Friday, July 16, 2010

Christianity: a tool of villainy under the banner of progress?

“Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into heaven, it has, by a kind of ignorance, been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress” is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For, in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life. A part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that, or more mad?

"The religion of the Bible, on the contrary, is a religion of the state and the status quo only in brief moments. In practice, it is a religion for the correction equally of people and of kings. And Christ’s life, from the manger to the cross, was an affront to the established powers of his time, as it is to the established powers of our time. Much is made in churches of the “good news” of the gospels. Less is said of the gospel’s bad news, which is that Jesus would have been horrified by just about every “Christian” government the world has ever seen. He would be horrified by our government and its works, and it would be horrified by him. Surely no sane and thoughtful person can imagine any government of our time sitting comfortably at the feet of Jesus, who is telling them to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you…” (Matt. 5:44).

— Wendell Berry, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation"
in Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community: Eight Essays (full essay available here).

Quotes like this can be hard to hear. It can be tempting to ignore them.

Sometimes, when I talk with people about some of the crises of our times and suggest that Christianity might have something to say to us at this historical moment that is interesting and worth paying attention to, I am told that the church is part of the problem, not the solution.*

I often feel more than a little sympathy for this comment. Christian defence of the indefensible (which is quite different from defence of the defenceless!) or unreflective acquiescence in the status quo are both depressingly common. The Christian church has, for all its noble achievements, also many sad failings.

To be Christian is to recognise that this is nearly always the case, and so to expect that I will very frequently find myself contributing to the problems of the world. This is one implication of the doctrine of sin. However, to be a follower of Christ means also being open to grace: to the word of forgiveness, the task of repentance and the possibility of liberation. Such an openness requires the belief that grace ultimately superabounds wherever sin abounds, and so trusting that sin is not an ultimate reality, and so can be turned away from. It is unnecessary.

This openness requires practices that build into our sense of self the expectation of change and growth. It means remaining open to the wounds of false accusation in case they turn out to be less false than we first thought. And it means immersion in the scriptural narratives until what appears normal about life today is revealed as abnormal.
*The idea that Christian ideas are to blame for ecological degradation has a long history within the environmental movement, arising from Lynn White's seminal paper "The Historical Root of our Ecological Crisis" in which he accused certain elements of the Christian tradition as standing at the root of exploitative attitudes towards the non-human world. I won't add here to the huge amount of commentary on this article (which has its strengths and weaknesses) nor to explore the degree to which these charges stick (short answer: somewhat, but by themselves these ideas are neither necessary nor sufficient as historical explanations for the rise of exploitative attitudes).


Anonymous said...

Christianity inevitably became a part of the state, and even THE state, the moment it was co-opted by the Roman state. It thus became an integral player in the Western drive for total power and control over every one and every thing.

These two references sum up what thus inevitably happened.

Look at the installation of the current Pope. It was essentially a display of Western "triumphalism", and indeed was promoted as such by right-wing "catholics".

All of the blood-soaked generals and heads of state were there. As were the money-lenders and the captains of industry.

Do you think Jesus would have been welcome at such a grotesque display of worldly power. Or even recognized if he somehow managed to wander in through the security cordon.

By contrast Jesus rode into town on a donkey unannounced and unrecognized. He is even famous for throwing the money lenders out of the temple.

Onwards Christian soldiers forever marching into wars of imperial conquest.

byron smith said...

The acceptance of Christianity by the Roman empire (not state, it is a little anachronistic to equate pre-modern political institutions with their contemporary parallels) was indeed an event of momentous significance. However, the abuse of Christianity for imperial ends was neither necessary nor total. Indeed, the monastic movement arose partially as a protest against an overidentification of the city of God with the earthly city (to use Augustine's terms), and the survival of the church during the decline of the western empire showed that, for all its faults, the Roman church maintained some measure of independence from Caesar.

I agree that Jesus is the model for the proper use of authority through sacrifice and servant leadership, rather than "lording it over" others. Some read his triumphant entry into Jerusalem as a rebuke to the pomp of Roman dignitaries arriving in a city (NB Jesus' entry was hardly unannounced or unrecognised. On the contrary, it caused such a fuss that complaints were made!).

So Christianity is not simply the history of blessing imperial soldiers marching off to conquest. But unfortunately, it does include this, quite regrettably for much of the time.

However, the thrust of this post was less imperial conquest and more ecological "conquest". But similar considerations apply (though on a different historical timescale).

Josh Luton said...

I just stumbled onto your blog through another theo-blogger and I really enjoyed this post. I have not read your "About me" section yet so forgive me if this question is answered there, but are you studying theology and ecology or just a field of interest? I am headed to Duke Divinity this fall and will hopefully be continuing later to get a ph.D and the connection between theology and ecology even extending to the way we eat is an area that is infinitely interesting to me. Thanks for the post and the Wendell quote.

byron smith said...

Josh - welcome! And sounds like an interesting area to be pursuing further research.

I've been intending for some time to add a proper "about" page to this blog and thanks for another reminder to do so.

I am a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh in theological ethics. An outline of my research question can be found here. It's changed slightly since then, but that gives you an idea. Basically, my research is an investigation into the theological bases of Christian ecological ethical discourse in the fact of fears and anxieties that threaten to derail the discussion into counterproductive patterns of denial, despair and desperation.