2000 Years of Christian History: Blessing or Curse?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 9, 2000
|Hear ye, hear ye! This Court is now in session.|
The baliff will read the charges:
In the case of "The People of the World versus the Christian Church" , the defendant, Christianity, is charged with:
How does the defendant plead?
Not guilty, your Honor, of course.
Very well, we will now hear opening arguments. Madame Prosecutor, are you ready to proceed?
Yes, your Honor.
Thank you, your Honor... It is with great honor that I stand before you today, and with no little joy. A great day of reckoning has finally arrived. In these opening days of this new millennium, Christianity Triumphant, largest single religious group in the entire world, sits in the dock accused of all manner of heinious deeds. It is the end of an era-- and, we hope, the start of a new one: a new era based more on freedom and equity, compassion and justice, than that which has come before.
The record is clear: over the past 2000 years, untold suffering and hardship has been unleashed upon men, women, and children the world over in the name of Christianity.
It's more than ironic, it is perverse, that a religion which so openly proclaims Absolute Love as its basis should, over the course of history, spawn so much unmitigated hatred and violence.
These darker aspects of Christianity are apparent right from its beginnings:
Take Jesus, for instance, usually portrayed as such a kind and loving teacher, so that even non-Christians often have that picture of him: Look at Jesus so tender and mild, we are told, he'd wear a smile of meakness and humility even as the crown of thorns was placed upon his head...
Does this myth jibe with reality? Hardly-- listen to his own words. Here's what he told his disciples:
If that's not a threat, than what is it? If Jesus and his God-- his Christian movement-- have so little regard for those who dare to question them-- than why should his followers act any differently?
As Christianity developed over time, such harsh attitudes continued to grow stronger. The early Christians sowed a garden planted nearly entirely with the seeds of fear. Building upon the "fear of God" so prevalent in the Bible, the early "Church Fathers" like Tertullian and St. John Chrysostum paraded fear as an important virtue-- Fear was their only God, it seemed-- so important to them in maintaining control over their growing religious movement-- even more important after 387 when the Emperor Theodosius declares Christianity as the sole, official religion of his Empire-- forbidding the practice of other faiths on the pain of imprisonment, torture, and death.
Christianity was declared the state religion, with Jesus Christ as its titular head. Of course, while Christ wasn't around any more, his "succesors" in Constantinople were glad to sit on the throne in his name. Thus, the meak and mild "Prince of Peace" became Commander-in-Chief of the armies and navies of Byzantium-- and so, the Christianity which fueled this mad dash for power is guilty by implication in all of the wars, slaveries, and injustices of the Empire-- of which there were plenty...
Throughout Western history, popes and bishops have fought with kings for power, influence, prestige, and wealth. Spanish conquistadores slaughtered native peoples in droves in order to "Christianize" the lands of the New World. When Columbus came to the shores of the Americas in 1492, there were approximately 80 million native inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. About 50 years later, only about 10 million remained...
This trend continued down through the centuries. "Christian" slavetraders plundered Africa and stole away millions for a life of slavery and despair in America... In the Thirty Years War, hundreds of thousands were killed acorss Europe in what amounted to a civil war within Christian ranks... Then there were the battles of the Reformation, the Calvinist theocracy in Geneva, witch-burings left (at least) 300,000 women dead across Europe (and that's the conservative estimate; other scholars put the figure of those killed during the "burning times" in the millions)... And there were heretic burnings... colonizaion... corrupt state churches... militarism... all the way down to Hitler's movement to build a Nazi "German Christian" movement within his "Third Reuch"...
I object, your Honor, this is totally inflamatory-- the very idea of bringing in Hitler! The atrocities of the Third Reich have nothing to do with Christianity!
I disagree, your Honor. They have everything to do with it. Of all the evil spawn which the Christian Church has birthed-- colonialism, racism, sexism and mysoginy-- in our own day, homophobia (remember the demonstrators across the street from the funeral of Matthew Shepard-- the signs they carried: "God hates fags. Jesus hates queers."?)-- all of these evil ilk have their festering ground in the original sin of Christianity, as it were-- and that sin is anti-semitism.
The objection is overruled. You may proceed...
Thank you, your Honor. I would like to introduce into evidence now this little book, published in 1543, by one Christian minister named Martin Luther. The book is called On the Jews and Their Lies. Listen to just a few excerpts:
The Jews, Lurther wrote, "are a brood of vipers... Behold this miserable, blind, and senseless people... Their... arrogance is as solid as an iron mountain... Learn from this, dear Christian, what you are doing if you let the blind Jew to miselead you... Be on guard against [them], knowing that wherever they have their synogogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God are men are practiced most maliciously... They are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury...
Accordingly... their synagogues must be burned down, and all who are able toss sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire... If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews' blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country... like mad dogs.
Was it any surprise, then, when Adolf Hitler called Luther "the greatest German reformer"? Or when the first physical violence against the Jews-- Kristallnacht-- came on the night of November 9 and 10 in the year1938-- November 10 is, after all, the birthday of Martin Luther? So a leading German Protestant clergyman exulted on that night: "On November 10, 1938, on Luther's birthday, the synagogues are [finally] buring in Germany..."
The ideology which has fostered such attitudes-- the ideology of Christianity-- has continued on through today, with little alteration. Christianity is, at its core, exclusivist and narrow by nature-- and it was Jesus himself who made it that way. Didn't he declare: "No one can come through the Father except through the Son." Except through him. That's the meaning behind those John 3:16 t-shirts that so many Christians like to wear, and the signs they carry at sporting events, and all that blather: We have the One True Faith. And in its name, all things are permissable. Get out of our way-- or else..."
adies and gentlemen of the jury, history has seen too clearly just what that "or else" has meant. I implore you: Find Christianity guilty of these terrible crimes against humankind, so that there is, at least, a chance for our race to redeem itself and redeem the age in which we are now living.
And with that, the Prosecution rests.
The Defense may now make its statement...
Thank you, your Honor.
We have listened now for too long as the Prosecution has laid out this whole laundry list of terrible, unspeakable deeds-- a compedium, as it were, of all the bad things that have happened in Western Civilization over the past 2000 years, all laid, were are to believe, at the feet of Christianity, all to be blamed on the teachings of that simple rabbi of Nazareth.
Now, I am not going to argue that individual Christians have not commited heinious deeds. Can I say that, in the millennia that have come and gone, no Christian has ever perverted his or her faith, bent it towards doing evil deeds? Of course not! What faith-- what ideology-- what religion-- what school of philosophy-- culd ever claim such purity? None! None whatsoever!
And are we to implicate Jesus, and the early founders of the Christian movement-- indeed, implicate all Christians everywhere, in all times-- due to a sort of reverse of the Nuremberg reasoning. Not this time: "My superiors told me to do it". But rather-- "I did it, and my superiors are to blame"? What utter, irrational nonesense!
At times like this, as we face a new century, we look back at the blood-stained pages of history, and we want someone to blame for it all. We want a scapegoat top explain away all the evil our world has seen. So, the hue and cry arises: "Blame Christianity! Blame Christianity! It seems that everything's gone wrong, since Christianity came along!"
But is that what history truly shows? I think not.
If we are to consider the words of Jesus which the prosecution has offered-- stripped of their context, without background or explanation, then we must listen to these words he spoke as well:
"You have learnt how it was said, 'Eye for an eye and tooth for tooth.' Buty I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also... You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who prsecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven... Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless htose who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly."
Are these the words of a tyrant, a power-hungry megalomaniac? Not at all! Scholars have studied the Gospel account at length, of course; every word is accounted for. The theme that emerges first is the coming of the realm of God. The theme that is second is our need to love one another. Third is concern for the poor and downtrodden. Fourth is the need to do justice. This, ladies and gentlemen, and no later additions, is the real heart of Christianity: caring, compassion, justice, and love...
And by their fruits you shall know them, we have been taught. And what fruits has Christianity borne though the years?
First of all, it has given us the gift of human dignity. Both Aristotle and Plato, those highly-esteemed exemplars of the earlir order, held that most human beings are by nature docile and slavish, and suitable only for slavery. Athens was a slave state! Let's put Aristotle and Plato on trial for that, too, if we're going to put Christian slaveowners in the docket! "Dignitas" was only for the few, the elite, in the Classical viewpoint.
Christianity, on the other hand, says that inherent worth and dignity are universal-- dignity exists in all human beings, for all human beings are loved by their Creator, made in their Creator's image, and destined for eternal bliss and happiness with God.
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," The Jewish law taught. This principle was refined and amplified in the Christian worldview, and became: "He who loveth God, loveth his brother also." And his sister. As Immanuel Kant said: "Act so that you treath humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only." True Christianity is about caring for one another.
And we act through freedom, through human liberty-- another gift of the spirit glorified in the Christian tradition: for Jew and Christian alike, human liberty is the absolutely fundamental fact of God's revelation to us human ones.
Christianity is a timeless revelation, and so the responsibility for acting as a Christian lies, primarily, in the conscience--deep inside every individual Christian, in each and every generation. There is no Christianity apart from that which dwells within the heart of each individual believer. Therefore, it is specious to try "Christianity" in the abstract for this or that crime of history. Rather, each individual Christian, embued with freedom and liberty to choose, must stand accountable when their day of judgment comes.
The ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing of conscience, either. It is a concept that comes into Western philosphy only from Christian hands. From Thomas Aquinas... down to C.S. Lewis... and Martin Luther King, Jr...
If Christianity is to be blamed for all the mayhem debited to its name (even indirectly), then in the name of fairness, it must be credited with the integrity, sacrificial spirit, and courage that have resulted from those profound concepts of dignity, freedom, liberty, conscience, and personhood over the past 2000 years.
And what are some of these blessings that the Christian spirit have added to our world? Innuerable, indeed...
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ,that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, lberty, and the pursuit of happiness..."
Thse are concepts we have because of Christianity. They are carved on the heart of our nation and our freedom.
"I have a dream..." Martin Luther King, Jr. decalred. Don't forget: he was a Christian minister, as were most of the leaders of the early Civil Rights Movement. It's fair to say that without the black Christian church in the South the "Second American Revolution" would not have happened-- at least not peacefully...
"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus taught. And how glorious the cloud of witness of Christian peacemakers down through history: Dr. King... Dorothy Day... Mother Theresa of Calcutta... Pope John XXIII... Daniel and Philip Berrigan...
And Christian scientists... and teachers... and scholars... and artists... and ordinary women and men doing the best they can to live out the ideals of the faith they profess and the God they worship.
The prosecution has presented quite a rogues gallery of executioners and inquisitors, witch burners and heretic hunters. And even if we cede some validity to that picture of the tragedies commited in Christianity name-- even the most casual observer would have to admit that such a picture was incomplete and skewed and told only half the story.
For as modern poet has written:
In the long, tortuous history of humankind, we would all agree that there has been great evil-- but let us never overlook the great good that human hands-- and often Christian hands, have prodced, as well.
Let us place the blame for evil where it belongs: in the cold and tortured hearts of men and women who have turned their backs on their God.
It most certainly does not belong at at the footsteps of that gentle, holy man of Nazareth, nor with the ideals that he taught, nor with the movement thathas been founded in his name.
The Defense rests, your honor.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury-- all of you-- you have heard the case set out by both sides, against Christianity and in its favor. And now, it is up to all of you to delibrate and decide these issues, deep within your hearts and minds.
So, how say you: Is Christianity a blessing to history, or a curse? Is it guilty or innocent of the crimes with which it has been charged.
That is the question you are all asked to ponder in your own souls.