What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Dark Side of Christian History III

The saga of misdeeds performed by seemingly committed Christians is not only out there in places like Germany, Spain, France, and Rwanda. America has its own questionable history. One incident that is frequently mentioned is the Salem Witch Trials, which occurred in colonial Massachusetts in 1692-1693. Over that time period several hundred people, both men and women, and including small children, were accused of witchcraft. Some twenty were executed and others died in prison. What is particularly horrifying is that these executions all occurred in a relatively small twin community where people largely knew each other, and they were encouraged and supported by the famous preacher Cotton Mather. The communities of Salem Village and Salem Town were, in fact, rather fractious to begin with. Personal vendettas, combined with some extreme views regarding the operations of Satan in everyday life, led to an escalating situation in which many people seem to have been falsely accused, and many people wrongly executed. Torture, even of children, was at times used to gain both confessions and accusations. While such witch trials in colonial America were not unique to Salem, Massachusetts, the scale of the Salem witch trials was unprecedented and led to the general rejection of “theocracy” as a model for American government. On the positive side, the biblical requirements of “two or three witnesses” led the church to see that these trials and executions were not based on sound religion, so the church belatedly brought them to an end after a year and several months. But that intervention could not recall the toll in lives and in the emotional and spiritual consequences of these witch trials.

As we will see, slavery was pretty much the norm around the world until movements in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries finally brought it to an end. But before that, the slave trade was often practiced even in Protestant lands and was frequently justified by the misuse of biblical texts. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery was brought to an end in America, but continued on for another hundred years in a different form through segregation and the power of the lynching tree. While lynching usually took place in the hours of darkness, at times it occurred in the light of day with the full blessing of Protestant churches and pastors. And the consequences of slavery and its aftermath still impact African-American communities to this day. In South Africa, apartheid became official government policy in the Twentieth Century, with the strong support of the prevailing Protestant church.

From the Fifteenth through the Twentieth Centuries, colonialism was the public manifestation of the “Enlightenment” sense that white Europeans were inherently superior to others in science, technology, and even religion. While some Christians in general and many Adventists in particular, protested the exploitation of native peoples around the world, Christian missions often benefitted from and participated in activities that led to the marginalization of many non-European cultures around the world. To this day, lighter-skinned people often expect and get preferential treatment around the world, a lingering legacy of colonialism. And this legacy has resulted in some non-Christian cultures claiming the moral high ground in their interactions with the Christian West.

The above examples are probably sufficient to show that I am well aware of the kinds of accusations leveled against the Christian church today and of the validity of many of those accusations. There is much more that could be said, including the exploitation of child labor in England during the Industrial Revolution and the corrupt behavior of some television evangelists and their treatment of women. One could also add the sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse of children by clergy, most prominently Roman Catholic priests. All of this must be acknowledged as part of the legacy of Christianity. As a result, unprecedented numbers of young people in the West have abandoned religion entirely and often all faith in God. The Asins of the church@ are used as an excuse to reject Jesus and all the good He brought to the world.

But is the whole story really being told? Would the world really be better off if Jesus had never been born? A good historical researcher will not be limited by one side of the story, but will consider the whole body of evidence. Based on the whole body of evidence, I would argue that Jesus= life and teaching unleashed more innovation and positive outcomes than any other human being in all of history. But before we get to that more positive story, I want to explore the question of why? If the impact of Jesus’ life and teachings is so positive, why have so many of His followers had such a negative impact on the world?

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