Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
The 17th of February signifies practically nothing to American Christians. However, it is an important date to my colleagues here in Italy. On September 17, 1848 the King of Sardinia issued an edict extending full civil rights to the two people groups in his kingdom that remained ghettoed and legally relegated to second class status: Waldensians and Jews.
For the first time, both people groups were allowed to attend universities, buy houses and land, trade outside of their home regions, and worship without fear of persecution (at least theoretically).
Most people are vaguely familiar with the hardships European Jews have experienced throughout history, but Waldensian history is practically unknown to most Americans. In short, the Waldensians were “protestants” before “protestantism.” Legend traces the movement back to a man named Peter Waldo (born approximately 1140) who was roughly contemporary with the more famous St. Francis (for reference, Luther would not be born for another 300+ years, in 1483). Waldo gave up his considerable wealth (not unlike St. Francis) and eventually developed a community of men and women known as “the poor of Lyon” (Lyon, France). They were exceptionally committed to the Bible (studied and taught by both men and women), to poverty (as a discipline of faithfulness and a method for promoting justice), and anticlericism – all three of which made the established church deeply uncomfortable and lead to Waldo’s excommunication in 1184 (although his beliefs had been condemned by the Third Lateran Council half a decade earlier).
(As an interesting side note, St. Francis got himself into similar trouble for similar ideals but was later re-embraced by the established church and is now the patron saint of Italy.)
The importance of February 17th, however neither begins or ends with the edict of 1848. Giordano Bruno, (in)famous for his cosmic theories and commitment to science, was burned at the stake by the Inquisition on the same date in 1600. Not surprisingly, many consider Bruno the personification of the historic conflicts between science and religion.
Today, February 17th is celebrated by the Waldensians as a day of freedom – freedom for all religions and freedom for all people.
Although Waldensians are now legally recognized by the Italian government, they have not forgotten what it was like to be on the side of the persecuted and remain profoundly committed to fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom from the injustices of cultural and gender persecution, and freedom from all prejudices based on race, class, and history.
God has taken his place in the divine council…
“…Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Psalm 82:1a, 3-4