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Friday, October 07, 2011

Savonarola and Lessons for Our World

I recently started re-reading my biography of Girolamo di Savonarola again, he of "Mad Monk" and "Bonfire of the Vanities" fame.

Be sure, reader, Savonarola is not for the fainthearted: he has been called a terrorist, a lunatic, a misanthrope and far, far worse besides...Continue Reading This Article>>>

I can't remember when I first heard of Savonarola but since the moment I became aware of his life I was drawn to him. It pleased me no end when I later found out that one of the men who lead Ireland's Easter Uprising in 1916 was also a huge fan.

Old Savvy was a compex figure; a man driven by violent passions yet given to intense compassion too. A man not easily analysed in base or simplistic terms....

By the mid 1490s a simple preacher of the Dominicans had taken power in Renaissance Florence and turned the ears of all of Italy. He was the most discussed figure of his age, not Michelangelo or DaVinci or even the Pope, and it is easy to see why.

Savonarola hated hypocrisy. He was surrounded by hypocrits.
He hated corrupt priests. He was surrounded by rich bishops and thieving priests.
He hated poverty. Everywhere in Italy he saw the poor cry out for aid even when the cities of Italy abounded with wealth.

More than anything, Savonarola hated the Church of his age, or rather he hated what it had become. He called it a whore, a thief, a liar.

It comes as no shock that the man was charged of heresy and hanged before being burnt at the stake.

Above all, Savonarola condemned the extravagant wealth of those who paid lipservice to faith or duty but ignored the unspeakable suffering around them. Granted, he was also a firebrand arch-conservative by todays standards, but it is too easy to judge him on that level when his morality was so utterly at odds with our own in the 21st century. In many regards he would be called a bigot and murderer in today's world. That too is too easy to do from our easy and lofty position of enlightened thinking.

Yet what strikes me about his message was the unwaivering dedication and fearlessness with which he battled against power regardless of the threat to his own life. He is a very attractive figure in this regard because we so often live in a world where people sell out. None more so than the leaders of the Church to which I belong and the leaders of the governments by which my life is controlled.

It is a great tragedy that we see a western world today which is in danger of losing sight of the privilege we all share in paying our taxes. By which I mean it is a sad sight to see people complain about paying for the social provision given to the weakest and most vulnerable in our lands. We behave as though we need money we just do not need; forever carping about taxation which is our duty.

I'm not a socialist in the sense that I would believe wealth is the servant of the collective, yet I am a socialist in the sense that I believe Christ himself was: I realise that nothing truly belongs to me but my thoughts and actions. I think we have, in Europe, arrived at a very good middle ground on the balance between social provision and the profit motive of capitalism; I think we've done well to establish free health care and housing for the single mother and all manner of other projects. And what is more, I am delighted to have had to pay for it through the nose. I couldn't even guess at the tens of thousands of pounds I've paid over the years thanks to a career in finance.

I saw a fiend of a human today on Huffington Post try to defend low tax as a Christian virtue because high tax is a form of theft. It was the most hideous example of what happens when a religious book is hijacked by people who have no claims over the text. I refer to the old school Protestant 'Sola Scriptura' nonsense - the idea that one is a "saved" Christian according to a free-wheeling personal relationship with scripture. Well such nonsense as I just described is what happens when anyone decides to interpret as dangerous a book as the Bible by themselves.

I don't have to guess at what Savonarola would say about our current economic meltdown. He would say that our greed had killed our prosperity. And he'd be right. He would say that we have turned possession of things into an addiction which has caused us to forget human goodness. And he'd be right on that point as well. Yet above all I think his comment would be that where we forget to love the poor is where we cease to be good people at all. For sure, he would have thrown in loftier tones and more erudite parlance but his message would have been the same resounding condemnation of hideous greed as he gave in Renaissance Florence when he drove the DeMedici family from the city they had dominated for generations.

I feel such fire deep within my own spirit/personality, and it has always lead to good things. I've suffered my own lesser burning at the stake (as some of you are aware) and, like Girolamo, I don't regret it no matter how ardent the flames burned.

Life is not things. It's not even really individuals. It's a period of time into which you can throw your contribution toward the good of those you will never meet; those who will come after you're gone. If, like Savonarola, we would all accept this then the world would be a better place.

Even the smallest act of generosity and kindness can have a profound effect. And besides, if it is only the small acts we can perform, why then let's perform them and be pleased.

We need courageous people in politics today to stand up and say, "I don't give a damn if you kill me, I will speak out against your hatred and your lies!"

If there is nothing else redeeming in Savonarola's amazing life then at least he achieved such courage.

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