Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Reflections on the Dark Side of Christian History

CHF's recent day conference on the "The Dark Side of Christian History," was attended by over 80 participants. The conference was organised by Stephen Tuck (Pembroke College, Oxford), and here he offers his own review and reflections on the problem of evil in the history of the church.

I once spent an unsettling evening with a former head of the Ku Klux Klan. The meeting was part of my research for a book on the American civil rights movement - a subject that I'd chosen
to study, I now realise, because it was full of Christian heroes of social justice. What was unsettling about that evening was not so much meeting the Klansman (I was prepared for that), but the discovery that he had been a deacon of his local Baptist church at the time.

For Christopher Hitchens in his influential recent book, God is Not Great, such Christian villains throughout history are proof positive that Christianity is not only wrong, it is dangerous. (If you haven't read the book, the subtitle, How religion poisons everything, gives the gist). Hitchens trots through history, in characteristically entertaining fashion, lambasting Christian atrocity after atrocity. It's a deeply flawed book, rehashing an old argument. Some of the history is bogus, and many of the extrapolations are tenuous. Every Christian hero in Hitchens' telling is really a humanist (even Rev. Martin Luther King); every atheist villain is really religious (even
Stalin). Hitchens' main section on the civil rights movement fails to mention the prayer meetings, the (sadly, belated) condemnation of segregation by the mainstream churches, or the fact that if anybody switched sides because of their Christian faith, it was segregationists who moved to support civil rights, rather than vice versa.

But - and it's a big but - there were also plenty of racists who remained convinced that God was on their side. The Klan donated embossed bibles to local churches. And across history, there has been a dark side of Christian activity: missionaries spreading the gospel of empire, evangelical factions killing Catholics, 'Amazing Grace' composer John Newton continuing as a slave trader post-conversion. One could go on. Or as a colleague said to me, 'just a day conference?'

So how to respond?

One way is to 'reach for Wilberforce,' and list the positive influence of remarkable Christians. Or we can do a reverse Hitchens - any good done in the past is true Christianity, any evil done is because people didn't live Christianly enough. There is truth in both approaches. But on their own they ignore a very real question that some have, and a gospel-blocking presumption that most have. They also pass up a chance to learn lessons as believers, and build bridges with sceptics.

At the recent Christianity and History forum, we tried to consider the darker side of the Christian past openly and honestly. For precedent, we have the bible, which does not exactly shy away from the failings of God's people. Christian historians spoke on the subjects of Early Modern violence, the Holocaust, Apartheid, and the roots of past complaints about Christian (mis)behaviour.

The forum brought to light Christians who failed (or were late) to stand for what's good, or
sometimes advocated what's evil; through fear, neglect, apathy, wrong theology, or simply failing to let biblical standards challenge society's norms. Oh that they had lived differently, so that their good works then might earn more of a hearing for the gospel now. (And oh that we might today...)

Clearly, then, there is much to confess. Quite what that might mean in practice is a harder question, not least for church leaders. But for individuals, a starting point is to admit this past
in conversation - and, we will find, it opens up conversation. Having done so, we can begin to set the record straight. Hitchens' book carries power because so many already believe what it says about Christian atrocity after atrocity -- but such beliefs are propaganda rather than fact. We can go on about the dark side of Christian history, but not on and on.

Moreover, recognising the dark side of Christian history reminds us of the dark side of all history. The church should have done far more to oppose the holocaust and apartheid. But so should everyone. People may find solace in films like Schindler's List and heroes like Nelson Mandela. But we forget that many of Hitler's executioners were everyday folk seeking a pay increase, and many of apartheid's supporters were mothers who just wanted better opportunities for their children. People like us. What's striking is how often those who have
condemned Christianity loudest in the past have done so by showing how far it falls short of Christian ideals, rather than by appealing to other codes of behaviour. (Often, it seems, such critics have felt let down personally). What's striking, too, is that Christian wrongdoing has so often been corrected by reformers from within the Church, rather than critics from outside. In other words, we need God's standards to understand evil, and God's teaching to correct it. In sum, we need a God who is good - who won't tolerate the dark side of Christian action. We can startle people that there is One who hates the evil done in His name far more than Hitchens' does. And we need a God who is merciful - all people, not least Christians, need forgiveness. In other words, reflecting on the past, on human behaviour, should take us to the Creator and the Cross.