Thursday, August 12, 2010

Christians are not very nice people

I agree. There is, however, a comprehensive misunderstanding about what the church is about. It is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners. I know plenty of non-religious people with higher moral standards than some Christians. In fact many people from other religions have manifestly higher moral standards than many Christians. It is what you would expect. Muslims frequently live their lives trying to be good enough for Allah. Buddhists and Hindus live lives so as to raise themselves to a higher plane. On the other hand true Christians are people who have realized that they can never be good enough for God.

Christopher Hitchens (who I'm sorry to say is dying from esophageal cancer) wrote a well-known book called God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He gives as examples the troubles in Belfast, Beirut, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. "Religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred," he writes. You have to agree with this. Christian nations institutionalized imperialism, the Inquisition, and the transatlantic slave trade. The totalitarian and militaristic Japanese empire grew out of a culture deeply influenced by Shintoism and Buddhism, Islam is the basis of much of today's terrorism and Hindu nationalists carry out atrocities against both Muslims and Christians in India.

However, such a one-sided view is unfair. Communist Russia, China and Cambodia did everything they could to stamp out all organized religion, yet the Marxists murdered more of their own citizens than any religious organization in history. It seems that this says something about the human condition rather than about any particular religion or philosophy. In 1793 when Madame Roland went to the guillotine on trumped-up charges in the aftermath of the French Revolution. she bowed to the Statue of Liberty in the Place de la Revolution as said, "Freedom, what crimes are committed in your name."

When considered in numerical terms, the Spanish Inquisition was responsible for fewer than 5000 deaths, Joseph Stalin was responsible for more than 20 million, Mao Zedong for 70 million and Pol Pot, more than one and a half million. Adolf Hitler was responsible for perhaps 42 million deaths. Although Germany was ostensibly a Christian country, Hitler despised Christianity and invented his own religion based on blood and race.

Here Hitchens has a problem. Just who is a Christian. Many who call themselves Christians are only nominally so. They perhaps belong to an established church, yet only darken its doors for Christenings, weddings and funerals - the hatch, match and dispatch brigade. Even among those who attend church, perhaps a majority around the world only do so for superstitious reasons. This is often the case in Roman Catholic countries where catechism and confession is the price they pay for belonging. The Irish republic was one such place until the story about the abuse of children by priests became widely publicised, and many South American states are still priest-ridden, with few true believers.

On the other hand there are many who are fanatical about their faith and among these are the most obnoxious individuals; overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive and harsh. Jesus called such people Pharisees. Such people may be fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving and understanding as their supposed leader was. Not much of "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," about them.

There are many sinners in the New Testament - prostitutes, renegades, sabbath-breakers, collaborators and adulterers - but it is not these whom Jesus condemns, in fact he welcomes them; rather it is the judgemental and condemning Pharisees that he calls names: "You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You neglect justice and the love of God. You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry and you yourselves will not lift a finger to help them." In fact Jesus was only echoing the voice of the prophets before him (Read Isaiah 58:2-7).

It is a fact that people use religion as a lever to gain power of others. In history this has been the role of state churches, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Anglican, and we can see it today with tele-evangelists; and certainly with Ayatollahs. Many atrocities committed in the name of religion were atrocities committed by power hungry men.

The truth is that God is only reached by giving up power. Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all."

Most pre-christian societies were honor/shame based societies. They might have a strict moral code. They might not mug old ladies, but they would not do so because such an act would demean their honor. In contrast a Christian would not mug an old lady because of the harm it would do the old lady and her family - not self-regarding but other-regarding in its motive.

Christians from northern Europe supported the Crusades because they though they were protecting God's honor. Much of how the secular world criticises Christian history stems from the self criticism of Christians.

However bad historical Christianity may have been because it got its wires crossed over what it was supposed to be, there are some historical achievements that Christians should be given credit for. The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade was achieved by Christian activist of the Clapham sect - most famous of them being William Wilberforce, and later the abolition of New world Slavery can be laid at the feet of Christian activists like John Woolman. When the abolitionists were finally at the point of abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, planters in the colonies foretold that emancipation would cost investors enormous sums of money. The Abolitionists agreed to compensate the slave owners for every freed slave. British people paid a sum equivalent to have the government's budget for 1833.

The Civil Rights movement of the mid-Twentieth Century owes its power to Dr King's invoking God's moral law. He did not say, "Truth is relative and everyone is free to determine what is right and wrong for them." Rather he invoked the prophet Amos, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream."

The undoing of apartheid in South Africa might have resulted in a blood bath had not Christian leaders (however flawed) like Desmond Tutu not set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The end of communism in Europe had its genesis in Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko who was murdered by the Polish secret police. At his funeral 250,000 turned up. Christians marched past the secret police headquarters carrying a banner which read "We forgive".

Or we could think of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in World War II.

There has been injustice done in the name of Christ, but there are many examples of others throughout history who have been true to the spirit of Christ. And they have done good.

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