Boy, this is a doozy.
I have been listening to Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates audiobook this week for the second time (I adore her writing, and have listened to/read all of her books several times), and it is hitting me much harder than it did the first time through. While not as entertaining as her other historical treatise Assassination Vacation, it is so packed with interesting little historical tales that it is still good the second time through.
It is all about the founding of the Massachusetts Bay
colony; John Winthrop and his utopian "Shining City on a Hill," Roger Williams and Anne Hutchenson, the native Americans... and lots and lots of appallingly UNCHRISTIAN behavior. Vowell is an atheist, despite a religious upbringing that mirrors my own in many ways, but she does not despise religion to the point where she condemns all of it; I think she is reasonably fair-handed in her descriptions of the more egregious abuses of those who came to America for religious freedom.
It has kicked up a whirlwind in me about how horrible we Christians can and have been throughout history. A truly honest appraisal of the history of our faith is so galling in what it reveals in our contradictions to the love of Christ, that it cannot help but make you wonder how we can possibly make any claim for the morality of our religion. How can we possibly expect anyone to hear a sermon about what Christ did for us, and how they should join our faith, with our track record over the last 2 centuries?
I still have faith in Christ; I'm not questioning my belief in him... but how can we say we're really following him with things like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the wars of the Protestant Reformation, and the near genocide of the native Americans in the name of founding a Christian nation? How can we get SO MUCH wrong, if we think we're doing God's will? I can explain the violence of their methods a little bit by remembering how incredibly brutal daily life was through the 1800s... when brutal methods are practiced by everyone as a matter of law, government, and general social life, it tends to seep over into the subconscious. In our human weakness, I can sortof understand why they would think a suitable punishment for contrary religious beliefs would be to slice off the offenders' ears and banish them from the area.
But we're supposed to be above that! And for a society so newly enraptured and soaked in scripture, (since translated Bibles had only been actually available to the general population for a few decades) you would think that directions from Jesus like the Sermon on the Mount would be the new set of rules for daily living... instead, it was a constant barrage of Calvinist fear and trembling and "you must behave like this or you're damned."
With every disillusioning chapter of this book, I find myself searching desperately for a rock to hold on to, and with all of the falsities and sins of Christian history being burned away in my mind, the only thing to remain is Christ and the Bible. I cannot make amends for the sins of our Christian forebears, nor can I end the modern church's ugly battles over homosexuality and abortion. The only thing I can do is try and saturate myself in the 2 commandments that Jesus said were the most important: Love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart and soul; and Love your neighbors as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. If I'm doing my part by sticking to those 2 tenets, then I'm doing what God asks.
In a more practical sense, the Christian charity that would result if all Christians automatically behaved as dictated by these 2 tenets, would have VERY interesting political ramifications. I'm so continually disgusted by the Conservative Right's 24-7 rants about the efforts of Obama's administration to ameliorate some of the more devastating effects of our current economic crisis--because I'm always thinking now, "If we Christians were doing what Christ told us to do, then our government wouldn't need to create such legislation." Taking care of the poor and the sick and the helpless is part of Christ's mandate for us; but we're not really making much of an effort. So the government is having to do it. Attacking them for actually making an effort to help the pitiful (despite the probable freeloaders who will take advantage of the system, and the inevitable, ill-conceived methods of relief that might make things worse) is a nasty, mean-spirited thing for Christians to do. Make such legislation unnecessary by your charity.
Aaaaand here I am telling other Christians how to behave. It didn't take me any time at all to start judging, did it?! *sigh*