Christians have improved through grace

I happened across an interesting web site, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com. It consists, as its name suggests, of eyewitness accounts from a wide range of historical events and activities. You can read what it was like to make a mummy in ancient Egypt or to see President Nixon ignominiously depart from the White House in 1974.

A lot of the entries have to do with religion. Those particularly drew my attention, and as I scrolled through them, one thing struck me: how legalistic and even sadistic Christians used to be. Here’s a sampling:

• Pope Gregory I writes of his tenure as abbot of St. Andrew’s monastery near Rome in the late 500s. A monk, Justus, on his deathbed, confessed to having kept three gold pieces as personal possessions, which monks weren’t supposed to have. To “cleanse the dying man” and “make his sins a warning to the living brethren,” Gregory decreed that none of the other monks, including the fellow’s brother, Copiosus, visit him or console him in any manner, “so that at death remorse for his guilt might pierce his heart.” After Justus died, Gregory had a grave dug for him in a dung pit, then ordered that his body and his three gold pieces be flung into it.

• Father Francisco Lopez, a Catholic priest who accompanied the Spanish military commander Pedro Menendez on a 1565 expedition to Florida, recalls the Spaniards’ discovery of 200 shipwrecked French Protestants. The stranded Protestants-called Huguenots-petitioned Menendez for mercy, then surrendered. Menendez, whom the priest described as enlightened by the Holy Spirit, proceeded to execute all the Protestants as heretics. Lopez heartily approved.

• John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Colony, in a 1641 entry from his diary, tells of a man, James Britton, and an 18-year-old married girl, Mary Latham, who confessed to having engaged in an adulterous affair. Both expressed great remorse. Nonetheless, both Britton and Latham were put to death for their sin.

In my last blog entry, I mentioned a recent report by Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse that detailed how thousands of children confined to church-run orphanages, hospitals and reform schools were brutally flogged, humiliated and sexually abused by Christian workers. And that took place over a 60-year span in the 20th Century.

For much of its history Christianity was a dour and frequently violent religion in which the theology rested squarely upon humans’ sinfulness and their purported need for severe retribution in the here-and-now.

That, of course, was a tragic distortion of Jesus’ teachings and those of his apostles. They also testified to humans’ sinfulness, but countered those sins with agape, mercy, grace and forgiveness.

In the past century-and-a-half, give or take, Christianity has incrementally moved back toward those original teachings. Most churches seem to say a lot more about God’s love and grace than about humans’ depravity.

For us today, it’s hard to imagine a church leader who’d consign a sick person to die alone and in despair–much less to burial in an outdoor toilet–because he’d saved a few dollars. It’s hard to imagine a couple caught in sexual misconduct being executed.

Occasionally I hear modern legalists decry how “soft” the church has become on sinners. They’ll claim we’re now teaching what they call “cheap grace.”

Anytime you hear that, remind the complainers of what the church was like when their legalistic forebears ruled it.

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  1. Well put, Paul. The message of John 8:7 (“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”) is a great one to emphasize and remember.

    June 1, 2009
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