We didn’t stop burning witches because we stopped reading scripture. We stopped burning witches because we kept on reading scripture.
Gil Bailie, author of Violence Unveiled, wrote those words and they express a truth too easily ignored today. Neither liberals nor conservatives generally want to read history accurately. The former want to think that we stopped burning witches precisely because we did stop reading scripture, whereas the latter want to forget that we once did burn witches and justified it in God’s name. There is an important truth in this.
Rene Girard once wrote that the cross of Christ is the most revolutionary moral event ever in human history and its implications are still slowly unfolding within human consciousness. What Girard means, among other things, is that some of the deeper spiritual and moral elements that are contained in the cross are like medicine in a time-release capsule. They are dissolving slowly within history and we are gradually absorbing their meaning. Simply put, it is taking us many centuries to understand more fully what is contained in the revelation of the cross.
For example: It took the universal church more than 1500 years to understand that we may not use force and violence to spread the gospel or to silence those who do not agree with us. It took all the churches more than1800 years to understand and accept that slavery was wrong; It took all the churches nearly 2000 years (and Pope John Paul II) to understand and accept that capital punishment is wrong. And it has taken all the churches more than 2000 years to understand and accept somewhat more fully the equality of women.
But, in spite of how long it took to realize some of this, there is progress, slow, measurable, irreversible. We are, at some crucial places, understanding the gospel more deeply today. We need only look at what is happening today within certain extremist circles of Islam to see where (in some ways) we once were and how far we have progressed from there. We too, like Al-Qaeda, had our own period of history wherein we believed that error had no rights and that violence and killing could be justified in God’s name. Today, happily, within all the Christian churches, that is becoming harder to justify, irrespective as to whether that killing is abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, or pre-emptive war
Understanding this can be very helpful for a number of reasons:
First, because it is honest. We all struggle with wanting to rewrite history so that it fits our own theories. In terms of the moral unfolding of the gospel, conservatives like to believe that ancient and medieval times were a golden age for Christianity, and in some ways they were. But they are slow to admit that this golden age was more golden for some than for others. Those centuries were also a time when the church (at least for a large part) believed in slavery and in the use of violence to further gospel aims. The Inquisition was real, brutal, and not golden in any way. Liberals, while not slow to point this out, are much slower to accept that core of the moral, social, and even technological progress within the secularized world arose out of Judeo and Christian roots. Liberals too easily believe that we stopped burning witches and developed democracy because we stopped reading scripture. But Bailie is right and his insight calls us to honesty.
Second, the truth that Bailie captures can call us too to patience and hope. We can draw hope from looking at the larger historical picture. We are making moral progress, even if that progress is unfolding with agonizing slowness, sometimes imperceptibly, throughout the centuries. It doesn’t always look like it, but in the end, within all the churches today there is less violence being justified in God’s name than at any other time in history. That is moral progress.
Perhaps that progress isn’t happening fast enough for our own liking, but we can draw hope from the picture that history gives us: We no longer justify slavery, capital punishment, and most forms of inequality and violence in God’s name. No doubt all of us, on the right and on the left, have our frustrations with how slowly one or other moral issue is progressing, but it is helpful to remember that nearly 2 billion people with a two-thousand year history tend to move rather slowly.
Every age of Christianity has had its moral blind-spots, but also its saints. Our age is no exception. And so we have good reason to hope that the gospel will continue to unfold and the meaning of the cross, like medicine in a time-release capsule, will continue to release more deeply its meaning in history, and that all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, will continue to realize more and more deeply that God plays no favorites, that all people are equal, and that violence of any kind may never be justified in God’s name.