By: Clare Bruce
Itâs hard to deny that Christianity has contributed great good around the world, in the centuries since Jesus walked the earth.
But the faith also carries a very embarrassing list of ugly episodes in its historyâepisodes that believers have to acknowledge, if theyâre going to defend their faith properly. Things like the Crusades, the Medieval Inquisitions, the churchâs failure to stand up to Hitler, their support of slavery, hoarding of wealth and oppression of the poor, are just some of the sins of the faithful.
The team at the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) often receive emails from irate media watchers about this laundry list of evils. Thatâs why theyâve decided to tackle it head-on, in a documentary called For the Love of God.
The new film â now showing in over 100 cinema screenings that have sold over 8,000 tickets so far â pulls no punches in addressing some of the Christian churchâs worst moments. The trailer begins with the searing honesty of theologian Professor John Lennox, saying he is âutterly ashamedâ of some of the sins committed in the name of Christianity; and CPX director John Dickson describing how the crusaders âslaughtered men, women and childrenâ.
Aptly, the film is subtitled, How the Church is Better and Worse Than you Ever Imagined.
CPXâs Justine Toh and Simon Smart say itâs important for modern Christians to know the ugly parts of their faithâs history, not just the glowing parts.
âItâs like [asking] âwhere did I come fromâ and then finding out your parents got up to all sorts of horrible things, so itâs like a loss of innocence,â says Justine.
âBut I think it can only be a good loss of innocence, because your eyes are opened and you really understand what your responsibility is to live up to the faithârather than to tread in the footsteps of those before you who did not do such a good job.â
No Pretty Way to Explain the Crusades
Simon and Justine touch on a number of dark points in Christian history, including the Crusades of medieval periodâ religious wars in which Christians from the Latin church were recruited into a bloody, murderous attack against Muslims.
âThereâs a lot of reasons why they happened,â Justine says. âBut the first Crusade started off because Pope Urban was appealed to by Christians in the East who were under attack by Muslim forces. And he pitched it as âWestern Christians need to go and save our Eastern brothers and sistersâ.
âThere is a co-opting of peoplesâ violence for a religious cause.â
âThe people who went on crusade werenât theologians, werenât well read, but they could fight. It was a way of saying âuse your skills in order to serve the church and by doing so you gain automatic entry to heaven, you can atone for your sinsâ. There is a co-opting of peoplesâ violence for a religious cause.
âWe look at that today and say thatâs crazy, but itâs also a bit arrogant of us to impose our 21st century perspective on people of the past.â
Itâs a period in history that reflects none of what Jesus taught, says Simon: âitâs very hard to match up with the person [Jesus] who called you to love your enemies and pray for people who persecute you and in no way picked up the sword,â he says. âAnd people are right to say âhow is this following Christ?â And youâd have to say, ânot very wellâ.â
The Churchâs Failure to Stand Up to Hitler
The pair also talk about the churchâs silence during the Holocaust, which Simon describes as a âterrible story of complicity, and capitulationââas well as the rare, courageous voices of dissent.
âItâs not a great chapter in church history,â he says. âA lot of the leaders, some of the theologians, were enthusiastic supporters, literally waving the flag in support of the Nazis, and they sort of found a way to twist their theology such that it would elevate the status of the Nazi call.
âBut there were some very prominent, very important people who resisted that. The story we tell is that of Dietrich Bonhoefferâ¦who was almost alone in really criticising this program he saw unfolding, and saw it as complete idolatry.
âHe was executed by the Nazis two weeks before the concentration camp he was in was liberated. He stands out as someone who, because of their faith was able to risk everything to stand up for what he believed in.â
The True Heart of Christianity and the Good itâs Achieved
The documentary also covers off painful topics like the Witch Hunts, and the religious conflict known as the âTroublesâ in Northern Irelandâbut also many honourable stories, about martyrs and missionaries, the work of Mother Theresa, and peaceful Christian protest through the centuries. The good news for Christianity is that, despite its failures, itâs contributed a lot of great good to the world, too.
For the Love of God spends a lot of time talking about how Christian faith has shaped Western societyâs views on the value of about human life.
âGenerally we could just go into the street right now and ask people âis human life valuableâ and everybody is going to say yes,â says Justine. âThat is a remarkable achievement. Thatâs not the case for a lot of human history and other places in the world today.
âThe Bible teaches that all people are made in the image of God. That means everybody has dignity and worth, that isnât linked to their intellectual capacity or their ability to do certain things or to be useful. âThatâs the basis for human rights. Weâre not saying Christianity invented human rights, but it creates the fertile filed from which human rights can grow.â
âThe Bible teaches that all people are made in the image of Godâ¦ thatâs the basis for human rights.â
Christian values have been the foundation for many functions in society that we now take for granted, like charity, public education, literacy, hospitals, and care for the poor.
âChristianity was famous, particularly in those early centuries, for caring for those who need it because of this bestowed worth,â said Simon. âItâs made the world a much more compassionate, just place. Thatâs a good story that has run throughout history.â
Justine adds that Christian faith has, throughout history, encouraged people to lay down their prejudices: âThereâs a pulling of people out of their tribal divisions and only looking to their ownâwhich was very much a feature of the ancient world.â
A series of screenings of the cinema-length cut is now being rolled out across Australia, with each screening followed by a Q&A session with the filmmakers. On July 1st, a series of four 50-minute episodes, featuring even more material, will be released digitally. For full details, as well as curriculum material for schools and small groups, see the betterandworse.film website from July 1.
Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.
About the Author: Clare Bruce is a digital journalist for the broadcast industry.
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