Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Prophet William Wade Harris (1860-1929) : Translator of Christianity in West Africa by Chris White

Prophet Harris

Lamin Sanneh in his book Whose Religion is Christianity?,  makes the case that Christianity is always a translated religion.  What he means by this is that the autographs of the Gospels were not even written in the original language of Jesus and thus from the start the message and religion of Jesus Christ was not the property of any particular people or geographic locale.  Instead, it should be considered normative that Christianity is going to have a vernacular quality as it enters the different cultures of our world while at the same time transforming individuals and social structures.  In this article I reflect upon the ministry of William Wade Harris of Liberia and what it tells us about God, ourselves, and the need for a translated Christianity. 

Liberia in western Africa
A brief sketch of Liberian history is required to appreciate the context of William Harris.  Liberia (Latin for “Land of Freedom”) was founded in 1822 as an independent colony for the repatriation of slaves from North America and the West Indies.  Space does not permit much detail here but Liberia has never been able to live up to its name or objectives.  First of all the majority of slaves who did come died within three years having no natural immunities to the tropical diseases of the region.  Secondly, the government they established took American freedoms and hypocrisy to another level.  Liberia has over 16 indigenous peoples who were far greater in number than the colonizing former slaves, yet an unjust system was put in place where virtually all political power and economic opportunity resided with the newcomers.  Ironically, even within Liberia there was also a replication of American racism.  Mulattos held the highest position in society and actually had a policy of separation, while others, former slaves or indigenous had their place in society determined by the shade of their skin.  Liberia was a land of freedom but some were freer than others.

William Wade’ Harris was born in Liberia around 1860.  His parents were of the Grebo tribe which was one of the larger indigenous peoples living in the colony.  By the time Harris was a teenager war broke out between the Grebo tribes and the Liberian government.  The conflict started when the Grebo tribes wanted to secede from Liberia and confederate into their own kingdom which would enable them to begin trading with the outside world.  The United States was called in to negotiate the conflict (which, given the Civil War and the subsequent misdeeds of Reconstruction seems laughable) and their emissary was able to negotiate of compromise where the Grebos would be given full citizenship and allowed to participate in the economy but they must remain as Liberians. In the end the Americans went home with a warm feeling in their hearts and nothing was to change in Liberia.

One of the good aspects of the Liberian constitution was that it recognized and protected religious freedom.  Although Christianity held a predominate place in the thinking and structures of their society, the African traditional religions were also allowed to be practiced by their adherents.  Space was also made for many Christian missionary endeavors to the indigenous peoples who eventually touched the life of Harris as he was fully converted and baptized a Methodist in his mid to late twenties.

Eventually Harris was to leave the Methodists and join the Episcopalians where he later became a catechist and school teacher in one of their mission church schools.  In time he also held a second job working for the Liberian government.  But his conversion to Christianity did not make him apolitical.  By his late 40’s Harris became active in a group that was trying to get the British government of neighboring Sierra Leone to make the Grebo lands of Liberia a protectorate.  While not offering them the autonomy that their earlier plan of secession did in 1875,  Harris and the others felt the English would rule them with more equity than the Americo-Liberians did.  Nothing of this plan ever materialized; however, Harris miscalculated the situation and was caught flying a Union Jack instead of a Liberian flag.  For his activism, William Wade’ Harris now around 50 with a wife and children, found himself unemployed and a political prisoner.

 While in prison, Harris has a life transforming experience of epic proportion.  Harris claims to have had a visitation from the angel Gabriel who comes to him and commissions him as a prophet.  I can’t resist inserting here that Jewish and Catholic traditions regard Gabriel the Lord’s first minister of encouragement and consolation which seems quite apropos for someone in Harris’ position.  Different accounts of this event yield different details but the essence of the divine encounter is that God  anointed Harris as a prophet sent to prepare hearts to follow Christ and be ready for His second coming.  Part of this prophetic commission was to discontinue dressing in western style clothing including the wearing of shoes and to shun all alcohol.  One source suggests that the rejection of European dress was to be the sign of his conversion and the symbol of the simplicity and humility of the Gospel.

Apparently Harris was quite ready to obey his new commission as he adopted a new wardrobe which included a long white robe, a white turban for his head, a tall cross made of cane, a calabash to fill with baptismal water, a gourd rattle, and a Bible.  The white clothing, according to Isichei[i], was a symbol of purity and separation from the world. 

Unlike the prophets of Israel, it was not apparently completely clear to Harris who his audience was to be.  He started preaching in Liberia, but like all before him, he was a prophet without honor in his homeland.  Actually, Liberia was heavily Christianized and more likely his message of turning from the ancient religion to the living God didn’t apply to many people.  The story does get interesting when Harris crosses the border to the Ivory Coast and begins going village to village preaching to a largely non-Christian audience.   Harris would be accompanied by two or three women who would sing, dance, and play the rattle as an accompaniment to his preaching.  His basic message was that:
1.      God and Christ came to vanquish and replace the spirits of tradition
2.      Christ’s Second Coming was imminent
3.      Preparation for the Parousia required keeping the Ten Commandments, observing a Sunday Sabbath, accepting the authority of the Bible, and the rejection and burning of fetishes.
4.      Be baptized immediately.

From a western perspective this message may seem imbalanced or even sub-Christian but taken from the milieu of African traditional religion this is on par with John the Baptist’s line “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!!”  Traditional African religion has several core beliefs.  One is that of a Supreme Creator who made all things and people and executes justice.  This god is far off and very distant.  There is also the belief in lesser spirits who dwell in all natural things and in close proximity to people and must be dealt with through ritual magic.  The spirits of ancestors must also be ritually honored. The presence of formal cults with temples and priests are not found in these cultures.  Traditional religion is more free-wheeling with local practices and practitioners. 
Fetishes like these are a part of traditional tribal religious practice

Such practitioners are called witch-doctors or shamans.  These have special skills in which they are able to get these lesser spirits to inhabit material objects either made by nature, such as a rock, or crafted by man such as a wood carving.   Known as fetishes, these then are inanimate objects that have the power of the spirits in them because of the shaman’s incantations.

In essence, the use of fetishes is prophylactic.  They are not objects of veneration or worship, but rather preventatives of evil or illness or misfortune of body or soul.  Their use offers a sense of security in an insecure world of good and evil spirits.  Burning them, would be making a decisive break with the lesser spirits and turning fully to the Creator God for your security.

Harris, with the chanting, dancing, shaking of the gourd rattle, the large walking stick with a cross, and long while robe, while looking quite weird to us, would not be too big of a reach for his audience who might look upon him as a new kind of shaman.  Given this context the message is strongly biblical:  There is no god but God and his Son Jesus Christ,  Jesus Christ is coming soon,  don’t be making up your own religion any longer but turn to the authority of God, and put your faith in the God who is sovereign over the world not in your ability to manipulate your circumstances through magic.

The burning of fetishes and immediate baptism are linked together.  In Harris’ day a convert to Christianity had to go through a long period of preparation before receiving baptism.  This long period of waiting would be a hindrance to conversion.  It could be a dangerous thing to live without the protection of your fetishes while you wait for the protection of God that would come from your baptism.  Thus Harris was also recognizing a cultural issue that missionary community was overlooking. 

 Like an authentic prophet, Harris was not on a church planting crusade.  In most instances he would direct those who responded and were baptized to join themselves to the congregations of the missionary churches.  Those who lived in areas where missionaries had not yet come were baptized and formed into congregations under the oversight of 12 elders or apostles.  They were told to wait until teachers came with the Bible for them.  Years later when Methodist missionaries reached Ivory Coast and Ghana, to their surprise and delight they had a whole group already waiting and eager to join their churches. 

The foray into Ivory Coast and Ghana which lasted only a year and a half was ended abruptly by his deportation back to Liberia by provincial authorities.  For the next 15 years he made many attempts but was never able to return.  He spent the remainder of his days in Liberia wearing his distinctive clothing and preaching but with little effect.  He passed away in 1929. 

During his brief ministry he baptized an estimated 120,000 converts.  Their fruit has remained and Harrist Churches are spread throughout Africa today.  Although not mentioned in this article, it should be noted that several other prophets were also working in Central Africa around the same time.  Like Harris they were not commissioned by any mission board or Church but from a divine call given in a supernatural way.  They were imprisoned and then they would have a brief but very successful period of preaching in which a great harvest would come in.  While not definitive proof of Harris’ encounter with Gabriel, when you see a trend it is difficult to ignore it or write it off. 

So what does this fascinating story tell us about God, ourselves, and the need for a translated Christianity?  Let me propose several ideas.  First of all while God does work through our structures of evangelism and mission work, in many cases He works in spite of them or even around them.  Jesus told Nicodemus that “the wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).”  The work of redeeming humanity is God’s responsibility and He will use whomever and whatever method He wishes.  This is not to suggest that all strategy should be abandoned in Christian ministry but those of us in the work should hold such things lightly and be open to the mysterious and surprising ways God works.

Harrist Church women today

This story also serves as a reminder that spiritual crisis often precedes our greatest usefulness to the Lord.  What happens to Harris in the crucible of imprisonment is a total transformation.  He is no longer the catechist of an imported Christianity wearing the clothing of an imported culture.  This previous life is stripped away and a new message and image emerge that is influential far beyond the size and scope of one man.  Many of us go through our toughest years around age 50 (as Harris did) and there is a need to look to God through the hard times and let Him remake us for His purposes.  The only other option in such times is to remake God to fit our disappointments and grow increasingly bitter and lukewarm towards him. 

 Finally, the Harris story reflects another truth concerning the nature of Christianity.  Christianity is a religion that has all the answers for mankind.  But mankind is not all asking the same set of questions.  To reference Dr. Sanneh again, Global Christianity seeks make Christianity one-size-fits-all, where World Christianity allows for central orthodox thought but a richness of difference that is in line with the tapestry of cultures that inhabit our globe.[ii]  Missionary work then must bring the message with as little distortion as possible but not try to control the outcome or implications of living out that message.  This is the work of the receiving culture.  As Chidester points out there was a rejection by the prophets of African traditional religion but also foreign missionary Christianity.  What the African prophets point to is the need to take Christianity and make it African.[iii]   This is true in every setting.


[i] Isechei, Elizabeth, “A Soul of Fire” 4 Aug, 2005, Christian History and Biography,
[ii] Sanneh, Lamin, Whose Religion is Christianity? : The Gospel Beyond the West, Grand Rapids:
                 Eerdmans, 2003
[iii] Chidester, David, Christianity: A Global History, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000. p. 419

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

St. Anthony of Egypt : A New Kind of Athlete by Chris White

Icon of St. Anthony
St. Anthony (c. 251-356 AD) is considered the “Father of Monasticism” in Christianity.  He wasn’t the one who started this movement because he learned how to be a monk from someone else and later joins others who are doing the same.  But a famous Christian leader named Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote a book about him that not only made his story famous, but inspired many others to take a similar calling which eventually became a mainstream movement in the Church.  So in the  sense of being a great influencer, Anthony of Egypt is considered the father of a movement.

I find most people hold two common perceptions about monasticism.  The first is that living a life separated from society, from family life, even married life is an unworthy goal.  From a Christian perspective, there is from the Lord Jesus a command to be a part of society, that the Gospel will have a seasoning effect on it.  This is what Jesus means by being ‘salt and light.’  The other perception is that living under a form of daily regulation which all monastic people do is a form of sanctified legalism, one again denying the reality of God’s grace and promoting a lifestyle of works righteousness.
The solitary life for prayer and seeking God

Before I share the historic context of Anthony and his movement, I would point out that our modern society very much honors the goals of withdrawal and discipline at many levels.  Artists, writers, and musicians often must live a solitary life in the pursuit of creativity.  We also honor the soldier, the athlete, even the scholar who has regulated and disciplined their daily life as to achieve an excellence in their task.  In every respect a monastic is living a fully human existence but are re-channeling their personal energies towards the pursuit of God.  This is certainly no less worthy of a goal than writing a novel or running a 5 minute mile.

Anthony, however, had a different motivation.  In the society of antiquity, the monk philosopher was a venerable person and his work considered a noble pursuit.  In the ancient world, if you were fully devoted to philosophy, it was expected you would live a single and solitary life so that you could devote all your energies in the direction of thinking and learning.  In Syria and Egypt, Christianity took on a hue of philosophy and so the isolated holy man became a viable option for many.  And like the monk philosopher, though they lived alone, they would be pursued by disciples and members of the community for their advice and counsel on how to live.  In this way they were the salt and light in their society.

The goal of monasticism is a life fully alive to God.  This aliveness to God was a two-pronged activity.  First there was a full schedule of worship, prayer, meditation, and study of the scriptures.  These were done in cycles throughout the day and night.  Often sleeping and eating were minimal which created more time for this (think how much time a day is centered around the preparation and eating of meals). Secondly, there were disciplines of the mind and body that had as their end bringing the passions of the flesh come under the control of the spirit.  Monks had a realistic view of the fallen human nature and realized that bodily appetites were natural and yet often disordered and out of control.  The monk saw this as an ongoing spiritual training that was never complete and never perfected.  Did some monks become legalists, lazy, or even a bit crazy?  Of course some did, but we must not paint everyone with the guilt of an excessive few.
An Ancient Athlete

Another word that is commonly used for monks is ascetic.  Ascetic comes from the Greek word askesis meaning athletes.  Monks are spiritual athletes.  The idea is actually given to us by the Apostle Paul who speaks of bodily exercise being of little profit while spiritual exercise is of great profit (1 Tim. 4:8).  Thus, as we speak of Anthony of Egypt, we will think of many of his activities as spiritual training exercises that build his strength and endurance to follow Christ as a monk philosopher.

Anthony of Egypt was also a species of monk known as a Desert Father.  Why the Desert?   First, most of the population of Egypt lives and works in a narrow swath that follows the Nile.  If you are going to leave civilization, you have to go to the desert or at least it’s edge.  The desert is also barren and limited in its palette of colors.  The lack of visual stimulation made concentration and the life of the mind easier.  The desert was considered by early Christians as the habitation of the devil. In Luke 11:24, Jesus speaks of demons habiting the dry places.  It was also in the desert that Jesus battled Satan for 40 days.   For this reason the Desert fathers often regarded themselves as being warriors on the front lines and their testimony is that they regularly encountered evil spirits. 
Desert in Egypt

So here is Anthony’s story:  Anthony was between 18-20 years old.  He was a wealthy man by the standards of the day.  His parents had recently died (perhaps an epidemic but no one is certain) leaving him with 207 acres of farmland, a home, and a younger sister to look after.  As he walked to church he was thinking about how the early Christians sold all their belongings and gave the money to the apostles.

During the morning service the scripture reading is Mt. 19:21 which says: “ Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’”  As Anthony recalls his thoughts before church he takes this to be a direct word from Christ and immediately acts upon it.  Within a very short period of time he gives his land away, distributes his belongings to the poor and sells his home to provide a fund for a convent to take care of his younger sister.  Following his divestment of resources Anthony went into training to enter monastic life.
Jesus and Rich man

Such training is done in stages.  Anthony first started out living on the edge of his village near another monk who mentored him.  As he grew in his discipline he would seek mentors further out in the wilderness, learn from them, and then return to his monks hut near town.  All this time he disciplined his memory to not think of relatives, his past position in society, or the resources he once had.  He sought to be like St. Paul who said he forgot what lies behind that he might reach forward to what lies ahead (Phil. 3:13).  During the day he would do work to earn money for bread.   After buying his own daily allotment of bread (which was the normal diet of a monk) he gave the remainder of the money to the poor.  Another part of his training was the intensive memorization of scripture that it could be prayed and meditated upon while going through daily tasks.  It was not uncommon for monks to have memorized the entire New Testament, Psalms, and parts of the Old Testament.  Within a short period of time Anthony received the acclaim of his local townspeople.  They saw he had become a person of virtue and goodness and was for them a role model.  Having received his inauguration into the monastic life, Anthony prepares to move out on his own.

As he takes this step, like Jesus, he underwent a great period of satanic harassment and temptation.  The intent of the devil was to shipwreck him on the heels of his initial victory, but Anthony, like gold was purified in this process.  The temptations he underwent are quite instructive.  The first temptation was that of his memory and mind.  Past failures and concerns were brought to mind and the goal ahead was made to seem like it would be too hard to attain so why even start?  The second temptation was that of lust and foul thoughts stirring up physical drives which were set aside in this pursuit.  Apparently the devil even appears to him as a nude woman to beguile him and get him to turn aside from the path ahead.  The third and final temptation was that of comfort.  The desert offered no comfort and the devil placed in his mind all the comforts and pleasures he would never have access to again.
The devil plays on our fears and lusts

This barrage of temptation did not hit Anthony of Egypt in a state of helplessness.  He actually stood up against the enemy by meditation on the excellence of Jesus Christ, fully trusted that God would assist him in his weakness (I Cor. 10:15) and was strengthened in his continual prayers and fasting.  At some point this temptation resolves as Anthony confronts the devil and he leaves him for a time.  Anthony knew however, that the devil is never conquered in this life and continues to set traps and so he gave no quarter to complacency and arrogance but remained ever vigilant.

One of Anthony’s means of vigilance is what is called self-mortification.  In essence this is a denial of bodily comforts and needs at a level that the soul is alert and intensified.  Many people unaccustomed to such an idea often think of this as something very unhealthy physically and possibly a form of psychological self-hatred.  There is an extreme where this is probably so and many Christians who have taken this path with too much zeal early in life did in fact ruin their health in later life.  However, when done in a balanced way, it must contribute to overall health and longevity as many holy men who practiced self-mortification lived to be centenarians including Anthony himself!

How did Anthony practice self-mortification?  First of all he slept very little giving as much time as possible through the night to pray.  When he did sleep it was not in the comfort of a bed but a woven mat.  This would promote shorter sleep periods in general.  Although sometimes he went without eating, for the most part he observed a very simple diet of bread, salt, and water.  He gave up wine and all forms of meat completely.  Last of all, Anthony maintained a healthy attitude.  He never focused on his victories or failures of yesterday, but started each day as a fresh opportunity to live for God.  Think how often many of us choose to let yesterday use up today by focusing on our failures and regrets.  Living in the now, the present, is a wisdom all it’s own.

After 15 years of initial training, Anthony partakes in a transformative experience that seems bizarre and macabre to our modern sensibilities, and maybe it is, but it made sense to him and more than that, it sets the stage for the next phase of fruitful ministry in his life.  So what did Anthony do?  He had himself sealed inside a tomb for an period of weeks.  Why?  Because he had reached the age when Jesus died and was buried and resurrected.  He was not dead physically, but he wanted to pass through the tomb to an entirely new period in his life just like Jesus did.

In Anthony’s day it was not uncommon for people to build mausoleums for family burials.  It was also not uncommon for them to be broken into by grave robbers looking for valuable items buried with the dead.  It was also not uncommon for a tomb to be vacant and abandoned and be repurposed by a monk or even a poor family as a temporary home.  While probably not my first choice for a dwelling, sometimes practicality and availability prevail over aesthetics.  But I digress.

Modern depiction of Anthony in Tomb

So Anthony with the help of some local townspeople has himself sealed in a vacant tomb.  No doubt some water and food were put in for him before the final brick was mortared in place but no lamps.  All that Anthony encountered was darkness and eerie silence as he began his ordeal.  One of my dear friends moved to Oregon (where I live) from Phoenix Arizona.  Not only did he move from the hustle and bustle of a large city to the quietude of an isolated piece of land in the forest, he moved from leading a vibrant company with many employees that he had built up and sold to working by himself in a tiny office above his garage with nothing more than a laptop and phone connection.  While this might sound like an introvert’s paradise, (which it is) my friend was anything but an introvert and so this was an incredibly difficult adjustment for him.  It really took him more than a year to feel at ease with his new living and working environment but in the end he told me he discovered more about his true character and the reality of God’s presence working alone than he ever did surrounded by people.  I can’t help but think that as St. Anthony of Egypt contemplated his move to the outer desert to live as a hermit, he felt drawn to first test his mettle as a man to see if he was spiritually, emotionally, and physically prepared for such a change.

As the days turn into weeks, Anthony finds himself under great spiritual attack.  He feels great fear which translates in his body into excruciating pain.  He begins to see demons taking the form of grotesque creatures and this too scares him.  But he cries out to God with loud prayers for his assistance and resists the temptation to be released from his fear and pain.  As this ordeal nears the end, the Lord Jesus appears to him and tells Anthony, “I have been watching you and assisting you this whole time.”  Suddenly the fear and the pain end and Anthony senses his divine deliverance.  As the townspeople come on the appointed day to open the tomb they are shocked by his appearance.  Instead of a gaunt man half-crazed by light and sensory deprivation, Anthony comes out of the tomb more healthy and vibrant than when he entered it.  From this point forward, his vocation as a monk-philosopher soars to new heights.  Literally.

At this point St. Anthony heads to the edge of the desert to take up residence in a deserted fortress.  As he walks cross country he encounters in the middle of nowhere a store of silver and gold plate worth quite a bit of money.  He considers the situation and concludes this was actually placed in his path by Satan to distract him.  He steps over the plate and continues his journey.  Reaching his destination, Anthony begins praying and worshipping God.  This has been enemy territory but Anthony’s goal is that it will become part of the kingdom of God.  The enemy continues to assail him but now he is unmoved.  Anthony is actually attacking the demonic realm himself through his prayers and fastings.  Anthony stays at the fortress for 20 years and attracts many followers who want to pursue the monastic life under his tutelage.  He is now the holy man of the desert, able to counsel others, able to advise, to heal, to reconcile.  Many of the people of Egypt journey out to seek his spiritual advice and we are told the desert literally becomes a city of monks.

Watch a video on St. Anthony's Monastery today 

At age 55, St. Anthony moves to what is known as the “inner mountain”.  He is told about this new place by a group of Arabs he encounters.  The decision to move was based on the crowds and continual adulation he was receiving from the people.  He felt that if this continued he would become a victim of pride and self-conceit and lose the ground he had gained in the spiritual realm.  The inner mountain was a cell in an isolated spot on a mountainside several miles inland from the Red Sea.  At the foot of the mountain there was a natural spring and date palms which became a source of foot.  With the fresh water Anthony is also able to plant a small garden and eat food from it thus freeing anyone from having to bring food out to him.
Stairs leading up to Antony's cell on Mountain

These are the mature years of Anthony’s monastic calling.  He spends the remainder of his days giving counsel to fellow monks and any who venture out to see him at his cave.  He reports even in old age he had to continue to battle temptations and lusts of the flesh.  St. Paul in 2 Timothy 2:22 tells his protégé Timothy to “flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness”.  As author Gordon T. Smith says perhaps the reason Timothy was to do this was because old age presents you with a whole new set of them.  Whatever the case, Anthony had an unusual way of dealing with his lusts.  He kept a “sin record book”.  He knew his human tendency was to deny his sinfulness and his lustful thoughts.  Instead of denying he had them, he wrote them down as not to hide his evil.  He felt in exposing it to himself, to the Lord and others, he was able to gain ground in his thought life.

St. Anthony's Monastery today
Anthony ends his years in a state of great popularity.  He is seen as the ‘spiritual physician’ of Egypt and had the supreme honor of everybody wanting him to be their father.  A great theological controversy broke out in Egypt and Anthony visited Alexandria to refute heretics and philosophers who tried to come against orthodox Christianity.  Just like a papal visit today, huge crowds gathered to see this great holy man and many conversions were recorded as a result of seeing him.

As he nears the end of his life, like Moses and the Patriarchs and Paul and the Ephesian elders, Anthony gathers his fellow monks in the desert and gives them a final charge to faithfulness to God before passing away.  Anthony arranged to have himself buried in a secret place that his grave would not be venerated.  He did have his few articles of clothing and possessions distributed among friends and they were immediately considered sacred relics.  But the best thing he left behind was a life well-lived and a holy example that still inspires today.
Death of St. Antony

The legacy of St. Anthony in the history of the Church is huge.  The story of his life inspired people such as Ss. Augustine, Jerome, Benedict and many other men of God who would also shape the life of the Church.  But more important are Anthony’s inspiring principles for living the Christian life.  I summarize them below:

1. Do not to grow fainthearted in the disciplined life because we receive a far greater return in
    eternity than we ever invested.

2. Do not to lose heart about the renunciation of this world.  We will lose it all at death anyway. 
    So why not grow in virtue which can be taken into the next life?

3. Live circumspectly and constantly for the Lord.  Each day is new and gains can be made. 
    Conversely, great losses can occur daily simply through laxity

4.  Dying daily---live each day as it is your last day—you will not sin, you will forgive, you will
     live earnestly.

5. The ultimate weapon against the Devil:  a just and godly life.  Fasting, vigils, prayers,
    meekness and gentleness, contempt for money, lack of vanity, love of the poor, gentleness
    towards others will all drive the enemy underfoot.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Joan of Arc (1412-1431) : God's Heroic Prophetess by Chris White

A romantic depiction of Joan

 This story happens in the context of the Hundred Years War which was in essence an ongoing conflict between England and France that lasted more than 100 years.   England had owned part of Northern France for centuries and wanted to stay and expand their rule.  The Kings of France wanted them out but were not strong enough to dislodge them.  Eventually France did prevail but it took a heavy toll on the nation in terms of destruction of life and property.  However, given the historic English penchant for hanging on the every inch of property they can, even if it serves no real purpose, the French probably should consider themselves lucky it wasn’t a 400 year war!   As this touches Joan of Arc, the battles that she participates in are essentially wars of liberation from an outside oppressor.  This is why she is highly regarded as a French heroine.  As the story unfolds you will see the English regarded her as something quite different.

Joan of Arc was born in January of 1412 in a sleepy little village called Domremy la Pucelle.  It was a typical village in eastern France.  People made their living from the land and were very religious.  Joan’s father was a successful farmer and believed to have been one of the town fathers.  Her mother was known as God fearing and quite affectionate to her children teaching them most of their religious beliefs.  Joan shepherded her father’s sheep and learned to spin wool and lived like most young girls did in the late Middle Ages.  She was well-liked in her town, active in Church and participated in charitable activities.
Joan's birthplace

Joan had grown up with the war between the French and English and according to historian Will Durant, would have believed like most folk in their area that the English really were devils who were able to hide their tails under their coats.  There was also a prophecy floating around the countryside at the time that someday God would send a young virgin who would deliver France from this long siege of Satan.  It is very possible that Joan heard this prophecy as a young girl.

In 1424, When Joan is about 13 she has her first experience.  She sees a bright light over her head and hears a voice speak to her telling her to be an obedient child and to go often to Church.  To be honest, I don’t know how much more obedient a child could be since she had by this time a reputation of being very pious and stopping to kneel and pray every time the bells at the town Church were rang.

Joan received visions several times

Over the next couple of years, Joan claims further visitations by Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch.  There are some interesting connections here:  Margaret was a virgin who was martyred because of false accusations made against her, Catherine was a virtuous woman who came to faith in Christ because of visions she saw, and Michael the Archangel led the battle against the forces of Lucifer when he rebelled against God.   It seems hardly coincidental that all three of these persons were represented by statuary in Joan’s church and that they reflect in their life story aspects of what played out in her own life.  According to Joan’s testimony at her later trial she saw a full image of Michael and only the faces of Catherine and Margaret.  They spoke perfect French to her and were beautiful in appearance but also smelled beautiful.  Originally these voices only spoke to her about her piety and maintaining her virginity but eventually they spoke to her about her mission to save France.

By the summer of 1428, Joan is now around 18 years old.  She was described as a handsome and healthy girl with dark hair and smiling face with a quiet if not silent disposition.  By this point in the story, France is in deep trouble.  Paris is controlled by the English, and the key city of Orleans is under siege.  If this city falls, it will only be a matter of time before the rest of the country does.
Joan hears from Michael the Archangel

It is at this time that the voices become quite insistent with her.  Michael himself tells her to go to the aid of the King.  At another time she is told to take the King to Rheims, which was the spiritual capital of the country at the time, and have him properly crowned and anointed by the clergy so that the French would unite behind him and fight for freedom.  Joan is given a specific plan by her divine voices.  She is to present herself to the King’s commander and he will bring her to the King.  She is immediately dismissed by him as a girl who needs to go home and get a good spanking by her father.  But she persists by staying in town and when the French are defeated in another battle, she finally gets a hearing and is sent with a military escort to the King.  This is where she dons the male military attire and cuts her hair short (believed to be the origins of the popular french "bob" hairdo by some).  This is most likely for her protection but possibly a response to her voices to prepare to be a warrior.

After traveling for 11 days through enemy territory, in March of 1429 she is able to speak with the Dauphin or the Kings heir-apparent Charles VII.    Wanting to check her out, the Dauphin disguised himself as a servant but when she came into the room she immediately identified him and shared her message with him.  Many in the King’s court thought she was mentally disturbed and Charles was not thoroughly sold either.  He sends Joan to be further examined by the clergy regarding her authenticity.  But after several weeks they send her back to the King with their blessing and he decides to make use of her.

Joan meets Charles VII the Dauphine

Over the next year and a half, Joan leads and rallies the French in a series of battles which successfully push back the English.  Her banners of white with the fleur- de- lis, the name of God and Mary, her sword, and her conviction that she is on God’s mission for the King, strengthens the troops and encourages them to great risk and great achievement.  She eventually leads the King to his coronation and seemingly her mission is complete.

King Charles VII, however, convinces her to continue with the army and she does even though she no longer hears any of the voices and has great misgivings about it.  She is shot with an arrow in one skirmish and eventually in another taken captive by French forces loyal to the English crown.  The English are so angry with her that they purchase her for the sum of $80,000 in today’s money so they can try her as a witch.

Joan was a symbol more than a warrior
At the start of the next year Joan endures a 4 month trial where she is charged with heresy and witchcraft by the English Clergy.  She is interrogated about her visions and in the end they were found to be “false and diabolical”.  They threatened her with burning at the stake unless she made a full retraction.  Under great pressure Joan eventually signed a statement retracting her visions and promising allegiance back to the Church.  Unfortunately,  there were those who wanted her dead no matter what. 

Part of her agreement was to stop wearing her military clothing and wear only women’s clothing in prison.  Within a few days she was wearing the men’s clothing again as many believe to protect her chastity.  This was taken by several bishops that she was a relapsed heretic and this time she would be burned at the stake.  She was quite frightened by this but was strengthened in the moment and even forgave her accusers and executors.  Many left the scene realizing they had probably killed a saint and were going to be damned for it.
Burned alive like a witch

Several years after Joan’s death, the English were completely driven from France and King Charles ordered a new trial for Joan of Arc.  An official trial of the Church was held and her surviving mother and brothers attended seeking to have their family name and sister restored to the Church.  A six year investigation followed and eventually Joan of Arc was declared innocent of heresy and wrongly executed therefore she was a martyr.  In the 19th century the Pope put her name up for beatification and in the 20th Century, Joan of Arc was officially canonized.

So, there it is—the  story of one of the greatest heroines of the Church and of Western Civilization.  She was faithful to God and if anything her main mistake was taking things too far.  But we are left with a question: did she really receive her orders from heaven as she claimed?  There seems to be three basic trains of thought on this: 

1.  Joan had a psychological disorder—in 2002 a court in Maryland held a mock retrial for Joan of Arc with defense and prosecution lawyers and found her innocent by reason of suffering from a delusional disorder that caused her to hear audible voices in her head.  She could not be held criminally responsible was the conclusion because her actions were consistent with her delusions.  What is striking to me about this is that I have spoken on several occasions with delusional people and what they believe is generally not true and in fact is sometimes way out there.  What Joan of Arc heard and acted upon came to pass.  It did hold true.

 2.  Joan had some connection to the Devil ---She had been accused in her trial by the English of practicing divination and that the visions and information she received was the result of  conjuring demonic spirits.  However, the testimony of her life for piety and devotion to the Lord Jesus that was given at her retrial would hardly suggest someone involved with the Kingdom of darkness.  It is also strikes me that the realm of the demonic does not have future knowledge.  They certainly have a thorough understanding of human nature but no understanding of the end of a matter before it begins.  Only God holds the species of knowledge that Joan was operating within

 3.  Joan was appointed by God and exercised an authentic form of prophecy—Jean Brehal who acted as the Inquisitor General for the Church retrial of Joan points out that the type of messages Joan received are consistent with  Christian doctrine.  Scripturally speaking, messages from God can be impressed upon the  mind.  A person has a strong sense of God’s will and God speaking into their lives.  Sometimes messages can come symbolically in a state of meditative prayer  or in a dream.  There were plenty of these cases in the Bible.  A third way is when God chooses to reveal messages in a tangible outward form.  This was true of  Daniel and of John the Apostle.   This final way seems to be the mode in which Joan of Arc received her revelation.  She was hesitant to act upon them and was not self-promoting as is the hallmark of false prophets, and the methods she used promoted godly actions.  Finally, what was spoken by her as revelation from God did come to pass which is the acid-test of a true prophecy (see Deuteronomy 18:22).
Joan at her heresy trial

So what do I think about Joan?  There is a built-in skepticism in all modern people, even people of faith such as myself.  Our society’s pre-commitment to reason is in the air we breathe making the story of Joan of Arc seem odd and probably not true.  My guess is most Christians probably wouldn’t expect something like what happened to Joan to happen to them today.  But if there is a God (which I believe to be true) what would preclude Him from speaking into a national emergency in the lives of a specific people and place?  And why wouldn’t the same God who sent his own Son 1400 years before Joan’s time into the humblest of circumstances, speak to those in power in a later time through a humble young woman of simple faith?  The story of Joan of Arc is inconsistent with philosophical naturalism, but very consistent with a Biblical worldview.  God raises up specific persons to speak for him in specific situations and specific places.  This is the spirit of prophecy.  In our own nation, threatened by enemies from without and moral rot from within, would that God raise another Joan of Arc in our midst.
A "useful" story for other causes too!