushed back by the enthusiastic crowd in their eagerness to touch his sacred tunic. Count Raymond still kept the Lance with all reverence in his chapel.
John G. Strelan (1977, revised 1978), Search for Salvation, studies in the history and theology of cargo cults, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, page 35
Steven Runciman (1951), A History of the Crusades. 1. The First Crusade, pp 241- 274 of the 1986 Penguin edition

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