In Chapter Four of The Reason for God Tim Keller broaches a topic I have found a real stumbling block over the years: If the Christian story is true why has the Church been responsible for so much pain and injustice both large and small? We must address the behavior of Christians both individual and corporate. The list here can be legion, from the Crusades to the executions of William Tyndale and Michael Servetus to the child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to the “heresy hunting” by some Christian watchdogs today, we chew up our own and spit them out far too often.
Martin Bashir after quoting Christopher Hitchens puts it like this in the Veritas Forum interview at Columbia.
The behavior of so-called Christians, followers of Christ, has been so reprehensible over the centuries that it in and of itself denies the very existence of this God of love you talk about in your book. How do you respond to that?
This isn’t a small problem. In fact Keller admits that this is the greatest argument against the truth of Christianity.
But according to Keller Christianity has self-correction built in. The first thing we should do here is examine the nature of the Christian message. The Christian gospel condemns violence, oppression, injustice and fanaticism – even fanaticism and violence in the name of Christ for the truth of the Gospel.
Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian, but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathic, forgiving, or understanding-as Christ was. … What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel. (p. 57)
and this one:
In Jesus’s and the prophets’ critique, self-righteous religion is always marked by insensitivity to issues of social justice, while the faith is marked by profound concern for the poor and the marginalized. The Swiss theologian John Calvin, in his commentaries on the Hebrew prophets, says that God so identifies with the poor that their cries express divine pain. The Bible teaches that our treatment of them equals our treatment of God. (p. 60)
What is the answer, then, to the very fair and devastating critique of the record of the Christian church? The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is. The Bible itself has taught us to expect the abuses of religion and it has also told us what to do about them. (p. 62)
So Christianity is not the problem. In fact, Christianity provides a foundation for our sense of justice and compassion and integrity. The Church strays… and corrects itself; a pattern repeated through the centuries. Christians are the problem, however – not because of Christianity, but because they are human. One of the things this means, or should mean, is that every Christian is poring over scripture trying to move to this fuller and deeper grasp of Christianity. Every Christian leader should be aware and wary of this repeating pattern of abuse within the church. We are all responsible individually and corporately for living within the scope of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles.
I wrote a post last summer that gave my answer to How Can You Be a Christian? in the face of the “image problem” caused by the behavior of Christians. The post was directed more to the image problem of the present – but applies to both past and present. My answer there still stands. The teaching of the New Testament leaves us nothing to be ashamed of – except the way that Christians (often self-righteously) fail to live up to it.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:14-17
Against such things there is no complaint.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:13)
But this doesn’t entirely answer the question — After all, if the Christian story is true, then the Church is the ordained, Spirit led, body of Christ, God’s people. Yet at times it seems that little actually changed with the incarnation and resurrection – people are still fallen, and it permeates the church. Why has God allowed his Church to err so profoundly on so many occasions?
What is the role of the Church within this story we find ourselves in?
What answer would you give if asked about the injustice committed in Jesus’ name?