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The Critics of Christ

April 11, 2000

The 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 People.”

Well, when you profess a religion, aren’t 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 Verdi’s operas is not exactly a microcosm of the real world, and even at that Mr. Brittan offers only two examples: Aida and Don Carlos. How’s 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 Christ’s 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 violence.

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).

[Breaker quote: Bad 
popes, and all that]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 Christianity’s 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 didn’t make headlines — or “history.” Even their vices have been tempered by shame at falling short of Christ’s 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 wouldn’t 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, you’d 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 don’t 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 let’s not overlook hypocrisy among the critics of Christianity.

Joseph Sobran

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