The Tragic Sense of Historical Illiteracy

The Tragic Sense of Historical Illiteracy February 7, 2015

What we believe to be the motives of our conduct are usually but the pretexts for it.
–Miguel De Unamuno The Tragic Sense of Life

Pear of AnguishPresident Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast noting several historically accurate examples where Christianity was used to justify terroristic amounts of violence means that as a historian of American religion, I will never lack for material to once again note that conservatives in the U.S. are mired in a tragic cycle of distorting and ignoring history and re-cycling bad history. Particularly, conservatives are averse to hearing such things as: The Crusades happened. The Inquisition, which occurred in Europe and Latin America was a tribunal system that forced Jews, Anabaptists, and all manner of “heretics” to undergo sadistic torture such as the the rack, the knee cracker, and for sexual “deviants” including women who were considered “unpure,” the “pear of anguish.” I will let your imagination run away with what that device did and where it was inserted into the unfortunate persons body.

There is no doubt of the distortion of Christianity by zealots, political leaders, church leaders, even lauded founders of the Reformation. John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake for heresy; Servetus’pockets stuffed with his heretical writings used as an accelerant fanning the flames. While the arguments over what all these incidents do to the soul of Christianity are endless, what historians cannot do is allow the historically illiterate to claim that they are offering an alternative view, an unexcavated historical nugget that only they are privileged enough to bring to the public square. If critics of the President’s speech are honest, all this is is part of the Outrage Machine that spews out talking points every time Obama says anything. What Christian critics do not grasp is that what people believe and what people do are often very different. That people of faith fail miserably to grasp the truth of the Christian message is not surprising, and it has centuries of misery to prove it. Thousands of zealous Christian soldiers killed Muslims in the Crusades, Protestants and Catholics drowned Anabaptists in freezing rivers.  Both burned people at the stake for heresy, turning Europe into killing fields after the Reformation. Thousands of African slaves suffered and died in Latin America, the Caribbean, and in the U.S. under Catholic and Protestant regimes that refused to see them as human. It is ironic that the politicians who feed the Outrage Machine are willfully blind to the tragic distortions of Christianity. Most distortion and exploitation of Christianity occurred because people decided to use faith for their own cynical political and material gain–does that sound familiar? I can see the fundraising letters now.

During the colonization of the Americas in the 1600’s the violent beatings, rape, and enslavement of the native peoples of the Americas was numbingly common.  In a rare moment of candor and conscience, Jesuits Justo Mansilla and Simon Maceta bemoaned the vicious treatment, saying that it would now be impossible to preach the Gospel. They wrote back to their superiors that the Jesuit mission was so compromised because of Jesuit complicity in raiding native Indian areas, where indigenous peoples were enslaved under the guise of being rounded up to be baptized. The Jesuits feared their whole Christian witness lost.

A Protestant solution for native resistance came from Dutch missionaries in Brazil a generation later that resulted in forcibly removing native children from their parents and relocating them to be taught the Gospel.  Often though these “schools” were assimilation factories meant to turn indigenous children into civilized Europeans, Canadians, Americans, or Australians. Such treatment of native children occurred in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. The horrific stories of physical and sexual abuse, depression, suicide, and death are different in scope and kind to the equally inhumane treatment of children captive under ISIS’ death regime, but they are alike in one sense. Children were stolen from the parents under the cover of religious instruction where faith was the furthest thing from their minds.

What I have found among the historically illiterate is that when it comes to the History of Christianity, they often revert to a “Golden Age” fallacy that depicts Christian history as Edenic. It is a naivete that refuses to admit that Christians perpetrated and continued to perpetuate some tragically un-Christian behavior. The Bosnian War occurred partially because Serbian Orthodox Christian claims to a Greater Serbia required the ethnic cleansing of Muslim men and systematic rape of Muslim women and girls. In this hemisphere, there was the terroristic regime of Pentecostal dictator Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala, who killed thousands of fellow Christians in a civil war that U.S. evangelicals overwhelmingly supported. The historical realities of political expediency, ancient hatreds, zealous distortions, and intolerable amounts of violence cannot be undone by ignorance or by living in some Golden Fog of exceptionalism that for decades serves more political purposes than it does any historical reality.

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  • brianleport

    Very well put. Sharing this.

  • Guest

    What nonsense.

  • doctorscience

    Thank you very much for this! Many of your historical references are to things I wasn’t really aware of or had shamefully forgotten, like the Guatemalan Civil War.

    The only historical correction I would make: you write, “Thousands of African slaves suffered and died in Latin America, the Caribbean, and in the U.S.”

    No, millions.

    • Psycho Gecko

      Yeah, religion played a role in the Argentina’s Dirty War, too. It was partially a driving factor, and partially a way to reassure soldiers they were doing the right thing.

  • Guest

    Many savage peoples have been tempered by the Word of God.
    It takes a bit of time maybe, the ox is slow but the earth is patient.
    The Kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman took and buried in
    three measures of flour, until all of it was leavened.

    • Psycho Gecko

      Many savage peoples have murdered, tortured, and enslaved in the name of spreading the Word of God.

      If your god wanted people to know about him, he could just appear rather than have people tortured and killed.

      • Guest

        No, not even close, but a typical display of your ignorance
        and hardly unexpected. Stay in school, kid.

        • ugluk2

          What are you talking about? I’m a Christian, but psyho gecko is unfortunately right ,
          as is the article above.

          • Guest

            He’s not right, he’s a moron. Do you actually imagine what those psychopaths did had anything to do with religion?
            And you’re dumb enough to believe their excuses or Gecko’s silly rant?


          • Reinaldokool

            I lived in Brazil during the military dictatorship. The conservative protestant churches supported the dictatorship, provided support and “theological justification.” Most of the Catholic church did also.

            I had two Brazilian Dominican priest friends tortured and then thrown off the top of the political police building (DOPS). A young woman colleague was arrested and tortured; after several weeks she was thrown out on the sidewalk near the office. Aside from the usual rapes and electric torture, they also destroyed her breasts and cut up her feet. These were Christians.

            If you don’t understand that this was supported by the conservative religion, then you are blind.

        • Psycho Gecko

          Speaking of school, I remember learning about the military dictatorship in Argentina, which sought to protect Christian civilization. Part of the reason why Argentina welcomed the military overthrowing their democratic government is that a lot of people back then felt that Argentina needed a strong hand. Which is why they had no problem making use of techniques learned from Nazi engineers they brought into the country after WW2. It’s not really an unjustified use of Godwin’s Law when they had pictures of Hitler up in some of their torture sites.

          So, this strong hand needed to defend Christian civilization wound up kidnapping people and torturing them. One doctor who survived talked about being beaten, electrocuted, then beaten and electrocuted at the same time. Another time, they stretched his testes out until they swelled up. Shortly after that, they made him lay on his stomach so they could remove the skin on the bottom of his feet with a razorblade.

          In the name of Christian civilization.

          Another common tactic was to “disappear” people. To this date, there are thousands unaccounted for. They were just grabbed by the government and their family never found out anything else. In some cases, their kids were taken too. Those tended to be given to supporters to raise if they wanted kids. To this day, marchers still want to know what happened to “Los Desaparecidos.”

          “A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or bomb but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to western and Christian civilization.” – General Jorge Videla

          Of course, what happened to some of Los Desaparecidos was that they were drugged, stripped of clothes, chained up, loaded into cargo planes, flown out over water, drugged again, and dumped. One of the soldiers who testified about having to do this mentioned that priests were waiting for them back at the base to reassure the men that what they were doing was godly and necessary.

          To quote one such priest addressing soldiers of the regime, “the Argentine people, who are Catholic, Hispanic and Roman, fought for the defense of our Nation and for Jesus Christ.”

          I think my point here is that you are perfectly willing to talk about the need for a firm hand to push your god without realizing that it means committing inexcusable evil actions. You sit there and pretend it’s all ok because it’s in your religion’s name. Just like ISIS decapitating prisoners, just like the militant Buddhists who killed Christian missionaries, just like any religion that has so little truth to it that they have to kill people to make their point.

          Not that you’ll bother reading this far. Your next answer will be just as dismissive as any other time someone’s tried to point out the truth to you. Maybe you’ll throw in a LOL, for good measure. But at least when more people wander across this, they’ll see who was actually ignorant, and who was little better than Al Qaeda.

    • Amen Specklebird

      What comes around goes around. Remember that.