I have spoken to many people whose experience of Christian community has been deeply saddening. Often, I find myself apologising on behalf of my family – the Church – for what someone has gone through, and for the times the Church has failed to live up to the life of love and moral courage of Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament.
That said, many others have encountered Christian communities whose committed love has surpassed anything their hearts dared to dream of. These have been profoundly healing communities that they earnestly describe as ‘home’.
EVIL COMMITTED IN THE NAME OF CHRISTIANITY
When something is capable of producing immense evil, our temptation may be to reject it straightaway. But the fact that something can produce immense evil often signifies that it can also produce immense good. From this we should conclude not that the thing in question is bad, but rather that it is powerful, and that we should do everything we can to use that power for good.
A child’s parent can be the most nurturing, enabling and joy-giving force in that child’s life, for example. But precisely by virtue of the powerful connection shared between parent and child, the parent can also be a life-destroying force for darkness. Likewise, splitting the atom brought us a robust alternative fuel, but the very same technology also brought the ability to destroy huge numbers of lives. Where power excels, so does the potential to bless or to curse.
Perhaps the fact that we have often used forms of Christianity for evil purposes tells us more about the state of our hearts than it does about the source of the power. So what does the mixed legacy of the Christian community tell us about God or Jesus?
In the children’s game Pass the Parcel, you have a gift wrapped up in a box, then wrapped again with additional layers. Within each layer is a smaller, token gift; usually a sweet. Imagine a child thinking they had reached the central gift when they really hadn’t. They tear off a layer and think they have been given a useless box and a single sweet. They might throw the box away without ever realising that something far more precious was inside.
If we raise an objection to Christianity, we need to be careful that we aren’t just targeting the outer wrapping. That stuff can be put to one side while we continue our pursuit of the central gift. We can acknowledge that some Christians have behaved shamefully without throwing away the whole package.
The central gift of the Christian message has never been the claim that Christians will be morally perfect. The real gift at the centre is the claim that Jesus of Nazareth willingly went to his death for our sakes and victoriously rose from the dead. The sad actions of some Christians down the centuries cannot cast doubt on Christ’s first-century actions.
"WHAT DOES THE MIXED LEGACY OF THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY TELL US ABOUT GOD OR JESUS?"
IS RELIGION A FORM OF SLAVERY?
Some people aren’t satisfied with distinguishing between the bad deeds of some Christians, on one hand, and the essentially good gift of Christianity, on the other. Some particularly vocal critics, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, claim that Christianity is bad to its core.
Hitchens considered religion to be so bad that it poisons everything it touches. He found the Christian description of reality abhorrent; nightmarish, even. He said that if it were true, it would be like a ‘celestial North Korea’, in which we are under constant surveillance. God would be a tyrannical authority ever watching us and ever subjecting us to his rules.
Should we agree? How we answer will depend on how we have come to view God’s love.
There are some situations in which we willingly loosen the boundaries of our autonomy and allow others into our ‘private’ world. My wife Jo has a very high degree of ‘surveillance’ over me. Not only is she around me during most of my waking and sleeping hours, but when she observes me she can see me like no one else can. The subtle tones in my comments, the feelings I try to conceal; none of this is hidden to her. And in relationship with her, I have also subjected myself to rules: rules not to be unfaithful to her and not to quit when things get hard.
Despite her knowledge of me and the ‘constraints’ I’m under, my relationship with her is incredibly life-giving. The rules of marriage free us from worry and fill us with confidence that our relationship will be lasting. And when I consider the extent to which Jo knows me – how exposed my true self is before her – I don’t long to regain my ‘privacy’.
Quite the opposite: knowing that I am loved by someone who knows what I’m really like frees me to stop competing to be loved and just enjoy it.
If God knows me perfectly and yet loves me perfectly, then I haven’t found a tyrant; I’ve found what my heart cries out for – someone whose love isn’t drawn to me because of the outer performance I put on, nor driven from me because of the inner mess I hide away. Someone whose love for me is unconditional.
If anything would help ‘anti-theists’ like Hitchens appraise the claims of Christ and the merit of Christian evidences with more openness, it would surely be an experience of love like this. Certainly in my own story, the faithful love of Christian friends dislodged the barriers I had erected towards God. They helped show me why the claims of Christ are beautiful and good, and only then did I long to know if they were also true.
"The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties, but through every human heart." Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Mahatma Gandhi
"Dear Sir, I am." GK Chesterton’s letter to The Times, responding to the question, ‘What’s wrong with the world today?’
Additional reporting by Martin Smith, tutors’ assistant at the OCCA.
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