Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 22, 2001
Christianity's credibility gap
St. Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the truly great and truly good men of Christian history. He was the strongest force for the building and spread of the Trappist order of monks in the 12th century and challenged head-on the decadent monasticism of the Benedictines.
Bernard was a staunch defender of the papacy, but also argued for its reform so that it became a more spiritual and less worldly office. He also fought against heretical ideas and teachings that gave human reason greater importance than simple faith. In short, Bernard was an advocate for the purity of the faith, a simpler lifestyle and the importance of contemplative prayer.
Yet Bernard is also remembered as one of the instigators of the Second Crusade that aimed to recapture part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem that had been taken by the Muslims. The crusade was a sordid affair and an abysmal failure. Some blamed him for the crusade's failure; Bernard blamed it on the sinfulness of the crusaders.
In Bernard's life, we see one of the paradoxes of religion: It can do great good, but also, if abused, can lead to great evil.
The history of Christianity is not always a pleasant one. The Crusades, the inquisitions, the martyring of the Huguenots, the Church's role in the destruction of aboriginal cultures, and today's strife in Northern Ireland all bear witness to the fact that those to whom the light of Christ was given sometimes gave more consolation to the darkness than to the light.
It is worthy of note that prior to Pope John Paul's famous apology last year for the sins of the sons and daughters of the Church, his plan apparently met strong opposition from within the College of Cardinals. Yet we see today, through the violence wreaked by those who claim to be acting for Islam, how important such an apology is. It is important not only because it breaks down barriers with those who have been harmed in the past, but also because repentance may lead us to avoid committing similar evils in the future. We are forced to admit to ourselves that religion is a dangerous fire.
Repentance and apology need to be part of our individual lives; they also need to be part of our life as a community. Every holy year - or more often - we need to repent for the harm done in the name of the Christian faith.
The same ought to be true of other religions. For we will not long live together on this planet if our relations are marked by unacknowledged defensiveness, attacks and dwelling on past hurts.
Each religion has a moral-spiritual tradition that calls its adherents to live life more fully and respectfully - the Ten Commandments of Judaism, the Beatitudes of Christianity, the Five Pillars of Islam and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. All those traditions involve a turning away from the paths of domination and towards living in harmony with God and others.
One part of our current dealings with the Islamic world is that when people in those nations look at the foreign policy of the Western nations, they see not a Christian foreign policy, but one marked by economic and military self-interest. There is an enormous credibility gap between what we say our faith is and how we act.
That credibility gap grows wider when one looks at Christians themselves in Western nations. It is difficult to discern a Christian lifestyle, let alone one motivated by the Beatitudes. The teaching of Christ becomes hard to discern. Yet the highest calling any of us have is to make the Beatitudes apparent in our lives and in the policies of our country.
The fact that it is not happening in any clear fashion should make us pause before we become too critical of the wayward elements in another religion.
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