Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 1, 2008
Godís Gospel slowly permeates through our society
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
We didn't stop burning witches because we stopped reading Scripture. We stopped burning witches because we kept reading Scripture.
Gil Bailie, author of Violence Unveiled, wrote those words and they express a truth too easily ignored. 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 1,500 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 than 1,800 years to understand and accept that slavery was wrong.
It took all the churches nearly 2,000 years (and Pope John Paul II) to understand and accept that capital punishment is wrong. And it has taken all the churches more than 2,000 years to understand and accept somewhat more fully the equality of women.
There is progress, slow, measurable, irreversible. We, at some crucial places, understand the Gospel more deeply today. We need only look at what is happening today in 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, in all 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 helpful for a number of reasons:
First, because it is honest. In terms of the moral unfolding of the Gospel, conservatives like to believe ancient and medieval times were a golden age for Christianity.
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 the core of the moral, social and even technological progress in 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 also call us 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, in 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 two billion people with a 2,000-year history tend to move slowly.
Every age of Christianity has had its moral blind spots, but also its saints. So we have good reason to hope the Gospel will continue to unfold and the meaning of the cross 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 God plays no favourites, that all people are equal, and violence of any kind may never be justified in God's name.
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