THE DARK SIDE OF CHRISTIAN HISTORY. By Helen Ellerbe. Morningstar and Lark, Orlando, FL, US. 4th Printing. 1998. pp. 221. Pbk. US$12.95
At a recent conference, a number of Muslim scholars joined with western scientists, politicians, and Christian clergy to discuss visions for the ‘new millennium.’ No one, however, seems to recognize that the event they celebrate is the Christian millennium. It seems odd that Muslims and western scientists would cheer on a Christian turning point, especially in light of proclamations by the Pope that this occasion ought to be pause for reflection on 2000 years of savagery by the Catholic Church.
The Pope is even set to apologize to Jews for centuries of persecution, though a similar apology to Muslims seems unlikely. What is behind these contradictions? And what is the two millennium history of the religion that came to be known in the west as ‘Christianity’?
Helen Ellerbe provides a baseline from which to comprehend such questions in her study of what she calls the ‘dark side of Christian history.’ She believes that some sort of a reflective endeavor is needed as the millennium approaches, so that Christians can take stock and perhaps atone for their sins.
As Ellerbe notes, ‘Ignoring the dark side of Christian history perpetuates the idea that oppression and atrocity are the inevitable results of an inherently evil or savage human nature’ and it ‘allows the beliefs which have motivated cruelty to go unexamined.’ She insists that ‘the dark side of Christian history was not an unavoidable result of human nature; it was the result of a very specific ideology and belief structure.’ Her book sets out to examine the origins and development of that belief structure, with emphasis on how it still influences the present.
Before proceeding, it is necessary to clarify Ellerbe’s terminology and assumptions. She uses the term ‘orthodox Christianity’ to refer to the beliefs and structures arising out of what Muslims would call ‘Pauline Christianity,’ which is based on the corruption of the message brought by the Prophet Jesus, upon whom be peace. After discussing how this form of Christianity developed in its crucial first centuries, especially with respect to the numerous local interpretations of the message, she concludes: ‘By castigating Origen’s theories of reincarnation, the Church upheld its belief in the unique physical resurrection of Christ as well as the belief that a person has but one life in which to obey the Church or risk eternal damnation. With the Donatists, it established the precedent of using force to compel obedience. And with the Mannichaeans, the Church demonstrated its willingness to abandon its own beliefs for political expediency.’
Once its innovations were codified into official State dogma, the Church set about to ensure allegiance to its new norms, at the expense of other interpretations and permutations of the message of the Prophets, whether via Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad, peace upon them all. To compel belief, the Church often used torture and physical violence, which was a mainstay of Christianity until very recently: ‘Torture remained a legal option for the Church from 1252 when it was sanctioned by Pope Innocent IV until 1917 when the new Codex Juris Canonici was put into effect.’ And, as is clear from the way Christians have acted in Bosnia, removing the legislation of torture to compel belief does not insure that Christians will cease to torture.
In an interesting, though undeveloped allusion, Ellerbe notes that, ‘Protestants and Catholics competed with each other over how little they could care for their bodies, using little soap and water throughout a lifetime,’ referring to the Christian idea of the body as a defiled and corrupted vessel for the soul. What she did not realize, however, is that suspicion toward cleanliness was a direct result of the Inquisition, when the Pope instructed the authorities of the Church to arrest and torture any Christians who washed daily, since it was thought that washing was a sure sign that they were Muslims in dissimulation. And, though Ellerbe misses this, the same could be said for eating pork with respect to both Jews and Muslims, to the point that the earmarks of good Christian behavior were to eat the flesh of swine and to remain filthy for weeks on end.
Ellerbe does, however, provide some useful sources and insights into the relationship between Catholic and Protestant Christian beliefs and practices on the dark side: ‘Although Protestantism vehemently denied the necessity of the Church as an intermediary between the individual and God, it removed most of the means through which a direct and personal relationship might develop.’ She notes, in particular, that ‘Protestant leaders fervently embraced St. Augustine’s ideas about free will and predestination: that Adam’s fall from grace had left humanity inherently flawed, incapable of acting correctly, and thus entirely dependent upon God’s mercy.’ And violence was used by Protestant Christians to compel this belief in the Americas, as exemplified by the Puritan Cotton Mather, who ‘affirmed the value of punishment and echoed St. Augustine’s “compel them to enter” with his famous phrase “Better whipped, than Damned.”‘
One of the more startling parts of the book is the chapter on the witch hunts, after which it becomes clear that the first genocidal holocaust of the Christian West, preceding those against the Indians, Africans, and religious minorities in Europe, is the holocaust against women. Though she does not dwell on figures, other historians have put the number of women killed by the Church in the several millions. And this genocidal mentality had its practical side, as Ellerbe notes, ‘The persecution of witchcraft enabled the Church to prolong the profitability of the Inquisition,’ meaning that the property of those deemed to be witches was confiscated.
She continues: ‘Witches now took the role of scapegoats that had been held by Jews. Any personal misfortune, bad harvest, famine, or plague was seen as their fault.’ And, in a return to the theme of filth being part of the good Christian life, she found that ‘Simply treating unhealthy children by washing them was cause for convicting a Scottish woman of witchcraft.’ Or this: ‘Orthodox Christians believed the act of giving birth defiled both mother and child,’ with mother and child being quarantined for up to 80 days, ‘during which time they were considered heathen. Some thought that a woman who died during this period should be refused a Christian burial.’ It is clear that modern misogyny in the west has a dastardly legacy in the Church’s rule.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the last, ‘A World Without God.’ Drawing upon recent research in the history of religion and science, Ellerbe echoes the now well-accepted conclusion that there never was any real disparity or conflict between religion and science in western civilization. After introducing the ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ she notes that, ‘These new beliefs and attitudes mirrored those of orthodox Christianity. As orthodox Christians believed there to be a division between heaven and earth, so scientists perceived there to be a similar division, coined by Descartes as that between mind and matter. As Christians believed God to be detached from the physical world, so scientists thought that consciousness and physical reality were detached from one another. Although orthodox Christianity and modern thinkers differed in their belief about the devil, both understood the physical world as a realm devoid of divinity and sanctity.’
She continues: ‘The belief that the physical world functioned independently of consciousness found new validation in Newton’s laws.’ And, ‘Accepting the orthodox Christian idea that God no longer had impact upon the physical world, modern thinkers concurred that human consciousness similarly did not influence physical phenomena.’
Elsewhere, she notes that, ‘Scientists and philosophers also embraced the concept of hierarchy and applied it to their work. Hierarchical order requires all components to be separated and ranked according to their superiority or inferiority; if focuses upon a component’s difference rather than upon its supportive relationship and connection to the whole. Scientists similarly focused upon the separation, isolation and analysis of increasingly smaller particles. Little attention was given to the relationship connecting a component to its surrounding elements or environment.’
Linking the past with the present, Ellerbe suggests that, ‘As orthodox Christianity, particularly during the Reformation, stressed the nobility of struggle and the sinfulness of magic and supernatural assistance, so Darwin portrayed the natural world as a place where struggle and competition characterize every aspect of “the great and complex battle for life.”‘ And she alludes to the current environmental crisis by observing that western science ‘adopted the same ideas that encouraged Christians to treat the natural environment as a realm devoid of sanctity.’
When applied to the social sciences, ‘Darwin’s theories provided a new rationalization for subjugating people according to race or gender; they were now believed to be “naturally” weaker.’ And Ellerbe links modern disbelief in God to the dark side of Christian history: ‘Atheism simply extended the Christian idea that God is distant and removed from the physical world. Once people accepted that, it was not difficult to believe that God did not exist at all.’
Of course, as she notes, ‘the seeds of atheism also grew in popularity as a reaction to the brutality of the witch hunts,’ with increasing numbers of Church followers questioning belief in God as they saw the contradictions and cruelties inherent in orthodox Christian morality.
But, as Ellerbe concludes, after the development of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, the scientific corroborations of Christian thought began to slip away. ‘The division between mind and matter, which corroborated the Christian division between heaven and earth, is not true scientifically. The physical world is not composed of solid, inert, and inanimate matter as was thought in classical physics.’ In western medicine, the Church’s obsession with conquest feeds into a tradition of attacking and subduing various bodily functions and ills, rather than working with the body in prevention and self-healing. Ellerbe continues: ‘As orthodox Christians understood God to be detached from the physical world, so Western medicine understood the workings of the human body to be disconnected from a person’s mind or consciousness.’
Even the scientific method, developed by people steeped in Christian teachings, such as Francis Bacon, has begun to give way, especially in its assertion that science involves a detached, ‘objective’ observer. ‘The possibility of such an objective observer, however, now no longer seems feasible; quantum mechanics has shown that the simple act of observation does have impact upon the matter observed.’ Similarly, Ellerbe links scientific reductionism to Christianity, suggesting that, ‘Recent science suggests that truth might better be found, not just by focusing upon the separation and segregation of components, but also by understanding the interrelatedness of such components within a larger system,’ or that order and evolution come about by cooperation rather than conflict, rejecting the Christian-Darwinian paradigm.
The Dark Side of Christian History is not the last word, nor even the first word, on the crimes of Christianity. There are far more detailed and scholarly works on the topics which Ellerbe surveys, such as misogyny and the witch hunts or the connections between Christianity and modern science. Likewise, she gives short shrift to the Crusades and the Inquisition with respect to their dual impact on Muslims in Asia and Indians in the Americas, or how the western legal tradition used to subjugate non-western peoples is rooted in the Church’s doctrines of invasion and conquest.
For in-depth treatment of these and other stories, interested readers will have to look elsewhere. But, as an intense sojourn into the evils of Christianity, into its ‘dark side,’ this volume serves readers quite well, and is a useful, even if incomplete, introduction to the topic.
And it ought to be read and reflected upon by every Muslim, insha’Allah, in the interest of inspiring deeper research into the origins and development of western civilization. As noisy proclamations of the impending millennium threaten the world with yet another misguided western Christian adventure, such study seems necessary to help raise critical consciousness before Muslims get coopted into signing on to interfaith apologetics and millenarian madness.