St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
The insight of polytheism – the belief in or worship of multiple Gods – is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one God to accept the existence and efficacy of other Gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’. Many scholars argue that this is the benefit of idolatry.
Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they did not try to convert their subjects. The Egyptians, the Romans and the Aztecs did not send missionaries to foreign lands to spread the worship of Osiris, Jupiter or Huitzilopochtli (the chief Aztec God), and they certainly didn’t dispatch armies for that purpose. Subject peoples throughout the empire were expected to respect the empire’s Gods and rituals since these Gods and rituals protected and legitimised the empire. Yet they were not required to give up their local Gods and rituals. In the Aztec Empire, subject peoples were obliged to build temples for Huitzilopochtli, but these temples were built alongside those of local Gods, rather than in their stead. In many cases, the imperial elite itself adopted the gods and rituals of subject people.
The only God that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the monotheistic and evangelising God of the Christians. The Roman Empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did expect them to pay respect to the empire’s protector Gods and to the divinity of the emperor. This was seen as a declaration of political loyalty. When the Christians vehemently refused to do so and went on to reject all attempts at compromise, the Romans reacted by persecuting what they understood to be a politically subversive faction. And even this was done half-heartedly. In the 300 years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians.
In stunning contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.
The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that swept Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are particularly notorious. All those involved accepted Christ’s divinity and His gospel of compassion and love.
However, they disagreed about the nature of this love. Protestants believed that the divine love is so great that God was incarnated in flesh and allowed Himself to be tortured and crucified, thereby redeeming the original sin and opening the gates of heaven to all those who professed faith in Him. Catholics maintained that faith, while essential, was not enough. To enter heaven, believers had to participate in church rituals and do good deeds. Protestants refused to accept this, arguing that this quid pro quo belittles God’s greatness and love. Whoever thinks that entry to heaven depends upon his or her own good deeds magnifies his own importance, and implies that Christ’s suffering on the cross and God’s love for humankind are not enough.
These theological disputes turned so violent that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholics and Protestants killed each other by the hundreds of thousands. On 23 August 1572, 447 years ago today, French Catholics who stressed the importance of good deeds attacked communities of French Protestants who highlighted God’s love for humankind.
In this attack, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours.
When the Pope in Rome heard the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organised festive prayers to celebrate the occasion and commissioned Giorgio Vasari – an Italian painter, architect, and writer who is best known for his important biographies of Italian Renaissance artists – to decorate one of the Vatican’s rooms with a fresco of the massacre (the room is currently off-limits to visitors).
More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence.