Many Christians, including Church leaders, may not be aware of it, but Christianity has been under attack, from many quarters and more and more we hear lectures, speeches or read books that highlight certain negative episodes in the Church’s history like the Spanish inquisition and torture of people, the witch hunting saga and as well complicity with the chattel slavery experience. There is also a popular query about the Church’s relevance in the modern world and some even sustain and try to promote the view that the Church’s role in societies even in the past has been largely negative.
It is largely unknown that some of the charges against the Church are caricatures or deliberate distortions of what actually happened. As a corrective, I highly recommend Philip J. Sampson’s book 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization.
I get the distinct impression, when talking with Christians, especially those exposed to tertiary level training that they register a tinge of embarrassment about the Church and possibly about being a Christian because of the regularity with which they hear/read about the spots on the Church’s history.
Part of this embarrassment, in my view, has to do with ignorance or forgetfulness of what the Church, despite its faults, has done for societies in what is called the Western world and the ongoing debt that Western civilisation owes to the Church. It should be known too that the spots on the Church’s record happened when the Church moved away from its wellspring, the Bible.
My aim, in this mini series, begun last week, is to provide a historical sweep of the past two thousand years with special emphasis on the positive role that Christianity has played in the transformation of Western civilisation. Today’s focus is:
VALUE ON HUMAN LIFE
That Roman culture placed very little value on human life is well known. Romans were not only accustomed to emperors (like Nero, Domitian, Decius, and Diocletian) and other societal leaders who were murderous of rivals, Christians and even of family members.The horrible gladiatorial games also were as popular then as soccer is in many nations today.
Each contest required men to fight men, commonly with the aim of killing the opponents with a sword (gladius). It was the crowd that largely decided the fate of a weakened, gasping gladiator. A turned-thumb signal, usually given by women spectators, instructed the victor to go for the final blow. Often it was the women who praised gladiators…The barbaric cruelty, the agonizing screams of the victims, and the flow of human blood stirred no conscience in the crowds of the gladiatorial events…To see a gladiator stab and slice his opponent to death was top-ranked amusement. (Alvin J. Schmidt, Under The Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, p. 62)
Christians boycotted and denounced the games and attracted criticism. One critic of the Christians said, “You do not go to our shows; you take no part in our processions…you shrink in horror from our sacred [gladiatorial] games.” (Schmidt. p.63)
Peter’s call, to live uprightly amidst slander and to suffer with pride for doing good and for being a Christian (1 Pet. 2.12, 3.9-17 and 4.12-19) may reflect the emerging trend of verbal attacks on Christians for being counter-cultural in lifestyle.
The gladiatorial games were eventually banned owing to the influence of the Church. As historian W.E.H. Lecky concludes, “There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, a feat that must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church.” (cited in Schmidt)
Roman culture too (like several others in the ancient world) was completely at ease with infanticide and child abandonment, which the Church opposed on biblical principles.
Plutarch (c. AD 46-120) says of the Carthaginians that they “offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan.” (Moralia 2.171D, cited in Schmidt., p. 49. See also William Barclay, Educational Ideals in the Ancient World, p.263-266)
Even the philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65), chief advisor to Nero, said, “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.” ( De Ira 1.15, cited in Schmidt,p. 49)
Christians did not only denounce the entrenched Greek and Roman cultural practice of child abandonment, but they also provided refuge for abandoned children.
Infanticide and child abandonment were made capital offences in 374 under the Christian emperor Valentinian who was influenced by Bishop Basil of Caesarea. Though infanticide was not completely wiped out—recurring in later centuries—the consistent opposition of the Church is what has influenced anti-infanticide laws up to the present.
Crucifixion in the hands of the Romans approximated an art form, albeit a despicable one and was outlawed by Constantine owing to his high regard for the Christian cross.