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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