In 1099, the soldiers of the first Crusade broke through at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem after an arduous siege. The slaughter was terrible – the vast plaza ran with blood. As one crusader noted: “Our feet were coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.” Some 10,000 died.
John Dickson, the co-founder of the Centre for Public Christianity, tells this story at the opening of a superb new documentary, For the Love of God: How Christianity is better and worse than you ever imagined.* At the end of the segment, he is silenced: “I don’t know what to say.”
(In fairness, Muslims, for whom the Crusades have entered the collective unconscious, tend to forget their own atrocities, such as the massacre at Taormina in Sicily. There’s plenty of shame to go around.)
Alas, it is woefully easy to find Christians behaving badly, certainly from the time they ceased being oppressed and began gaining secular power in the fourth century.
Christianity has always been infinitely flexible in pursuit of converts, and apparently many warlords of the time were converted via the idea of Christ as military leader with the disciples as his warriors.
Alas, it is woefully easy to find Christians behaving badly, certainly from the time they ceased being oppressed and began gaining secular power in the fourth century. The Inquisition and institutional cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse figure high on the charge sheet, along with persecution, rapacity, collusion with power, and much more.
The documentary wisely avoids a ledger – this much harm, that much benefit – because people don’t even agree on which is which. There are some who argue that British missionary William Carey’s long battle against the burning alive of Indian widows was colonialist patriarchalism.
Nevertheless, in a post-Christian culture in which some suggest Christians’ influence has been minimal or malign, I argue strongly that Christianity has overwhelmingly been a force for good in every century for nearly 2000 years.
The modern West could not function as it does in its understanding of human dignity, rights, democracy, politics, the rule of law, health, hospitals, welfare, charity, education, science, language, arts, architecture, capitalism, vocation, morals or social justice without the profound contribution of Christian thinkers and activists.
I discussed this recently at a public meeting, and a questioner observed that I had left out perhaps the most important: personal transformation. He told the story of Christian worker Hugh Price Hughes and National Secular Society founder Charles Bradlaugh.
Bradlaugh challenged Hughes to debate the claims of Christianity. Hughes agreed on one condition: that each bring to the debate concrete evidence for their beliefs in the form of people whose lives had been turned round by their teaching. He would bring 100, and Bradlaugh should do the same. No? How about 20? One? Bradlaugh withdrew the challenge.
This article first appeared in The Age.
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
* He played no role in the documentary.