Confessing The Churchs Sins

"As far back as 1994," I began, "Pope John Paul II called upon the church to acknowledge the dark side of its history' and said: 'How can one remain silent about the many forms of violence perpetrated in the name of the faith-wars of religion, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons?"ii Isn't it true that the church through the centuries has intentionally glossed over these instances of abuse?"

As he listened, Woodbridge sat with his elbows on the table and his hands laced together in front of him. He analyzed my question for a few moments before responding.

"I think the Pope's statement is courageous," he replied, "because he is acknowledging that the Roman Catholic church has glossed over some things that have been done in the name of Christ and which are obviously fodder for criticism of Christianity in general.

"I would quickly add, though, that we should be careful in using the expression 'the church,' because that gives the impression that there has only been one representative institution of Christianity. I would make a clear line of demarcation between people who are part of 'the church'-people who are the sheep who hear the shepherd's voice and would be true Christiansand the institutional churches," he said, emphasizing the plural of that last word.

"Now, obviously," he added, "there are many, many true Christians who are in the visible churches, but Just because a person is part of a church doesn't necessarily mean he or she is a follower of Jesus. Some people are cultural Christians but not authentic Christians."

I squinted with skepticism. "Isn't that a bit of twenty-first century revisionism?" I asked. "That makes it rather easy to look back and say that all of the atrocities committed in the name of

Christianity were actually perpetrated by those who said they were Christians but who really weren't. That seems like a convenient escape hatch."

"0h, no, this distinction isn't new," he insisted. "In fact, it goes back to Jesus himself." He reached for his Bible, which was hidden beneath some stray papers, and read the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew:

"Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'"i2

Looking up from the book, Woodbridge said, "So Jesus talked about this distinction two millennia ago. And certainly through the centuries much has been done in the name of Christianity that does not reflect his teachings.

"For example, Adolph Hitler tried to color his movement as being Christian, but obviously he didn't represent what Jesus stood for. When theologian Karl Barth was asked to begin a lecture in Germany by saying, 'Heil Hitler,' he replied, 'It's pretty hard to say, 'Heil Hitler' just before you're exegeting the Sermon on the Mount!' Those two things just don't go together. So if we accept this distinction, then we can more accurately analyze some of the things that have been attributed to the Christian faith."

I remained dubious. "So you're saying that if something bad was done in history, it couldn't have been committed by authentic Christians?"

"No, no, I'm not suggesting that," Woodbridge replied. "The Bible makes it clear that because of our sinful nature, we continue to do things as Christians that we shouldn't. We're not perfect in this world. And unfortunately, some of the evil deeds committed through history may have, indeed, been committed by Christians. When that has happened, they've acted contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

"At the same time, we should recognize that there has often been a minority voice that has spoken out against abuses that some institutional churches have perpetrated. For instance, I was just reading this morning that during Spain's colonization of Latin America, there were Roman Catholics who were appalled at how native peoples were being exploited for economic purposes in the name of Christ. They said, 'No, you can't do that!' These Christians were willing to speak out against abuses by representatives of the state or church."

"Let's get back to the Pope's statement," I said. "Is it appropriate at this point in history to be confessing the past sins of the church?"

"Yes, it's totally appropriate to admit that some things Christians have done are, in fact, sins. The Bible tells us to confess our sins. Confession should be one of the hallmarks of Christians-a willingness to admit fault, seek forgiveness, and endeavor to change our ways in the future. In fact, it's not just the Pope who is doing this. In the Southern Baptist Convention there was a recent initiative to acknowledge that early Southern Baptists had badly erred concerning the issue of slavery, and a few years ago a Canadian Lutheran group apologized to Jews for anti-Semitism in Martin Luther's writings."

"As a historian, can you see why skeptics seize upon the abuses from church history as arguments against Christianity or as a way to attack the faith?"

"Oh, I can understand that," he replied. "Unfortunately, certain incidents in history have created cynicism in some people toward Christianity. At the same time, there are a number of misleading stereotypes about what Christians have and haven't done. Some critics have attacked a cultural Christianity, failing to grasp that it is not an authentic Christianity.

"This has been one of our problems for centuries. Voltaire was a major critic of Christianity, yet when he went to England he ran into some Quakers and Presbyterian Christians and was very impressed by their faith. So there can be an institutional form of Christianity that sometimes repels people, while authentic expressions of faith can be quite attractive when non-Christians encounter them."

With that background, I decided to go back to the dawning of Christianity and then move ahead through history by hitting some of the most disturbing episodes that have been attributed to the faith.

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