How are we to deal with Christian history that is emphatically unChristian?
What do we do with the Crusades—Christian soldiers waging ‘holy war’ against Islam? Or the Inquisitions—Christian leaders publicly executing people accused of heresy? Closer to home both historically and geographically, what are we to do about the Residential School Program—Christian churches committing cultural genocide and murdering Indigenous children?
How are we to deal with Christians acting emphatically unChristian throughout history?
The solution, certainly, is not to ignore these questions. Discussions about how to deal with the sins of past are all around us. We may not always agree with how these discussions are carried out, but there is no benefit from avoiding them all together. So, what are the solutions? At risk of being too simplistic, I often observe two common responses:
Solution A: Despair. We can examine all the sins committed by Christians throughout history and accept it all as loss. Overwhelmed by all the evil perpetrated in Christ’s name, we can lose faith in Christ through losing faith in Christians.
Solution B: Defence. We can argue it all away. We can claim that those evils were done by other Christian traditions/denominations/churches than ours. We can argue against evaluating people in the past according to cultural standards of the present.
These two solutions are decidedly anecdotal and reductionistic—but this is how we often deal with history. We gravitate toward clear binaries of good and bad. We want tidy stories and neat patterns of right and wrong. But as John Dickson writes in Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, these neat patterns “rarely correspond to the lumpiness of history.”1
So what are we to do? Three proposals.
Proposal #1: Be Honest about the Past
We need to study history honestly. This means moving past mere anecdotes in order to examine historical records. There is so much to learn, which can be quite overwhelming, but Dickson’s Bullies and Saints is a great place to start.
He helps shine a light on the Saints of Christian history: how Christians were the early champions of freedom of religion, advocates of education and the preservation of ancient literature, and the inventors of hospitals and charitable giving (churches were given tax-exemption status from the empire because they were doing so much good for society by caring for the poor and the marginalized). He even helps clarify narratives around the Crusades and the Inquisition, and how the term ‘Dark Ages’—used to describe the ‘backwardness’ of the world when it was run by Christian empires in contrast to the Enlightenment—is actually highly effective propaganda.
But he does not shy away from the awful truth about the Bullies of Christian history: those who have committed atrocious evil in pursuit of power and control. He invites us to confess and grieve how Christians have so thoroughly lost sight of the love that is central to the gospel message. This is not easy. We want to celebrate what ‘heroes of the faith’ have done while forgetting their wrongdoings. But the reality is, “sometimes the darkest and brightest moments of church history happen at the same time.”2
We are not good at honestly reckoning with our past. For example, look at Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. I often encounter two criticisms about the bias of this book. The first is that it tells just one side of the story, skipping the good and stringing together the bad. True. It does not present a balanced narrative, focussing instead on just one side of the story. But it is a critical part of the story that often goes untold. The second is that it judges the past based on our current cultural perspectives and values, not based on the culture at the time. Also true. In a sense, all historical writing suffers from similar biasses. As David Bentley Hart writes, “Every age necessarily reinterprets—and rewrites—the past in accord with its own interests, ideals, and illusions.”3 But this does not mean that we should make excuses for the wrongs of the past, saying that times were different back then. No, we should judge the actions of the past not based on the culture at that time, or the culture we live in now, but according to the the gospel message of love.4 We may even be surprised to learn that there were Christians in every era who spoke out against the evils done by fellow Christians.
Proposal #2: Be Humble about the Present
If we are truly honest about the past—the good and the bad—this will lead us to greater humility in the present. We cannot judge the past from a place of enlightened pride, but we do so with humility, knowing that, all too often, we are not that different. We too are imperfect. We too have flaws and shortcomings, and could very well be judged by future generations for our blindspots. After all, if Christians in the past lost sight of the gospel from time to time as they succumbed to the cultural forces around them, how are we safe from the same thing happening to us? So we evaluate our own beliefs and actions, wanting them to align with the gospel.
We also recognize God’s grace at work throughout history—that despite all the wrongs done, God continues to move. Instead of seeing ourselves as enlightened or more evolved than Christians of the past, we can respond to God’s continued grace with humility. We can learn from the examples of faithful saints throughout history who loved people well and were faithful to the gospel even in the darkest of times. Humility in the present looks like confessing and grieving our own sins while thanking God for his continued grace in our lives.
Proposal #3: Be Hopeful about the Future
When we are honest about the past, and humble about the present, we become more aware of our need for God’s kingdom to come. This is not out of despair, but out of recognizing that we need God’s help. We hunger for Christ to return and make all things new. We hope for a day when all of creation is restored. This is not a passive hope where we are just waiting for something to happen that is far off in the future, and may never come. This is an active hope where we work to make a reality in our present what we long for in the future. We pray with our hearts and with our hands: “May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”5
1 John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Zondervan: 2021), 96.
2 Dickson, Bullies and Saints, 114.
3 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press: 2009), 31; cf. Dickson, Bullies and Saints, 210.
4 Dickson, Bullies and Saints, 235.
5 Matthew 6:10, NRSVue
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2 thoughts on ““The Lumpiness of History””
Thank you for this thoughtful blog. May God help us truly be honest, humble and hopeful as we navigate life in this season, seeking to love and serve Him well.
Thank you for reading, Faith-Anne. I love your short prayer here, and it highlights a truth, we cannot honestly and humbly understand the past without God’s help.