Welcome to For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. The purpose of the documentary, and this short course, is to explore the failures and achievements of the Christian church through its history, so that viewers can make up their own minds about the ongoing significance of Christianity’s beliefs, ethics, and community. Never far from the surface in this course is the question: How faithful has the church been to its founder and his message?
There are three simple things to keep in mind throughout the course (and facilitators should feel free to expand and clarify any of the following):
1. Broad Christianity. Throughout the documentary, we use the word “Christianity” in its broadest sense. This is not a course promoting (or criticising) any particular brand of the Christian faith. For the purposes of this course, all the mainstream churches are representatives—for better or worse—of Jesus Christ.
2. Open discussion. Participants should feel free to air their own views. While the course has a set content, the goal is not to convince or convert but to pursue clarity about a significant feature of our world. Course facilitators will keep us on track, but participants are encouraged to ask questions, raise concerns, and share their own experiences when appropriate. Facilitators should feel free to approach the various “questions” in these sessions as (a) invitations to group conversation or, if participants prefer to remain silent, (b) prompts for further reflections from the facilitator.
3. The Bible. The course sets historical events against the backdrop of the teaching of the Bible, and especially the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Without some sense of what Christ said and did, it would be impossible to explore the key question: How faithful has the church been to its founder and his message? Be assured: the course material assumes no prior knowledge of the Bible, and facilitators are free to determine the level best suited to their group.
People sometimes say, “Religion is the cause of most wars!” What is it about religion that invites such a criticism?
1. What are your initial impressions from this clip? Was there anything that surprised you? Was anything unclear?
2. What seem to be the main causes of the Crusades—both according to the filmmakers and anything else you may have come across?
Further Thoughts: Some have said the Crusades were “land grabs”. There is little evidence for this. Most Crusaders were not enriched through these campaigns. More plausible causes for the Crusades include: accommodating Christianity to the military culture of pre-Christian Europe, certain forms of theology, a hunger for power, defending Christians in the Middle East from Islamic aggression, and much more.
Was the violent Crusader a “real Christian”? It’s a difficult question to answer. Consider the documentary’s tentative approach to the question. As Professor William Cavanaugh of DePaul University explains, empirically we must say the Crusader is a Christian, even though normatively, we will want to say the Crusader is not a Christian.
3. Does the conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament sound like just an earlier version of the Crusades? If not, what is different about it?
Further Thoughts: The Old Testament has its share of violence, in much the same way as medieval European history. Just as it’s easy to dismiss the Crusades as a grubby land grab, the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites in places like Jericho can be painted as unnecessarily vindictive and patently genocidal. But the Old Testament record shows us that it was a discrete (as in a one-off and discontinued) act of God’s judgment against an unspeakably evil culture. It was limited in the sense that it did not represent an expansionist program for enlarging Israel’s empire. And even within the conquest, there were expressions of mercy and kindness, such as the sparing of the pagan prostitute Rahab.
4. Shortly before the terrible Roman persecution of Christians outlined in the film, the apostle Paul—one of the key leaders of the early church and author of much of the New Testament—wrote to the Christians of Rome about how to deal with conflict. The contrast with the activities of some of the Crusaders could hardly be greater:
How would you summarise this ethic in a few words?
5. “The problem isn’t religion or irreligion; it is the human heart.” How reasonable is this statement, in your view?
1. Martin Luther King’s speeches might be familiar, but what caused him to pursue a program of non-violence in the face of his adversaries?
Further Thoughts: The clip highlighted the very personal way in which Luther King was drawn into the civil rights movement, and also how he pursued and embodied an approach of non-violence, even when his own family and life were threatened. But it was clear that non-violence was not just a strategy or tactic, but an ethos he learned from Jesus, one that reflected the Creator in whose image every person is made, and one which considered every person, black, white, or other, to be bearers of that divine image. Non-violent resistance—the “sword that heals”, as King called it—flowed directly from his Christian faith.
2. Read the following excerpt from Luke’s Gospel, and then let’s trace the “logic” of Christ’s call to love our enemies, as exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr.
The passage is famous for containing the so-called “Golden Rule”: Do to others as you would have them do to you.
More significant than the Golden Rule is the “logic” behind Jesus’ ethic of mercy and love. He does not teach that we must be merciful to others in order to deserve the mercy of God. It is the reverse: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. The deeper reason for the exhortation to forgiveness and generosity is that it reflects God’s own heart toward us. Christians are to be kind to those who are unkind to them because that is how God acts towards the undeserving. In fact, kindness towards the undeserving is almost the definition of the all-important theological word “grace”. The mercy of Christians towards others, in other words, is motivated by the mercy of God himself. That is the teaching of Jesus.
3. In the cello scene, the presenters remarked, “To judge a piece fairly, we know to distinguish between the masterpiece that was written and the pretty ordinary performance! Jesus wrote a beautiful composition: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’. There’s no denying that Christians have sometimes played completely ‘out of tune’—pursuing opulence, hatred, and bloodshed in Christ’s name! But they’ve also played it beautifully, and with lasting effects.”In your opinion, how well have the filmmakers demonstrated the idea contained in this musical metaphor?
Further Thoughts: A beautiful piece of music, or “divine performance” of it, does not cancel out other terrible re-enactments. In other words, there is an attractiveness, a purity, and a beauty to the version of the Christian life that Jesus taught and lived, and that some of his followers like Martin Luther King mimicked. This does not dismiss some of the atrocities we’ve looked at in the documentary (like the Crusades), or even set aside some so-called “religious” conflicts, which on closer inspection have little to do with people’s spiritual beliefs (such as the Troubles). But it does leave us with a penetrating impression of the Christian faith. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, rejected violence and taught his followers to love their enemies rather than take up arms against them. Jesus lived by this mantra himself, ultimately sacrificing himself for the sake of his enemies, and early followers like the Roman Christians, as well as later followers of Jesus, refused to shed blood in his name.
Jesus lived and taught a vision of life characterised by forgiveness, mercy, and grace—themes embodied in his own self-sacrificing death on a Roman cross. At many times, and in various terrible ways, those who have claimed to follow Christ have conducted their lives according to violence, hatred, and vengeance. These cannot be readily explained away. They are part of the horrible history of the church, which Christians must own. Nevertheless Jesus, and many others since, have pursued his ethic of love, exemplifying the words, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of Biblica US, Inc.