Hearing all this rhetoric about faith based this and faith based that and plans in the Bush administration to further erode the separation of church and state, the dangers of organized religion are becoming more acute to say the least. .In fact, if Bush is so concerned about those who support terrorism then he probably needs to scrutinize how right-wing Christians here in the United States have supported terrorists. More on thatbut first, below is some of my personal journey with Christianity – a religion in which I was raised. It takes one to know one!!!
Christians have much to atone for in their long and egregious history. This is particularly so in the European and United States international context that I want to address here. Have they done some good as well? Probably, but you’ve got to look at what the Christians have done with some skepticism before affirming that statement. This community is divergent at best.
There are a lot of interpretations of Jesus. I have mine as well. To me, the guy was a revolutionary and should be considered the first of the liberation theologians. He grew up in the Middle East, during a time of the stressful occupation of Rome. As a devout Jew he was obviously concerned about the corruption of his faith and of the Jewish leaders by the “pagan” Romans and their culture.
The Romans were skilled occupiers and doing what military occupiers do best – oppress and control the people socially and economically, grab whatever resources are available in the occupied land, and identify the elite in the occupied population as puppets who will serve Roman interests. (There are parallels, of course, to what the U.S. occupiers are doing now in Iraq.) The Romans, after all, selected the chief priest of the Temple in Jerusalem and other civic leaders, such as the infamous King Herod; the Romans were taking all the good farmland in the area; and they were constantly killing or oppressing Jews who opposed their rule.
No doubt the Romans, like any good occupier and likely with the complicity of the Jewish elite, were consistently using and abusing the poor as Jesus routinely made reference to the less fortunate. Not surprisingly, uprisings, or, as the U.S. refers to them in Iraq, insurrections against Roman rule were frequent. (Read The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception; Holy Blood, Holy Grail; or The Messianic Legacy by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh for more details on the historical Jesus.)
Most scholars concur that Jesus had no intention of starting a new religion. To do so would have been blasphemous against the Jewish faith. The historical task of creating Christianity was left to Paul whose credentials are mixed at best. Paul was named Saul before his conversion on the road to Damascus after the Romans had murdered Jesus. He was a Roman citizen, also Jewish and had never met Jesus. He had been persecuting his fellow Jews who opposed the occupation.
It is understandable, then, that the inner circle of Jesus’ followers, such as James, did not trust Paul. Nevertheless, James, who is often referred to as the brother of Jesus, and others rather cautiously taught Paul Jesus’ philosophy and then sent him to Turkey where he wrote letters back to Jerusalem about his work. Some contend that sending Paul to Turkey was an indication that he was not trusted, otherwise they would have kept him in Jerusalem to work in the heart of movement there. Paul was recalled, however, once it was understood what he was doing. There were also plans to assassinate him as described by Baigent and Leigh. (Read The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception for more details on Paul).
So what was Paul doing in Turkey? Well, he was creating a new religion, which was common practice at the time. The prerequisite conditions of a new religion required a virgin birth, resurrection and, importantly, there had to be a direct link to God before anyone would believe you had a religion worthy of merit. For some strange reason, we humans seem to want miracles then as now, and what’s even stranger, we are inclined to believe these miracles as fact. Paul obviously knew what he was doing. Anyway, the rest is history as they say.
To summarize, if you look at the historical Jesus he seemed to be concerned about the poor, about corrupt power, about loving your neighbors and about maintaining Jewish traditions and faith void of Roman influence – my simplistic summary. This, to me, was his revolutionary posture. It appears he chose not to side with those who cozied up to Roman power. He was not a sellout. Obviously, the Roman occupiers and the Jewish elite didn’t like this.
While there have been all kinds of books about the wonders and glory of Christianity (the music is nice after all), when it’s organized it can also be dangerous, extremely violent and oppressive. This is born out in history and impossible to recount here, but look at Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World and Battle for God by Karen Armstrong or Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics and the Western Psyche by Shadia Drury for an excellent account of Christian abuses and analysis; and, for more contemporary corruption by U. S. Christian conservatives look at Spiritual Warfare by Sara Diamond.
But, I have my own personal journey with Christianity apart from the documented historians and philosophers.
As a student at Emory University in Atlanta I was required to take a religion class. It was my introduction to the politics of religion. A church committee, I was taught, selected the books of the New Testament in 100 AD. Think about it – the committee was the scholarly elite in Europe at the time. They had a vested interest, likely in portraying Rome in a positive light, and selected books accordingly. Some books, like that of Thomas, were left out that disputed Paul’s version of the resurrection, virgin birth, etc. (read Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief: The Secret Book of Thomas and The Gnostic Gospels). And so the Bible is supposed to be the word of God? Well, it certainly appears to have its mortal and political twist.
In 325 the Roman Emperor Constantine even called for a gathering of church leaders to meet in Turkey – known as the first Synod of Niceae – where the decision was to be made by these “mere mortals” whether Jesus was the son of God or not. So a committee made this decision? Well, yes, and they decided, in their rather dubious infinite wisdom three hundred years after Jesus died, that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God. Then, at this meeting, they developed the Nicene Creed that goes like this “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, both visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of Godetc. etc.” and is recited by Christians today all over the world. This provided some clarity and unity, as the Emperor obviously wanted, for Christian leaders to conveniently sweep in and control the masses.
Then there’s Michelangelo. It’s a sad twist of history that he used his uncle and nephew as models for God and Jesus for his painting on the Sistine Chapel. By doing so, he created an unfortunate legacy of people throughout the world who think of God as a white male. This is the ultimate of white supremacy and insult. Jesus was, after all, described as dark skinned and woolly haired. Let’s have some honesty here. And God as human? I don’t think so.
Then I studied Latin American history where there is an abundance of historical accounts of European Catholic priests on board ships who would bless and Christianize the land before embarking from their ships. They were, then, “shocked” and “appalled” to find that the indigenous peoples of this new land were not Christians, even after having been blessed by the priests from afar no less. This could and probably should be considered a ploy – a justification for massacring, enslaving or condescendingly oppressing the native population that the Europeans and their U.S. descendants have always done, without abandon, in their occupied foreign lands.
In the 1970’s I lived in Singapore. In early 1973 I joined other international journalists for a tour of Vietnam during the war. In Singapore I had lost a baby after 7 months of an excruciating pregnancy where I was in bed or in the hospital most of the time. I wanted to explore adopting a Vietnamese child and visited three orphanages in Saigon. The children in the first two were relatively well cared for and the institutions were clean, even in spite of what were probably relatively limited resources. Christians did not head these orphanages.
Then I visited the third orphanage administered by a Catholic priest. I was utterly appalled. The children were filthy and groveling and crawling on dirty floors. Some of them were strapped in chairs outside. One child, the mixture of a Vietnamese and Black American, was blind and screaming. My colleague told me this Catholic priest was notorious throughout Saigon. His attitude was that it didn’t matter what happened here on earth because the rewards were to be found in heaven. This was, apparently, the priest’s justification for the abysmal treatment of these children. Not that all Christain orphanages are likely to be problemmatic or abusive, of course, but I’ve wondered since how often Christians utilize this rationale.
Later, I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Recall that in 1975, Mozambique and Angola had finally wrenched themselves from Portuguese colonial rule. As was usually the case, the United States sided with the colonizers, the Portuguese in this case, rather than supporting the Mozambican freedom fighters. The church was also complicit, of course. The Catholic Church in Mozambique sided with the Portuguese against the freedom movement. So for some time after 1975 the Mozambicans wisely placed restraints upon the Catholic Church, much to the chagrin of American Christians.
To undermine the newly formed government in Mozambique, the European apartheid “terrorists” in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were instrumental in creating, arming and funding the brutal Renamo to fight against the Mozambican Frelimo government. The Mozambican government was primarily socialist and you know what Christians would think about that! Rightwing U.S. Christians and anti-communists became associated with the support of Renamo.
The tactics of Renamo were notorious. They would often recruit their forces by kidnapping children from villages. To control these youth, Renamo leaders would, on occasion, force them back to their own villages to kill their parents and/or siblings. Occasionally these youth would escape the camps. Some say the soul is reflected in the eyes. Friends of mine spending time with these children told me the eyes of these kids were void of anything distinctly alive or emotive. This is what American right-wing Christians were supporting in Mozambique. There were parallels in Angola with the Christian-right, including Pat Robertson, of course, and anti-communist support of Jonas Savimbi, the infamous Angolan UNITA thug and terrorist who viciously fought against the freedom movement there.
In the late 1980’s I spent some time in the Philippines. The Philippines is another victim of a long history of European and United States colonial and military occupation and oppression. For 400 years the Philippines was occupied by Spain. Of course, the Spanish occupiers used their Christian ambassadors, Catholic priests, to control and “civilize” the masses. Priests fanned out throughout the Philippine islands. These early priests are legendary, in the Philippines, for their arrogant attitudes, pillaging and raping of the women.
The Filipino resistance to Spanish colonial rule was finally becoming productive in the late 1800’s. At this time Spain was devoting its resources to the Spanish-American war that was won by the Americans. As the United States forces landed in Manila Bay in 1898, the Filipinos erroneously thought the Americans were there to help them fight the Spanish. Not so! The Americans wanted the former Spanish colony for themselves. From 1898 to 1902 the Filipinos valiantly fought the American forces.
The human cost of the war was immense. Some scholars estimate one million Filipinos ultimately died in Philippine-American war. The US President William McKinley justified this brutality, however, saying that after praying to “Almighty God”, a message came to him that Americans were in the Philippines to “uplift and civilize and christianize” Filipinos. He was obviously not aware that the Filipinos had been “christianized” for 400 years by Spain. I’m sure the Filipinos would have rather done without this violent Christian “civilization”.
After 1902 the United States occupied the Philippines until after WWII and thus began the first major imperial venture of the United States outside its region. The U.S. military bases in the Philippines were retained, however.
In the mid 1980’s retired U.S. General John Singlaub, president of the World Anti-Communist League, led an aggressive and violent anti-communist campaign in the Philippines to counter the growing anti-US bases movement in the country. Countless leaders, including Christian pastors, working for the poor in the rural areas were labeled as communists and subject to harassment or summary execution. Like the Spanish use of Catholic priests, the U.S. evangelicals flooded the Philippines to bolster the U.S. image and likely to dilute the movement against the U.S. bases. So the Filipinos not only had to struggle with endless human rights abuses from the government and the U.S. supported Philippine paramilitary but also the arrogant, flagrant and well funded Christian evangelicals.
In 1989, I visited a refugee camp in Negros – the poorest island in the Philippines. The camp was filled with people who had been evacuated from the hinterlands by the Philippine government to root out the members of the New People’s Army. The NPA was engaged in armed struggle against the Philippine government and was a strong proponent of the Philippines ending the military bases agreement with the United States. This camp was the largest refugee community in the Philippines since WWII. Thousands of families lost everything. Children and the elderly were dying. I talked with a mother who angrily told me that American Christians were there selling Bibles. She said, “I don’t have enough money to feed my children, much less to purchase a Bible.”
In Negros, a German collegue and I had joined an international group in the dire task of exhuming the graves of suspected resisters (adults and children), that had been assassinated by the Philippine paramilitary, so an investigation could be pursued regarding this atrocity. Shortly after we happened upon a church in Dumaguete in Negros. An American evangelical was preaching. He warned the people that the rapture could come at any time. If, for example, you were on a plane and not “born again” and the pilot was, you would be left to suffer a dubious fate as the pilot would immediately be swept from the plane and sent to heaven. We left in disgust. U.S. evangelicals were creating all kinds of characteristic havoc in the Philippines. Was this meant to dull the senses from the anti-communist violence that saturated the countryside?
The above are some of my personal experiences internationally that I know can be echoed by other witnesses throughout the world. Our domestic Christian community also needs serius scrutiny The history of Christianity, organized or not, is fraught with tragedy yet in some instances kindness and compassion. Where’s the balance? I’m not sure.
There are people who call themselves Christians who do courageous work for the poor and who fight for justice and liberation. The United Church of Christ in the Philippines, for example, has routinely been in the forefront of the freedom movement. Countless liberation Catholic priests ware doing incredible work for the poor, working for land reform and an end to oppressive policies generally in Asia and Latin America. Christians played an instrumental role in the movement for abolition in the United States. The South African Council of Churches took profound and courageous stands against the apartheid state. In the 1900’s a Spanish Catholic priest was the founder of Mondragon in the Basque area, which is the most profound and successful cooperative movement in the world. The Catholic Maryknolls in the United States and elsewhere have done profound work for the poor and liberation efforts all over the world. The role of many of the U.S. Black churches and leaders in the freedom movement are legendary. To me, these are the real Christians and the list goes on and on.
While thousands of Christians are likely doing good work, I still say proceed with caution. History has shown that many Christians are inclined to easily side with the powerful elite against the people and to wreak havoc on indigenous believes and traditions that are often enforced by military and economic muscle. Greed and power are invariably at the core of it all. Can these folks be trusted? I’m not sure. I also ask, does the good and compassionate work of some Christians outweigh the historic and contemporary tragedy, death and destruction from other Christian behavior? I’d say the jury’s out on that one as well. Christians seem to wear many hats. Perhaps without the “real Christians”, briefly described above, there would be no check on the dark side of this religion.
HEATHER GRAY has produced “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.