The Critics of Christ
April 11, 2000
columnist Richard Cohen scolds the arrogance of
certain common attitudes, which he sums up as My way is the best
way. My country is the best country. My religion is the true
religion. Having implicitly condemned Jesus Christ as arrogant, he
omits, for some reason, the attitude that My people is the Chosen
Well, when you profess a religion,
arent you saying you believe it to be the true religion? Why else
would you adhere to it?
In The Spectator of
London, another Jewish writer, Samuel Brittan, makes a more general
assault on religion and Christianity in particular in an
essay titled bluntly Religion Is Bad for You. He begins with
this curious observation: I cannot help noticing how in the operas
of Verdi the religious characters are nearly always the most punitive and
vengeful. The world of Verdis operas is not exactly a
microcosm of the real world, and even at that Mr. Brittan offers only two
examples: Aida and Don Carlos. Hows
that for a scientific sampling?
An anthropologist might as well
argue: The Italians are an extremely violent people always
stabbing each other. I cannot help noticing that in the operas of Verdi ...
At that point he would be drowned out by laughter.
Brittan cites the usual jejune
examples the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Irish troubles.
He even uses Christs figurative saying I came not to send
peace, but a sword as if it were a call to violence never
mind his injunction to turn the other cheek and his warning that he who
lives by the sword will die by the sword.
Yes, there have been violent episodes
in Christian history, which, after all, spans two millennia. But Christian
culture has always honored its martyrs far above its warriors. It takes a
lot of careful editing to reduce the Christian era to one of nonstop
Consider the infamous Dark
Ages from the fall of the Roman Empire to the high Middle
Ages. During this period, Christianity gradually spread over Europe and
quietly eliminated and mitigated most of the everyday barbarisms of the
Classical world: abortion, infanticide, slavery, pederasty, divorce,
crucifixion (once a common punishment for petty crimes).
Some of these
practices have lately made a comeback in the name of
progress, but the fact remains that the so-called Dark Ages
were an era of unparalleled moral reform. Christianity raised the moral
standards of a continent; we may, if we choose, congratulate ourselves on
lowering those standards again, but to speak as if Christianitys
chief historical effect had been to increase violence and cruelty is sheer
nonsense and malicious nonsense at that.
Under the influence of Christ over
these millennia, countless people have lived pious lives that didnt
make headlines or history. Even their vices have
been tempered by shame at falling short of Christs precept and
example. Any Catholic who has repeatedly confessed the same sins, only to
fall again repeatedly, knows how ineradicable human frailty is. We would
be much worse without Christianity; but we wouldnt know it.
People who give Christianity no credit
for improving civilization nevertheless blame it for all the evils it failed
to eradicate. To hear its critics, youd think it had invented torture,
persecution, and other survivals from the pre-Christian world.
This inconsistency becomes amusing
when the critics profess shock at the bad popes.
Notoriously licentious popes like Alexander VI would have created no
scandal in a pagan world.
What pagan ruler was ever disgraced
for taking mistresses and favoring his bastard sons? None. Such behavior
was entirely routine before Christianity set new standards. Does anyone
call Julius Caesar a hypocrite for owning slaves, or a mass murderer for
conquering foreign countries? On the contrary, such pagans are still
judged by the standards of their times and honored as heroes. We credit
them with making history, and the Cohens and Brittans
dont point to the corpses, widows, and orphans they left in their
wake as proof of the rottenness of paganism, let alone of the danger of
letting paganism return.
Christian hypocrisy is bad enough. But
lets not overlook hypocrisy among the critics of Christianity.
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