The Auto de Fe

The Auto de Fe

And the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast in to a burning fiery furnace.
Daniel 3:4-6

The phrase auto de fe is a technical term used in the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. The words mean ‘an act of faith,’ and describe a public display of those guilty of holding opinions or practices condemned by the Catholic hierarchies of those nations during the late Middle Ages. It was designed to make a public spectacle of both guilty and penitent ‘heretics.’ After an elaborate ritual held in the public square the guilty would be led away to torture or death by burning; but all the accused, including the repentant and even the acquitted had already been humiliated by the ceremony. This method of public humiliation and the condemnation and punishment of ideological, political, and religious heretics has been a means of crushing religious and political dissent for ages.

So, while the term is specifically connected with the Inquisition, the concept is not. The public profession of faith and the punishment of the recalcitrant has long been a primary tool of potentates and political systems to ensure cult-like loyalty to its leaders or policies and to root out dissent. We see it in the scripture quoted above. The officials of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire are forced into a public expression of idolatry, recognizing Nebuchadnezzar as a deity. Centuries later, this was the most common source of conflict between the early church and the Roman Empire and the occasion of many of the early martyrdoms.

In the time of Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258 A.D.), the emperor Decius required the people to offer sacrifice to the genius of the emperor. Many Christians found ways to avoid complying with the demand – either by fleeing or purchasing fraudulent certificates of compliance. Others simply capitulated and offered sacrifice. The entire point of the exercise was to assure public compliance with official policy and to punish any expression of dissent. Its purpose was to root out undesirables.

Public displays of loyalty are required in many contexts. Both political and social pressures are applied to assure compliance with political orthodoxy. In a museum in Lexington, VA, not far from my home, there is a photo of a young woman in Czechoslovakia forced to salute the conquering Third Reich in violation of her conscience. This kind of auto de fe creates a crisis of faith and personality for those entangled in its tentacles. It breeds hypocrisy, resentment, and bitter hidden resistance. Systems rooted in totalitarianism employ this form of pressure, and when they gain power the policy is universal, uncompromising, and ruthless.

I have heard about this practice in personal discussion with seminary students from post-communist countries over the years. A number of them were subject to repeated public humiliation in their schools for their Christian beliefs and their families’ religious observance during the communist era. They were able to maintain their convictions and overcome bitterness of spirit, even as children, remembering the words of I Peter 4:19: Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

Under the guise of tolerance, gay rights and gay marriage activists, after gaining a few political victories are moving inexorably toward a strategy of public humiliation and total elimination of dissent – a kind of secular auto de fe. Emboldened by recent Supreme Court decisions and a post-mid-term presidential epiphany on gay marriage, the effort to establish a new orthodoxy advances. Like most political orthodoxies, it has never been about tolerance, but about tyranny.

The new public orthodoxy is donning the garb of official dogma. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the Supreme Court case United States vs. Windsor surmised that legislators and advocates of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for federal purposes as being a heterosexual institution, were motivated by “a bare desire to harm, to disparage or injure, to humiliate.” In fact, he concluded, such persons are essentially motivated by animus, or ill will. It’s only a short step from such a declaration by the highest court in the land, to declaring advocates of traditional marriage enemies of the people. In fact, that process has begun.

Justice Scalia, in his dissent, stated the crux of the problem: “To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution. In the majority’s judgment, any resistance to its holding is beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement.” There is, indeed, a new elitist orthodoxy which will brook no dissent. Expect a steady stream of autos de fe – and public humiliation of dissidents –required by the new orthodoxy. One can only hope that its hypocrisy will be recognized and that it only holds sway temporarily. That remains to be seen.

Already, troubling events are following in the wake of this decision.

In a September 19 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Gay Marriage Collides With Religious Liberty, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway cites several recent developments. A florist in Richlands, WA who refuses on conscience grounds to service a same-sex wedding is sued by the state’s Attorney General and (surprise!) the ACLU.

For those Americans, tolerance isn’t turning out to be a two-way street. A couple that owns a bakery in Gresham, Ore., closed its shop earlier this month after the state launched an investigation into their religious objections to catering same-sex union celebrations. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in August that Elane Photography violated the state’s Human Rights Act by declining to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony because doing so would present a religious conflict.
A judge upholding a $6,637 fine against the small business owned by a Christian couple said being “compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives” was “the price of citizenship.”

The list goes on and you can fill in your own story.

In California and New Jersey, it is illegal for the helping professions to offer reparative therapy to those caught up in homosexual lifestyles or same-sex attraction, even to those who desire to find alternatives to a gay identity. On every level, those in every profession find themselves muzzled by the new taboos of an oppressive orthodoxy. It is, in fact, impossible for those in the professions to maintain their place without doing public homage to the new orthodoxy. They must submit or be entirely excluded. The reach of the new orthodoxy is pervasive.

Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
Revelation 13: 16-17

The auto de fe is never about tolerance. It is always about tyranny.