Stories Society Tells Itself

Christendom’s Blood

A dominant narrative, propagated by secular humanists and the Commentariat, is that the historical Christian church has been a notoriously bloody institution.  Moreover, it took the Age of Enlightenment to push the church back into cultural irrelevance so that the blood-letting would stop.

Swirls of cynicism should be layered upon this narrative, since it was the Enlightenment’s Voltaire himself who declaimed history as “a trick the living play upon the dead”.  In other words, modern narratives of the past inevitably serve the end of contemporary propaganda.  It’s how one becomes accredited and a celebrated historian after all.It’s for this reason, since we live in a world dominated by the Modern and Post-Modern Commentariat, that we tend to have a more-then-passing interest in iconoclastic historians that challenge the prevailing narratives of our day.

Clearly there have been times in the history of the West where the Christian church was guilty of shedding blood, bearing the power of the sword illegitimately and evilly.  But the question begged is whether such behaviour was characteristic or uncharacteristic, intrinsic to the history of the Christian church or an aberration.

David Bentley Hart argues that whilst such blood-letting did occur at the hands of the church, it was uncharacteristic.  It only occurred at such times as when the state, civil governments, were increasing and centralising their power.

It was perfectly natural for pagan Roman society to regard piety toward the gods and loyalty of the empire as essentially inseparable, and for Roman courts to institute extraordinary inquisitions and to execute atheists as traitors.  But when, in 385, a Roman emperor (or pretender, really) executed the Spanish bishop Priscillian for heresy, Christians as eminent as St. Martin of Tour and St. Ambrose of Milan protested, recognizing in such an act the triumph of a pagan value and of a special kind of pagan brutality; and none of the church fathers ever promoted or approved of such measures. 

During the so-called Dark Ages, in fact, the only penalty for obdurate heresy was excommunication.  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however–when the liaison between the church and temporal power was unbreakable, and the papacy was a state unto itself, and the Holy Roman Empire was asserting its claims to the prerogatives of the old imperial order . . . heresy once again became a capital crime throughout Western Europe.  To its credit, perhaps, the (Roman) Catholic Church did not actually lead the way in this matter . . . . To its everlasting discredit, however, the church did soon follow the fashion.  When the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) passed laws dictating the surrender of all convicted heretics to the secular arm, for burning at the stake, the institutional church’s compliance was encumbered by no obvious signs of unquiet conscience. . . .

The long history of Christendom . . . . has also been a history of a constant struggle between the power of the gospel to alter and shape society and the power of the state to absorb every useful institution unto itself. . . . (W)e see that violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished.

We also find that early medieval society, for all its privations, inequities, and deficiencies, was in most ways far more just, charitable, and (ultimately) peaceful than the imperial culture it succeeded, and, immeasurably more peaceful and even more charitable . . . than the society created by the early modern triumph of the nation state.  David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 86ff.

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