Intolerance that spills out into violence so often screams at us from news headlines today. 2014 dawns with horror stories spinning out of the Central African Republic and the world’s newest nation: South Sudan. Such bigotry is not new. In one of the periods of history known for intolerance and violence I stumbled on the story of Hugh of Lincoln. He is in the “cloud of witnesses” that say we don’t have to stand by and do nothing when bigotry raises its ugly head.
St. Hugh of Lincoln (1140-1200)
St. Hugh lived in Burgundy as a monk in the Carthusian order, committed to the isolated life of a hermit living in silence and contemplation. Then in 1180 he was asked by King Henry II of England to lead the Carthusian monastery in Witham (interestingly a project Henry undertook as part of his penance for the murder of St. Thomas Becket).
When Hugh arrived in Witham he discovered that the monastery he was to lead had not even been built. Furthermore, the local people were dismayed because the project would force many peasants from their homes. Hugh then refused to go further with the project until those to be displaced were justly compensated by the king, which turned Hugh into a local hero.
In 1186 he was elected as bishop of Lincoln. He was especially noted for his concern for the poor and sick. He cared personally for lepers. When he was told that St. Martin’s kisses had healed lepers, Hugh responded, “With me it is the other way; the lepers’ kisses heal my sick soul.” Statues of Hugh show him with a swan. Much like the more renowned St. Francis, Hugh had a gentle way with animals and was guarded by a pet swan.
When Richard I (“The Lionhearted”) began to rule, a wave of persecution broke out against the Jews. Tied to militancy about the Crusades, mobs launched attacks on Jewish ghettos. More than once Hugh placed himself between the mobs and the targeted Jews, halting the assaults with his personal power and support for the dignity of all. He directly intervened to force the release of Jews seized by the rioters.
Hugh also is credited, today, as the first recorded tax resister for conscience—a form of peacemaking well known in our modern world. He vigorously opposed the taxation of the church by King Richard I (“The Lionheart”). The king seized the church property in Hugh’s diocese, but when Hugh refused to back down and support the Crusade, the king eventually backed down.
Hugh contracted a severe illness on a trip to monasteries in France, dying before he returned home. The procession taking his body back to Lincoln saw many of the poor and the Jewish community lined up to pay their respects. They honored him as a defender and champion of their rights. St. Hugh was canonized twenty years after his death.
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Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers. This story originally appeared as a chapter in his first book Interfaith Heroes.