A riddle for history – Religious freedom in the face of the powers of the State.
On this 6th day of Christmas we celebrate the Feast day of a number of great saints but none so distinctive as St. Thomas Becket in establishing the Church’s supremacy against evil in this world and above the governments of this earth, the Church against the State. In standing up to evil and obeying God first, it calls on us all to remember Peter’s words:
“But Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men.”Acts 5:29
Chesterton was fascinated with the “impracticable quarrel” as he called it between Archbishop Thomas Becket and his King and friend, Henry II of England. He asserted that what this Saint of the Church did on its altar by accepting a martyr’s death at prayer gave strength to successive generations to stand in obedience to Peter’s words. A riddle for history, indeed! Even the White House has proclaimed the 850th Anniversary of the martyrdom of Becket in the cause of religious liberty! (Writer’s Note: As you can see below, the present administration has removed this page. However you can see the preserved version on the Wayback Machine here. Under a time of increasing religious persecution in the public square, we note the timing and the political sentiment behind its removal.)
Chesterton wrote of St. Thomas Becket in two of his well-known works: A History of the Plantagenets and What’s Wrong With the World. He proposed that if modern man were put back in the same circumstances he would think it impractical to do what Becket did. But we can see where that we lead for freedom of religion. We are fast approaching those same circumstances.
If any modern man were put back in the Becket quarrel, his sympathies would certainly be torn in two; for the King’s scheme was the more rational, the Archbishop’s was the more humaneG. K. Chesterton, The Problem of the Plantagenets, A Short History of England
“Becket was a type of those historic times in which it is really very practical to be impracticable. The quarrel which tore him from his friend’s side cannot be appreciated in the light of those legal and constitutional debates which the misfortunes of the seventeenth century have made so much of in more recent history. To convict St. Thomas of illegality and clerical intrigue, when he set the law of the Church against that of the State, is about as adequate as to convict St. Francis of bad heraldry when he said he was the brother of the sun and the moon. There may have been heralds stupid enough to say so even in that much more logical age, but it is no sufficient way of dealing with visions or with revolutions. St. Thomas of Canterbury was a great visionary and a great revolutionist, but so far as England was concerned his revolution failed and his vision was not fulfilled.
If any modern man were put back in the Becket quarrel, his sympathies would certainly be torn in two; for the King’s scheme was the more rational, the Archbishop’s was the more humane. And despite the horrors that darkened religious disputes long afterwards, this character was certainly in the bulk the historic character of Church government. It is admitted, for instance, that things like eviction, or the harsh treatment of tenants, were practically unknown wherever the Church was landlord.
The possibilities or impossibilities of St. Thomas Becket were left a riddle for history; the white flame of his audacious theory was frustrated, and his work cut short like a fairy tale left untold. But his memory passed into the care of the common people, and with them he was more active dead than alive–yes, even more busy.” – G. K. Chesterton on St. Thomas Becket, The Problem of the Plantagenets, A Short History of England
“When four knights scattered the blood and brains of St. Thomas of Canterbury it was not only a sign of anger but a sort of black admiration. They wished for his blood, but they wished even more for his brains. Such a blow will remain for ever unintelligible unless we realize what the brains of St. Thomas were thinking about just before they were distributed over the floor. They were thinking about the great medieval conception that the Church is the judge of the world. Becket objected to a priest being tried even by the Lord Chief Justice. And his reason was simple: because the Lord Chief Justice was being tried by the priest. The judiciary was itself ‘sub judice’. The kings were themselves in the dock. The idea was to create an invisible kingdom without armies or prisons, but with complete freedom to condemn publicly all the kingdoms of the earth.- G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World.