Book review: Bullies and Saints. An Honest Look at The Good and Evil of Christian History by John Dickson.
In its first three hundred years, the Christian Church took seriously Jesus` injunction to do good to those who hate you, since they, too, are made in the image of God. In these centuries, the Church was solidly pacifist. In a manual dated about 200 AD, it laid down that if a fully instructed and baptised Christian “wishes to become a soldier, let him be cast out… for he has despised God.” [p.127] About one hundred years later, the Christian apologist Lactantius, wrote that “a just man may not be a soldier.”
Why did the Church change? The first emperor to become a Christian, Constantine [d. 337 AD], had something to do with it, but the change did not come till about fifty years after his death. The great agent of change was St Ambrose [339-97 AD]. Most Christians had come from the lower class, but St. Ambrose came from the top, senatorial class. He was an elite statesman, experienced legislator, friend of emperors, as well as a Christian convert, poet and preacher. He, at the top of the church, inter-acted with the people at the top of government, and such inter-action continued. From this came St. Augustine`s doctrine of the just war, about 410 AD: so long as fighting is absolutely necessary, and peace is the goal, war can be good. St Augustine was anything but a warmonger. As a bishop, he oversaw farms producing food for the poor, and used church funds to free slaves.
This combination of work for the public good and support for organised state violence was to be repeated in Christian history. Thus Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. In 782 AD he had ordered the be-heading of more than 4,500 “Saxons” [they were from north-east Germany] and later deported 10,000 men from there with their wives and children in small groups to France and Germany. Thus were the Saxons pacified. But, as well, Charlemagne established a massive educational program of schools and other centres of learning.
Similarly, Cardinal Ximenez of Spain [1436-1517] did exemplary work in reforming the church in Spain. He did it intelligently and peacefully, rectifying abuses in the religious orders and modernising scholarship. But he also established the Inquisition. In 1492 the Spaniards drove the Moors from Spain, but the government was worried about the loyalty of those who had become Christians and remained in the country. The Inquisition was founded to investigate them.
In its first fifty years the Inquisition killed about two thousand people and in the next two hundred and fifty years, about three thousand. In the Thirty Years War in Germany there were considerably more, twenty thousand in the siege of Magdeburg alone. They were all a travesty in a church whose founder had instructed its members to love their enemies and do good to those who hated them.
As an aid to perspective, Dickson points out that resolutely secular regimes had a far worse record of violence. Thus, in that expression of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, in the nine-month period of the Terror, seventeen thousand men and women were killed. In the communist regimes in Russia, China, and Cambodia, untold millions died in the attempt to make the ideal society.
Dickson shows that Christianity had a strong social conscience from the beginning. Hospitals seem to have been a Christian invention. The first was established in Turkey between 368 and 372 AD. By the thirteenth century, there were thousands of European hospitals, leprosaria and similar shelters for the needy.
The book excels in its description of the first thousand years of Christianity. It spread so rapidly that Emperor Nero found it plausible to blame Christians for the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. In the first thousand years, there was a succession of reform movements, sufficient to dispel the myth of the Dark Ages.
The book is enlightening and always readable.
Published by Zondervan Reflective. Grand Rapids. Michigan. 2021. pp.328. $24.99
ISBN 978 – 0 – 310 – 11937 -1
Reg Naulty, Canberra and Region Quakers.