Historian Distorts Past In Praise Of Secularism


By: Frederick Meekins

In the 4/19/10 edition of USA Today, religious antiquarian Phillip Jenkins, by comparing extremist Islam with assorted atrocities committed in the name of Christianity over the centuries, details from an historical perspective how any religion can be co-opted in the name of violence. Though his warning is in part a timeless one that needs to be considered in all ages, Professor Jenkins’ case overlooks a number of important points.

First, it must be remembered that, though horrible, the lynching and dismemberment of Hypatia and the abuses perpetrated by Cyril highlighted by Professor Jenkins occurred centuries ago. The violence committed by Islamic extremists is going on today.

That does not diminish the evils inflicted so long ago or repudiate the lessons that can be learned from such ancient accounts. However, the danger arises when this sense of scholastic detachment is then applied to the issue of contemporary terrorism.

Secondly, it must be remembered that such violence perpetrated solely for expansive religious purposes in the name of the Lord by human hands is not endorsed by Christ during the dispensation of grace. In Acts 17, Paul debated and dialogued with the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill; he didn’t crack open their heads.

For Christians, Jesus during the time of His first advent and Paul are to serve as examples in regards to faith, practice, and missiological strategy. It could be argued that Muhammad serves a similar function in the life of the Muslim.

It would be factually incorrect to say that all Muslims are prone to fanatic violence. However, those using violence for socioreligious ends are more faithful in emulating the example set by Muhammad and the text he promoted than supposed Christians committing violence are in living up to New Testament standards.

Professor Jenkins would no doubt argue that those emphasizing violent manifestations of Islam while neglecting violent expressions of Christianity are doing a disservice to history. He has committed this very offense by insinuating that violent atrocities are a phenomena exclusive to unhinged religions and not something plaguing other social institutions.

Jenkins writes, “Out-of-control clergy, religious demagogues with their consecrated militias, religious parties usurping the functions of the state — these were the common currency of the Christian world just a few decades after the Roman Empire made Christianity its official religion. He continues a paragraph or two later, “…given a sufficiently weak state mechanism, any religion can be used to justify savagery and extremism.”

Are you going to tell me that an historian of Phillip Jenkins’ repute is not aware of the countless deaths that result not so much from a “sufficiently weak state mechanism” but from a state made too strong at the expense of other cultural spheres? For example, Jenkins writes, “Between 450 and 650 AD, during what I call the ‘Jesus Wars’, inter-Christian conflicts and purges killed hundreds of thousands, and all but wrecked the Roman Empire.”

Such conflict is tragic. However, it could be argued that the Roman Empire was, to use a highly technical historical metaphor, heading down the toilet well before then and for a number of additional reasons.

Frankly, the Roman Empire wrecked itself. Christians didn’t instigate the debaucheries for which the waning years of the Empire have become infamous such as gladiatorial combat, rampant orgies, and even incest among the ruling elite.

History is as much a reflection of the values of those writing it as it is about the past era being written about. As such, Professor Jenkins needs to be asked why he thinks the violence perpetrated by warring bishops is somehow worse or the victims any more dead than the Christians slaughtered by Roman authorities for little more than quietly adhering to their own convictions.

It would seem that the most important lesson to take away from the great tragedies of history is that innocent human lives are lost when institutions of authority assume power to extents and over matters they were never intended. The regimes more blatantly hostile of Christianity such as Nazism and Communism were actually the regimes that turned the slaughter of the innocent and dissidents into an exact science.

It has been said that those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Concentrating power in the hands of government at the expense of other social institutions in the name of preventing tyranny is one of the surest ways of bringing about that particularly undesirable state of political affairs.

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