To the right is a portrait of a religious fanatic and a terrorist. Sure, he looks like a pilgrim ready to make nice with the Indians over some turkey and cranberries, but this was not a nice man. 402 years ago today, Guy Fawkes was caught in the act of attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament, in the famous Gunpowder Plot. Here’s the famous poem about that even still recited today:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Huzzah boys, huzzah boys, let the bells ring.
Huzzah boys, huzzah boys, God save the King!
A penny loaf to feed the Pope,
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar,
Burn him like a blazing star,
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah! Hip hip hoorah, hoorah!
Starts out good, but it gets kind of ugly fast, doesn’t it? Remember, this is Christian-on-Christian violence we’re talking about here, and only a few years after Queen Elizabeth died. The King who was the target of the assassination attempt was James I (of England), an outspoken Protestant; Fawkes and his co-conspirators hoped to engineer a Catholic restoration of the throne.
Today, we would call Fawkes a terrorist, and a religious fanatic at that. His enemies were no better. The Protestant-versus-Catholic wars that trace their roots back to a German nailing a demand for religious reform on a church door on Halloween of 1517 and the bizarre doctrines of extreme Calvinists writ large upon the body politic of Europe today seem very odd to us. We tend to smooth over the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants today.
To me it seems particularly pointless. It seems a lot like Star Wars fans arguing over whether Han or Greedo shot first. (Han did, but the movie is still enjoyable if Greedo shot first and missed. Remember the best line from the MST3K song: “You should really just relax.”) It’s a work of fiction; it’s not worth it to kill someone who has a different take on The Scarlet Letter than you, so why would it be worth it to kill someone who interprets the Book of Jeremiah differently than you?
But there is a more or less direct modern counterpart in Shi’ite-versus-Sunni violence in the Muslim world. So it’s not as though this is a dead letter. Quite the opposite. And while it’s not violent, there is a fair amount of intolerance going on still in American Christian circles — there are questions about whether Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, or Mitt Romney are “Christian enough” (or in Romney’s case, whether he is a Christian at all) to be acceptable to Christian evangelicals.
It seems like such an astonishing waste of brainpower, effort, emotion, and blood to have theological disputes. Guy Fawkes was willing to kill his King in order to have a Catholic rule the country, and plenty of Iraqis are willing to each other (and us) so that their sect can enjoy greater political power to oppress the other sect. I challenge any Christian reading this to explain to me why a debate between Catholics and Protestants over Christian theology is any different than a debate between Sunnis and Shi’ites, or why either Guy Fawkes or his Protestant executioners who wrote that charming poem above were any better than the Muslims keeping Iraq in anarchy today.