“In June of 1995 the Chicago Tribune reported that Pope John Paul II had urged the Roman Catholic Church to seize the ‘particularly propitious’ occasion of the new millennium to recognize ‘the dark side of its history.’ … he asked, ‘How can one remain silent about the many forms of violence perpetrated in the name of the faith—wars of religion, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons?’” So begins a book that must be read by every Christian who loves Jesus and hungers to discern the will of God. Helen Ellerbe tells us in her 1996 expose, The Dark Side of Christian History, that “My intention is to offer, not a complete picture of Christian history, but only the side which hurt so many and did such damage to spirituality. It is in no way intended to diminish the beautiful work that countless Christian men and women have done to truly help others. And it is certainly not intended as a defense of or tribute to any other religion.”
When I first read Ellerbe’s book, soon after the start of this century, it helped to precipitate the worst marital crisis of my life. If you doubt that Spirit has a sense of humor, please note that when I was in my twenties I was prompted to fall in love with and marry a man who had attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through college, who for years would go to Mass twice a week, and who to this day loves Catholicism with everything in him. So when it was no longer possible for me to enter a church that had a life-size, full-color plaster Jesus bleeding on a cross above its altar, he fought me for the salvation of my soul. He couldn’t win, but I love him all the more for his having cared so much! The title of this post comes from an epithet that I would fling at him whenever he tried yet again to persuade me to come to Mass. When Christianity was co-opted by Roman Emperors and warped into an instrument of bloody control, it lost whatever franchise it might have had from God. And no amount of Papal contrition can ever win that back again.
What I will share with you here is meant to complete the messages of the past two weeks. Knowing as we do now that what we experience in a dim way as human consciousness is the only thing that exists, that it is the creative force that continuously manifests this universe, and that at its highest love-based vibration it is the Godhead, we can see what terrible harm has been done by Christianity in its fostering of fear in its adherents and its refusal to make the teachings of Jesus preeminent. All of that would be bad enough! But for most of the past two thousand years, Christianity has also been almost unbelievably barbaric, making terror and pain near-sacraments, and often considering human life to be of little value. It is only the passage of time that has spared you and me the same ghastly fates that were endured by millions who revered Jesus Christ just as we revere Him! If it were not for their personal devotion to the Lord, and their conviction that the religion was deeply enmired in the errors that now are plain to see, many of those whose lives the Church destroyed might simply have recanted and been spared. What strikes me most as I re-read this book is the incredible devotion of so many people to professing and living the Lord’s Gospel truths even as they were being torn with pincers, broken on the rack, and eventually burned alive. Oh, to have even a tenth of their love, their fortitude, and their courage!
Helen Ellerbe’s well-written and scholarly book can be read for free online. In only 188 large-print pages, she makes a compelling case that Christianity’s greatest sin against humanity might well be the fact that it has warped the very meaning of what it is to be human. She says, “Ignoring the dark side of Christian history perpetuates the idea that oppression and atrocity are the inevitable results of an inherently evil or savage human nature. There have been… peaceful cultures and civilizations, however, which functioned without oppressive hierarchical structures. It is clearly not human nature that causes people to hurt one another. People of gentler cultures share the same human nature as we of Western civilization; it is our beliefs that differ. Tolerant and more peaceful cultures have respected both masculine and feminine faces of God, both heavenly and earthly representations of divinity. It is the limited belief in a singular supremacy and only one face of God that has resulted in tyranny and brutality.” And she notes that, “The Christian church has left a legacy, a world view, that permeates every aspect of Western society, both secular and religious. It is a legacy that fosters sexism, racism, the intolerance of difference, and the desecration of the natural environment. The Church, throughout much of its history, has demonstrated a disregard for human freedom, dignity, and self-determination. It has attempted to control, contain and confine spirituality, the relationship between an individual and God. As a result, Christianity has helped to create a society in which people are alienated not only from each other but also from the divine.”
In Ellerbe’s learned view, all of Western history was shaped in awful ways by the power of the Christian Church. “As it took over leadership in Europe and the Roman Empire collapsed, the Church all but wiped out education, technology, science, medicine, history, art and commerce. The Church amassed enormous wealth as the rest of society languished in the dark ages. When dramatic social changes after the turn of the millennium brought an end to the isolation of the era, the Church fought to maintain its supremacy and control. It rallied an increasingly dissident society against perceived enemies, instigating attacks upon Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Jews. When these crusades failed to subdue dissent, the Church turned its force against European society itself, launching a brutal assault upon southern France and instituting the Inquisition.”
Then came the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. “Only during the Reformation did the populace of Europe adopt more than a veneer of Christianity. The Reformation terrified people with threats of the devil and witchcraft. The common perception that the physical world was imbued with God’s presence and with magic was replaced during the Reformation with a new belief that divine assistance was no longer possible. … It was a three hundred year holocaust against all who dared believe in divine assistance and magic that finally secured the conversion of Europe to … Christianity.” In Ellerbe’s view, the distant God of monumental power that Roman Christianity invented in order to establish and maintain its control of society became the model for modern human hierarchical dominance. And every Christian position on any topic was calculated primarily to enhance a rigid control of human society that is contrary to humankind’s essentially spiritual nature.
It was my initial reading of Ellerbe’s book that made me first understand that Christianity is deliberately antithetical to the Gospel teachings of Jesus on love, forgiveness, and spiritual growth.
My college major meant that my focus had long been on the first five hundred years of Christianity. So Ellerbe’s illumination of the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, and the Reformation was a revelation for me! Let’s look here at three summary conclusions very relevant to our present day that are the product of Helen Ellerbe’s work:
- Throughout Christian history, Jesus has been used but not studied. Fear and suffering were the religion’s means of control, so the Lord’s suffering to redeem us from God’s perfectly justifiable wrath was all that was taught. I have long been struck by the fact that nearly all Christians are amazingly ignorant of the Lord’s Gospel words. Now I understand that His teachings are irrelevant and frankly inconvenient to Christianity as it still is practiced.
- The worst aspects of modern society are the result of Christianity’s deliberate design. Christianity’s hierarchical nature during most of its history and its strict division and ranking of people by sex, race, age, class, and occupation, together with our modern materialist sense that if a God exists, He is separate from and even indifferent to the world, are all rooted in the Christian hierarchical and power-based model.
- Our awful tolerance of brutality and war is a product of longstanding Christian practices. It has been estimated that more than twenty-five million innocent people have suffered death by torture and massacre at the hands of people who professed to be ardent followers of Jesus acting in obedience to God. And if you can read that sentence without distress, then you have made Helen Ellerbe’s point.
I feel compelled to say here, as Ellerbe also says, that in spite of it all there have been many good Christians who have done some wonderful things. But of course, then we must also add that if Christianity had always concentrated on sharing the Gospel teachings of Jesus and never been seduced by worldly goals, then perhaps the many more love-based works of His followers as they lived His Gospel teachings could long since have brought the kingdom of God on earth.
Ellerbe sums up her discoveries by saying, “The dark side of Christian history has been and continues to be about the domination and control of spirituality and human freedom… Christians built an organization that from its inception encouraged not freedom and self-determination, but obedience and conformity. To that end, any means were justified. Grounded in the belief in a singular, authoritarian and punishing God, … Christians created a church that demanded singular authority and punished those who disobeyed. During the Dark Ages, civilization collapsed as the Church took control of education, science, medicine, technology and the arts. Crusaders marched into the Middle East killing and destroying in the name of the one Christian God. The Inquisition established a precedent in the Middle Ages for the systematic policing and terrorization of society. The Protestant and Catholic Counter Reformation sparked wars where Christians slaughtered other Christians, each convinced that theirs was the one and only true path… In 1785 Thomas Jefferson wrote: ‘Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support error and roguery all over the earth.’” Amen, my precious friend.