I first learned about Waldensians in a class on the Middle Ages. In the centuries before the Reformation took place, some Christians in Europe resented the wealth and ostentation of the Catholic Church—the only show in town. In response the Waldensians preached a radical simplicity, including poverty. The established church, enamored of plutocracy and power, didn’t appreciate this challenge. To the average peasant, I suspect, the sincerity of the Waldensians was a bit more obvious than those who represented an institution enamored of its stature. When Catholicism learned about Waldensians and their imitation of Jesus’ lifestyle they did what came naturally. They killed them. Accusing those who insisted on helping the poor and needy of heresy gave the justification to the church’s decision to eliminate them.
What occasioned the most surprise, as I was recently reading about them again, was the discovery that the Waldensians still exist. The church has often been thorough in its elimination of those who cross it (note the antics of Rick Santorum), but somehow some Waldensians managed to live on through the persecutions of the trials of heresy. Yet the church still likes to bluster and condemn many to Hell, even if just metaphorically. I must admit that such posturing worries me. It is not in vain that the church has frequently insinuated itself into politics. Anyone who has been awake in America since the 1980’s can’t have helped but to have noticed.
Ironically, the three major monotheistic traditions began as counter-cultural movements. Once the religions gained political power the oppression of others began, thus starting the cycle all over again. The Waldensians are an excellent paradigm of what occurs when a religious body attains too much power. Heresy is so dangerous because it highlights hypocrisy. Claiming divine sanction for human weakness is a charade easily understood by those who take the time to watch closely. The revisionist history of America that we hear presidential hopefuls espousing are warning signs. The church may not have reached all the Waldensians in the Dark Ages, but it still keeps on trying. Fortunately the followers of Peter Waldo are sometimes hard to find.