Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why Church Culture Can Be Deadly...

I love the church.  But most of the time I really can't stand church culture.  There is a vast difference between the two.  Church culture consists of the baggage, language, ritual, and all the political, religious and cultural accretions which have developed around the church over time.  It's this latter that really concerns me.  In fact, it can be absolutely deadly.

In the early years of the 5th century, the church was consumed with battles over doctrinal battles on issues like how, when and to what degree Jesus was God.  It had been a hundred years since the issuance of the agreement between Licinius and Constantine, the disputed "Edict of Milan," which effectively made Christianity a legal religion; though a proclamation of tolerance had already been made by Emperor Galerius in 311 (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Volume 1, p. 124-126).  In the intervening years, Christianity became the sanctioned religion of the Empire.  As of the year 382, Emperor Gratian officially withdrew financial support for paganism and between 391 and 392, Theodosius forbade all public and private pagan worship (Gonzalez, p. 141).  From this point forward, the leadership and people of the church became increasingly belligerent and violent in its interaction both with those outside itself and those who disagreed with the approved majority (whichever side that happened to be at the time).

In 412 Cyril of Alexandria was appointed the Patriarch of Alexandria.  This same Cyril would go on to become largely responsible for our orthodox view of the Trinity and ultimately be granted sainthood in the Roman Catholic church.  However, in 415, conflict appears to have ensued between Cyril and Hypatia, the famously female mathematician and philosopher who served as librarian at the Library of Alexandria.  The conflict concluded with the brutal murder and dismembering of Hypatia by Christians from Cyril's church in Alexandria.  The account of this conflict is documented from widely different perspectives, but the most objective seems to be that found in Socrates Scholasticus' Ecclesiastical History VII, 15 (c.439):

...For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously [slanderously] reported among the Christian populace, that it was she [Hypatia] who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.

The degree of Cyril's actual involvement in Hypatia's murder has been much debated, but many acknowledge at least some responsibility on his part, given that the perpetrators of her murder were leaders and members of the Alexandrian church who had apparently witnessed his frustration with her.  Regardless of whether Cyril was innocent or guilty, in the actions of his disciples we find a tragic picture of what can happen when church culture is given free reign.

Anyone can see from the outside that such behavior has nothing in common with Christ.  In the remainder of the account of these events, Socrates - a rather orthodox Christian for the time - clearly recognized the shameful nature of the behavior saying, "surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort."  Yet conviction of righteousness, indignation and unmitigated reverence for the authority of the church and its leaders made cruel and vicious acts appear justified.

The church then, as often today, defined itself in opposition to the groups it perceived as having incorrect (or heretical) beliefs.  As such, there could be only two groups of people:  right people and wrong people, "us" and "them."  Much of the writing of the early church is comprised of accusations and debates about heresy.  Because of the heated nature of these arguments, "wrong" people quickly became "bad" people.  And bad people became the enemy.

Now, one of the sadder things that becomes clear from a study of church history is that the organized church has persistent amnesia when it comes to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:44, "Love your enemy."  From the crusades and inquisitions to the attitudes and propaganda of contemporary culture wars on issues like abortion, homosexuality it would seem that the more popular translation is "eliminate your enemy."  And elimination has the horrible tendency of building up a body count.

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