Christianity and the West Gone Wrong: How Did We Get Here? (and How Can We Make It Right?)

A few weeks ago, I had a difficult conversation with a friend, who was quite upset that I continue to identify as a Christian, when, in his mind, ‘Christianity has done nothing good for the world’ and is ‘just a bunch of baseless stories’ that are ‘inherently damaging to everyone’ who hears them. The good news is that I don’t believe in the same ‘God’ he doesn’t believe in: No angry, abusive ‘Sky Man’ (his words, not mine) for me, thank you very much! The struggle is that, when I look at the ways Christianity has been used throughout history and across the world — including here and now — to justify to all sorts of atrocities and injustices, it’s hard not to think he has a point.

How did we get here? How did the ‘Prince of Peace’, who came not to be served but to serve others, who understood his mission to be about freeing captives, giving sight to the blind, and being Good News for the poor and marginalized, and who gave up his life for the life of the world — how did He become so deeply entangled in, and for so many a symbol of, the power-grasping, greed, imperialism, land-theft, treaty-breaking, lynch mobs, and environmental degradation of the past few hundred years? How did the Cross and the Bible become symbols of hatred and weapons of violence instead of love? As the Cherokee, Christian theologian Randy Woodley (2022) has posed the question: “What can turn the same people who call themselves by Christ’s name into a people who will kill, steal, and destroy people, land, and nature with genocidal passion?”*

To come at this from a different angle, when I read and hear Indigenous teachers discussing their cultural values, I am shocked not by how alien they are, but by how familiar they are. For the most part, they are the lessons we in ‘the West’ teach our children: the importance of sharing, taking good care of our surroundings and leaving things as we found them, being respectful of plants and animals, and, when we’ve done wrong, apologizing and subsequently doing better. And yet, there can be no question that these are not the rules upon which our society runs. What has happened to us? How are we so cut off from our own essential values?

These are different questions — Christianity is not ‘the West’, nor is ‘the West’ ‘Christian’. But the two have been deeply intertwined for a very long time now. And, I believe, responsibility for our current situation — and our need to dramatically transform the way we interact with the world in order to have any hope of escaping this mess — lies on the shoulders of both.

We see this dysfunctional symbiosis in a lot of the faulty narratives I addressed in my ‘Setting our Stories Straight’ series last year. Take, for example, the Doctrine of Discovery (c. 1452); it was a political policy enacted by the Pope responding to the centuries’ long conflict between European and Muslim empires, which at the time the ‘Christian’ states were winning in Spain, but losing badly everywhere else. But, while the doctrine was motivated by political concerns, it was supported by a distorted understanding of the Western Christian doctrine of Original Sin (which in my mind is a distortion of the teachings of Scripture even when properly understood, but that is for another day). A doctrine that was intended to put everyone in the same boat before God was twisted into one that created a privileged in-group free to disregard the claims, experiences, and rights of the rest of the world. A similar pattern of theological distortions used to prop up political ends can be seen in the other narratives I addressed in that series, such as Christendom, election, and ‘dominion over the earth.’

As I noted a couple weeks ago, the Scriptures and our traditions record disparate ideas about God and humanity over the course of centuries, in different socio-political situations, and different cultures. They are therefore like tapestries woven together with many different narrative threads. Part of the work of discernment is understanding which of those threads are the relevant ones in a given situation, and which should be left in the background. One of the stories I highlighted in that post was Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, and I’ll bring it forward again as a great biblical example of this discernment process. Eunuchs, men who had been castrated to serve as court officials, existed outside the gender and sexual norms of society. The Law of Moses rejected their participation in the life of the people of God, but Isaiah prophesied of a day when they would be welcome and given places of honour. When confronted with a eunuch asking him if God’s promises were for him, Philip had to discern which of those threads was relevant in light of Jesus’ teachings and example. For him, it was clear: Isaiah’s prophecy was to be fulfilled. In Christ, all were to be welcome.

Any time we’re confronted with something outside our experience, we have to undertake a similar calculus: what part of our vast and diverse theological heritage are we going to apply? What story are we going to tell?

When the American ‘pilgrims’, Calvinist Christians fleeing religious persecution in England, first met the Wampanoag (Massachusett, Algonquian) peoples and their neighbours, the story they chose to tell of themselves was that they were like the ancient Hebrews freed from slavery and commanded to take over a land God had given to them. But, this was a choice. It was not the only narrative they had at their disposal. They could have instead, for example, seen themselves as refugees, the ‘resident aliens’ the Hebrews were commanded to welcome and treat with respect in their communities. They could have followed Amos’ teaching and believed that God had called the Wampanoag to tend to the Massachusetts Bay area just as God had called the Hebrews (and Philistines!) into the Promised Land. Or, as a New Testament people, they could have understood their status as aliens in a foreign land as a manifestation of the reality that our true home is with God and therefore we are foreigners everywhere on earth. The point here is that they had choices to make about how they were going to understand themselves, the land, the people they encountered there, and how all of these related to God. They chose the narrative that cast them as heroes on a violent, divine mission. And that decision — used here as just one representative example of the general attitudes shown by Christians towards Indigenous peoples in the colonizing era — has born some awful fruit. Here’s are just a few quick quotes to demonstrate how Indigenous peoples — even individuals who identify as Christian — have experienced Christianity:

  • “Settler colonial Christianity is a religion that takes, that demeans the earth and the oppressed, and that holds people in these systems without regard for how Jesus treated people.” (Curtice)*
  • “Colonial religion, according to the Western mind, brings future hope. The promises of Western Christianity include our salvation, development, security, and civilization. But what is actually delivered to Indigenous peoples is imbalance, oppression, violence, and destruction. The land is destroyed as it is consumed.” (Woodley 2022)
  • “Religion — Christianity, more specifically — has played a major part in the global history of oppression brought about by European colonization. The project of empire building was pursued in collaboration with Christian churches as a ‘civilizing force’ bringing Western values to foreign shores.”(Gareau)
  • “Exceptionalism and triumphalism is rooted specifically in a warped self-perception and theology. Because of this self-perception that emerges from a dysfunctional theology, acts of aggression and dominance by exceptional people can be deemed as acceptable.” (Budden)

Like Christianity, Western Civilization is a broad phenomenon, including ideas as different as capitalism, communism, empiricism, rationalism, romanticism, nationalism, globalization, liberal democracy, fascism, and postmodernism. The strands of Western Civilization that came forward in Europe’s encounter with ‘new’ lands and peoples were primarily nationalistic rivalry and greed. Again, here are a few representative quotes on the bad bruit this has produced:

  • “… assimilation … offers you a trade: your God-given identity for a chance to be seen, to be comfortable, to fit in with ease.” (Curtice)
  • “Colonization is the greatest health risk to indigenous peoples as individuals and communities. It produces the anomie — the absence of values and sense of group purpose and identity — that underlies the deadly automobile accidents triggered by alcohol abuse. It creates the conditions of inappropriate diet which lead to an epidemic of degenerative diseases, and the moral anarchy that leads to child abuse and spousal abuse. Becoming colonized was the worst thing that could happen five centuries ago, and being colonized is the worst thing that can happen now.” (John Mohawk, quoted in Woodley 2012)
  • “Our nation was born in genocide. We tried, as a matter of national policy, to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for the shameful episode.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Why we can’t wait (1964))
  • “Coloniality constrains and trains freedom to conform to a particular power arrangement …. Rather than flow (or system) of total [duties], coloniality is …more about hardening boundaries around people, land, and things, creating separation rather than advancing reciprocity in relations.” (Noble)
  • “[T]he settler state [is] a colonial creation, a vector of cultural genocide, and one that continues inexorably to suppress Indigenous collective aspirations for self-determination and sovereignty. (David B. Macdonald, essay in Craft)

Again, all this was a choice made by Western governments. Imperialism is not inherent to the West (and, of course, Europeans did not ‘invent’ Empire); but for so much of the world, it has come to define the West. We in ‘the West’ have to choose today who we are and who we want to be and live that out. If we as Canadians, for example, truly believe our own hype about being a country that values diversity, justice, and human rights, then Indigenous Reconciliation should be at the top of our agenda, no matter the cost or required transformation of how we relate to the land and all of its peoples.

The question before us, particularly those of us who are both Western and Christian, is Who are we? What story are we going to tell, about ourselves, and about the world? Can we tell a better story — one that is just as, if not more faithful to the deep values of our faith — that bears better fruit?

Over the next few weeks, I will be offering some contributions toward what I hope will be a better, truer story that doesn’t just undo the old bad narratives, but actively has an eye towards Reconciliation, not as something to check off on our national or ecclesiastical to-do list, but as a way of life. The way of Reconciliation is inherently the way of repentance, for both involve not just being honest about, and being ‘sorry for’ past ‘sins’ and present injustices, but about orienting ourselves to a new way of being in the world in which relationships are healed, difference is appreciated, and we all walk together hand-in-hand as partners.

 

* Please see the bibliography and reading list for the series for details.

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