When I was a kid, my dad repeatedly told me a story about a time he came into conflict wth a co-worker over something and was subsequently proven wrong. “Remember, you can be absolutely sure you’re right and still be wrong,” he said.
Wise words. I won’t comment on whether or not he himself learned that lesson (there was just the one story in which he was wrong…), and frankly it’s a lesson most of us fail to learn, but the lesson itself is valuable.
I think it’s one with which a lot of religious people struggle. Speaking from my religious experience, a lot of Christian people.
A few cases in point.
In 1633, the Catholic Church convicted Italian scientist Galileo Galilei of heresy and sentenced him to life imprisonment (later commuted to house arrest) because he was a student of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system, which established the sun, not the earth as its center, a view the church declared was “wrong and contrary to the Scriptures.”
(By the way, the sun is indeed the center of solar system, in case you were wondering).
Martin Luther was excommunicated by the church and fled for his life in 1521 after issuing his 95 Theses, which denounced the Catholic church as the sole authority on scripture and argued that salvation was found through grace alone and that individuals could read and study scripture for themselves.
Galileo and Luther actually got off easy. Many others over a span of hundreds of years were burned at the stake by Christian authorities (Protestant and Catholic) for various heresies that today we would consider benign if not correct belief. Then there are the millions of Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, Africans and others who refused to convert to Christianity and were consequently killed, enslaved, or driven from the land. Luther himself advocated violence against unrepentant Jews (there’s an unfortunate pattern in church history — and human history more broadly — of the oppressed becoming oppressors. Speaking of which…)
The Puritans fled England for America under threat of persecution for their faith, which deviated from the Anglican church orthodoxy. Once comfortably established in their very own colony — which they aimed to be a model Christian society — they persecuted others, including Quakers and Baptists, for their incorrect beliefs, forcing many to leave Puritan colonies. The Puritans also executed 19 innocent people — people on society’s fringes, the sorts of people who so often are victimized — on flimsy evidence of being witches. (I’m not sure there is any solid evidence that could be presented for being a witch, really).
The Southern Baptist church, the largest Protestant denomination in the US and the most identifiable force behind the modern evangelical movement, began in 1845 when southern Baptists split off from the national denomination over its refusal to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. One leader of the offshoot movement wrote that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” They declared abolition sinful and against Scripture, citing biblical guidance for the master-slave relationship, the slaveholding of biblical figures, and the absence of any explicit condemnation of the institution in the Bible. With the defeat of the Confederacy, southern Christians were despondent, with one Louisianan writing, “I fear the subjugation of the South will make an infidel of me. I cannot see how a just God can allow people who have battled so heroically for their rights to be overthrown.”
After the Civil War, Southern Baptist leaders and members participated in large numbers in the Ku Klux Klan, which marauded around the South, using terror, violence, and murder to return blacks to a de facto state of slavery. The convention did not denounce lynchings until the 1930’s, after the murders of thousands of blacks, in which many Southern Baptists had no doubt participated, had already convinced millions more to flee to northern cities. The Southern Baptist Convention took no formal position on civil rights, and some leaders did support the movement, but many more pastors and congregations were vehemently opposed to integration well into the 1970’s and a few even beyond that.
(As a bit of a side note, the Convention formally apologized for its support of slavery and segregation in 1995, although since then, it hasn’t exactly championed racial justice and equality; most recently, the convention declared Critical Race Theory incompatible with scripture, without defining what CRT is or asking the opinion of a single black pastor in their midst. There are now fewer in their midst, because some have walked out as a consequence.)
At the time, all of these Christians and church authorities were absolutely, 100% sure they were absolutely, 100% right about absolutely, 100% of everything. Not just right — they were righteous, holy, divinely ordained. Their interpretation of scripture was correct, to the point that it wasn’t even interpretation! Don’t even call it that!!! It was just reading plain words on the page, clear as day!!! And those who disagreed and opposed them, sometimes other Christians, sometimes not, were wrong, evil, tools of the devil, threats to the church and the souls of many. They misinterpreted scripture, or just trashed it altogether.
When people have this black-and-white view of themselves, their faith, the world and the people in it — and particularly if it is married to any sort of power — is it any wonder violence resulted in so many cases? Of course many people were hurt in many kinds of ways. Of course some people died. Of course there were atrocities committed that became a stain on our history. Because the targets of these attacks ceased to be fellow Christians, even fellow humans, and became the enemy, of God himself. Of course they had to be defeated and destroyed. Of course.
It bears mentioning that there are plenty of examples of this same phenomenon in other religions and in secular contexts as well. The Bolshevik Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, the Taliban, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Nazis…pretty much any authoritarian movement….pretty much any theocratic endeavor. There is plenty of intolerance to be had in human society. As someone who has come out of evangelicalism and now lives in mainly liberal circles, I am often horrified/amused to meet the liberal/progressive versions of the same archetypes from my Southern Baptist upbringing. At times, I feel myself becoming that, becoming the mirror image of everything I despised about my religious culture of origin.
But I’m picking on conservative Christians, first, because they are still “my people,” though I’ve wandered afield. Second, I’ve seen their more lovely side, and I believe they can do far better as representatives of the Christian faith, one that I still share, than they are doing right now. And lastly, and most tragically, I’ve come to believe “my people” have unwittingly become one of the more destructive forces in our society. It pains me to say that, but I can’t avoid that conclusion, not when the mob at the Capitol a few weeks ago waved all manner of Christian symbols mixed easily with white supremacist ones and so many Christians I know are excusing the rioters, if not defending them outright, as well as perpetuating the outright, disprovable lies that precipitated the mob in the first place.
But if God is for us, and if we are 100% convinced of that fact, not only can no one be against us, not only are our enemies evil, whoever is on our team is blameless. Even if he is literally the poster boy of poor character and the least Christ-like person you could ever imagine. No, we will believe a proven fraudster with a decades-long track record of dishonesty and unethical practice over all other evidence and our own good sense, because he is on our side, and therefore God’s side. And if God is for us, and the culture in which we live and the government over it doesn’t go our way, well, why shouldn’t we form a mob and do things by force? When our ends are so righteous, why is there even a discussion about means? Why do we even need democracy? It is a nuisance at best, satanic at worst.
Dear evangelical friends, I’m not saying you are necessarily wrong about the specific political and moral issues at stake, not at all (you’re wrong about the election results, but that isn’t some squishy moral conundrum, it’s an objective fact, according to all available evidence). I’m just saying you could be wrong, you might be wrong, and asking that you consider that possibility. Be humbled by your history. We can all be wrong, really, really wrong. Even Christians. And they have been, over and over and over.
I’m saying that instead of rushing into battle with “the enemy,” you might stop for a second, listen, learn, consider the other side. I know you hold scripture dear as divine revelation. But there are other revelations to be had. There are other facts to be gathered, not to contradict scripture, but to inform your reading of it. The sun might turn out to be the center of the solar system. The slave might actually be your brother (even literally, based on how slavery worked). Even your enemies might teach you something God wants you to learn.
Yes, even the gays.
Especially the gays (insert gay stereotype joke referencing fashion and interior design).
You might even find common ground.
Yes, even on abortion.
Especially on abortion.
The other side wants some things that will prevent abortion. Things that empower women and make motherhood more possible.
And as kind of a cheap parting shot, sorry/not sorry — If your denomination LITERALLY STARTED IN DEFENSE OF SLAVERY, then spent the next almost 150 years getting race completely, utterly, horribly wrong, maybe, just maybe, you might walk into that space a little more humbly? You might try to find out what the big deal is about racial injustice. You might, I dunno, even repent for real and actually make it a priority for your church?
Crazy thought, I know.