Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Discussing the Pope's condemnation of religious violence, Christopher Hitchens writes:

[Y]ou do not have to be a Muslim to think that for the bishop of Rome to cite this is the most perfect hypocrisy. There would have been no established Byzantine or Roman Christianity if the faith had not been spread and maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion.

Some readers of Christopher Hitchens' article might make the mistake of regarding this as a controversial opinion about the history of Christianity. In fact there is no matter of opinion here: this is a sheer falsehood, a statement which would no reading, no matter how charitable, could reconcile with the relevant centuries of Christian history. (It is perhaps not a lie, simply because Hitchens suffers from a weird anti-religious derangement and really believes what he is saying. This attitude was more common two or three generations ago than it is now, when it has become somewhat exotic.) Hitchens' utterances are to the history of religion as the idea of a flat earth is to geography.

For three centuries in early Christian history, Christianity was oppressed by the Roman Empire, and Christians were subject to intermittent persecutions-- thrown to the lions etc.-- yet the religion nonetheless spread, eventually constituting probably about 10% of the Roman Empire's population. In 313 the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and afterwards there was a succession of Christian emperors and Christianity became a favored religion in the Roman Empire, but paganism and other faiths were still tolerated. "Established Roman and Byzantine Christianity" already existed at this time-- there were bishops and deacons and councils and all the rest of it-- before Christianity had ever had the state's authority on its side. Early Christianity spread by voluntary conversion, not by coercion, as it continues to spread in modern times; today there may be 80 million Christians in China, for example.

Much later, in certain places, the faith was "maintained and enforced by... violence and coercion and cruelty." There are a few historical instances of forced conversions to Christianity, e.g. Spanish Jews. Persecution of heretics is much more common. This was often the act of secular rulers rather than church authorities per se, but the Catholic Church was complicit. The Spanish Inquisition devastated Spanish intellectual life for centuries, yet did so-- this underlines the horror of it-- with remarkably little bloodshed: those killed by the Inquisition may have numbered 5,000 in the Inquisition's entire operation, far fewer than were killed at the command of Leon Trotsky during his brief spell in power.

In Hitchens we see a continuation of a black legend about the Catholic Middle Ages which has an interesting history of its own. Certainly by the late Middle Ages the practices of the Catholic Church were very much at odds with the ethos that shines through in the Bible. When the printing press appeared and empowered the common people to read books, including the Bible, the cognitive dissonance was heightened and exploded in religious revolution. Protestant nations faced a military threat from the Catholic powers which left a deep and enduring impression on their cultural psyche. The Enlightenment gave a secular spin to the Protestant animus against Catholicism. Later this anti-Catholicism was adopted and sharpened by Marxism.

The crimes of the Christian churches have been so utterly dwarfed by the crimes of the secular churches of modernity-- liberalism (which in its 19th-century heyday was part of a worldview that also fueled European imperialism in Africa); communism; and fascism-- that to decry the Catholic Church for "every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion" sounds quaint, eccentric, antiquarian. But to be amused by Hitchens' anachronistic notions is not a luxury we can afford. Anti-religious zeal has characterized too many of history's mass killers for us to assume that it has now become harmless. When anti-religious ranters like Hitchens are caught red-handed peddling hoary old falsehoods, people of good will must set the record straight.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that there is one reading under which Hitchens' statement might be regarded as correct. He says that "the faith [was] spread and maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion," but he does not say that the violence and cruelty and coercion were practiced by Christians. In fact the savage (though somewhat intermittent) persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire may have been instrumental in spreading the faith. As Tertullian remarked, "blood is the seed of the church," meaning that Christian martyrdoms inspired conversions. I don't think this is what Hitchens meant, of course.

UPDATE: Nato comments that "almost all wars, pogroms and other 'state' actions are usually one step removed from ecclesiastic authority." Actually the Church tended to oppose pogroms, if perhaps only because landowning bishops liked to receive Jews' taxes, and they also tended to oppose wars between orthodox Christian rulers (though the popes did instigate the Crusades): the "peace of God" movement in the 10th century helped to establish peace among the European proto-nobility (though they were more like thugs before the ethos of chivalry partly civilized them) and thus to lay the foundations for a millennium of European economic growth. But Nato's claim is more reconcilable with the historical record than Hitchens', partly because of its vagueness.


  • A major difference between the Catholic Church and other Abahamic faiths is the division of spiritual and temporal authority - a difference to which many attribute the rise of constitutional liberalism and the ancestor to our modern separation of church and state. Because there was a constant tension between the power of the Church and that of the various nobles, third parties could survive in the cracks. Islam hasn't had such a traditional division so the actions of one are also describable as actions of the other. In Christian history, however, almost all wars, pogroms and other "state" actions are usually one step removed from ecclesiastic authority. When conquering and converting the Saxons to Christianity, Charlemagne was an explicitly temporal authority and not an agent of the Church. But by conquest did he found and expand the Holy Roman Empire.

    All that said, of course Christianity, like many other faiths, grew throughout the fairly tolerant Roman Empire until it (unlike the others) supplanted the original Roman pantheon by fiat. Declared, of course, by temporal authority.

    To say that Christianity has behaved more savagely than other faiths is ahistorical, but neither do I feel that one can confidently laud the unbloodied hands of one who wears gloves habitually.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:12 PM  

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