Murder or Mediocrity in the Cathedral: Thomas à Becket's Medieval Lesson for Today

On December 29, 1170, four knights, servants of England's King Henry II, stormed into Canterbury Cathedral and cut down Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The knights explained their action as a response to the king, who had reportedly inquired, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"  Understanding their duty as lying first to king and then to God, the four knights saddled up and headed from London to Canterbury.

Almost immediately after the killing, the life and death of Becket became the stuff of legend.  Canterbury, already the most important religious site in England, became the destination for countless pilgrims.  One of the great works of English literature, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, follows a group of these pilgrims en route to Becket's shrine.  A scant three years after his death, Pope Alexander III canonized St. Thomas à Becket.

For an event that took place 840 years ago, the killing of Thomas à Becket remains amazingly well-remembered.  Of all the political murders committed in the intervening centuries, few have generated the same attention.  I find it difficult to imagine that the murders of Abraham Lincoln or John Kennedy will still inspire literature and film when half a millennium has passed them by.  But at least two respected plays -- one, Murder in the Cathedral, by T.S. Eliot, and one called simply Becket by Jean Anouilh -- appeared during the twentieth century.  The Anouilh play later found its way to the large screen in a 1964 film featuring Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and John Gielgud.

Historians argue over the true importance of the rift between Becket and Henry II.  Some dismiss the "turbulence" that led to the murder as political gamesmanship.  Was Thomas truly attempting to be a pious leader for the English church, or was he scheming to expand the church's (and thus his own) power?  Regardless of what historians might determine, the popular view of Thomas à Becket is as a martyr and a loyal servant of God.

The political wranglings that ended at the tip of a sword in Canterbury that day have long since faded from memory.  The church-state power balance relevant in England at that time is far less relevant now.  It has virtually no direct significance in the American system, with no established church.  This might lead you to wonder why I would be writing about this topic today, 840 years and six time zones separated from Thomas à Becket's bloody end.

In a nation where statism gallops along, threatening to usurp everything in its path, I would suggest that the murder of Becket is exceptionally relevant.  The question that we should ask ourselves on this and every December 29 is "To whom do we owe our allegiance?"  Close on the heels of that question is another: "What sacrifice will I endure to keep my allegiances in order?"

On Christmas Eve of this year, I overheard a conversation between my fiercely conservative sister-in-law and my unevenly conservative son-in-law.  In the end, my son-in-law proclaimed that he could never be a member of the military or use force against another person.  While he respects those who make that choice, his own conscience tells him not to go there.  Frankly, I don't agree with my son-in-law, but I respect the thorough and thoughtful way in which he has reached that decision.  My sister-in-law, I think, came to the same sort of grudging respect, although she's probably convinced that he's a fool.

Before you start squirming in your seat too much, let me assure you that I am not bent on undermining the United States military or rendering us a nation of pacifists.  However, when we have people who genuinely believe that military service would violate their obedience to God, I believe that we as a nation can and must allow the allegiance to God to trump the allegiance to man (and the state).  In this all-volunteer military, such a stand is easy enough to endure, but others are not so easy.

Probably the most vexing questions of conscience that arise today and that pit loyalty to state against loyalty to God are those surrounding human life.  We have already seen pharmacists pressured to dispense abortion-inducing medicines.  With the impending increase in government control over health care, we can reasonably expect more such dilemmas to trouble health care providers.

Similarly, as the cult of diversity and inclusiveness marches on, religious organizations will come under increased pressure to conform to the standards of the state rather than the precepts of God.  Already, ministers have been branded as traffickers in hate speech for relaying the Bible's teachings on homosexuality.  More such challenges should be expected.

As we hold to our allegiance to God, we must ensure that this is not simply our allegiance to ourselves.  I'm fairly confident that God is not asking you to ignore speed limits, cheat on your taxes, or liberate your neighbor's riding lawnmower.  My Muslim friends would surely agree that Allah calls no one to murder innocents.  Our items of conscience worth dying for will be few, but they will be important.

Unlike Thomas à Becket, few of us will find ourselves on the wrong end of a sword for holding to our consciences.  We should, however, hold him as a model for behavior.  History is littered with forgotten people who gave in when remaining true to their conscience became difficult.  Those who stood up and said "no more" are fewer, but these are the people to be remembered, admired, and emulated.