When confronted with historical, horrific acts by Christians in the name of Jehovah and Jesus, today’s faithful frequently point out that civilization in general was harsher, more violent, and uneducated than now. Their argument is that previous mayhem was a misinterpretation of the faith, and that today’s Christians have developed beyond these appalling practices. Christianity qua Christianity today is not responsible for Christianity yesterday, so it is simply an unfair criticism to draw so uncomplimentary a connection.
They think, apparently, that they are more truly Christians than their earlier co-religionists, since Christians now consider witch burning and slavery to be immoral, unchristian acts. Their religion, therefore, is blameless; using earlier misconduct as a criticism today is thus uncalled for and unfair. Most honest Christians know they might have made the same egregious mistakes in those long ago years, but I’ve one Christian friend who maintains that she and her sect would not have acted the way Christians did then. Needless to say, I regard that assertion to be a claim with more certainty than insight.
Clearly, I consider the basic claim (“we didn’t do those things, they did”) to be a weak argument when the reference is to Christian behavior during the Inquisition or even further back. But I have been surprised to hear it used to distance today’s Christians from misdeeds of relatively recent vintage. One outstanding instance is discriminatory treatment of African-Americans modern enough for my own parents to have been silent supporters—or more distressing, so contemporary as to describe prejudice against blacks by persons my own age.
It is as if anything more ancient than, say, last week can be cast aside as irrelevant. Christianity has left a trail of immoral behavior in its wake, at each stage able with a straight face to deny previous cruelty, as if mere passage of time justifies letting Christianity off the hook.
That trail from widespread ill treatment toward more moral behavior (the “long arc of justice” of Theodore Parker in 1853, used by Martin Luther King in 1965) is being laid down even today. I’ve no doubt in a few years Christians will look back on their widespread, insensitive treatment of gays with the same desertion of accountability. As with slavery, as Michael Shermer has pointed out, churches resist improvement until change becomes inevitable, then they see the light and profess to have been leaders all along. Or—and this is my point—they decide that earlier churchly misbehavior only misinterpreted what the Bible teaches Christians to be.
Perhaps, of course, misinterpretation does plays a role, but what Christians studiously avoid is meaningful challenge to the religion itself, particularly to the foolishness and even evil of its Bible. So while vehemently and haughtily claiming the high road in morality, Christians carefully sidestep the wide range of cruelty their Bible upholds as godly behavior. By letting Christianity itself off the hook, the same old process of being a force against ethics (in its broad sense) will continue on its repetitive course. In our present day among many Christians, the vicious notions in Leviticus still outweigh most believers’ common good will and kindness.
Christians have great capacity for overlooking Biblical references to slavery, to selling daughters and killing sons, to cruel massacres at Jehovah’s behest, and other callous acts. Ah, but let me not omit the most horrific Biblical evil of all—everlasting torment for those who honestly find the bizarre, mistranslated stories unbelievable. Moreover, this unspeakably abusive maltreatment was promulgated by none other than the “gentle” Jesus himself. But if it seems strange that these unethical elements of Christianity can be so casually overlooked, it is no weirder than the empty, 1984ish phrases of “Jesus loves you” and “God is love.” The kind of love exhibited by the Jesus and Jehovah of the Bible toward their children would among mere mortals be called child abuse.
In the Western world, at any rate, public morality accelerated markedly in what is called the Enlightenment. (Islam has not been subjected to a similar strong, humanizing pressure . . . and shows it.) It comprised new ideas in “rights,” in ideas of government, in science; it questioned and defeated many notions of miracles, superstition, slavery, and the divine rights of kings. These advances came not from religion, but in spite of religion. During and following that period the morality of Christianity became less severe and insensitive.
But to do so, Christians had to wear blinders regarding their holy book, for they themselves became increasingly more humane than their jealous, loathsome gods. At each point along that hard-won progress in human morality, one could rightfully have said, “The Christian moral code is inhumane. Surely we can design something better.” And, with little doubt, at each point the insight would have been seen as misguided and even blasphemous. The pretense had to be maintained, whatever the cost in mental integrity and inhuman punishments as long as possible.
Slowly, then, as a result of philosophy and the scientific method, Christianity today has come far from Christianity of yesteryear. What should cause Christians massive embarrassment is that to a large extent religious authorities, with acquiescence and support of the common folk, actually opposed these advances, many of which they can now presume to champion.
What changed in this religion that claims the Bible to be the word of God? It seems God himself was waiting for the Enlightenment to modify the sense of archaic texts. Funny, in ancient times God had ancient understandings. In medieval times, God had medieval understandings. In modern times, God has modern understandings. This is, I remind you, an omniscient creator of the universe. Did he not see the Enlightenment and science coming? What wonderful advances still await us that he might tip us off to?
OK, we can let Christians off the hook a bit since all corners of humanity were harsher in antiquity than now; the behavior of humankind has come a long way. But the point here is that lessons from divinity didn’t help people be more moral, more understanding, more caring than their background of worldly beliefs and practices. The God of the Hebrews was actually as cruel as the surrounding world.
So it is that one would hardly recognize the Christianity of pre-Enlightenment if compared to the local Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic congregation. (Perhaps Paul just got it wrong when he wrote “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.”) My Christian friends and family are less Christian in its earlier form and far more humanist than they know.
The Christianity of today is less severe and more loving because the humanism of the Enlightenment has happily found its way, at least partially, into the churches. To some degree, Christians have been saved from their religion, even if schizophrenic mind twists are necessary to achieve that. Who knows? If the Enlightenment continues to do its work, the churches of Jesus may eventually back their way into humanism, free of the superstitious, inhumane leftovers from ancient minds.