On a recent blog I asked "has Christianity brought us the peace and compassion it promised?" If not, has Jesus' message somehow become distorted? For some of the answers to these questions Brian D. McLaren in his book 'The Secret Message of Jesus', provides a number of factors in our Christian history that may have contributed to our lack of understanding of Jesus' message. Elaborating on some of these interesting concepts presented in the closing chapters of McLaren's book readers are invited to reflect on these historical influences on our thinking.
Very early in church history the Christian faith took a fateful turn. It went from being a Jewish sect, committed to maintaining complete continuity with historic Judaism, to becoming a Gentile religion with persistent anti-Semitic tendencies.
The church's early separation from its Jewish roots was accomplished by a deep interest in Greek philosophy and its strong focus on abstract truths. This same focus is evident today; witness the hours spent by the church debating esoteric theological/philosophical issues compared to the trickle of attention paid to understanding and applying Jesus' kingdom ethics.
In the early fourth century the church quickly formed an alliance with the Roman Empire following the legalization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine. Consequently, the teachings of Jesus were now filtered by the church through the lens of a worldly political empire. This quite naturally tended to obscure the pastoral teachings of Jesus.
The alliance between church and empire brought about an endorsement for the use of violence in the service of the Kingdom of God. Suddenly the church/empire concluded that heretics could be justly tortured, and all pagans could be converted forcibly. Subsequently, Crusades were launched against non-Christians such as the Muslims. This same violent attitude introduced the Spanish Inquisition, witch-hunts, slavery and the lack of direct opposition to the Holocaust in the last century. These terrifying and inhuman actions were frequently undertaken in the name of Christianity in total contradiction to the teachings of Jesus.
Following the middle Ages, the reformation brought new Protestant alliances with the secular state as was already the case with the Catholic Church. Many European countries established overseas colonies at the expense of its native population, often with strong support of the church.
Until the twentieth century the church's conventional understanding of Christianity remained unchallenged. Until that time, it clearly inhibited our understanding of Jesus' kingdom and did not encourage a re-thinking. However, with the discovery of new documents from the ancient world, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls it became evident that Christianity needed to re-examine Jesus' message for all humankind.
Until recent times, the Christian church did not engage in any serious self-examination. In many cases apologies for many of their appalling sanctions came only centuries or decades after the event. With the growing theological acceptance of salvation in the 'here and now' Christianity will perhaps be more readily prepared to accept their role in these horrendous acts. As Christians we must be prepared to learn from our past errors (sins) before we can understand what it means to live in God's kingdom. At the same time we must recognize that 'given the right circumstances' we are all just as capable of taking part in these different forms of injustice, acts of violence, racism, sexual abuse and environmental degradation, etc., etc.,
Today we are slowly learning to reject the various forms of superstition and magic prevalent in many periods of Christian history. Most profound is our understanding of the Ego throughout history. Increasingly theologians are now beginning to identify the Ego with Satan or the devil. Perhaps for the first time in history we are beginning to realize that we need to embrace our dark nature (False-Self) with our True-Self, which is non-other than or God given self. Failure to understand our Ego has seriously clouded our understanding of many of Jesus' parables and the concept of God's inclusive Kingdom. It is nearly impossible to understand Jesus' parables otherwise.
Christianity's continued focus on the past rather than the present remains an obstacle in embracing ecumenism and relevance to its followers. Church attendance continues to drop in staggering numbers despite a strong belief in God and the desire for peace and understanding – the very message Jesus brought more than two thousand years ago.