Into Exile: The Polish Unitarian Experience
“There are times and places when the flow of events unleashes the perennial questions that always lurk just below the level of human consciousness,” writes Canadian Unitarian church historian Phillip Hewett. At these times in history, the common understanding that allowed humans to feel at home in our universe have eroded.
Our own day is one of those times: “we are living in the world as in an open field, and at times do not even have four pegs with which to set up a tent.” Under these circumstances, he tells us, we have much to learn from reflecting upon the experience of people during other periods of “homelessness” in the past. So he has studied our religious ancestors who lived in Poland during the 16th and 17th centuries, a time of great upheaval in worldview for those aware of such currents.
The year was 1660. The long war against the Swedes had finally been won. Stephen, Catholic king of Poland, remembered the vow he made to the Virgin Mary. He had promised, if he won the war, to rid his country of those who did not properly venerate her son. It was not hard to get the larger Protestant groups to join his crusade. They, too, were frightened by the heresies preached by Unitarians. After all, many of these dissenters were traitors to their country – for hadn't many refused to bear arms in the recent conflict? Never mind that many had fought loyally – and these had been rewarded by being stripped naked and turned out to find their own way home, fair game for the mobs.
I like to stretch my imagination by trying to put myself in the shoes of someone with a different point of view. How did our courageous religious forebears look to their fellow citizens?
For the next few minutes, I invite you to listen in:
Citizen 1: Many of these heretics -- they call themselves Socinians or Unitarians -- were descended
from foreigners, after all. Poland will be well rid of them. Never mind that their ancestors were
welcomed because of their diligence in work and upright character! The problem is, their ideas
have been catching. A hundred years is long enough to tolerate such nonsense. Besides, if the
Unitarian nobility are forced to surrender their possessions, there will be confiscated estates for
younger sons of good Catholic nobles!
Citizen 2: The priests tell us the Polish people were punished by the recent war because they
tolerated such blasphemous ideas. Jesus not God??! Why, this is practically Judaism! Yet the
Unitarians call themselves Christians, and have the gall to claim they follow Jesus' teachings more faithfully than the rest of us. How dare they refuse the duties incumbent upon all good citizens?
Citizen 3: By all means, let them choose exile if they refuse to recant. But don't pay them much for
the goods they must sell -- they can't stick around for a better offer, after all! (leans forward
conspiratorially) And to let them know we mean business, the king can quietly hire mercenaries
to harass them -- just over the border, so their friends among the orthodox population don't get
Citizen 4: These Unitarians are yet too small to defend themselves. They are a perfect scapegoat for
the anger the recent war left behind! After all, mobs have already burned their university and
printing house in Rakov, and driven the people from their homes. It was said that two of their
blasphemous children defaced a statue of the Blessed Virgin by throwing stones at it! Devil’s
spawn -- this proves it!
Citizen 5: You’d think anyone with sense would recant, even if it does mean serfdom. Surely no
one who isn't dangerously crazy would choose to journey by foot, in winter, without provisions --
its hundreds of miles to the nearest city where they will be tolerated! I've been told women are
being more stubborn about recanting than their husbands. What God-fearing woman would
subject her children to such an ordeal?
Citizen 6: These Unitarians claim to be following God's will, and talk of a new exodus. Yet the
mercenaries we sent after them killed many and were themselves unharmed. Where was the sea
that swallowed Pharaoh's army? Our king prospers -- especially since his vow to the Virgin to
rid our country of these heretics. Plagues? Not upon us! But I have heard that many of the
Unitarians on their way into exile were struck down by illness!
Citizen 7: How dare they compare themselves to the ancient Israelites, who fled slavery in Egypt
and were led by God into the promised land? The Israelites triumphed by force of arms and the
favor of their God. These pathetic Unitarians shun the bearing of arms, even for God's sake! And
the lands they have chosen for exile will tolerate them. Only tolerate them.
Citizen 8: And have these -- Unitarians -- been shown miracles convincing them it is God's will that
they undertake such a dangerous journey? Far from it! They say they are persuaded by
Conscience. Conscience! For freedom of conscience they will risk their own lives and the lives
of their children. No, God wants obedience, through His Holy church. These heretics are quick
to point out that Jesus himself challenged the church of his day. But that church wasn't Christian!
And he was God ... we are not. That’s the problem --these heretics don't accept Christ as God!
Citizen 9: No, if this trek of heretics out of our land must be compared to one of the old stories, the
exile story fits better. The Hebrew understood that their misfortune was a result of their own
stubborn refusal to be obedient to their God. Whereas these arrogant Socinians refuse to see that
they are being punished. The impertinence of these heretics is not so different from that of the
Hebrews taken to task by the Prophets. They, too, lost their homes. We but do the will of God.
(Readers leave, nodding righteously).
Does not Isaiah say, "Your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and
your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear?" And -- and "your hands are
defiled with blood" --but -- but theirs are not!
And -- "Your lips have spoken lies..." but these heretics are not afraid to utter the most
inconvenient truths. "No one goes to law honestly…" but these Unitarians won't go to law at all..
"Deeds of violence are in their hands, and they rush to shed innocent blood..." Oh, dear. Well ...
is it possible our soldiers shouldn't have killed them?
No, no ... they are, after all, heretics. And God says, through Isaiah, " I trod them in my
anger and trampled them in my wrath ...I poured out their lifeblood on the earth." That's how our
glorious God deals with those who rebel and question too much. "Devastation, desolation, and
destruction! Hearts faint and knees tremble, all loins quake. All faces grow pale!"
Its confusing, though. These people have justly earned the wrath of God for their heresies. Yet why can't we see their evil in the way they live their lives? How can so many of them be honest, upright, hard-working people? But the priests understand these things. They tell us God has broken the power of these dangerous heresies, through our King and his council. Their heresies will surely fade away now, like the lies they are. Surely they will. Won't they?
Poland did eradicate Unitarianism from its territory. To this day, a rich heritage -- one
hundred years of study, exploration and writing by the Polish Brethren -- is virtually unknown to
their descendants within Poland. Only since the end of Communism in 1990 is that changing. Phillip Hewett has made several visits to help the tiny new church reclaim its heritage.
Yet the Unitarian Diaspora quietly changed the European world. Unlike the Jewish Diaspora, it did not keep a cohesive identity.Instead it blended with, and altered, other religious, philosophical and political movements.
The Enlightenment period in philosophy sprang in large part from its seeds. Movements for human rights and freedom of conscience and religion spread. The writings of the Polish Brethren pleaded poignantly for freedom of conscience. Yet most of their writings that survived were philosophical in tone. Even from this powerful moment in our history, little has survived that describes their personal anguish, nor their attempts to find meaning in their suffering. I think we are the poorer for it. Perhaps we can encourage more writings of a confessional nature within our movement in Canada and beyond, writings that speak heart to heart of our human journey and the meaning we find in it.
This story of dispossessed Polish Socinians may not really speak to us, children of privilege as even the least advantaged of us are. Yet we seek to include more people of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds in our Movement. I wonder if one of the barriers to their full participation is the lack of story and symbol in which to express key dimensions of their experience -- dimensions of suffering, of repression, of being “outsiders” – a deeply felt need for transformation, personal and social.
Stories like this one can meet that need. Perhaps it is a need we all have on some level. Despite archaic morality and simplistic ideas of God, there is still power in the Hebrew Exodus and Exile stories for many people. There is power because, whatever our outward circumstances, none of us have escaped the confinement of limitations we would like to be freed from. We are reminded by similar stories to challenge limitations that keep us from living our lives as fully as we might. Even when embracing such freedom entails sacrifice. It is useful to reflect upon the sacrifices our ancestors were willing to make in order to be true to themselves and their faith.
Nor do we need to go back 400 years. The good Lutherans in Winnepeg talking of their Unitarian neighbours just over 100 years ago would have sounded almost as righteous as the Polish folk we imagined earlier! Being Unitarian in Canada never meant risking life or imprisonment, but employment and social acceptance? These were definitely at risk if you were seen entering a Unitarian church!
I like the words from a Jewish Midrash about the Exodus experience:
Pack nothing. Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free...Do not hesitate to leave your old ways behind -- fear, silence, submission . . . Begin quickly, before you have time to sink back into old slavery. Set out in the dark . . . Some of you will be so changed by weathers and wanderings that even your closest friends will have to learn your features as though for the first time. Some of you will not change at all. Some will be abandoned by your dearest loves and misunderstood by those
who have known you since birth and feel abandoned by you. Some will find new friendship in unlikely faces, and old friends as faithful and true as the pillar of God's flame..."
"Pack nothing. Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free."
3500 years ago ... 400 years ago ... 100 years ago … this very day --the journey to greater freedom and wholeness and service awaits. It is for us to find the courage and faith to take it. It is for us to build communities that support this challenging but richly rewarding human journey.
May we renew this day our covenant to be defenders of religious freedom, celebrators of
diversity, searchers for evolving truth, and builders of beloved community. Blessed Be.