Apologist Joel Furches corrects what he believes are a number of misconceptions about some of these historical events and explores what Christians should do about them
The sins of religion
If Christianity is true, one would expect it to be pure and above reproach. However, it is easy enough to find historical examples which, taken together, would suggest that Christianity is a brutal and tyrannical system, encouraging people to misbehave in unthinkable ways.
This would range from individuals committing atrocities motivated by the voice of God speaking in their heads, to religious leaders using their power and authority to abuse or take advantage of church members or, in some cases, regimes rising to power and committing acts of violence and war.
It is this latter with which we are concerned for the sake of this article.
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A historically literate person might find lesser known instances of religious evil, but the obvious example which is not far from the lips of any sceptic is the example of the Crusades and the Inquisition. The Crusades being an example of religious war fought in the name of the Christian Church and the Inquisition being an example of the Church committing atrocities on its native population. One pictures religious leaders and the rulers they empowered drenched in the blood of innocents with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.
How could one embrace a religion which would lead to or allow such events? Further, are these events which modern Christians ought to be defending in the first place?
Historical literacy: Crusades
Before the more theologically pertinent points are addressed, it is worth looking at the actual nature of these events versus their modern characterisation.
It is a historical error to expect that massive numbers of people were under attack or being murdered in these events, however movies or novelisations may disagree. Nor did these events span long, continual periods of mediaeval history. They were brief, intermittent events which came and went over about 350 years.
There is no doubt that much was wrong about these events, but there is also much exaggeration. The Crusades, for one thing, were a defensive war at the start, and many losses were suffered by the Western powers in their attempt to defend the territories they occupied prior to invasion. Not a single record exists of someone being burned at the stake for opposing the Crusades. Their goal was to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim invaders. These wars were a mixed bag, and far more often political than religious in nature.
If the Church sinned on this account, its sin was to not mount objections against the kings of the time carrying out these wars on political grounds. However, to object to the desires of the King was a dangerous prospect, and likely whatever blessings Church leaders gave were a matter of self-preservation than pious concern.
Historical literacy: the Inquisition
The Inquisition was performed to maintain social order. The state and the Church were still united as one, and to defy one was to rebel against the other and tear at the fabric of society. Death by execution was relatively rare. For sins against the Church, a person was usually simply banished. It was the sins against the state which were met with death. In this sense, these executions were more state executions than Church persecutions. These executions were carried out for crimes such as political insurrection, or even smearing plague-ridden blood on doorknobs across the town. This does not excuse such executions, but it does paint a more accurate historical picture.
In respect to accuracy, the Inquisition was a rare, intermediate event which did not commit the bloodbath so typically portrayed. Inquisitions came and went over a 350 year period, and by all available records killed an average of eight or nine people a year. Keep in mind, also, that’s an average of eight or nine across all of Europe and North Africa, which constitutes less than one person per country. Of course killing of innocents is always inexcusable, but so is exaggeration.
When the question is asked, one must wonder which Crusade and which Inquisition? The answer differs according to the era of history being referenced. Most of the religious burning at stakes, when it did occur, happened during the Inquisition of the 10th and 11th Centuries. The Waldensians, forerunners of the Reformed movement a few centuries later, were occasionally burned at the stake by the Catholic Church. Why? Because they denied the priesthood of the Papal system and argued, instead, for the priesthood of the individual believer. The Waldensians sensibly fled from areas under Papal rule and settled in an area they were less likely to be bothered.
From this brief history lesson, it’s apparent that the problem is not the truth or falsity of Christianity, but rather the leadership who used the Church as a way to gain power. When the Waldensians challenged the religious authority the Pope asserted, they were targeted for silencing, lest the Papal order lose its power over the people.
In this example, one sees two sects, both claiming to be Christian, in an ideological battle. Who is to say which represented the true Christianity: the ones doing the persecuting, or the ones being persecuted?
In the time period during which these acts were carried out, there was an uncouth political union between Church and state – something the Western world has sensibly learned to avoid over time. This was not unusual in history as a whole. From ancient Egypt, to Mesoamerica, to Rome, religions have found it expedient to ally themselves with the ruling powers, and the ruling powers enjoy the privilege of having laws and orders backed by divine decree. When the state and the Church are bedfellows, a good citizen must be a pious worshipper and vice versa.
This exact institution is seen in the pages of scripture, both Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament, the kings could be seen purchasing power from the priests, and even attempting to take the place of the priesthood. What is notable, of course, is that these alliances were roundly condemned by God in every instance. If one examines the law and the history of the Old Testament, whenever this unholy unity of Church and state occurred, God was quick to judge and tear it apart (a principle which holds true whether or not the stories themselves are to be believed).
In the New Testament, the state was no friend to the Church, with churches being hunted down and dismantled by both the Romans and Jews. This historical accident may not specifically demand that the Church and state remain separate, however Jesus himself gave precedent for the separation of Church and state in his most famous response concerning taxation: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”
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Moreover, when face to face with his Roman executioner, Jesus proclaimed boldly: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The theological hoops that the mediaeval priesthood had to navigate in order to argue that the decrees of kings were the orders of God did not compound with the actual teaching of the Bible, and were simply an example of powerful men taking advantage of their position to pursue more power.
More notable is that, historically, Christianity is far more often the persecuted than the persecutor. The lesson here is that ambitious men will seek institutions which lend them power, regardless of the actual teachings of such institutions. However, it is worthy of note that the Reformed tradition eventually arose and declawed the Papacy. The abuses of power were challenged by others who were, perhaps, more true to the teachings of Christ in regards to humility and peace.
This may seem to argue that Catholicism is the evil dictatorship in the story – and perhaps it is. At least, this version of it. One hesitates to suggest that because of this specific period in geopolitical history an entire sect of the Christian Church is illegitimate. That question is the subject of another debate.
What it does suggest, however, is that the Church has a balancing mechanism wherein when one sect abuses its power, another rises to challenge such abuses and correct the course. And this demonstrates the potency of Jesus’ teachings: that the religiously persecuted will wield them as weapons of conscience rather than weapons of war, and frequently dethrone the persecutor in the end.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.