Fr Dwight Longanecker did it again the other day. In an article looking back fondly to a more muscular Christianity he mentioned the time that St Nicholas smacked Arius at the first Council of Nicea. This, along with some choice quotes from Scripture and various saints, ‘proves’ that while we are not going to attack anyone – though it seems from the article that this is more from fear of the Law than anything else- in fact harsh and violent attacks on error are the marks of the really zealous Christian, while kindness and nonviolence are the signs of a ‘milquetoast’.
But can St Nicholas’ angry act really be taken as some sort of vindication of violence? I think not.
But first, one must understand just who St Nicholas is to Orthodox and other eastern Christians. Although devotion to St Nicholas was as prominent, historically, in the western church as the eastern, his identity and presence have eroded over the centuries, and to modern western Catholics, reduced to The Santa Guy. But to eastern Christians the saint is beloved, familiar, a kindly grandfatherly figure. The only thing like it in the west is devotion to St Joseph (and I know from many conversations that understanding of St Joseph is undeveloped among the Orthodox. There are few if any Orthodox churches named after him, for example).
The spirit of St Nicholas is a benign one; he was noted in his life for his kindness and charity to the poor, and his presence in the lives of the faithful is a comforting one.
So what about punching Arius?
He did indeed either punch or slap – the stories differ- Arius at the Council, as Arius was expounding his doctrine that Christ was a created being, albeit the first created being, and one instrumental in the creation of all things. But instead of the rational soul, Christ had in its place the Logos. Thus, in one formula both His divinity and humanity disappear. Nicholas fumed, then could take it no longer: he assaulted Arius. The Council was shocked, and stripped Nicholas of his bishopric and expelled him from the Council. There are various stories of what happened next, ranging from a dream that Nicholas had, in which Christ and the Virgin appeared, presenting him with the symbols of his bishopric, to a shared dream of the same by all the Council Fathers, to a couple of concerned friends finding him in his room, wrapped in the Virgin’s arms, her mantle enveloping him.
Whatever happened, Nicholas was restored, Arius condemned. And those prone to defend violence have never stopped invoking his example:
And so on.
But is this justified? The story is that Nicholas was ashamed. As noted, he was known for his gentleness, and his act must have been quite a shock, not least to himself. Anyone who has lost his temper and behaved badly can understand Nicholas’ grief and shame.
If indeed the Virgin wrapped him in her cloak isn’t it obvious that this was not in approval of violence, but to comfort him in his sorrow for what he had done?
Why is it so difficult for those who profess Christ to understand that violence is not an option in resisting error? That the Church’s use of violence has been a blemish on her reputation to this day?
And that by joking about it you look like you belong in the Neanderthal Rite?
The words of Christ to his apostles when they wanted to call down fire from heaven on their enemies applies, unfortunately, to His Church throughout history: ‘You do not know of what manner of spirit you are.’