My Pastor friend Valdo has drawn attention on his blog to disturbing anti-religious incidents occurring the other side of the Italo-Swiss border, about a hundred miles south of his Vaudois parish near the Franco-Swiss border.
Prominent church buildings belonging to the historic pre-reformation Waldensian community in the Piedmont, in Northern Italy have lately been daubed with threatening slogans. Before Protestantism became a reforming force in Europe, prophetic communities of bible based radical Christians emerged in the Val d’Aosta, as they did also in the Czech speaking part of Central Europe.
Both were persecuted by the established church of the time. Nevertheless the church of the Valdensians survived in their native land, and elsewhere somewhat better than their Hussite and Anabaptist spiritual cousins, a minority, whose very existence in the fifteen century made them heralds of the spiritual and social upheaval that was to take place in Europe.
In this era of ecumenical reconciliation the shadow of the persecutor falls no longer from Rome but from far-right factions of Italian politics, trying to re-set the political and religious agenda. The current bone of contention is the Italy’s recent abortion law, which extremists seek to repeal. Waldensian acceptance of the need for this law has attracted hostility. Or at least this is the alibi.
The decline of the birth-rate in Italy promises future work-force shortages that will damage the national economy. The drift of people from South to North is leading to de-population problems in remoter southern rural areas. This in turn has lead to a policy of encouraging immigration, from Africa, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, to shore up the workforce and re-populate the villages. Poor migrants may be glad of the invitation to settle in rural areas, but a significant proportion of them end up moving North to the big cities.
As a result, the rate of the ‘cosmopolitanisation’ of Italy has soared in the past decade, and parties of the far right see this as a threat which undermines traditional ways of life. For Waldensians in their mountain border valleys, hospitality, tolerance and justice are treasured values - because of their history of persecution. It’s no wonder they are targeted, scapegoated by those who want to roll back the clock to another era.
Like Muslims and Jews, who are also under attack, Waldensians are ‘different’. There has been deep change in Italian family and social life, which has lead to many people turning their backs on raising large families let alone raising them as Christian. These are challenging times for everyone, not least for those who accept as a Christian vocation the necessity of change, and strive to make it meaningful and worthwhile. As Cardinal Newman said : “To be good means having to change. To be holy means having to change often.”