On Q&A last week a viewer poll asked the question “Does religious faith make the world a better place?” Seventy-six percent of voters said “no”. On the program tonight there was derisive laughter in the audience when Christopher Pyne commented that religion can be a force for good. What should we make of this?
Christian religious institutions have been involved in some very damaging activities. The Crusades, the long history of religiously justified anti-Semitism and the failure of the Roman Catholic church to act on child sexual abuse are particularly abhorrent examples. More recently the Church’s opposition to gay marriage sees it, in the eyes of many, opposing basic human rights. This I suspect is fuelling much of the anti-Church sentiment.
Contrary to popular opinion war is not one of the ways the Church has been a force for the worse, at least not recently. The wars of ancient history were fought for pretty much the same reason as all wars – the desire to take what belongs to another. Whatever we may make of the Crusades, none of the major wars of the last century – WW1, WW2, Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghan War, Iraq War – were motivated by Christian faith. Those who claim Christianity is responsible for the world’s wars are speaking in spite of history.
Over against those occasions Christianity has been a force for the worse are the very many occasions it has been a force for good. Some examples:
- the end of gladiatorial contests in Rome, where the rising number of Christians in the Empire appears to have been a significant factor in the declining popularity of the games;
- the western concern for people living in poverty. The consensus among historians is that there was little regard for the poor in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Against this trend Judaism and the religion birthed within it, Christianity, saw charity and justice for the poor as core values. This concern then flowed through into western consciousness and value systems.
Lucian of Samosata, a strong critic of Christianity who lived in the second century, wrote:
The earnestness with which people of this religion help one another in their need is incredible. They spare themselves nothing to this end. Apparently their first law-maker has put it into their heads that they all somehow ought to be regarded as brethren.
The fourth century Roman emperor, Julian, was determined to remove the influence of Christianity from his empire. In a letter to an official he wrote:
Why then do we … not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?… it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.
- the anti-slavery movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that brought an end to the Transatlantic slave trade. This was led by William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect, who were directly motivated by their faith;
- the RSPCA was started by Wilberforce and others, again many of whom were motivated by their faith;
- the US Civil Rights movement, which was a movement of the African-American churches, led by Baptist pastor Rev Martin Luther King;
- the downfall of communism, in which Pope John Paul and the Polish church played a key role (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A28398-2005Apr5.html)
- the downfall of apartheid, in which Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his church played a key role;
- the Jubilee Drop the Debt movement;
- the practise of volunteering – in Australia people who attend church are twice as likely to volunteer for a welfare or community organisation and almost twice as likely to volunteer for an organisation concerned with education, training or youth development (source: Australian Bureau of Statistics 2002 General Social Survey, reported in Australian Social Trends 2004).
I think we should avoid any attempt to calculate whether the good influences outweigh the bad, for one good act cannot undo a bad act nor vice versa. The reality is that Christianity has at times been a vehicle for evil and at other times a force for good, it has been both. Indeed to speak of the Church or Christianity as if either is a monolithic whole is misguided. At the same time that Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Archbishop Tutu stood against injustice, there were segments of the Christian church opposing them.
The real question is what would have happened without Christian religion? I suspect that when the Church has been a force for evil it has mainly seen corrupt or misguided leaders using religion to justify the pursuit of their own improper interests. If these leaders hadn’t sought a religious justification they would have found another. But I am not sure the same can always be said of the times Christian religion has been a force for good. It seems to me that the great power of Christian faith in many of these instances was is its capacity to engender a fresh way of seeing the world that questioned the status quo, caused self critique, challenged the abuse of power and pursued justice. That is the side of my religion that is an undoubted force for good and one I want to cultivate.