One of the issues that surfaced through Operation Greylord was this: when the history of Chicago is written, will the crimes of Wayne Olson and other corrupt court officials be seen as anomalies in an otherwise honest system of justice? In other words, is the criminal justice apparatus fundamentally untainted and impartial except for those rare blemishes that have occurred when a rogue judge has tried to cash in for himself?
Or are Olson and his cronies symptomatic of widespread and systematic corruption that has corroded the very DNA of Justice in Cook County? Is the court system compromised to its core by extortion and favoritism, so that Olson's case was actually a window into "business as usual" among the local judiciary?
Essentially these same questions could be asked about Christianity. Christians tend to see the instances of church abuse and violence through the centuries as anomalies in an otherwise positive institution. Critics, however, are more apt to see travesties like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials as illustrative of a deeper problem: that Christianity itself is tainted to its core by a power-hungry desire to impose its will on others-even through violence and exploitation, if necessary. One of modern history's most famous atheists, Bertrand Russell, said this was inevitable:
As soon as absolute truth is supposed to be contained in the sayings of a certain man, there is a body of experts to interpret his sayings, and these experts infallibly acquire power, since they hold the key to truth. Like any other privileged caste, they use their power for their own advantage They become necessarily opponents of all intellectual and moral progress.6
Certainly the atrocities committed in the name of Jesus have been lightning rods for opponents to the faith. Said Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg: "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."7
Abuses by the church were one factor that promoted Ken Schei to take the oxymoronic step of founding an organization called "Atheists for Jesus," which endorses what it calls Jesus' "message of love and kindness" without embracing him as God or the church as his institution.
Charles Templeton's distaste for much of what has happened through churches was evident in our conversation as well as in his writings. While conceding that organized religion has done "immeasurable good," he charged that it "has seldom been at its best. Too often it has been a negative influence Across the centuries and on every continent, Christians-the followers of the Prince of Peace-have been the cause of and involved in strife."8 For example, he likened the church during the Middle Ages to "a terrorist organization."9
Is that assessment warranted by the historical data? Is it possible for Christians to defend themselves against the brutal bloodbath of the Crusades and the cruel torture of the Inquisition? Do these examples of violence and exploitation represent a persistent pattern of behavior that should justifiably prompt spiritual seekers to steer clear of organized religion?
These are troubling questions, but fortunately I didn't have to travel very far to get some answers. One of Christianity's leading historians lived less than an hour from my home when I resided in suburban Chicago.
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