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The Worst Religious Violence is a Family Affair



Philip Jenkins - published on 01/08/15

Understanding the origins of religious hatred

Early in my career, I worked on early modern British history, with a special focus on religious conflict and violence. As I look back on that work, I see ever more parallels to the manifestations of religious hatred and bigotry that so trouble the contemporary world. However distant these events, they really do have much to tell us today.

In the seventeenth century, Britain was officially an Anglican, Protestant nation, which strictly penalized Catholic practice. Even so, large dissident minorities of recusants — that is, Catholic resisters or rejecters — survived in certain regions, mainly to the country’s north and west. In normal times, these recusants were largely left alone, but occasionally they were subjected to ferocious outbreaks of violence and persecution. The worst of these crises happened between 1678 and 1682, when many Catholic clergy and lay leaders were imprisoned, and dozens executed in response to an outbreak of paranoid hysteria that we call the “Popish Plot.” By far the greatest savagery occurred in one area on the borderlands between England and Wales, in the counties of Monmouth and Hereford.

Five priests from this area died on the scaffold, and several more in prison. Three were hunted to death, “being martyred by the misery and sufferings of their hiding-places on mountaintops, and in the woods, and dens, and caves of the earth.” Many lay people also suffered. Some local magnates became full-time priest-hunters, who dedicated themselves to rooting out Catholic manifestations of all kinds. And they were successful. Only in this area was a thriving Jesuit mission wholly eliminated.

But why was the bigotry here — in contemporary terms, the “Anti-Popery” — so extreme and homicidal? The surprising answer became clear when I looked at the origins of the worst fanatics. In virtually every case, the Protestant extremists were themselves from Catholic backgrounds, and in years gone by, they had actually assisted and sheltered priests. Commonly, these men derived from families split between Protestants and Catholics, which had produced Catholic clergy. Mixed Protestant-Catholic marriages were very common in this region.

The priests that they were seeking out were not just neighbors, but usually, they were close relatives. The extremists were recent defectors from the old faith, doubly zealous perhaps to justify the new spiritual world-view they had adopted, and to extirpate its enemies.

One classic example of this pattern was a squire named Charles Price, a fanatic who led an armed assault on the local Jesuit headquarters, and who hunted to death one of the priests. Even after the man was dead, Charles Price insisted on exhuming the body to confirm his “kill.” The priest who was the object of such pathological hatred was one Walter Price, his own cousin. Moreover, other priests had very recently remarked what a good friend and supporter Charles Price had always been. Suddenly, though, he turned violently against that faith, and used the political crisis to destroy his old friends.

Another man who became an anti-Catholic activist and informer was one Edward Turberville, who came from a family that had had dozens of members jailed for Catholic loyalties between 1580 and 1620. His own brother was a Benedictine abbot, and in the whole seventeenth century, he was one of only a handful of non-Catholic Turbervilles. Like Price, he was a recent convert from the Catholic faith that he now sought to destroy.

In this area at least, the “Popish Plot” crisis looks rather like a family feud, if not a civil war within the old Catholic community.

The notion that converts become extremely zealous in that new cause is not surprising. Shakespeare himself noted that “Heresies that men do leave/ are hated most of them they did deceive.” But we should add here the dynamics and stresses of a community in which some individuals hold fast to old ways, while others convert to a passionate new faith. If two communities of different faiths live near to each, and each is fairly homogenous, that arrangement can survive indefinitely, and the two sides will find ways of getting along. The situation becomes toxic, though, during an age of rapid conversion, when families are forced to take sides. Brother, literally, turns against brother.

Probably, this is the situation of shifting religious loyalties recalled in the New Testament itself, in Matthew 10. Jesus warns his followers of a coming time when “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.”

Applying these precedents to the modern world helps us understand the origins of religious hatred. If a person writes venomously against a particular faith, my first question is whether he or she was raised in that tradition, and once regarded it with particular love or loyalty. Very often, that is the case. The most furious enemies of a faith are commonly its rebellious sons and daughters, and (for example) the harshest critics of religion and Christian orthodoxy stem from fundamentalist backgrounds.

Always look for the defectors.

Much more serious in its consequences, though, is the common pattern of Christian converts to Islam adopting extreme jihadist views. Obviously, the great majority of Western converts have no involvement whatever in crime or illegality, but a significant minority does, and they are massively over-represented in extremist cells across Europe and North America. Recent converts, for instance, were responsible for the two sensational terrorist attacks in Canada this past October.

We also see many parallels to the “Popish Plot” situation in mixed religious communities around the world, and especially in Africa. Christians, Muslims and animists co-exist amicably for generations. Suddenly, though, new and more fervent religious ideas enter the community, destabilizing social order and provoking violence. Muslim families produce devout Islamists; Christians adopt radical Pentecostal and evangelical beliefs. Families are split, with the alarming knowledge that children or grand-children might defect to a faith that the older generation finds abhorrent. It is that threat to family continuity that drives individuals to extreme actions, and even to religious warfare.

No religion, and no scripture, has a monopoly on hatred or violence. Rather, we should explain many religious crises through the instability caused by rapid conversions, especially within societies founded on clan and extended family loyalties.

As we all know, there is no conflict as vicious as that within a family.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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