Even before 9/11, as a conscientious Christian, I had always tried to be accepting of the negative views of the faith caused by its harsher acts throughout history. I have been very aware of the failings of Christ’s followers and the damage we have wrought throughout the centuries, and tried not to defend the indefensible. Post 9/11, as well, I have heard even more often the assertion that, essentially, most of the violence and wars in the world have been, and are, caused by religion. For the most part, I have, unreflectingly, taken that to be true. At times, I have been embarrassed and ashamed, not of Christ, but of those of us who claim to be his followers. I know there are others who have felt, and still feel, the same. I do not wish to dismiss any of the horrible things that Christians have said and done through the years; however, I would like to share a few things I was reminded of recently that have caused me to examine my willingness to take on unfettered guilt.
The majority of my reevaluation has been because of reading a book by David Bently Hart. I had previously read another of his books, that I will probably write about someday, and had had recommended to me as well the title, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. With the popularity of books such as Christopher Hitchens’, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, I thought it might help me articulate a response to those who ask me my opinion, especially as a pastor, about such arguments. I was more than amply supplied with material for such a response from Hart’s work. As one instance, Hart notes the type of assertion I alluded to above – that religion is the cause of most of the violence in the world. He recalls the answer of Peter Watson, author of a history of invention, to a question in an interview by the New York Times:
When asked by the New York Times to name humanity’s worst invention, [Watson] blandly replied, ‘Without question, ethical monotheism…This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.”
Hart does a masterful job of pointing out exactly how incorrect Watson is on numerous points; but he also brings up one of those facts that make me ask why I hadn’t seen it before. He writes:
“The broader, even more general, and more pertinent truth is that men kill…Polytheists, monotheists, and atheists kill – indeed, this last class is especially prolifically homicidal, if the twentieth century is to be consulted.” (p.12)
Hart, himself, cites Hitler as one of the immediate examples who underscore his assertion about the destruction wrought by the non-religious. Yet, Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University, has recently published a book that is even more specific on this point. In a review of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, for the Seattle Times, Douglas Smith, noting Snyder’s research, writes, “Between 1933 and 1945, 14 million civilians and noncombatant soldiers were murdered in the greatest frenzy of mass violence ever before seen.” Even more horrifying is the fact that, as well as specific ethnic groups, “…most [victims] were women, children and the aged.” Smith’s review contends that the time frame should include Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Having lived in China, I would add the 10’s of millions killed and starved to death in the name of advancing communism in Moa’s China – the Great Leap Forward of the 1950’s and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s being the prime examples. With all of these atrocities set before us, even granting all of the atrocities committed in the name of God, it is patently absurd to blame even the “majority” of violence and war on religion.
Of course, it’s no great claim to fame to say, “Well, at least we aren’t the worst.” What Hart does even more brilliantly is make the argument for the astonishing goodness and humanity that has swept the entire Western world, at least, because of the influence of the followers of Christ. In one paragraph towards the end of the book, he alludes to just the skimpiest of highlights of this Christian influence. Referring to the subtitle of Hitchens’ book, How Religion Poisons Everything, Hart questions:
Does he really mean precisely everything? Would that apply, then – confining ourselves just to things Christian – to ancient and medieval hospitals, leper asylums, orphanages, almshouses and hostels? To the golden rule, ‘Love thine enemies,’ ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ prophetic admonitions against oppressing the poor, and commands to feed and clothe and comfort those in need? To the music of Palestrina and Bach, Michelangelo’s Pieta, ‘ah! bright wings,’ San Marco’s mosaics, the Bible of Amiens, and all that gorgeous blue stained glass at Chartres? To the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, and the contemporary efforts to liberate…slaves? And so on, and so on? Surely it cannot be the case that, if only purged of the toxin of faith, these things would be even better than they are; were it not for faith, it seems fairly obvious, most of them would have no existence at all.” (p.219-220)
Perhaps the most profound argument Hart makes for the benefit that Christ has brought to earth, through his followers, is the following:
It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal. In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses. To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored,is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred into human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection – resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence – is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality. And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom.”
This truth certainly doesn’t wipe away the stains of blood shed, heretically, in the name of Christ; but I do find myself thinking of our past with a lot less guilt. On balance, it seems as though far more good has been done in the name of Christ, than harm.
It is comforting to note that the truth can’t be hidden forever; it always has a way of surfacing. Enjoy these blogs Doug. Always keen to know what you have been ruminating about. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Ann. That you are reading these at all means a lot.