Saint of the Day 12/29 – St. Thomas Becket – When Politics and Religion Don’t Mix
December 29 is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas Becket was born to an upper middle class family around 1118 in London. As a boy, he learned the ways of the upper class from family friends, including hunting, jousting, horsemanship, and how to behave as a gentleman. He was educated in civil and canon (Church) law in England, France, and Italy. Upon his return to England, he began working for Theobald, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald was so impressed with his abilities that he gave Thomas a variety of positions, including Archdeacon of Canterbury. It should be noted, that one did not need to be a priest to serve in these positions. Theobald recommended Thomas for the position of Lord Chancellor when the position became open and Henry II agreed.
As Lord Chancellor, Thomas was one of the most powerful men in England. At the time, Henry II was actively trying to bring the Church in England under greater royal control. Thomas Becket helped in this by his collection of taxes on all landholders, including the Church. Church leaders in England rightly saw him as their adversary in the struggle.
Thomas was a friend of Henry II, to the degree that anyone could be a friend to a king in those days. They spent free time together and Thomas shared in the pleasures of the Court, including those common to courtiers. Henry sent his son to live with Thomas for a while and the young prince became very fond of Thomas.
All was well until 1162. When Theobald died, the position of Archbishop of Canterbury was given to Thomas Becket. Henry II assumed that his loyal servant, companion in pleasure, and Lord Chancellor, would continue to be “his man” as head of the church in England.
Thomas Becket, on the other hand, became more religious. He resigned as Lord Chancellor and began to consolidate the power of the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. A series of conflicts arose between Archbishop and King over governance of the Church and clergy, control of lands, and the relationship with Rome. There were trials, exiles, reconciliations, excommunications, and much upheaval in the following years. Finally, four of Henry’s men killed Thomas in the Cathedral at Canterbury, believing they were doing so on the King’s orders. Edward Grim, an eyewitness to the event, reported that Thomas’ last words were, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.”
Three years later, in 1173, Thomas Becket was canonized by Pope Alexander. But the story didn’t end there. Over the centuries that followed, the story of Thomas Becket was interpreted and reinterpreted. He was seen as enemy and as hero by those who followed. The site of his tomb was a popular tourist/pilgrim destination. His remains were moved to a shrine at Trinity Chapel in 1220 and continued to attract visitors. Henry VIII destroyed the shrine of Becket’s tomb and his bones, ordering that his name no longer be mentioned in England. In more recent times, plays, movies, biographies, and operas have all been written about the tumultuous history of Thomas Becket and Henry II.
Today, as we look at the modern world, we might think that such things could never happen now. Yet their tale should be a cautionary one for all of us.
What happens when the powers of the world clash with the mission of faith? What should be the role of religious leaders in the political sphere? What role should faith play in public life, especially for those chosen to govern a nation of people from many faiths? Does it work to have religious leaders govern a modern nation? Who should be governed by religious law – everyone or just clerics? When clerics break civil law, should they be subject to civil courts?
These questions and more are seething in world politics and international relations. We see countries in which religious law is the law of the land. We see countries in which members of faith-based insurgency movements are killing those they see as breakers of religious laws or as enemies of their faith. Candidates for political office are murdered, suicide bombers kill elected officials and members of the general public alike, and voters are advised to look to their faith in deciding which candidate merits their support.
Somehow, all this does not seem consistent with the will of a power whom we believe to be Love (1 John 4:16).
Maybe the better approach would be to look at the fruits of religious belief. Are the hungry fed? Are children, even the girls, educated? How do we care for the sick? Can everyone get the care they need? Do people have shelter from the elements – homes in which they can feel safe and raise their children in peace? Can ideas be exchanged freely, without fear of murder following? How do we treat the elderly? Do we treasure new life? Can we laugh with each other rather than at each other? Do we treat our enemies with respect and justice? Is justice tinged with mercy?
The great insight of the founders of the American political system was that in order for religion to be most free, and in practice most influential, it must be unhinged from politics. And as we select the politicians who will lead us in the next 2-4 years, we need to remember that stated religious beliefs are not necessarily the best measures of what the fruits of their leadership will be.