Book Reviews

A Passionate Cry for Human Dignity

I have just finished reading a remarkably perceptive book called The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe. This is simply a book that everyone must sit down and read. Alice Walker in her review of this book has observed: 'At a time when the so called 'religious right' asserts that Christian values will save society from its rampant sins, the ordinary citizen should know exactly how the Christian Church has attempted 'to save' societies in the past. It is a grim lesson, but one that is imperative to absorb. Doing so could save lives'.

In a lucid, objective and accessible style, Helen Ellerbe presents some of the long-hidden shameful secrets of organized patriarchal religion. There is much in this book that does bear out the stigma of a dark side: the role of Crusades, Inquisition, Witch-hunts etc. in Church history, a knowledge of which is essential for a complete picture of the cultural evolution of Western civilization. By denying evil we do harm. By denying darkness we obscure the light. Over a period of more than two millennia, the Christian Church has oppressed and brutalized millions of individuals in an attempt to control and contain spirituality. 'The Dark Side of Christian History' reveals in full detail the tragedies, sorrows and injustices inflicted upon humanity by the Church. Helen Ellerbe's expose is a compelling and passionate cry for human dignity and spiritual freedom.

During the dark Middle 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 Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation sparked wars where Christians slaughtered other Christians, each convinced that theirs was the one and only true path. And the Holocaust of the witch-hunts plumbed the depths of horror as it eradicated countless women and men as well as the belief in earth-based divinity. In 1785, the future American President 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'.

In June 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'. In a confidential letter to Cardinals in 1994 which was leaked to the Italian Press, Pope John Paul II asked the question: 'How one can remain silent about the many forms of violence perpetuated in the name of our faith wars of religion, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons?'

It is one of the known facts of history that orthodox Christianity originally represented but one of many sets of early Christian beliefs. With the passage of time, these orthodox Christians came to wield immense political power in the Roman Empire. By cleverly adapting their Christianity to appeal to the Roman Government, they were able to win unprecedented authority and privilege. Their Church became known as 'The Church'. This political victory in the field of religion enabled them to enforce conformity to their practices. In doing so, the Church consistently chose tenets and ideologies that best supported its control over the individual and society. It let loose a process of terror and persecution among those who did not conform to the tenets and ideology of the Church.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, the Church took over temporal and spiritual leadership in Europe. Several distinguished historians starting from Edward Gibbon in the 18th century have categorically stated that the Church all but wiped out education, technology, science, medicine, history, art and commerce. The Church amassed enormous wealth even as the rest of society continued to languish in the dark ages. When dramatic social changes took place after 1000 AD, the Church fought to maintain its supremacy and control. It organized and rallied an increasingly dissident society against its imagined or perceived enemies, instigating attacks upon Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jews. When all these military crusades failed to put down dissent, the Church turned its might against European Society itself, launching a brutal attack upon France and instituting the Inquisition.

There has been no more organized effort by a religion to control people and contain their spirituality than a Christian Inquisition. Developed with the Church's own legal framework, the Inquisition attempted to terrify people into obedience. As the Inquisitor Francisco Pena declared in 1578: 'We must remember that the main purpose of the trial and execution is not to save the soul of the accused but to achieve the public good and put fear into others'. The Inquisition took countless human lives in Europe and around the world as it followed in the wake of missionaries. And along with the tyranny of the Inquisition, Churchmen also brought religious justification for the commercial practice of slavery.

Thus the crusades and even the early centuries of the Inquisition did little to teach people a true understanding of orthodox Christianity. On the other hand, it was the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-Reformation in the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century that accomplished this. Only during the Reformation did the populace of Europe adopt more than a veneer of Christianity. 
Orthodox Christians built an organization that from the time of 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, orthodox Christians created a Church that demanded singular authority and punished those who disobeyed its edicts. It is the limited belief in a singular supremacy and only one face of God that has resulted in tyranny and brutality. Unity and oneness within an orthodox Christian belief system are perceived to come from sameness and conformity, not from the synergy and harmony of difference. A society's diversity is more often viewed as a liability rather than as an asset. A peaceful society is thought to be one where everyone is the same. No wonder Bertrand Russell wrote that Christianity believes in creating a world of morons by morons for morons.

Unfortunately for all mankind too many people have chosen to remain silent about the dark side of Christian history. We often hear from many many people that a Christian Church embodies the best of Western civilization and that it has always brought peace and understanding to the people it has touched in all parts of the world. They seem to be entirely unaware of the Church's dark past. My intention is not meant to diminish the beautiful, noble and glorious work that countless Christian men and women have done through the ages to truly help others. I am only referring to the 'side' which has hurt so many and did such damage to spirituality across centuries.

As Helen Ellerbe beautifully puts it: 'The Christian Church has left a legacy, a world view, that permeates every aspect of Western society, both secular and religious. It is the 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'.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann has recently written a brilliant article entitled 'The Dangers of Monotheism in the Age of Globalization'. In this article he asks the question: 'Is there a link between monotheistic religions and intolerance and hostility in the world as a whole today? Jean-Pierre Lehmann has argued that monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam have caused much turmoil throughout history' and continue to do so even today. What is needed is a new global ethical and spiritual role model, and in his opinion, the best candidate to fill that spot is India. The planet needs a sense of moral order, spirituality and an ethical compass. The Indian religious and philosophical traditions can provide a great deal of all three. India is a microcosmic reflection of how globalization can work, especially in its remarkable ability to have managed multiculturalism to such a brilliant extent even in these turbulent times of never ending flux.

It should be clear from all this that the belief in a singular supremacy lies at the root of chauvinism, racism and totalitarianism. In this age of ever-expanding globalization, mankind cannot escape from moving towards a more understanding world that values diversity, spiritual freedom and human dignity. And we have to embrace the hope and pursue the dream that not in the very distant future humanity will be free to act humanely.     


More by :  V. Sundaram

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