The last few weeks have been quite interesting at this blog. The discussion prompted by a question from Ira Katz led to a series of several posts on the topic of sustainability of free market capitalism. These posts can be found here:
A further post on the topic of Christian morality continued these thoughts and this conversation.
In this post, I would like to focus on some of the criticism to my thoughts and the discussion. A sampling, summarized, paraphrased, and without attribution:
- Private property can survive if held as the highest value, regardless of any other underlying cultural conditions
- The good acts of Christians are touted, while the bad acts are ignored
To address these, first allow me a broad sweep of the history of the West: within a few hundred years after Christ’s death and Resurrection, Christianity grew to be a significant cultural and religious tradition in the West; within a few hundred years after this, it grew to be the dominant tradition. This growth was sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent. It resulted in a society with about as libertarian a law code ever devised in the West. Suffice it to say, the code was not always fully followed.
It maintained this position, even after the Reformation and Renaissance. The post-Reformation period brought on what we call Wars of Religion, which were actually wars of state building. The fracturing of Christendom was used as the pretext by the many princes to monopolize authority. There were not states as we understand the term in much of medieval Europe prior to this fracturing.
Christianity gave up this position beginning with the post-Enlightenment era but was not fully removed culturally until the mid or late nineteenth century. This event was noted via Nietzsche’s madman, declaring that God is dead. This is not to say that there were no Christians in the West, nor is it to ignore the various revival periods in the last couple hundred years. However, Christianity was removed from any role in civil governance.
Of course, a full-blown Christian ethic did not blossom on the day Christ walked out of the tomb. It never did, and never will – not in the world of fallen man. Oh, no. I said those words: fallen man. Almost as bad as the words Original Sin….
I will set aside Original Sin; I am coming to understand that even in the Christian world this is not a straightforward concept. But, as to fallen man…this must be the least controversial statement one can make about man’s condition, yet even it draws strong reaction. Least controversial because, under any ethical standard one might hold (other than nihilism, I suppose), any honest individual will recognize that he, at one time or another, falls short.
Yet, that this term often draws a strong negative reaction is always a signal to me that the person so responding is running on automatic pilot: hearing the word “Christian” just automatically causes a negative reaction in some people.
But back to this issue that a full-blown Christian ethic did not come arm-in-arm with Christ out of the tomb…. This criticism baffles me. It is an ignorant criticism, on the one hand because it demonstrates a lack of understanding of Christian anthropology, and, on the other hand, because it lacks an understanding of the direction that time flows. Let’s take each in turn.
Christian anthropology: Christians are clear about the fallen nature of man and that man cannot achieve perfection in this life. Christians are then criticized both for making the claim that man is fallen, and also criticized for being less than perfect (fallen) as Christians. To whom can these two criticisms, placed side by side, make any sense?
The direction of time: this issue should be completely obvious to anyone living and thinking in the last few years. We live in a time where behaviors and beliefs that were acceptable even a few years ago will today result in loss of employment and even loss of life.
Critics of Christianity press on the issue of the reality of slavery in the Christian world, and even seemed to be accepted by various New Testament passages – ignoring the fact that slavery was a) an improvement over the previous practice of killing all captured prisoners of war, b) was endemic and common throughout the world, and c) was considered morally proper in the Greek and Roman world in which Christianity was born.
There are numerous similar examples. Yet the critics press on: why couldn’t God just end all of [whatever the list of today’s latest moral crimes], or why didn’t Jesus speak out against [whatever the list of today’s latest moral crimes]?
But man is fallen – this includes Christian men. One can’t blame Christianity for holding the belief that man is fallen, and also at the same time blame Christianity because Christian men are fallen. Christians admit that Christians are fallen. Quit harassing the witness.
Anyway, if you really want to drive home your point about why Jesus didn’t solve all of society’s ills during the three years of His ministry, maybe ask why Jesus didn’t give us the formula for penicillin or some such (h/t Paul VanderKlay). That really would have done some good.
In any case, one can see that a Christian ethic – along with individual liberty – generally increased over the years since the time of Christ (at least until the last century or so). It didn’t happen all at once, nor in a continuous straight line, nor did it ever reach utopia – a heaven on earth.
But the trend is unmistakable. Draw a line from Roman culture through the Middle Ages and ending once the removal of God took full root after the Enlightenment; the trend is clear.
So, what of these criticisms? Let’s start with private property surviving as man’s highest value absent any other unifying cultural ethic or norm. Such a belief stretches credulity. Absent a commonly and generally accepted way of life, any given community will have too many opportunities for too much tension to allow private property to survive.
Several years ago, the libertarian world was presented with an interesting concept: a property owner could determine any level and form of punishment for any transgression against his property. I raised the possibility of a child picking an apple from a farmer’s orchard while on the way to school. Is the farmer justified in shooting the child as punishment? Sure, came the reply. Anything less would betray a private property order.
How long would private property last in such a community? I venture, about three minutes.
I once also posited the notion of the neighbor who enjoyed having sex orgies on his front lawn while all the other families in the neighborhood were returning from church. How long would this community continue to respect private property? I would guess about ten minutes.
For property and life to be respected, some semblance of a peaceful and cohesive society must be achieved and maintained. It is culture and tradition that provide the glue for this. To place property first, in the highest place, places the cart before the horse.
What about the bad acts by Christians over the last 2,000 years? We know the list: Crusades, Inquisitions, crushing the Saxons, slavery, etc. Compared to what, whom, or when?
I will take your list and raise you – in fact, I throw in all my chips:
- Genghis Kahn
- Alexander the Great
- Pretty much any pre-Christian Roman Emperor
- Young Turks (all of them)
- Pol Pot
Top that list if you can.
What of the history of slavery? Practiced in every culture throughout history – call this a draw, if you wish; I won’t get into a war of quantity. What of the history of abolitionists movements? Primarily, if not solely, found in the Christian West. That would be a win for Christianity.
What about the treatment of women and minorities? Brutal throughout the world even today; respected in the Christian West – even in the earliest days of the church.
What about child sacrifice? Found throughout the world and throughout history. Critics love to point to the story of Abraham and Isaac as God endorsing child sacrifice. It is an ignorant criticism: God ended the idea of child sacrifice with this event, He didn’t endorse it.
Oh, but Jesus or Paul didn’t say or write anything directly on these topics. Don’t be so sure. Here is one example of dozens I can point to, all saying something similar:
Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
For goodness sakes, how much stronger of a statement do you want regarding minorities, slaves, and women, given the moral cesspool of a culture in the Roman world in which the Apostle Paul lived? OK, how about man – all men and all women – being made in God’s image; loving your neighbor as yourself; husbands are to serve their wives?
How many statements regarding how we are to treat each other are necessary to convince you that the Christian ethic was like no other ethic in the world at the time, and still unique relative to much of the rest of the world today? How many such statements are necessary to demonstrate that Jesus, Paul, and other authors of the New Testament books addressed these moral issues?
It isn’t enough to say Christians aren’t perfect, which critics are fond of saying. Duh. Christians already know this. Compared to what, whom, or when?
In a generally supportive comment in one of the aforementioned posts, cosmic dwarf offered: “The Christian narrative of Bionic & others is by no means unassailable.”
It is not unassailable. I can assail it as well as anyone, and I have noted many of these same criticisms. I know of slavery, wars, invasions, witch burnings, etc., etc., etc. But how much effort should I put into raising and addressing, time after time, these criticisms, stereotypes, exaggerations, and, in many cases, false narratives?
Compared to what, who, when? Where else, in what other culture, tradition, and time, has the idea of the individual, reason, and liberty taken such root? None of the critics offered any meaningful examples. Perhaps because there are none.
Nietzsche’s madman announced the death of God in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Our liberty has been on a downward slope ever since then; the West lived through its bloodiest fifty years in the aftermath – certainly at least since the time of state building in the seventeenth century, when Christendom fractured, giving room for the princes.
I say it is not a coincidence: no Christianity equals no liberty. I have offered hundreds of posts on this relationship (not all of the included links, but see here and here for two overly long reading lists).
No one has countered this with anything beyond arm waving or the same tired arguments. At least come up with something new and novel.
I look around the United States today. There are clearly some places where the lack of a Christian ethic has taken full root; last summer offered dozens of examples in dozens of cities around the country.
For all the critics of Christianity, this is your future if you win the day. It is the society you will leave to your children and grandchildren.