With the loving example of Jesus in front of us we have to admit that much of what the various churches did through history was unmitigated evil. We make ourselves ridiculous if we try to defend the massacre of Jewish & Muslim men, women & children when the 1st crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099; or defend the burning of churches full of supposedly heretic Christian Cathars in southern France in the early 13C; both of which and many more were committed under a Christian banner, with leaders claiming a Christian motivation and sanctified by the head of the Western church. With a less superstitious understanding we understand this as plain evil and a gross distortion of Jesus’ teaching of the vilest kind. And yet, and yet, without some form of formal organisation it is hard to know what might have come down the ages to a time when it clearer that Christians are at the heart of much of the good of the great 20C charities and disaster relief agencies. Perhaps we just have to accept the distortions done in the name of Jesus and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It didn’t have to have happened that way though; and we have to be clear that ordinary people, be they Christian, Jew, Moslem are capable of great kindness to each other. It is however in the institution set up to sustain and promulgate the message where criticism must be directed.


Carrying on the theme of the source of those misguided ideas, which themselves led to evil acts, one can postulate that the germ of a change came when Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion of the Roman empire. It has been suggested that the early church – that community of people who committed to the teachings of Jesus – was heavily based or influenced by women; and women tend as a rule to care for individuals. When the church becomes ‘official’ it becomes a source of power, and power traditionally attracts men. From this point a downward spiral is seen and power is seen as necessary to preserve the purity of belief – which as discussed in the very first section is a distortion and misunderstanding of what Jesus said.

The actions of the 13C Albignesian crusade demonstrate the unmitigated evil done by and in the name of the church like few others. One of the periodic reactions against wide scale corruption and venality within the Western church flared up in the south west of what is now France, in the area called Languedoc. The pattern of belief which took stock were influenced by ideas which had been current, but deemed heretical, in the early church and that were still swirling around in the area of the Byzantine empire (modern Greece, Turkey, Irag & Iran in particular). Simplified, this concept, which is called dualism and which emerges in other faiths too, was of a good God of spirit and a bad God of material things. The earth and the world in which we live was under the suzerainty of the bad God and the objective of men and women was to behave in so perfect a way as to be reborn in the spirit world. Critically, the Cathar belief pattern threatened the power base of the Western church and the fact that it lead men & women to live in ways more consistent with Jesus and his early followers would have been considered irrelevant. 

The crusade launched in 1209 was marked by brutaility and horror. The entire population, 20,000 inhabitants, of Beziers were massacred (a far far more significant element of the population than 20,000 would be today) with the legend being that when asked how the crusaders could tell between Cathar and Catholic, the Papal legate Arnold Amaury replied “kill them all. God will know his own”. Later in the crusade would see the biggest mass burning of its day – 400 of the leading individuals within the town being captured; and these are just two examples of what happened in the name of God.

Then again when the first crusade entered Jerusalem the description goes that the crusaders were wading knee deep in blood as they massacred the Moslem and Jewish inhabitants. In the years after 9/11, when opinion in the West and in the US in particular was demonising Islam, Ridley Scott made a film called the Kingdom of Heaven; and however many factual inaccuracies there were in the film – and there were (!!!) – he was correct to conveying the words & actions of Saladin in recapturing Jerusalem from the nearly 100 year old crusader kingdom of Outremer in NOT permitting a massacre in reprisal. In the film Saladin is given the words to the effect that “we will show them that we are better than that” – a fair rendering of what is known to have been said.

It is easy to put these horrific and barbaric actions down to a superstitious and barbaric time in history; however we are talking about a time when the actions of the church took the lead in misguided bigotry rather than mitigated its effect. In general through history Karen Armstrong in her ‘Fields of Blood’ makes a good case that fundamentally the sources of war are not religion and that religion tends to mitigate the worst effects of power politics; but the actions in the name of God in the medieval era, and at a time when learning & medicine flourished among the Moslems of the East, seem to have enhanced the barbarity and they remain a stain throughout history.

Then again the Jews too suffered through repeated pogram after pogram throughout Europe; and one has to ask again and again “where was the love of God in any of the actions of the church then. The counter may come that individual Christians probably responded kindly to each other, but then people at a local scale often do anyway. What was the organisation setup to promulgate the ministry of Jesus doing to tip the balance of human kind from the evil that men can do to the good which they can also do? The answer has to be ‘very little’ at best and ‘absolutely nothing’ at worst.

Unquestionably the great monastic orders preserved some of what was left of the Roman empire through dark times ahead and unquestionably they were influential in setting up the world as we know it. The questions needs to be asked though whether, had what they preserved not been available to the West, the world would necessarily have been a worse ‘less loving’ place?

Coming forward to the second half of 20C we see examples of both an ineffectual & irrelevant church: where small scale politics & infighting characterise local parishes; where numerous child based bodies being accused of child abuse of the worst kind; and where recent memory is of the power exerted by parish priests rather than love (in Roman Catholic Ireland in particular). The question that needs to be asked here is of how COULD the loving nature of God as demonstrated by Jesus have been so distorted?

It is perhaps in the mass disaster relief agencies of the 20C, many of which were Christian based and most of which were the product of a Christian centred world, that we see love being the primary function of Christian people rather than salvation with love as a side effect; and yes we have the example of the care of the Quakers in the 17C and one convent order in 15C Italy setup to minister for the poor which cannot be ignored, but we also have to understand just how far we as an organised faith have been from the example of Jesus throughout history.

There is however an “and yet” moment. To offer some balance and some defence for the faith I will turn to a more intensely personal style of writing and say that in my own experience those occasions where people have gone over and beyond the level of ordinary human kindness have tended to have a root somewhere in Christian faith; and of note, at one manufacturing company I managed it was little surprise to me when I found that those key individuals I trusted implicitly were active Christians. Going to a wider scale when one reads of individuals going over and above what might be expected I, personally, have often found a Christian element. I am not trying to argue that the good offsets the bad or that ‘going the extra mile’ is purely a Christian characteristic. All I am trying to do is offset the bad I have myself laid before you. At the end of the day perhaps my own motivation is the same same as that of Puddleglum’s in the earlier section on the subject of love – see http://theos.philsimister.com/more/the-reason-for-creation-the-universe-everything-is-love-more/ – and leads me to insist of the fundamental rightness of belief in the God who ‘is’ and the God who ‘is’ as he is in Jesus.

The negative is spilt milk now however and that incredibly sour spilt milk should not stop us trying to getting back to what the example of Jesus of Nazareth means about our understanding of God. We need to recognise the good and stop the bad ever happening again. Oh and perhaps be a little bit more humble before we throw mud at other faiths that might perhaps be going through an infinitely less dark period in their history.

Categories: Q&A