Who can I turn to when nobody needs me?
My heart wants to know, and so I must go where destiny leads me.
With no star to guide me, and no one beside me,
I’ll go on my way, and after the day,
The darkness will hide me.
And maybe tomorrow I’ll find what I’m after.
I’ll throw off my sorrow.
Beg, steal, or borrow my share of laughter.
– Anthony Newley (1931-1999) & Leslie Bricusse (1931-2021), from “Who Can I Turn To?” (1965)
After learning that plants are sentient and loving, while scientists see people as soulless automatons who lack even the ability to make our own decisions, we can hardly wait to learn now how our dominant religion sees human beings. This faith-based view may be even more important, since it might well determine the extent to which we ever will be able to become spiritual beings. But the history of all of humanity’s religions as we have discovered and then recounted it here has been appalling. Our entire religious history since all of humankind once lived in caves has been full of nothing but fear-based, human-made gods that were created by us in our own image. And many of our gods have been the stuff of nightmares.
The problem with our ever being able to finally make complete sense of Christian history is that history is written by its winners. Which is why you and I have always been taught that the Romans are the heroes, and not the villains of the Christian story, and that the Roman Emperor Constantine brought “stability” to Christianity, and he did not much harm Jesus’s message. But my own view, gleaned from my college and post-college study of the religion, is that when Constantine presided over the First Council of Nicaea in the Year 325 CE, in which in fact he invented the modern Christian religion, is one that is far less flattering. Constantine kept nothing of the early Christian movement that had prevailed for the previous three hundred years, and he kept almost nothing of what Jesus had taught. And it is Constantine’s fear-based ideas about humanity’s unworthiness, and Jesus’s need to sacrifice Himself on the cross for humankind’s sins, that remain the core of the Christian religion to this day.
I am by no means the only one who finds the history of the Christian religion to be horrifying. No less a light than Pope John Paul II was cited in a book that I consider to be essential reading for everyone who wants to understand Christianity’s views of humankind, especially since those views have shaped our whole Western culture to this day. And that last is an essential point! Western civilization is built on Christianity, and much more so than most people now realize. And Christianity, in turn, is built not on the love-based teachings of Jesus, but on Constantine’s iron will to rule, which from its founding made his religion something cruel and dark. As you will shortly see.
So now the long-overdue reckoning begins. And Saint John Paul II is a wise and good being. It is fitting that he should begin it for us. “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.’ … (Pope John Paul II) 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 who hungers to understand this religion that now forms the entire basis of Western culture. The historian 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 Helen Ellerbe’s book, soon after the start of this century, it helped to precipitate the worst marital crisis of my life. If you ever doubt that God has a sense of humor, you should know that my treasured husband of more than fifty years attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through college, and for much of his life he went to Mass twice a week. 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, my husband fought me for the salvation of my soul. He couldn’t win, but I love him all the more for his having tried so hard. It took us years, but we learned to build a marriage that can encompass such tremendous religious differences, and can stretch to easily embrace a more mutually tolerant kind of love. Now my husband even sometimes asks me afterlife questions….
But it remains my firm opinion, an opinion that even he now accepts, that when Christianity was co-opted by Roman Emperors and warped into an instrument of bloody control, it lost whatever franchise it ever might have had from God. And no amount of Papal contrition ever can win that franchise back again. What strikes me most profoundly as I re-read Helen Ellerbe’s well-written and very scholarly book is the amazing devotion of so many innocent 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 by the Christian church. Oh, to ever have even a tenth of their love, their fortitude, and their spiritual courage! In just 221 large-print pages, Ellerbe makes such 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!
(The emphasis in the following paragraph is all my own, since here Ellerbe gets to the point of our whole inquiry. I should note, too, that when I first took these extensive quotations from The Dark Side of Christian History, the book was available on a free website that is now closed. But I believe it to be still in the public domain, and therefore I have used all these quotations by permission.)
Helen Ellerbe 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. But that is emphatically not true! It is very important to emphasize the fact that (t)here have been… peaceful cultures and civilizations, …, 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.” Well, I guess she pretty much answers our question, doesn’t she? It clearly is Helen Ellerbe’s learned view that in a state of nature, we are as peaceful and loving as are the peaceful and loving plants around us.
It is so important that we never forget that the Christian Church that we are dealing with here has remained throughout its history the same one that the Emperor Constantine designed as his fear-based means of control in the year 325 CE. And in Ellerbe’s learned view, all of Western history was shaped in awful ways by the power of this Roman 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.”
And then came the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. And repeatedly as I read Ellerby’s book, I realize that a Christianity that had all along been living the teachings of Jesus on love and forgiveness never could have done any of this! Not any of it! This was all Roman Christian barbarity, which may be why the European nations never accepted it as more than a superficial set of ideas. “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 Helen 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 Helen Ellerbe’s masterwork 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 just the first five hundred years of Christianity, so Ellerbe’s illumination of the period of the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, and the Reformation was a revelation for me! Let’s look here at three of her summary conclusions that are very relevant to our question at hand:
* Throughout Christian history, Jesus has been used, but He has never been much studied. Fear and suffering are Christianity’s means of control, so the Lord’s suffering to redeem us from the Christian God’s perfectly justifiable wrath, and from our well-earned punishment for our sins are all that has ever been extensively taught. I have long been struck by the fact that all the Christians that I ever have known have been amazingly ignorant of the Lord’s Gospel teachings. Now I can see that Jesus’s teachings are irrelevant to the religion, and they are actually inconvenient to Roman Christianity as the religion still is practiced.
*.All the worst aspects of modern society are the result of Christianity’s deliberate design. Christianity’s hierarchical nature during its Roman history, and its strict division and ranking of people by sex, race, age, class, and occupation, together with our modern science-driven, atheistic-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 Western cultural tolerance of brutality is a product of Christian religious teachings and 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, and who believed that they were acting in obedience to the Christian 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 wonderful things. But of course, I also personally feel the need to add that if Christianity had always from the day of Jesus’s Resurrection simply concentrated on sharing His Gospel teachings over all the earth, and if it never had taken that awful fourth-century Roman detour into the religion that still is practiced to this day, then perhaps the love-based works of Jesus’s followers as they continued to share and live His Gospel teachings over the past nearly two thousand years could long since have brought the kingdom of God on earth. My obsession remains my dream with Jesus of what might have been.
Helen 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.
So, in summary, the view of humankind that Christianity and the Western culture it has built gives to us is dishearteningly similar to the scientific view. Both scientific experts and Christian clergy have long seen people as essentially animals, venal and cruel, lacking in both wisdom and morality, and utterly lacking in common sense, without even the nobler tendencies toward love and mutual support that we have been surprised to find in the silent green plants around us. But, are things really so hopeless? Where else can we turn? What, perhaps, might the genuine God’s opinion be?
With you I could learn to.With you, what a new day.
But who can I turn to If you turn away?
With you, I could learn to.
With you, what a new day!
But who can I turn to If you turn away?
– Anthony Newley (1931-1999) & Leslie Bricusse (1931-2021), from “Who Can I Turn To?” (1965)