The Demise of Christendom, 7
In our tour of how ‘Christendom’ has lived and died, we have remarked that it was a flawed concept from the beginning. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that the Kingdom of God coming into this world is a chimera or will never happen. I am merely saying that the concept that it could be made to happen by having the Church partner with an imperial, absolutist system operating from fundamentally conflicting principles (Caesar is Lord instead of Jesus is Lord) could not bring it into being. Even Caesar mouthing submission to Jesus but just carrying on business as usual cannot change who Caesar is and how he does business.
The West found its identity as ‘Christendom’ in tatters as the 18th Century drew to its close. Two political earth-quakes seemed to confirm this – the American (1775-83) and French Revolutions (1789-99). The two are closely tied, despite taking place on different continents. The American Republic drew its founding principles from the Enlightenment idea of ‘the social contract’. But the prevalence of a strongly committed Christian minority among the Founding Fathers tempered and ever since in American society has tempered the full expression of atheistic Enlightenment progressivism.
Not so in France, where that Revolution pushed the Church, and any strong Christian voice, right out of any role in the newly emerging Enlightenment Republic. Within a few years, the ‘Republic of Reason’ became the ‘Republic of Terror’. Churches and religious houses were closed, sacked, burned, pillaged, clerics persecuted and sometimes killed, nuns raped, and dissidents guillotined or chased into hiding or exile. Civil war and foreign invasion followed, and only a military Messiah named Napoleon Bonaparte saved the Republic, and then converted it into his personal ‘French Empire’ with himself, Napoleon I, as ‘Emperor of the French’.
Nevertheless, some good things came from the long-drawn-out and tortured journey down the winding track of Christendom. God has not abandoned the world in frustration, like a long-suffering parent who finally throws up his hands, sighs heavily and says, “I guess they’ll never learn, so I’ll just have to leave them to wallow in their misery.” The Biblical narrative of the people of Israel with their many failures shows us clearly that that is not his way. God has not given up on Israel, and neither has he given up on the world, the Church, on Christianity, or on Christians.
All through the 1500 or so years of the ‘Christendom’ saga, God was still present. He inspired people to do wonderful works of charity and love for the poor, the needy, the afflicted, the oppressed, the broken, and the sick and maimed. They founded thousands of refuges and homes, hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, communities, and agencies to reach out to the victims of famine, plague, war, and natural calamities, and to train and educate those who otherwise had little hope of a path out of these miseries. They worked within the flawed structures of Christendom to turn them away from oppression and extortion, even if only partially successful. They worked to break injustice and inequality and restore dignity and hope. They were Jesus to those they touched, who were in turn inspired to live out ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.’ The results were at times astounding, overcoming incredible odds and barriers. And why should this astonish? God’s way has always been to use ‘that which is nothing’ to humble the powers of ‘this age’.
Enlightenment advocates love to point out the work of the secular humanists in abolishing slavery and fighting poverty and injustice. When this is true, it is right to praise such work and those who do it. But is necessary to redress the balance by saying that it was not the vehement and caustic eloquence of the Voltaires and Jeremy Benthams and John Stuart Mills who ended African slavery, but determined Christian activists like the Quakers and the Anglican Evangelicals like William Wilberforce, and William Lloyd Garrison in the USA, and Afro-Americans such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.
The greatest work in bringing an end to child labour and abominable working conditions in the early Industrial Revolution was done quietly and with the enormously costly perseverance of determined Christian men and women like Lord Shaftesbury, John Owen, Hannah Moore, and William and Catherine Booth, not by the Socialist, Anarchist, and Communist theoretical radicals such as Rousseau, Marx, Engels, and Proudhon, who would rarely dirty their own hands to go alongside the actual workers in their poverty and misery. In Canada we find a very similar pattern. All the early feminists, such as Nelly McClung, were convinced Christians. Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist Minister in Ontario (Upper Canada in those days) set the example in making education available to everyone regardless of creed, socio-economic standing, race, or gender.
When these unsung heroes and heroines laboured in the trenches of social justice, there was still a mainly Christian consensus in Western society, despite all the stridency of its critics who decry Christian atrocities, oppression, and injustice from the sidelines. We are not excusing such abuses where they have occurred. Christians are ‘sinners’ like everyone else. But to suggest that things were better before Christ gave us a new way of living, and would have been better without the Christian leaven in the lump, defies the evidence. Things were not better before, and, despite some nice Greek of Confucian philosophies and religious ‘advances’ such as Buddhism, what other hand of mercy was on hand or even on the horizon to actually work from within the general brokenness of ordinary humanity even among its lowest and most downcast to create a more compassionate and merciful society?
The Christian consensus and society that emerged in the West was not because of the power-construct of ‘Christendom’ as handed down from the ancestors but in spite of it. It was a manifestation in the here and now of the true nature of Christ’s coming Kingdom, over against the machinations of greedy and power-hungry men (and occasional women) masking their sin in claims of ‘Divine Right’ and a mandate to rule handed down by God .
The pattern remains the same today. If we really look into who is doing most of the hard, dirty work in social justice and relief of the most terrible afflictions of the 21st Century, whom will we find there doing the bulk of the work – quietly, anonymously, humbly? (The question is rhetorical, in case you haven’t guessed.) Once more I say, ‘Why should this astonish us?’
In the early 19th Century, Napoleon strangely attempted to revive a sort of echo of the old Christendom. He made a Concordat with the Pope to allow Catholicism to return to France and re-establish its official status. He marched across Europe as a sort of self-proclaimed Messiah for the cause of “Liberté, Ēgalité, Fraternité” as if people had never heard of such things before. The revolutionaries who had overthrown the ‘ancien régime’ had packaged the Church as part of the problem along with the aristocracy and gentry, and inasmuch as it had acted as an agency of the old ‘Christendom’ they were right. But Jesus had long before said that if people turned to him (not an institution using his name but acting like Caesar) he would set them truly free from their root bondage to sin[i] and fear and death. He had long before demonstrated that in him and in his Kingdom (as opposed to Christendom) there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female’, but all are equally children of God, regardless of race, creed, color, language, age, or gender. The Gospel covers the whole revolutionary and Enlightenment panoply of ideals and values.
Napoleon discovered that you cannot impose the ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood (or sisterhood or whatever other term you prefer) by either law or military and police coercion. Same old story, new cast.
A little over a hundred years later, Communism failed even more woefully than the French Emperor to usher in the Golden Age of liberty, equality and fraternity, as demonstrated when the ideals of Marx were imposed on massive populations in eastern Europe and Asia only to butcher all dissidents by the tens of millions. The excesses of applied secular, ‘de-religioned’ ideology were far beyond any perpetrated by Christendom’ crusaders and inquisitonists.
The basic problem, which the Enlightenment thinkers from Hobbes to Mill, and including modern-day Enlightenment proponents like Dawkins and Pinker, can never seem to grasp is that, in their hostility to Christianity, born of their contempt for Christendom, which they understandably but mistakenly identified as Christianity itself, they idealize human nature and, in doing so, completely misunderstand who and what we are. When you eliminate a Creator, this misapprehension becomes inevitable.
We will conclude this series of
reflections on ‘The Demise of Christendom’ with the final instalment in Part 8.
[i] “Sin” is a word almost no one accepts anymore, as part of our redefinition of reality. That little word now carries an enormous connotational baggage of Pharisaical judgment and condemnation. The New Testament uses the word hamartia, which really means “falling short, missing the mark.” This is a far more relatable concept. All of us know, regardless of our faith perspective, that we “miss the mark” – even if only of our own standards of right and wrong, justice and injustice, equality and equity, or just allowing others the freedom to be themselves (without abusing others), etc. That is one reason that the Apostle Paul could tell the Romans, with complete ‘justice’, “all have sinned (failed to live up to the mark) and fall short of the glory of God (or of acting like true children of God).”