329 Years Later…
Last week Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was finally exonerated for her 1693 conviction for witchcraft.
The Salem Witch trials (1692-1693) were a Puritan inquisition that resulted in the deaths of 25 men and women, 19 of whom were hanged, five died in jail and one was crushed with rocks.
Johnson was 22 when she was accused and convicted, perhaps because of a mental disability or because she never married or had children. The governor of Massachusetts granted her a reprieve from hanging because of “shadowy evidence.” She died in 1747 at the age of 77. But her conviction was never overturned. It came as the result of a three-year effort by the eighth-grade civics class at North Andover Middle School and their teacher, Carrie LaPierre.
So, what might we learn from Elizabeth Johnson’s story today?
The Evil of “Christian Nationalism”
After 329 years, haven’t we learned how badly things can go wrong when Christians use the power of the law to impose their theological convictions on their community? Make no mistake: the witch trials were a deadly result of the merger of religion and government.
One of the sad ironies in our history is that Christians who came to America to escape persecution quickly became persecutors. In setting out to create a Christian community, they used the power of the law to force others to deny their conscience in order to obey their Puritan interpretations of scripture.
I highly recommend John M. Barry’s powerful book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.
That’s why Christian nationalism is an oxymoronic label for a political movement that is just as damaging to Christianity and it is to the nation. You’ll find an excellent series of articles at “UM Insight.”
But the evil of “Christian nationalism” is very much alive among us. It was viciously on display during the January 6 insurrection. We saw it this weekend in CPAC’s celebration of Hungary’s anti-democratic, Christian nationalist dictator, Viktor Orbán. It’s on the ballot with candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene and in the election of local school boards.
The “Five Freedoms” enshrined in the First Amendment — freedom of speech, religion, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the government — guarantee that as a follower of Christ my voice can be heard in the public debate, but they do not guarantee that my voice will drown out other voices or that my convictions should be imposed by law on others. Democracy means that the freedom I claim for myself is measured by the freedom I protect for others. It means that sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose, but we keep on working together to become “a more perfect union.”
I’m convinced that I can be a Christian or I can be a “Christian nationalist,” but I can’t be both.
The Difference We Can — Must — Make
Go back to that civics class at North Andover Middle School. It’s the story of the difference a public school teacher can make when allowed to confront some of the ugly stories in our history, whether Florida’s Governor and Legislature like it or not.
It’s also the story of the difference we can make. Senator Diana DiZoglio, who added the amendment that exonerated Elizabeth Johnson to a budget bill, said, “These students have set an incredible example of the power of advocacy, and speaking up for others who don’t have a voice.”
The Bill of Rights calls all of us to participate, to lift our voice, to vote, and to do what we can to make a difference. It’s why I joined over 25,000 Christians who have signed the statement released by Christians Against Christian Nationalism. It is one of the criteria I use in choosing the candidates I support. It’s one of the ways I celebrate the Bill of Rights.
That’s what Elizabeth Johnson taught me. May she rest in peace.
Grace and Peace,
I’m looking forward to being back at Lake Junaluska, NC, August 14-16. I’ll preach by the lake on Sunday morning (9 AM) and lead discussions of my book, “Finding Your Bearings: How Words that Guided Jesus Can Guide Us,” on Monday and Tuesday morning with the exaggerated title, “Theologian in Residence.” If you’re in the area, or if you’ve never visited the Lake, it’s a beautiful place to be this time of year!