15 December 2004

Heirs of the Moravian Brethren

Jednota bratrska [Union of Brethren] was persecuted with varying degrees of vigor from the time of Jiri z Podebrad--who wanted a unified Utraquist hegemony--onward, and Vladislav II's Saint James's Mandate of 1502, which closed the Brethren's churches and banned their writings, was several times renewed through the sixteenth century. They thrived nonetheless. From an originally plebeian, otherworldly sect rooted among peasants and craftsmen, the Brethren broadened their appeal both to burghers and to nobles, who since they controlled benefices could often provide support and protection. This expansion was helped by the Brethren's abandonment at the end of the fifteenth century of prohibitions, deriving from Chelcicky's teaching, on members holding worldly office, serving in the military, and engaging in business. Certain employments, like juggling or painting, remained forbidden, while office-holding and trade were deemed dangerous to salvation and thus deserving of particular moral scrutiny. The hardest times for the Brethren came, under Ferdinand I after 1547, when many of them were driven into exile in Poland, Prussia, and Moravia, which subsequently became a Jednota stronghold.
SOURCE: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, by Derek Sayer (Princeton U. Press, 1998), p. 44

As an atheist quasiacademic of Quaker heritage, it strikes me how robustly these otherworldly medieval prejudices--against holding worldly office, against serving in the military, and against engaging in business--survive among today's thoroughly thisworldly progressives in academia and the media. At least juggling, painting, acting, and other money-grubbing artistic pursuits are no longer forbidden. And the benefice-dispensing heirs of once crass burghers and nobles are valued every bit as much as they were 500 years ago. But what salvation awaits today's secular saints? Tenure? Emeritus status? A Pulitzer?

A quote from Robert D. Kaplan's recent essay in Policy Review entitled The Media and Medievalism provides a caustic gloss on the passage above.
As with medieval churchmen, the media class of the well-worried has a tendency to confuse morality with sanctimony: Those with the loudest megaphones and no bureaucratic accountability have a tendency to embrace moral absolutes. After all, transcending politics is easier done than engaging in them, with the unsatisfactory moral compromises that are entailed.

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