Tag Archives: murder

You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

In other posts, I have occasionally reminded Christian readers of this excerpt from Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15-23):

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. . . . A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. . . . Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not . . . done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me . . . .”

Christian or not, it seems advisable to check oneself and one’s beliefs and projects, to make sure there has not been slippage between what was supposed to happen and what is actually happening.

What was supposed to happen, in Christianity, was the development of a religion reflecting the priorities that Jesus set forth during his time on Earth. In that same Sermon, he expressed one such priority: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or, as expressed in Romans 13:9-10, “[T]he commandments . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love for others is an important theme throughout the New Testament. It does seem reasonable to ask whether the project of Christianity has indeed been Christlike in the particular sense of demonstrating love for one’s neighbor. The answer is very much in the negative. The remainder of this post provides historical examples, some continuing into the present.

In my experience, Christians do not like to read this sort of thing. Certainly they are not big on preaching it and learning from it. To the contrary, they seem confident that, unlike all the generations of believers before them, they are different. They are better. They are not supporters of a disgusting religion.

That may be true of certain individuals and even of certain Christian denominations. And let us not deny that religious belief can have positive effects upon people and communities. Whether the positives outweigh the negatives is a topic worth discussing. The following evidence suggests that, over the 2,000-year history of Christian belief, the overall answer would be no: the Christian project started going off the rails within its first few centuries; it was enormously harmful for more than a thousand years; and it has become prettier and more tolerable in recent centuries only because secular political and intellectual pressures have reduced its control over daily life.

What I offer here is, obviously, only a fraction of the evidence on those matters. If any reader feels that the evidence does not support the conclusions just stated, I am open to comments and, time permitting, I will investigate further and revise this post as needed. For now, the material presented below is provided just to make clear that Christianity has been really terrible, in many ways, throughout its history.

In my view, as I say, the core problem lies in Christianity’s longstanding determination, very much against the advice of Jesus, to prioritize a lawyerly, text-oriented approach to the words of the New Testament, and on that basis to disregard the key Christlike priority: love of one’s neighbor.

Torture, Murder, and War

This section drew the bulk of my attention, as it seems to address the most extremely violent outrages committed in the name of Jesus. These are just a few examples, starting shortly after Christianity obtained political power during the Roman Empire.

  • Roman Emperor Theodosius I (380) ordered,

It is our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans . . . . We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, . . . shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative . . . .

[T]he successors of Constantine were ever persuaded that the first concern of imperial authority was the protection of religion and so, with terrible regularity, issued many penal edicts against heretics. In the space of fifty seven years sixty-eight enactments were thus promulgated. All manner of heretics were affected by this legislation, and in various ways, by exile, confiscation of property, or death.

  • Charlemagne (774) defeated the Saxons and gave them a choice: be baptized or be killed.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges widespread public demand, by ordinary Christians in the Middle Ages, for heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake.
  • Wikipedia on the Crusades (primarily occurring in the 11th to 13th centuries):

Crusaders often pillaged as they travelled . . . . During the People’s Crusade, thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. . . . The Crusades also reinforced the connection between Western Christendom, feudalism, and militarism.

  • The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled,

Secular authorities . . . shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled . . . to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church . . . .

  • Wikipedia reports that the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) resulted in countless tortures and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 executions by the Church. The Catholic Encylopedia admits that even witnesses were tortured.
  • I encountered and verified some claims by a site called Heretication (which, later, I found was probably based on a webpage in the Bad News About Christianity website).  Having determined that the claims I investigated were supported by other sources, I was inclined to believe other Heretication claims, including these:

The Waldensians . . . were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries. 150 were burned at Grenoble in a single day in 1393. . . . Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman Catholic mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned, some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Some were dragged along the ground until [their] flesh was scraped away. One at least was literally minced. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in various ways before the eyes of their parents. . . .

The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of belief. . . . Pope Innocent III . . . said that those who interpret literally Jesus’ statements about limiting their statements to a straight Yes or No were heretics worthy of death . . . . In 1229 Pope Gregory IX . . . [organized] a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. . . . The whole population was exterminated. . . .

It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric, to refuse to pay Church taxes, or to deny that money lending was sinful. . . . Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for such behaviour as claiming that Christ and the apostles had not owned property, preaching absolute poverty, wearing traditional hoods and habits and refusing to lay up stores of food. The Apostolicals, a sect founded in 1300, tried to live like the apostles. The luckier ones were burned at the stake like the sect’s founder, but others suffered worse fates. Dulcino of Novara, the successor to the founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks, as was his wife. . . . Cecco d’Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for having calculated the date of Jesus’ birth using the stars. . . . Heresy still covered everything from refusing to take oaths to refusal to pay church tithes. Any deviation from Church norms was enough to merit death: vegetarianism, the rejection of infant baptism, even holding the (previously orthodox) view that people should be given both bread and wine at Mass.

In 1482, under Pope Sixtus IV, 2000 heretics were burned in the tiny state of Andalusia alone. Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther in 1520 for daring to say that burning heretics was against the will of God. Evidently he thought it presumptuous for an ordinary human being to claim to know God’s will. Perhaps he was right, because Luther changed his mind in 1531 and started advocating the death penalty for heretics and blasphemers. He thought it should be a capital offence to deny the resurrection of the dead, or the reality of heaven and Hell.

Translating the bible into vernacular languages, or helping with the printing of such a bible was heresy according to the Roman Church. Generally, in Europe, women were buried alive for this offence. Men were burned alive. . . .

Anabaptists, the precursors of modern Baptists, were persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The Anabaptists’ main crimes were to call for social reform, to favour adult baptism over infant baptism, and to embrace pacifism – they would not kill, condone capital punishment or serve in armies. They also allegedly advocated ancient Antinomian views. Their leaders died in various ways. Thomas Münzer was burned at the stake in 1525. Feliz Manz drowned in 1526 (drowning was a favourite way of executing Anabaptists because of their views on baptism). . . . When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church, where they remained for some years. . . .

A Protestant writing master from Toledo was burned at the stake in 1676 for having decorated a room with the full text of the ten commandments. . . . Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of “not thinking catholickly”. . . . In 1528 Patrick Hamilton was burned at St Andrews for holding heretical opinions, notably a denial of the freedom of the will. In 1546 Anne Askew was burned at Smithfield because of her beliefs about the Eucharist. In 1592 Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who preached congregationalism, were hanged at Tyburn for “obstinately refusing to come to church”. . . . Unitarians were executed in 1612 in London and Lichfield, and one in 1651 in Dumfries. William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published criticisms of Archbishop Laud. For this had his ears hacked off by the public hangman in 1633. Along with others he was charged again and tried by the Star Chamber in 1637. The others charged had their ears cropped, and as it was discovered that Prynne still had stumps left on the side of his head, these were severed too. He was also branded on the cheeks, and then imprisoned for life along with the others.

  • Wikipedia’s article European Wars of Religion includes some of history’s deadliest wars. Examples include the Thirty Years War, with a death toll nearly half the worldwide toll of World War I — at a time when the population of Europe was only one-quarter of its 20th-century level — as well as the Hundred Years War, the French Wars of Religion, and the Crusades, each taking roughly two to three million lives.

Other Areas of Christian History

Bad News About Christianity (BNAC) offered additional reports on a rather astounding number of areas in which Christians have displayed execrable attitudes and behavior. Here were several examples:

  • Rape. “The words of Deuteronomy 22 . . . were often used to justify the rape of virgins. If a man wanted to marry a woman – whether she wanted him or not – a standard method was to abduct her and have sex with her. As “soiled goods”, she would be unlikely to find another husband, so her choice was to marry her abductor or live out the rest of her life as a spinster. . . . [This practice] was popular well into the twentieth century in conservative Christian countries.”
  • Freedom of Expression. I was concerned that, lately, liberal views were tending toward mild persecution of religion in the U.S. Yet it was difficult to sympathize with Christians who had brought this on themselves by failing, so intensively and for so long, to stand for scientific learning and for the universal human right of freedom of expression. Excerpts from BNAC:

Within a century of the introduction of printing in Europe a formal process was required to keep track of books that the Church had ordered to be destroyed. . . . [including works by some of the greatest minds in history, e.g., Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, and Locke]. Also placed on the Index were writings that told the truth about the forged documents that the Church had produced . . . .

Christians in secular states have often managed to ban respectable works, again well into the twentieth century: Webster’s Dictionary for example was banned in Arkansas because of its entry on Darwinian evolution. Information about family planning and birth control has been banned in many Christian countries.

Over the centuries the Christian Churches have burned countless thousands, perhaps millions, of books of which it disapproved. . . . Some writers destroyed their own unpublished works, fearing the consequences of discovery. . . . Philosophers were also obliged to publish posthumously or anonymously, for fear of the consequences. . . .

The traditional Christian obsession with sexual matters resulted in prosecutions for obscenity not only against books about birth control, but also against respectable literature and even books on psychology. . . .

Christians still seek to impose their views on others. Because of Christian sensitivities the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian . . . could not be shown on British commercial television. . . . In Britain and the USA attempts were made to ban Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ when it appeared in 1988. . . .

Fundamentalists in California have managed to ban schoolbooks that deal with a wide range of subjects, including the theory of evolution, race relations, nuclear war, sex discrimination, human sexuality, birth control and the Holocaust. . . .

During the whole period of 1,500 years or so that the Church enjoyed absolute power the concept of penal reform was unknown. Prisons in 1800 were as insanitary, cramped, infested and dangerous as they had been when the Roman Empire first adopted Christianity. . . .

Christian tortures took many forms. People were restrained by irons and fetters, sometimes locked into agonising positions with neck, wrists and ankles held within inches of each other. After a short time in this position they were permanently disabled. Alternatively prisoners could be racked, beaten, flogged or otherwise abused. One method was to keep their feet in water until they rotted. . . .

The pioneer of modern penology was an Italian rationalist, the Marquis Cesare Beccaria-Bonesana, who published Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764, claiming that the prevention of crime, not punishment, should be the prime aim of an enlightened society, and that crime was deterred by the likelihood of detection rather than the severity of punishment. The Inquisition condemned his ideas. For the Churches the prime purpose was punishment and retribution, as affirmed by the Bible, not rehabilitation, which was not mentioned in the Bible. . . .

The idea that gaols should be primarily for rehabilitation was entirely a secular one. So were the beliefs that prisoners had rights; that they were entitled to basic sanitation, and freedom from flogging, torture and mutilation; and that they should receive access to medical attention, adequate nutrition, and education. . . .

[The following are captions accompanying photos on the webpage.]

[C]hurchmen branded people with crosses and with letters: A for Adulterer, B for Blasphemer, etc, Sometimes in the forehead, sometimes in the cheek, sometimes on the chin. . . . Prisoners were often chained to an immovable object, or to a heavy object . . . not only to immobilize the victim, but also to cause pain: note the spikes on the inside of the iron ring. . . . [In the Iron Shoe, a] screw mechanism allows the torturer to crush the victims foot. . . . [The Scold’s Bridle included] various mouth-pieces that can be fitted to restrict speach and cause acute pain. . . . [In the Iron Maiden,] the doors shut “slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”

The Churches considered it wrong to attempt to eliminate poverty, since Jesus himself had given an assurance that the poor would always be with us. . . .

Oppression of the poor and aged has been common in all Christian countries. . . . On the other hand Churches have traditionally provided wealth and power to the younger sons of noble families whatever their beliefs. . . . Throughout Christendom the poorest were liable for a range of Church taxes. The nobility, which provided almost all senior ecclesiastics, was generally exempt. . . .

Not so long ago the rich sat at the front of the church and the poor at the back. Sometimes the rich took Communion on a different day from the poor, and sometimes the rich and poor were offered wine of different qualities. Some priests even preached that there were different heavens for the different sections of society . . . .

Churches have changed their ideas since secular principles of equality have become widely accepted. Few of them now use the third verse of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful although its truth was unimpeachable within living memory:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

As in so many other areas of social improvement, the dynamos of change were almost all outside the mainstream Churches [being advocated instead by freethinkers, Utilitarians and Quakers]. . . .

[Photo caption:] Children were sold throughout Christendom . . . . This brace of babies was offered for sale around 1940 in France . . . .

Christians opposed all attempts at [workplace] reform, saying that existing conditions were natural, and reform was contrary to the Bible. Churchmen in the nineteenth century opposed the reduction in working hours, protection for women and children, and even safety legislation. Agitation to improve industrial working conditions came from freethinking Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. Ideas like safe and hygienic factories, education for workers, and infant schools were pioneered by the philanthropist Robert Owen, who had rejected all religions at the age of 14 after reading Seneca. . . .

At this point, I desisted from providing additional long excerpts from BNAC on other subjects of interest or, should I say, disgust. Briefly, here are a few examples of what some of those summaries would have contained:

  • Family life. “Relying on biblical passages, early Christians inferred that family life was worthless and hailed virginity as the ideal.”
  • Slavery. “For many centuries slavery was perfectly acceptable to Christians . . . [who] used a number of Old and New Testament quotations to prove their case.”
  • Treatment of mental illness. “According to Christians, lunatics were possessed by unclean spirits. . . . [Thus] for many centuries no advance was made in understanding the nature of mental illness . . . . [and] many thousands of men, women and children, already burdened with madness, were confined in chains and subjected to routine torture.”
  • Abuse of animals. “The Church deduced that because animals did not possess souls, they were . . . disposable toys provided for mankind’s amusement. Activities in which animals were tortured for sport, were recorded without any hint that there might be anything wrong with them. . . .” (Examples: cat burnings; blood fiestas; dog fighting.)

The Life Imperative: Life as Prison or Addiction

A previous post points out that life depends upon constant, unavoidable killing.  There is a question of whether a person should continue to participate in that sort of thing, or should instead voluntarily leave this life.  It seems that an answer to that question may depend, in part, on how one understands the situation.

One possibility is that life is an addiction, or at least that it has important and thought-provoking features that resemble the experience of addiction.  If one thinks of everyone as being addicted to staying alive, then it is no surprise that vast numbers of people, including parents, police, and other authority figures, would be engaged in a sort of brainwashing that would overstate life’s glories and would downplay its bad parts.  Such behavior would be consistent with addiction experience: there is always an excuse for partaking, always a reason that drags the addict back to indulgence.

The excuses for staying alive vary, but the outcome is the same.  People may contend, for example, that the thought of ending one’s own life is sick or confused, or that the person who kills him/herself will go to Hell.  But all of those propositions are open to question.  It turns out that the Bible does not support the claim about Hell; the person who sacrifices him/herself to save others is regarded as a hero; the individual who is on the edge of suicide may not feel confused at all, but may actually possess sudden clarity.  Hence the arguments against suicide could look like the sorts of things that any addict would say, or would listen to, in defense of the addiction.

But can life really qualify as an addiction?  Definitions vary, but it seems that addictions tend to entail recurrent indulgence in immediately gratifying behavior that the addict cannot stop despite its adverse longer-term consequences.  Taking it apart,

  • “Immediate gratification.”  It seems that many people strive to stay alive even when life is not very gratifying.  But then, drug addicts often continue to take their drug even when they have built up a tolerance and are no longer getting high; they may just need to avoid the agony of withdrawal.  Maybe that would still count as a form of short-term gratification, when people cling grimly to life despite the absence of any joy in it – despite, indeed, a growing dislike or fear of it.  They still need the experience, they are still making excuses for it, they are still not ready to make a sharp break from it.
  • “Adverse long-term consequences.”  There is, indeed, the perpetual killing that makes each person’s life possible.  But as discussed in an earlier post, there does not seem to be a better long-term alternative.  For one thing, we don’t know whether an afterlife (if any) would be better; we also don’t know what unexpected things might happen if we stay around.  Also, our disappearance will not change the basic problem:  elimination of all killing would probably mean the elimination of all life.  The point of that exercise would not be clear:  we would have killed everything in order to stop killing.  Meanwhile, there are living things (e.g., trillions of bacteria in our guts) that depend on us, or whose lives may be made longer or better through our existence and our efforts.

These thoughts suggest that the addiction metaphor may not be the best way of characterizing the decision to continue living.  There is the problem that life does not always provide short-term gratification; and even if one waives that on the grounds that gratification may consist of merely avoiding the discomfort of withdrawal, there is the problem that the decision to stay alive does not obviously constitute a disregard of undesirable long-term consequences.

Rather than characterize life as an addiction, it seems that it might be better described as an imperative.  That is, the decision to continue to live seems to be a response to a command that we must fulfill.  This feeling of obligation may be especially strong in those who are responsible for taking care of family members or other people, but it tends to be quite strong even without that.  To be sure, there is the occasional suicide epidemic; there are young daredevils who willingly place themselves into harm’s way.  But these tend to be exceptions that prove the rule:  you are supposed to preserve your life. It is a strong rule, less frequently violated than any of the Ten Commandments, and yet not included among them or, usually, among other laws.

How can so many people agree on this imperative to preserve one’s life, when people are inclined to disagree on virtually everything else?  Perhaps the answer is that, actually, people are not in agreement about it.  At any moment, there are likely to be people in your vicinity who are silently struggling with physical or mental pain that they would shed in a heartbeat, if they saw a realistic alternative.  It seems that people might abandon this life in droves if they could look beyond the grave and see the specifics of a viable life after death.

Under the circumstances of real life, with no practical alternative, the life imperative appears to foster a kind of confinement.  We are more or less obliged to stay in this life, even in the absence of commandments, because there does not appear to be any real choice.  Life is not merely an imperative; it is, in effect, a prison.

That will hardly seem obvious to people who are living it up.  But consider prison life.  Depending on the prison, there may be enough to keep you occupied:  classes, reading, writing, researching law, working out, sitting and watching.  There are some perks:  the health care is said to be better than many Americans can afford.  Life is simple.  Some people, especially those who have become accustomed to it, actually prefer it to life outside, where they don’t know the rules.  It’s not heaven; but then, neither is this life.  The point is that it can be tolerable.  Many incarcerated individuals, offered a chance to join in on a highly risky escape attempt, may just not bother.

Life, like prison, tries to be a place where people can stand to stay put, and people reciprocate by trying to make it bearable.  In effect, you and I are in cahoots with life:  we don’t remotely want any more of its harsh discipline; but since we have no realistic alternative, we try to dress it up as a worthy affair.  Like Stalin in the U.S.S.R. during World War II, life may be a son of a bitch, but at least it’s our son of a bitch.  We would rather have something better, but we don’t get to make that choice.  Life, like Stalin, may torture and kill tens of millions, sometimes merely because they were too trusting or just didn’t fit in the plan.  But for you and me, the choice is pretty simple:  become part of the steamroller, or else become part of the road.

As a person who is alive and intends to remain so, I can hardly help being one of those facilitators of an oppressive regime.  Specifically, I don’t encourage anyone to kill themselves.  I do believe the things that I have written in that separate post about preparing for suicide; I think there is much to do, and much to think about, before ever taking such a step.  Nonetheless, in the interests of fleshing out the prison metaphor, an honest appraisal of the situation does seem to call for acknowledgement that it takes courage and, probably, desperation to reach the point of committing oneself to an escape attempt.  When the moment for decision arrives, and you see an opportunity to get out, it is not completely boneheaded or illegitimate if you flatly declare that you cannot stand your present circumstances anymore (if that really is how you feel about it) and that you are willing to take any risk to try something else.  It still may not be the smartest move, but at least it may be understandable.

I am not suicidal because I just don’t see the advantage of a prison break at this time.  I am a participant in life’s murderous regime.  I participate in the killing of plants and animals because everything must die anyway, with or without me.  Is it better never to be born, than to be born and then die?  Never to be born, perhaps, if being born somehow scars an eternal soul; the problem is just that I have no idea whether there is such a thing as an eternal soul, nor what exactly this life might do to it.  Based on the information I have, it appears that I am supposed to just play along, for as long as I can, or at least until I have a clear reason to do something else.  I am invariably able to tolerate life; my life does have its pluses; and if I am imprisoned in this life, I have grown accustomed to it.  It is acceptable.

The Love of Life

It is common to hear people say that someone loved life, or loves to be alive.  This is typically intended as a compliment.  Such descriptions usually seem to mean that the person was, or is, strong, positive, happy, people-oriented, or otherwise a great soul.

Those are good ways to be.  But “loving life” may not be the best way to compliment someone.  It is often fun to be alive; many times, it feels great.  People have many special experiences in their lifetimes.  Life, however, is not always such a great thing.  To develop the thoughts commenced in a previous post, life can be pretty ugly.

Life brings with it all the fangs and claws that living creatures use upon each other.  The wolf that kills the fawn is not an exception, nor is the bacterium that decimates a population.  The ivy and the caterpillars pull down the beautiful tree; the mosquito spreads malaria.  All of these are living things, doing their best to participate in life to its fullest.

Life is not just the good times.  Life certainly provides the space within which the good times unfold.  But while you can have life without good times, you cannot have life without the law of the jungle.  Life is most fundamentally a hurtful, murderous thing, and we see it every day among humans.  People deceive, injure, and kill other people to maintain their own lives and to grow and thrive.  Again, it is not an exception.  It is who we are; it is what we have always done.

It is not just a matter of being warlike.  Those who personally avoid acts that would cheat or harm others are commonly prepared to let their law enforcement agencies and military services engage in such behaviors on their behalf.  People typically assume that whatever they have gained is rightly theirs, no matter how they got it; they rarely choose to emigrate from nations whose wealth and stability depend upon the threat and use of force against the guilty and the innocent alike.

The harsh deeds of power and warfare are not constant, but the capability must always be there.  It may be no exaggeration to say that virtually everyone alive today is alive because, throughout their lives, they, their parents, or someone else has been ready to use threats, cunning, and violence defensively and perhaps offensively for their protection.  Those who live in peaceable conditions may rarely think of such things, but the emergence of an actual threat quickly confirms the realities of protection and the dangers of its absence.

In addition to their acts against one another, humans have always been overwhelmingly inclined to kill animals, or to subsidize their slaughter by others, in order to obtain food, protection, and comfort.  This is no longer just a matter of the gun and the knife.  We kill via bulldozer, fence, and engineer, as we collectively build cities and farms, and otherwise displace and diminish animal populations.  Even the few people who rigorously eschew physical violence against animals are not necessarily prepared to send us back to the prehistoric population levels and lifestyles that would be needed to reverse such travesties and to prevent their recurrence.

In any event, violence against animals is itself only the tip of the iceberg.  Even the strictest vegetarians find it necessary to cut down and uproot living plants, and to steal their seeds, thereby increasing the likelihood of death for animals and insects that would have eaten those foods, and increasing the hardships endured by those that survive.

Moreover, killing is not just something we do to eat.  You can’t walk without crushing ants and such.  You can’t wash your hands without killing germs on your skin.  The world is full of mosquitoes whose offspring perish because humans refuse to offer themselves up as food.  Your gastrointestinal system is the scene of perpetual wars among trillions of bacteria.  Some help you; some would kill you.

Life unavoidably requires the killing of living things.  You cannot stay alive without that.  Even if technology could someday make our food in laboratories that would use no life forms, and could somehow engineer nonliving particles to replace those germs in our guts, the intrinsic fact would remain that we are designed to survive and thrive through the deaths of living things in us and all around us.  Upon failure of any such techology, our bodies would have to revert to the constant indulgence of microbial holocausts, or else we would perish.

My junior high school art teacher maintained that walking is a form of controlled falling.  Whatever the literal truth of that claim, one might similarly observe – referring, again, to the previous post – that life is a form of controlled death.  Everything can’t die, because that would cease to be life; but everything can’t continue to live, either, because that would imply an end to the constant striving that is a core aspect of life.  Living things don’t just sit there.  They move; they act; they seek to grow, inevitably jeopardizing other living things.

The point is not that all is woe.  There are obviously many good things about life.  Nor should one imagine that becoming a pacifist or a vegetarian is a futile gesture.  The people and animals whose lives are preserved obviously benefit.  The point is just that life is not per se good.  Directly and by proxy, we are unavoidably and perpetually required to kill, and to be prepared to kill, on virtually every level.  We are the most lethal predators, but we are not the only ones.  Life is a bloodbath.  It has always been that; it will always be that.

To this state of affairs, one option is to refuse, by suicide, to participate any further.  Another option is to recognize that life is not only killing.  It is more like the killing is a precondition to whatever else life entails.  Another post builds upon this thought with a look at ways of characterizing life.

What Is a “Christian”?

This item was originally posted on October 15, 2011 on my other blog.  It drew a few comments there.  I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

*  *  *  *  *

I had someone ask me, today, what a Christian is.  I decided to look it up.  I started with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); but when I boiled down its many meanings into those involving religion specifically (as distinct from e.g., a part of the historical titles of kings of France), I wound up with more or less the same list as I could get, from Dictionary.com, without a paid subscription:

  • a member of a particular church or denomination; or
  • a person who believes in Jesus Christ; an adherent of Christianity; or
  • a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ.

So, for example, some say “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved”; some say that “faith without works is dead” (i.e., if you don’t live a Christian life, your claim of belief is probably false); some say you have to be baptized or confirmed — in general, or into a particular denomination or sect.

In practice, these several different ways of being a Christian have produced tens of thousands of different Christian denominations, sects, and cults.  These varieties of Christianity have emerged for various reasons.  Some are due to historical developments (e.g., the split of the Roman Empire); some were formed by charismatic leaders who decided to break off and go their own way; many emerged from doctrinal disagreements.

As an example that may combine all three of those sources of dispute, it seems that Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant denomination in which I was raised, believed that the papacy was the Antichrist.  This can sound bizarre to people from some contemporary denominations who are forever running around, looking for reasons why Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, or other politicians are the Antichrist.  Either way, people have been playing the guess-who’s-the-Antichrist game throughout the history of Christianity, targeting individuals as diverse as Arius of Alexandria; an unspecified Jew from the biblical tribe of Dan; various individual popes; and Czar Peter the Great.

That example may illustrate how scriptures — intrepreted creatively by people with all sorts of different fears, hopes, ideas, and agendas — can give rise to an endless set of reasons why those who belong to one so-called Christian sect can violently disagree with other so-called Christians.  Violent warfare among Christians began in the early years of the various churches.  For example, starting within a few centuries after Jesus, the Arian variety of Christian belief was murderously suppressed.  Since those early centuries, wars about “true” Christian belief — wars in which one kind of so-called Christian killed another — have claimed countless lives.  The 16th and 17th centuries were especially notable for that, but they weren’t alone; it has continued right up through the horrific atrocities committed by “Christian” armies fighting each other in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  Of course, so-called Christians have also prayed and sung and quoted the Bible on behalf of the troops that they have sent off into non-religious wars down through the centuries, thus trying to implicate God in the outcomes of everything from the medieval Crusades to the American invasion of Iraq.

Murder in the name of Christ appears to be especially common among people who think they know exactly what they are talking about.  In other words, it’s more difficult to justify hating people for their failure to understand Christ in the “proper” way, if you approach faith from a humble and questioning perspective.  People cannot do that, unfortunately, when they fear that they would go to hell for honestly admitting and investigating their doubts.  This results in an regrettable situation in which many so-called Christians try to make the Bible — particularly the New Testament — into the Word of God, when it is very obvious that God, himself, made no such claim.  It is also hard to imagine any such thing about the New Testament when you learn a little about the ugly fights regarding the question of which books should be considered part of the Bible.  (That question remains unsettled.)  Calling the Bible “holy,” as these people often do, appears to represent willful blindness to the realities.  Once again, the supposedly good God is dragged into a process that has plainly been very human.

These remarks may begin to indicate that the three approaches to the definition of “Christian” listed above are only the most superficial summaries of the countless ways in which alleged Christians actually do define themselves.  These remarks have focused especially on the first and second of those approaches to definition.  Basically, someone can claim to believe almost anything, can cook up some reason to claim that their belief makes them “real” Christians, and can use that putative reasoning to justify horrible acts in God’s name.  It’s not just the random crackpot who shoots an abortion doctor, nor even the “Onward Christian Soldiers” mentality that imagines God playing a role in religious wars.  The same mindset appears in the average “Christian” suburbanite who thanks God for giving them a life in which they can buy things made by Asians earning pennies a day, in manufacturing processes that wreck the environment.

I haven’t yet said much about the third of those three briefly summarized approaches to the definition of a Christian.  In that third approach, the emphasis is not upon the lawyerly demand for a rigid text, contrary to Jesus’s own advice, nor upon the mystical notion that there is a magical thing called “faith” or “belief” that somehow rises above reality.  To clarify how the third approach to definition differs from the second one, consider the famous claim that there are no atheists in foxholes.  The concept is that, if you put someone in a situation where other people are trying to kill them, they’ll remember how to pray quickly enough.  In other words, what people say they believe is not necessarily what they really believe — and they, themselves, may not know the truth of the matter until they find themselves in a sufficiently harrowing situation.  But that knife cuts both ways.  Consider, for instance, the people who suddenly discover a belief in abortion when it is their own wife, sister, or daughter who was raped or at risk of dying in childbirth.  The point is, so-called “belief” — an idea held loosely in mind — it not necessarily what a person really believes.

In the third approach to defining “Christian,” as noted above, some people have been called Christian because they try, in some sense, to practice the teachings of Christ.  It is impossible to be exactly Christlike — not only because, supposedly unlike Jesus, we are all born sinful but, also, because Christ’s example doesn’t always fit.  Nobody is able to walk on water.  People can’t pay their taxes by pulling coins out of the mouths of fish.  In America, nobody is going to be able to die on a cross for preaching the coming of God’s kingdom.  Although the New Testament makes it sound easy, Christianity does not in fact seem to be a religion in which people can cure blindness by waving their hands around, much less raise the dead.  Another reason for the impossibility of Christlikeness is that it is self-contradictory — that in various regards it requires people to do or believe opposing things.  Moreover, in some ways it is not even desirable to be Christlike.  For example, Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no fruit, when figs weren’t even in season.  It can take centuries before humans are able to invent plausible explanations for such antics — explanations that God himself, supposedly involved in the writeup, didn’t see fit to provide — and there is no way of knowing whether such invented explanations correspond to what actually happened.

Defining a Christian in terms of Christlike behavior can bring endless quandaries.  Does a person become a Christian by trying to buy the SUV that Jesus would have bought?  That question, somewhat laughable in itself, does illustrate that the New Testament does not remotely contain enough material to provide meaningful insight on the many questions that have always complicated people’s lives, never mind the especially complex questions of current times.  If one must sell everything and give it to the poor and follow Jesus, as he reportedly advised one person to do, where does that leave the would-be follower who is responsible for looking after his/her own family?  Does Christlikeness really require people to treat their own mothers and siblings as strangers?  Some of these are the sorts of difficulties that one would expect, in any effort to convert first-century ideas and stories into meaningful guidance for very different lives two millennia later; some are pecularities about the message(s) of Jesus.

The usual response to this sort of concern, from people who really want to emulate Jesus, seems to be to treat him as a sort of early Gandhi or late Buddha — to extract, that is, those parts of his reported messages and stories that seem most readily convertible into vastly different current terms, more or less consistent with one’s personal inclination.  This appears to be a relatively philosophical approach to Christlikeness, where being Christlike is somewhat like being Aristotelian:  you find your guiding philosopher, you master his/her worldview, and then you reconfigure it into something that works for today.  It’s not necessarily a bad approach, though this, too, can wind up being quite remote from what others consider the real story of Jesus and from what it really means to be a Christian.

So I have at least provided some thoughts on what appear to be the three major ways of defining what a Christian is.  This is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed article.  I realize that there is much more to say, and also that there are probably errors of various sorts here.  Nonetheless, this post seems adequate for the basic purpose.  The ability to choose among several different ways of defining a Christian appears to mean that you can find some reason to call yourself a Christian, if you want to.  Like so many other terms, “Christian” seems to be a vague word that means what people want it to mean, for purposes of saying, believing, or doing what they wish to do.  It seems that the same person can even mean different things by the word, for assorted purposes arising at various times.  Under such circumstances, maybe the best one can do is to offer a very vague, general definition:  maybe a Christian is someone who tends to draw from a collection of linguistic strategies in order to cite Jesus, or some religious or political authority arguably derived from Jesus, as the justification for his/her inclinations.

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