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May 04, 20192446Views

Christianity, Morality & Why Have Christians Done Bad Things?

Jonathan Headington explores the history of Christianity and morality, and looks at why evil has been carried out in the faith's name

As someone who returned to the Christian faith after a spell of teenage near-atheism (with all the insufferableness that implies), if ever asked why I believe, I can't and don't claim personal revelation; rather it was an intellectual understanding. Typically I would do my best to waffle through how it's the source of everything we think of as good, but conveying that our entire ethical paradigm is built on the faith can be a tough call when confronted by a society swiftly abandoning it, many members of which if anything see it as a morally regressive force that on the one hand has a holy book whose larger part is often caricatured as a nonstop orgy of slaughter and barbarism, and on the other hand has a history of torture and executions over disagreements on the proper way of partaking of the Eucharist.

It was an unlikely source then that provided for me the most concise explanation: in an episode of the last series of Channel 4's Peep Show (about as unchristian as a television programme gets, and even then at a point way beyond where it should have ended), cretinous Jeremy, whose late stage sitcom character simplification by then made Homer Simpson look subtle, asked a history professor what Jesus actually did apart from Christianity. The short reply he receives is perfect: 'The moral universe we all live in.'

It's a terse statement of a concept people either seem to embrace fully or be completely resistant to, for the sake probably of what it implies about humanity and the chances of a moral society without religion. I've seen it said that for someone in the western world to criticise Christianity is like a fish criticising water. Even Richard Dawkins has called himself a cultural Christian and worn a t-shirt with the slogan 'Atheists for Jesus', which implies a more nuanced understanding of where our ideas of good come from than can be found in his friend Christopher Hitchens' infamous claim that 'religion poisons everything', though the biologist doesn't seem to accept that a tree will cease to flourish if you hack apart its roots.

What, then, did Christianity bring to the table that was so new? There's a litany of New Testament verses and teachings that guide our behaviour of course, but didn't the Greeks have the whole civilisation business figured out? Our idea of the value of children and childhood innocence was a new ideal which Christians brought to the classical world. Charity (and, relatedly, philanthropy) weren't unknown to pre-Christian civilisation, but the scale at which it was exercised and without self-aggrandisement or creating indebtedness for the receiver was a widespread practice by early Christians. Hospitals had existed for military personnel, but it was Christians who developed them for civilians. Early Christians were pacifistic in the face of persecution, though of course many early saints served in the military; while not a new ideal (pacifism was promoted by the Stoics, whose intellectual interplay with early Christianity would not end there), in the often brutal and unforgiving classical world it was a rare one.

It would be an overreaching mistake then to claim that Christians were the unique originators of all these concepts of good, that they never existed anywhere or in anyone's mind beforehand – but what was unique was the universalisation of so many of these values among a group. This universalisation has since persisted in Christendom, as the Christlike understanding of good conduct has become, sure enough, the moral universe that we inhabit.

The change in the Christian Church following Constantine's vision at the Milvian Bridge was of course profound, but it was also rapid. Many of the bishops at the Council of Nicaea bore the scars and mutilations of the persecution that had raged up until a few short years before, some missing limbs and eyes. It was at this moment that state and religion became intertwined, with both good and ill effects. The end to persecution brought not only relief to the faithful, but also the spread of the faith and with it the spread of its moral precepts. As history attests though, it would also eventually lead to much brutality being enacted in the faith's name.

There are many well-known examples from that point down to near the present day of Christians doing terrible things. Once schisms and heresies arose in the Church, which they quickly did, violence would often follow. It's easy to invoke cases to suit one's own political or theological alignment. The Byzantine Orthodox had their massacre of the Latins in 1182, while the Latins responded in kind by sacking Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Archbishop William Laud used brandings and ear mutilation to persecute his religious opponents, while in the war that followed, at Philiphaugh and Dunaverty, Presbyterian ministers would encourage massacres of men, women and children. Not long after the Puritan Oliver Cromwell pacified Ireland with ferocity that would mark the character of that nation to this day, England was scandalised by reports of the Roman Catholic massacre of the Waldensians in Piedmont. To those with skin in the game, many examples can be found to besmirch the other side. For the non-Christian, it can all be added to the anti-religion charge sheet, along with the chequered history of Christian dealings with Muslims, Jews and various heathens.



In 1213, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Fourth Lateran Council. It codified some familiar doctrines, including transubstantiation and the necessity of confession to a priest; in its third canon, it also calls for the extermination of heretics pointed out by the Church, and threatens excommunication on rulers who are tardy in doing so. As with many things ecclesiastical, there is dispute as to the meaning despite its apparent straightforwardness; some hold that the Latin 'extermino' and 'exterminare' are better rendered as 'expel', though secular authorities would nevertheless soon start executing heretics, and indeed at that time expulsion and exile would effectively be a death sentence anyway. Others argue further that the addition of being pointed out by the Church is a specifying qualifier, meaning it's not a generally applicable principle. The previous council 34 years earlier (the Third Lateran Council, as you may have guessed) advocated the confiscation of property from heretics and their enslavement by secular authorities, and so whether the intent was mere expulsion or the executions that would become the standard practice, a continuing tightening of the screw on heretics is apparent.

The killing of heretics wasn't invented here. In the 4th century, Priscillian, Bishop of Ávila, was executed for his unorthodox beliefs and practices – though not without much controversy and protest, including from the Roman Pope and from St Ambrose, who was personally appalled at the killing of heretics. Priscillian had been judged and executed by a secular court, and this characterises the means by which later heretics would meet their fate; even the Inquisition, whose reputation has lasted throughout the centuries as a byword for torture and suppression, would, having determined the guilt of a heretic, release their captives to the secular jurisdiction to actually carry out the execution. As such, the Church could feign a distance from the ultimate punishment, even if the killings would nevertheless be the certain result.

The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, a violent suppression of heterodox Christian practice which would set the tone for the Church in the coming centuries, was already underway by the time of the Fourth Lateran Council, and it's these heretics, accused of much bloodshed themselves, against whom some defenders of the Church say canon 3 specifically targeted. This crusade, like many others, was started with the promise of indulgences for partakers and became a campaign of careless carnage; from it comes the phrase 'Kill them all and let God sort them out', a variant of which was reportedly commanded by a papal legate before the Béziers massacre when asked how Cathars in the city could be distinguished from the Catholics. Executing heretics would become a normalised practice, and even St Thomas Aquinas in his celebrated Summa Theologiae would affirm the rightness of doing so.

The drawn out agony of death by burning became the favoured method of heretic execution, as was carried out on Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley in perhaps the central event of the English Reformation. Jan Hus, the Czech forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, attended the Council of Constance under a promise of safe conduct in 1415. After being found guilty of heresy though, he was turned over to the secular authorities and was burnt anyway. Just over a century later in Leipzig, Martin Luther would declare himself a Hussite to his implacable Catholic rival Johann Eck, fully cognisant of what this could entail. Luther himself held that it was against the will of the Spirit that heretics be burned, leading Pope Leo X to reiterate in his bull Exsurge Domine that this was erroneous and so affirming that by this point burning heretics was unquestionably the Roman Catholic position. Brave and noble though Luther was for his stance, later he would come to regard the Anabaptists as pursuing a reformation too far and he believed that they should be put to the sword for their brand of heresy, and nor would they fare any better in the Zürich of his contemporary Huldrych Zwingli. Similarly, the other great reformer John Calvin supported the execution of Michael Servetus for heresy, though requested that it be by swift beheading. Calvin's request went unheeded by the authorities in Geneva, and Servetus was burned (a Calvinist would believe, presumably, that Servetus being burned rather than beheaded was predetermined by God for His own glory). Servetus' last words would echo those of Jan Hus: 'Jesus, thou Son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me.'

With a wide range of horrible heretic executions to choose from, many look at history and conclude the church in its entirety would be better consigned to the past. You will, though, find nothing in the words of Christ or St Paul to justify this barbarism. When one reads the words of Jesus, His character is far more present in the early Christian pacifists suffering for their faith than in the Popes and princes who would put to death those who defy them. The tyranny of rulers is a historical constant, so to lay the blame for these examples at the feet of Christianity, which advocates nothing of the sort, is clearly wrong. Rather, the religion has been debased by being pressed into service as a cause for persecution.

Due to our perspectives of history being based around the big events and colourful characters, and these typically being about war and violence, convincing someone then of the goodness of Christianity based on the standard reading of history can be a hard sell. It is a mistake to ignore the quotidian however, as for all the brutality of the medieval era, many people lived relatively peaceful lives, led by the teachings and normative moral example of Jesus Christ. Even feudalism, now pictured by most as a backward and oppressive economic system, was a huge improvement on the Romans' straightforward slavery, and in material terms in that vastly different technological paradigm, serfs would often be better off than freemen. The moral difference between Christian and non-Christian societies would be shown in stark contrast as the Vikings would begin their vicious raids on other lands, and their eventual Christianisation would be one of the great strides for peace in northern Europe. Monasteries, often pictured as organisations of tonsured and robed men dedicated solely to solemn spiritual practice, would form a network of learning, study and the preservation and propagation of ancient texts, even in the face of destructive Viking attacks.

Monastic orders, though they could guilty of bad practices and suffer from corrupt leadership, would also be great workers of charity; England's dissolution of the monasteries during the Henrician Reformation would leave a great vacuum in society when it came to caring for the poor, leading to decades if not centuries of attempts to remedy with Poor Laws. A conquering force not unlike the northern Vikings would run up against the Christian world with the rise of Islam. Despite their own propensity for schism and wars amongst themselves (called, in Islam, fitnas), Muslims would conquer much of the Christian world, across the Levant, the Maghreb and Iberia until being repulsed by Charles Martel between Tours and Poitiers in 732, quite possibly saving Europe from complete Muslim conquest. Repelling Muslim invasion would bring European powers together multiple times over the next millennium, often united by the diplomacy of the Pope as well as their shared faith in Christ.

It is of course also true that wars persisted between Christian powers, and they would frequently take on a religious character, particularly during and after the Protestant Reformation. War, though, has always been a constant throughout the history of civilisation, and peace a rarity; even during the Pax Romana, Tacitus would say of his people that they created a desert and called it peace. Christians who engaged in unjust war did so not because of the faith they had inherited, but rather because of the inheritance of the pre-Christian world. That this would often become intermingled with religion itself as justification is, then, all the more abhorrent, but though it can certainly be argued that some wars were waged for the zealotry of a particular interpretation, often where this seems to be the case, religion served as a cloak for more earthly goals. Frequently the go-to example of a devastating war waged for the sake of the Christian religion is the Thirty Years' War of the 17th century. This claim, however, displays a failure to engage with the political circumstances of the time; after all, Catholic France fought on the Protestant side. Either way, one would have a challenge on their hands to try to construct an argument for such a conflict from the teaching of the New Testament.

The kingship of Charles Martel's son Pepin would be the advent of a new confluence of the Church and politics; with his authority as Frankish ruler he conferred upon Pope Stephen II the territories of the Papal States in 756, and in turn Pope Leo III would later crown Pepin's son Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor. This began an interplay between the Pope, claiming both spiritual and temporal authority, and the secular rulers of Europe, a chequered history of wars, excommunications, interdicts and antipopes which wouldn't end until Pope Pius IX was left a prisoner in the small Vatican City as Italy unified around him. It just so happens that this was the time that the First Vatican Council decreed papal infallibility, over eighteen centuries after Christ, conclusively granting the Pope absolute authority in spiritual matters, just as his temporal authority was reduced to nothing.

In the 20th century the Roman Catholic Church went through a revolution, particularly with the Second Vatican Council. Not long before the otherthrow of the Papal States, Pius IX issued his Syllabus of Errors, a fierce entrenchment of traditional Catholic positions which repudiated the validity of Protestant Christianity and condemned freedom of religion; exactly 100 years later Pope Paul VI promulgated Lumen Gentium, which declared that Muslims and non-believers may be saved after all, and 2000's Dominus Iesus and a 2015 Vatican statement made the similar loose claims of potential salvation for non-Catholic Christians and Jews respectively. In 1999, the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation issued the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which reconciled the two communions on this central question of Luther's Reformation (though which of the two communions had to do more compromising is a matter of debate; Rome insists there is no contradiction between the declaration and the Council of Trent). In complete contrast to the aforementioned Syllabus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church now says: 'Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, colour, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design.' Far from bearing any resemblance to the heretic-burners of centuries past, Pope Francis has stated that the death penalty is inadmissible for any crime regardless of seriousness.

While counterfactuals can't be known with certainty, it's difficult to imagine such a seeming about-face having taken place with a papacy still governing significant territories of its own and able to command the rulers of Europe. It's a challenge to reconcile today's Church with Pope Leo X's affirmation of heretic burning in Exsurge Domine or Pope Boniface VIII's insistence in Unam Sanctam that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff. Even if the trickier parts of medieval Catholic doctrine can be shuffled off to the side as applying only back then, it nevertheless means that there was a time when burning heretics and the political dominance of the papacy were correct. These are far from the only points of the Church's history that appear to conflict with its positions now, but they are the gravest. It seems to me that the likeliest cause of the differing character of the Church then and now is the difference between an organisation wielding immense temporal power and an organisation wielding very little. Lord Acton's oft-repeated adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely has attained the status of cliché, but less well known is that the Catholic Acton coined it in reference to the papacy.

As the oldest institution in the world, and one whose head has seen such a rise and fall in power accompanied by a concurrent development of doctrine, the Roman Catholic Church provides the most compelling case study on the intermingling of temporal power with the Christian faith, but as noted it's not unique in having visited persecutions upon heretics. Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were sadly ready to justify the killing of theological opponents, and most of Europe at one point or another has been willing to make their selected Socrates drink hemlock for their impiety. Even more perverse was the use of burning, among the most horrific methods of execution possible, and one for which Emperor Nero earned a reputation for unusual cruelty for its application to early Christians.

Once church and state became enmeshed (known as sacralism) and the head of the Church also became a temporal ruler, questions of faith in turn became combined with loyalty and treason. To declare oneself as differing on matters of religion was also to mark oneself out as a disturber of the peace and a troublemaker, if not an outright enemy of the state. The early English Reformation provides a stark example of this. Henry VIII, despite breaking with Rome, remained basically a Catholic in almost all doctrine except, crucially, accepting the Pope as head of the Church in England. To still accept the authority of the Pope was therefore to be a traitor to the state, but at the same time persecutions of anyone too Protestant were carried out under the Six Articles of 1539. The Articles affirmed various Catholic doctrines, while denial of them was punishable by hanging or imprisonment. As if to demonstrate that Henry was certainly no Protestant, the harshest penalty would be for denial of transubstantiation: death by burning. This situation led, on July 30th 1540, to a scene in Smithfield of three Protestants being burned and three Catholics being hanged, drawn and quartered. A foreign witness declared: 'Good Lord! How do these people live? Here are the papists hanged, there are the anti-papists burnt!'

It was a long, bumpy and blood-stained road for most countries to reach legal toleration and religious liberty. In all places across the centuries it is easy to regard those who stood by their beliefs knowing the fate that would await them as Christ's true saints; it is far harder to accept the same of those who sent them to their martyrdom.



Theology that seems definitional to Christianity was often actually disputed or undefined for hundreds of years after Christ and the Apostles. The Council of Nicaea in 325 finally defined the Trinity, and even then not without much wrangling and fallout. Emperor Constantine's understanding of baptism was such that he believed it was the point at which sins were forgiven, and so he postponed it until his deathbed. The better part of a century would pass from then until the concept of original sin was expounded by St Augustine; this concept was adopted by the Church, but it would be a millennium until his ideas on predestination were promoted by John Calvin. Throughout Christian history, the nature of the atonement, one would think perhaps the most important theological concept, has been in dispute; for many centuries the ransom theory was the most commonly held, while today many Protestants would be surprised that it has ever been understood as anything other than penal substitution. Despite developments in the faith though, the moral teachings, character and example of Jesus Christ have always been a constant, even if its application by those who claim to act in His name haven't been. On a personal level, while Christianity calls us to the highest standard of conduct, both as regards our actions but also as a moral restraint on our passions and a call to temperance, we can still rationalise our wrongdoing and behave hypocritically. That we fall short of a standard though is not a reflection on that standard but on our fallibility as humans in living up to it.

As an Anglican, it may be expected that I would hold C. S. Lewis in high esteem, and indeed I do. I have though long had an issue with a major argument in his well-regarded apologetic book Mere Christianity. Lewis argues that there is a moral law inherent in all people, and that this is evidence for God as Lawgiver. While I wouldn't say it's completely untrue, if we're to accept this entirely then we would also have to say that Christian society has been no different to what went before and has been no improvement from a moral standpoint. I reject this, and to accept it would be to diminish the recognition of the moral strides achieved by Christianity which are unmatched elsewhere. There is a necessary standard of moral conduct needed for a society to perpetuate, for people to have the impulse to raise children and live peaceably alongside others, but for this by itself to point to a God I find uncompelling; such a standard is a requirement for a species not to die out, so our very being here shows that it is something that must exist, whether by God or by natural selection. Lewis asserts the moral law he sees in all people is one above herd mentality, perhaps to forestall the counter that it can be explained naturalistically, as even many animals have inherent behaviours that allow them to form societies, but that there are minimum standards of right and wrong that are necessary for functioning societies doesn't mean that our whole standard of morality is universal and exists apart from Christianity, even if you can get someone from any culture to give the right answer to the trolley car problem. The challenge I have always given to anyone who believes Christianity is not the root of what we hold as good is to show a civilisation separate from the influence of Christianity or which predates it which held similar moral standards. Greek, Roman and eastern civilisations all had ancient wisdom which we would do well to heed and preserve, and many great individual thinkers, but an entire people accepting moral precepts similar to Christianity, however imperfectly applied (as has so often been the case with Christians themselves), is unknown.

Though I recognise that the close association of church and state in history has produced monstrous results, I am no disestablishmentarian. English history is far from unchequered on the question of religious toleration, but we have managed to have a state church while still allowing a measure of religious liberty for longer than most. Most Protestant nonconformists have been free to worship according to their consciences since the late 17th century, though it would unfortunately be well over a century later before emancipation was extended to Roman Catholics, a move aided by the declining status by that time of the Roman Church as a political actor. The easier co-existence of the Church of England with other Protestant faiths is perhaps aided by the nature of the communion; its Thirty-Nine Articles are not a confession to match Lutheranism's Book of Concord or the Westminster Confession of Faith held to by various Reformed denominations. As such, over time separate traditions have developed in the Church of England, making it the origin of the phrase 'broad church' – indeed, a little too broad for my liking these days. I regret that the declining prominence of the Church of England in the life of the country is fast reducing it to the status of relic, though I regret even more that the direction of influence has reversed such that the institution itself is being corrupted by modernity rather than being a Christian voice confronting it.

The cultural influence of Christianity is hard to deny. Few are so warped by postmodernism that they don't see the beauty of a cathedral of course, but the stories of the Bible continue to serve as reference points and analogy present in many people's minds, and Tyndale's translation of the Bible has provided many idioms to the English language that are in use to this day, often with the users unaware of the source. Even if we were to grant the Bible merely the status of a shared mythology, the richness that it has provided is displayed by the innumerable paintings and sculptures with their basis in biblical stories and characters, and in some of the finest music ever composed, from Handel to The Stone Roses. At the same time, often in this deconstructionist and irreverent culture biblical elements are co-opted and treated blasphemously which naturally is nothing to approve of, but it nevertheless still illustrates the enduring cultural hegemony of Christianity. As it's less tangible, the influence of the Christian faith on moral understanding that has passed down to the present day is easier to dismiss, but I maintain that it's every bit as influential as the more obvious cultural inheritance. My fear is that only when it's gone and as the last rays of light from its sunset die away will people recognise civilisation's most precious gift has been lost.

And this is the point: as Christianity is abandoned, we're not just going to go steady with the same moral understanding we received from it. Had it been that the decline of the faith wasn't accompanied by sweeping change, and had it not been almost exclusively Christians standing against things such as family breakdown and abortion, then I may not have recognised its necessity and returned to it. Even the pretence of the primacy of personal liberty which is invoked to justify the aforementioned evils is shattered when someone rejects the compulsion to use trans people's chosen pronouns or a church doesn't want to marry homosexuals.

The moral revolution has been underway for some time, and in seeking to define a new morality away from religion, we instead seem to be acquiring a selective egalitarianism, all too often graded according to neo-Marxist oppression categories. As such, far from being a building or development of the prior moral standards by recognising Christianity as the source of our understanding of right and wrong, we instead have a Fabianist slow overthrow of the previous ethical paradigm, and the past that can't be co-opted into a favoured narrative is condemned as bigoted and archaic by the tireless fringe and discarded. Any attempt to retcon our inherited moral precepts into a new framework has left them hopelessly warped; the new moral understanding is not Christianity Plus, but at best Christianity Minus. And yet, even now the self-justification for even the radical left is a bastardisation of loving thy neighbour; it just so happens that the degree of neighbourliness apportioned to someone depends on their positioning on the progressive stack. The disdain for Christianity feigns being more Christian that the Christians, as demonstrated occasionally when a leftist invokes Jesus as being a socialist or a refugee or a revolutionary or whatever values they want to project onto Him to suit their purposes in condemning those who actually care about following Him. What's more, we'll be in even more uncharted and dark territory than just the moral mess that the expulsion of Christian ethics itself will lead to; that bond of commonality in having a shared heritage will too be broken, and the multiculturalist influx we've been subject to for decades will make that future position all the worse.

Those of us who see how far we have drifted in such a short time from Christian morality can only regard with disbelief the insistence of the new atheists and their acolytes that Christianity isn't required to be good. At the other end of the scale from the highly intellectualised overthrow of moral standards characterised by the likes of Peter Singer, the thief and the common thug live out the practical results of internalised default atheism as more and more are born into societies abandoning their ethical foundation. One quote that stuck with me and helped stir up the cognitive dissonance the led me back to Christianity was by, of all people, Voltaire: 'I want my attorney, my tailor, my valets and even my wife to believe in God, and I fancy that then I'll be robbed and cuckolded less.'

Christians haven't done bad things because they were Christian – they've done bad things because they were human. That Christianity became entangled with and co-opted by human nature, in turn leading to the familiar catalogue of moral repugnancies conducted in the faith's name, does not itself besmirch the faith. Rather it is Christianity to thank not only for so many of the good and moral things we recognise, but even that we recognise them at all. The bad things in the history of Christianity have been the norm in one way or another throughout all human history, often more copiously so. The good in Christianity and the moral revolution it brought about are unique – and it's a heritage so ingrained that it's now tacitly understood as the default.

As with so many groups where documenters of history have had an axe to grind, the Anabaptists have often been portrayed as violent; when one considers the farcical story of the short-lived Anabaptist theocracy in Münster, there is some justification in this, but from Cathars to Catholics and everyone in-between, portrayals of entire denominations by opponents as irredeemably violent and obviously fundamentally unchristian have been all too common and should be viewed with scepticism. In 1569, a Dutch Anabaptist named Dirk Willems escaped the prison where he was being held for the practice of his faith. As he fled he crossed a frozen pond, a pond across which a pursuing guard attempted to follow but instead broke through the ice. As his pursuer called for help, Willems turned back and saved the man's life, and as such ensured his recapture and ultimately his execution by burning. Whether Willems was right or wrong in his rejection of infant baptism, there can be no doubt that in choosing to go to his horrible death by saving the life of his enemy, he emulated the character of Jesus Christ more courageously and clearly than most of us will ever approach. The world would certainly be in better shape if more people lived these ideals. As the witty, brilliant and redoubtable Roman Catholic author G.K. Chesterton once wrote: 'The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.'


Inspired by this article on the same subject in the Catholic Herald by friend of Excvbitor Niall Gooch

Jonathan Headington

Co-founder & Editor of Excvbitor and YouTuber at Headhunters Media


Twitter: @IonathanRex


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