History’s Balance Sheet
Great is the inheritance of two millennia of Christian thinking
Nowadays many people hope for a multinational and god-free world. That is their “promised land.” For such people Christianity has brought more misery than relief, more gloom than joy, more war than peace, more hatred than love.
And – let us be honest – they can produce evidence to support their opinions. They can point to the passive and sometimes even active involvement of churchmen in massacres, torture and capital punishment, apparent indifference (in some places) to slavery, ill treatment of the Jews, and the brutish behavior of some church people toward children. Rightly can enemies of Christianity list abuses such as these as examples of the failure of the rule of love.
But against that – if they too are honest – they must acknowledge that all the evil deeds done by men professing themselves Christian have been counter-balanced (I would say outweighed, but let us be cautious) by all the good things that have been done in the name of Christ. The systematic care of the poor, the relief of prisoners, the establishment of hospitals, schools and universities, the self-sacrificing generosity of holy men and women, active resistance to the bullying of civil authorities, the amelioration and ultimately the prohibition of slavery, and the improvement of the lot of women (yes, that too) – all these things have emerged within a society that has been predominantly Christian. Even today, in the shadow land of the post-Christian era, there are many who insist on calling themselves Christians still who have abandoned the Faith but maintain a firm commitment to what they rightly regard as the “Christian Ethic.” Amnesty International and the Red Cross are good examples of precisely that: though founded by committed Christians, they are now secular organizations, yet driven and motivated by that same ethic.
Those of us who live in the twenty-first century, inheritors as we are of two millennia of Christian thinking, can easily forget that concepts such as modesty, humility, mercy, pity, love for one’s neighbor, and humanity in warfare have not always held such a potent place in the human temperament. You won’t find them in Homer, though perhaps you’ll see the dawning of a new and more enlightened sense of humanity and of the brotherhood of man in Sophocles, Virgil, Cicero and Seneca. But Christianity burst into our world – a certain fact of history – and now sheds a new kind of light upon it, a light which has affected our vision even if we cannot see or will not acknowledge it.
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