“Religion poisons everything!” claimed new atheist Christopher Hitchens. Hardly any comment thread on this blog is without someone blaming Christians and Christianity for war, slavery, oppression, sexism, intolerance, or whatever else is evil. Bring up the value of Lutheran theology and you can count on accusations that Luther is responsible for Hitler and the Holocaust.
So how should Christians respond to such criticisms? Christianity Today has published an article on this subject by Natasha Moore, a researcher at Australia’s Centre for Public Christianity and the author of For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.
In her article, entitled “Religion Poisons Everything,” she cites the paradox that Christians throughout history really have done some horrible things (torturing heretics, burning witches, mistreating minorities, etc., etc.). And yet, as scholars–including scholarly atheists–have shown, Christianity is also responsible for much that is good in our culture. She quotes David Bentley Hart:
Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity … It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things – they would never have occurred to us – had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.
Even those who reject Christianity today often hold onto principles of Christian ethics–love, equality, compassion–that just did not exist under the West’s earlier pagan worldview and that would never have come into the culture apart from Christianity.
But what about the bad parts of the Christian legacy? Should Christians just deny them, try to explain them away, or otherwise justify themselves?
Moore suggests that Christians should just own up to them. She says that the vehemence behind the generalizations that “religion poisons everything” is often “the lashing out of the wounded.”
Underneath the cynicism, the absolutism, sometimes the smugness, I wonder if what I’m really hearing is pain. The pain of someone who sought grace in a church community and instead found judgment and guilt. The pain, perhaps, of someone who invested their trust in a Christian group or friend only to meet with hypocrisy or cruelty.
Christians, of all people, know the importance of repentance:
As a first or primary response to the wounded or the outraged, though, the history lessons seem less appropriate—and much less Christian—than a wholehearted and heartbroken admission of guilt. When critics accuse the church of hypocrisy, violence, misogyny, and the like, can we not concede that what they say has all too often been true? Defensiveness is a very human reaction; repentance is (or ought to be) a very Christian one.
In her article, Moore discusses “Three things not to say when responding to severe criticisms of Christianity”:
1. “They weren’t really Christian.”
2. “It’s not so bad in context.”
3. “The good outweighs the bad.”
She makes a good point, though sometimes the discussions have to do with historical accuracy, rather than defending the faith, as such. There is surely room for taking issue with assertions of facts that are not actually factual. But Christians, in general, should steer away from justifying themselves. After all, the liturgy begins with a general confession in which Christians confess that “We have sinned against You in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”
In fact, Christianity begins not with our virtues but with the realization of our failure to be virtuous, which leads to the realization of Christ’s atonement for those failures. The essence of Christianity is not all the good that the church has done, but Christ and the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that come through Him. The good works of Christians and the church flow out of that. But Christians will always have much to confess every week and must continually be dependent on Christ and His work.
Admitting the reality of sin–not just collectively, not just historically, but one’s own–can be an occasion to set the record straight about what Christianity is really about: not our works, but Christ’s work; not just Law but Gospel; not legalism (as often reigns when the church goes bad) but grace.
Yes, the harshest critics of Christianity will attack grace too–“you Christians are as rotten as you want to be and then claim to be forgiven so that you have a free pass to do all of your poisoning”–but it may be that they too may someday fail in their righteousness and know their need of Christ’s mercy.
Illustration: Inquisition, Nuremberg [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons