Chapter 4 - Everything You Were Taught About History is a Lie
How we tell history shapes our future. Humans are shaped by our stories. Each of us tells our own history. One might say, 'I have always been a scrappy fighter. I overcame being cut from the basketball team and ended up being an all-star. I got better grades than the smarter kids and got into that top university. And once I entered the workforce, I got promoted faster and younger than almost anyone in my age group.' Another might say, 'I have always different. In third grade, I was picked last. The girls didn't like me. I never got invited to the parties in high school. And in college, I mostly kept my head down and didn't socialize.' Others might think of themselves as the smart one, the funny one, the athlete, or the creative one. But we think this based on our history. Who we were when we were kids, college students, and in our early career becomes who we are.
What sort of story do you tell about yourself? Whatever it is, it probably shapes the job, spouse, hobbies, and friends that you have pursued. In short, the story you tell about yourself shapes who you are.
Kurt Vonnegut, in the excellent Mother Night, wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And this is very true. But I would add, 'We are the story we tell about ourselves, so we must be careful about what story we tell about ourselves.'
And this brings me to the telling of history. Let's take religion as an example. How do we tell the history of Christianity? Many modern Christians dismiss this question. Just preach the gospel they say. I think this is an act of religious suicide. If you let anti-Christians tell the story of Christianity, it goes like this:
'Ancient Greece and Rome built the foundation for progress. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle created the first hints of the scientific pursuit that built both of those great civilizations. Technology and social order grew and expanded. Until Christianity came about. Almost immediately, things went down hill from there. The Dark Ages were welcomed in. Heretics were burned. Witches were hunted. People stopped taking baths. Disease spread. Constant war broke out. Slavery came. And only after people started questioning Christianity did the Enlightenment begin. This ushered in the Scientific Revolution. Democracy. The end of slavery. The civil rights movement. Globalization. And finally rights for LGBT. Christianity was a huge dark spot in human history but now it is thankfully fading from the world scene.'
If this history is believed, what does someone think when you approach them with the gospel? Are they receptive? Do they wait to hear what you have to say? No. 'Just preaching the gospel,' becomes an almost impossible task and few if any will have anything to do with you.
But consider this. The history told above is a complete lie. Almost every word.The emperor has no clothes. Ancient Rome and Greece did not set the stage for the rise of science and their societies were filled with oppression, slavery, widespread infanticide, and war. When Christianity came on the scene, things started to get better almost immediately. Infanticide was made illegal. The gladiator games were abolished. Slavery faded from the European landscape. Hospitals were founded. Orphanages took care of the bands of orphans that had previously plagued major cities. The church protected the poor and provided a check on the rich and powerful. Scholars now reject the term, 'Dark Ages,' because it has become very obvious that this era was actually one of amazing growth in knowledge and academic pursuits. The early scientists were not Enlightenment skeptics of religion but were instead were mostly very devout Christians. Christians led the way in ending slavery a second time when it popped back up in the New World (see chapter 1). Christians led the way on the Civil Rights movement. And far from shrinking from the world scene, Christianity continues to grow both in the United States and globally. Far from being a dark spot in human history, Christianity has shed light on a dark world and continues to do so.
Is Western Civilization a history of stealing ideas from the Chinese, land from the Africans and Native Americans, and generally oppressing the world? Or is ours a unique civilization that was the first to end slavery, the first to introduce republican democracy, and the first to establish the concept of universal human rights? How you answer this will probably affect how view concepts such as multiculturalism, religion, and immigration.
This story matters. It matters for a number of reasons. One obvious reason is that many, believing the Enlightenment-is-the-turning-point myth, are convinced that science, education, and reason are the solutions to the problems with the world and religion (and Christianity in particular) are the primary problems with the world. More science less religion is the solution to almost every societal problem. But if this is a myth this "solution" has the potential of undermining the foundation for all that is good and free in society.
The stories we tell about ourselves matter. History matters. And the people we have put in charge of our history departments are overwhelmingly liberal, socialist, and anti-Western in ideology. History is war. And we have given control of the guns to the enemy. And so we must take back control. We must research, retell and correct the historical record. Winston Churchill once wrote, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." Every person that loves God and country should take this as a personal battle cry. Everyone should become historians of the truth. We need to tell the truth about the history of the church, the history of our culture, and the history of our nation.
The turning point of modern history has been told wrong. The world did not change with Isaac Newton or Voltaire. The turning point came much earlier. It was when the tomb of a young man, executed for insurrection by a Roman governor, was found empty that the world changed. Jesus of Nazareth had taught for about three years in the Roman controlled nation of Israel. He taught a unique message of caring for the poor, valuing the widow and the orphan, acknowledging the humanity of the stranger, forgiving your enemies, and living according to the codes of the God of Israel. He stated that the Kingdom of God was near and that all who followed him would join this Kingdom. This Kingdom, he said, would grow like a mustard seed (very small) into a giant tree where the birds of the air could nest. And this prophetic statement certainly came true. Jesus died and rose again in about 34 AD. By the end of the first century, the followers of Jesus had grown from a handful to thousands scattered throughout the Roman Empire. By the end of the second century, Christianity was making a major stir. By the beginning of the fourth century, the Emperor of Rome himself was bowing down to the King of Israel.
The effects that Jesus' teaching had on the world were breathtaking. Ancient Rome was a brutal place. Widespread slavery. Widespread infanticide. Gladiator games were the national pastime. Gangs of orphans roamed the streets. There was no social safety net for the poor. Fertility had sagged thanks to the use of prostitutes, abortion, leather condoms, the preference for homosexual sex and pederasty. War was a constant. Emperor had no check on their power. The rights of the people were almost nonexistent.
The "rule of King Jesus" immediately started to make things better. Some of the earliest changes (as mentioned in chapters 1 and 2) were the ending of sexual slavery. Orphanages were built to help with the many homeless children. The first welfare system was established by the bishops. A giant change was the attitude toward babies and family. Abortion and infanticide were eschewed by Christians. Sex outside of marriage was rejected. This created what we now call the nuclear family with a mom, dad, and a large family living together.
The Middle Ages are Not the Dark Ages
Most historians have dropped the "Dark Ages" label from the era between the fall of Rome and the Enlightenment. The phrase was always propaganda and the more we learn about the middle ages the more we realize how wrong it was. Europe during this period was not utopia but many wonderful things happened.
First, scientific progress did not stop or falter. The opposite is true. Schools developed, the university system was established, and the scientific process was first established during this period. People were not dumb either. Despite common perceptions that people all thought the earth was flat, few did. Monks developed massive libraries and saved many ancient writings from being lost to time. Technologies were developed for farms and military that far surpassed other cultures. It is notable that during the crusades, the Christians were able to travel thousands of miles to beat the Muslims on their own land. Medicine made progress as well with the first forays into surgery with even some initial understanding of antiseptics.
Second, the idea that everyone stunk and were afraid of baths is also a myth. Communal baths were widely used, hand washing was common before meals, and soap was in demand. For most of the middle ages, people would have been relatively clean compared to other cultures and not the filth covered caricatures of popular perception. It was only with the horror of the Black Plague that brought this stereotype to us. It is hard for us to imagine the impact of a plague that killed 1/3 of the population but people do crazy stuff when that happens. And one of the desperate measures was to avoid communal bathes. But this really did not happen until the end of the middle ages (14th century).
Third, life was not nasty brutish and short. Despite the idea that everyone died in their 20s back then, the truth is that the experience of the typical Medieval European was better than the typical experience in almost any other country at the same time. Slavery was almost completely absent. The typical work day was about eight hours. Everyone got Sundays and other church holidays off work. Wars were less frequent and on a smaller scale than in other societies.Certainly not perfect but hardly the horror we typically imagine and pretty good in relation to other cultures of the time.
But what about the crusades? The crusades are often misunderstood. From the 7th century through the 11th century (the time of the First Crusade), Muslims had swept through Christian country after Christian country. They had defeated all of Northern Africa and some of the oldest and most established Christian countries. Once they took control they enslaved and abused the Christian population. For centuries they had been threatening Europe. In the 8th century, they conquered Spain. In the 9-10th centuries they defeated large parts of Italy. By the 11th century, many of these threats to Western Europe had subsided but they continued to threaten the East. Constantinople was in constant danger. And the Christian minority throughout the Islamic territories were constantly abused.
Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos wrote to Pope Urban II in 1095 asking for aid against the invading Turks. This sparked a call to arms by the Pope and the beginning of the First Crusade. The cause was just and understandable. The crusades themselves were fought, for the time, with relative justice but there were certainly atrocities and horrors. But these were only horrors by Christian standards. For other cultures, sacking a city or massacring a group were not considered wrong. But when the crusaders did it, they brought shame to their Christian cause. The pope was forced to apologize and condemn on various occasions. Rodney Stark sums up the truth of the crusades in the following way, “The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God's battalions.”
How Christianity Checked the Power of Emperors
Christians rejected the constant war of the Romans. Christians were prohibited from participating as soldiers. As Christianity became the majority religion in the Roman Empire, Christian bishops provided a check on the Emperor. There are many examples of bishops calling Emperors. One great example is when Ambrose of Milan confronted Theodosius the Great regarding the brutal and deadly manner he put down an uprising. Ambrose wrote to him,
'What has been done at Thessalonica is unparalled in the memory of man...You are human, and temptation has overtaken you. Overcome it. I counsel, I beseech, I implore you to penance. You, who have so often been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocent to perish...'
The Roman Emperor, once unchecked an unchecked position, was forced by Ambrose to do penance publicly wearing sackcloth outside a church door begging those who entered to pray for him. This was a remarkable example of the church limiting power that once had no limit. But it certainly is not the only time.
Another powerful example takes place many years later. In the
late 10th century, Otto III was the "Holy Roman Emperor". He appointed his
cousin, Bruno of Carinthia to be Pope. At age 24, Bruno took the title
of Pope Gregory V. The only problem was that Gregory had a rival pope to
deal with. Roman aristocrats, against Otto's wishes, had appointed John
XVI as pope. Otto, furious, stormed Rome, drove out and killed the
villainous aristocrats and then troops pursued and captured this
'anti-pope'. His troops cut off John's nose and ears, cut out his
tongue, broke his fingers and blinded him. They degraded him before Otto
III and Gregory V forcing to ride through the streets of Rome seated
backwards on a donkey as crowds jeered and threw stuff at him.
But the Rule of King Jesus, even when the Pope in the king's pocket, would not tolerate such behavior. All Christians understood that we are not to do so cruelly to anyone even our enemies. Nilus the Younger, an old monk in Rome, went up to the Pope and the Emperor. He was unarmed and aged. But nevertheless he reproached Gregory and the Emperor for this crime. He pointed to Jesus and his forgiveness of his enemies and willingness to forgive even the worst of enemies. Nilus prophesied that "the curse of heaven sooner or later would affect their cruel hearts". No power under heaven could have forced the king to repent but the words of Christ coming from an ancient monk did. The king was broken. When his cousin died, the King saw this as a sign that his sins were destroying him. He went to Nilus on his knees and begged him to remove the curse.
With Christianity, suddenly kings and princes simply had less power. We take it for granted today that leaders are under the law and that they cannot just do as they please but to a great extent, it is Christianity that made this assumption so ubiquitous. Christianity put checks on kings but it also puts a check on democracies. We cannot exchange a corrupt king for a corrupt public or some of the same terrors (or worse as we saw in revolutionary France) can happen from the mob than can happen from a king. Democracy helps check the tendencies of
the single unjust ruler but it does not fix the tendencies of an unjust
society. It is possible for a democracy to do great harm to minorities.
Get 51% to support some evil and that evil will be done. In some ways,
when democracies go bad they are worse than when monarchies go bad. At
least with a monarchy going bad you can always wait for the bad king to
die. Public opinion is not so centralized.
But in the history of Western Civilization you see a progressive growth of protection of the stranger, the minority, the disabled, the weak, and the forgotten. Christianity then not only offered a counterbalance to kings but also a counterbalance to the general public. In 1776 when Jefferson wrote that famous line, "all men are created equal," no one laughed. If those words had been written in 34AD everyone would have laughed. The 1740 years that passed between the crucifixion of Christ and the writing of the declaration of Independence had seen the teachings of Jesus spread like yeast throughout the world. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament along with the Hebrew bible grew to be a huge sticking point for anyone that would choose to abuse and kill. These words forced people to confront that God wanted us to love our neighbors AND our enemies (GK Chesterton once noted that often those are the same people). They forced people to realize that the weak, the slave, the outsider, the widow, the orphan and the minority were as great in God's eyes as the most powerful king.
It is worth reminding everyone that white people had all the power when Jim Crow laws were repealed. Why would whites give up this power? Like Nilus, people like Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the scriptures and pricked the heart of the majority. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote, "How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." His words are clear. Moral laws are not established by men but by God. And, his argument followed, what you are doing is not consistent with the bible.
This explains chapters 1 and 2 and why the state of the weak members of society were so much improved in the Christian West. And it explains why societies that explicitly reject Jesus like the Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany so dangerous. Lacking any trust or fear in the unchangeable law of God, torturing enemies is no longer taboo. As long as a king can justify it to himself, no force on earth can stop him. And not just kings. As long a society can justify abusing a minority, no power on earth can stop them.
Let's look at the relationship between Christianity, Nazism and Communism briefly because it is illustrative of how Christianity affects a society.
Hitler hated Christianity. Many don't realize this. I have actually heard people try to claim the opposite. I recently saw someone quote a public statement that Hitler made espousing
Christianity (there are a few statements in Mein Kampf and in his early
speeches in which Hitler gives praise to God). These statements were used to suggest Hitler was a Christian (perhaps even a devout one). But the truth is that Hitler was not a Christian. In fact, his own statements,
statements by his friends, and by his propaganda ministry all make it clear
that Hitler was not only not a Christian but hostile towards Christianity and
the handful of Christian sounding statements he made early in career were for
Let’s review the evidence. Let’s start with Hitler’s inner circle. Hitler’s
close confidant and high ranking official in the Nazi party Goebbels was blunt
when he gave an overview of Hitler’s views on Christianity stating that Hitler
was “entirely anti-Christian." Hitler’s architect and well connected
man among the highest ranks of the Nazi party, Albert Speer, stated that the
Führer abhorred the faith for what he deemed its "meekness and
flabbiness."So two the people who were in the best position to get
Hitler’s views on Christianity agree that he did not like Christianity.
This makes sense given that the Nazi party issued anti-Christian statements through their propaganda office. Just consider this statement from Nazi propagandist Friedrich Rehm at Christmas time 1937,“We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem. It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion."
At this point, those stating that Hitler was a Christian either admit their mistake or unfortunately persist. Those who persist do so by saying 'what about his own words from Mein Kampf and his early speeches that appear to celebrate and promote Christianity?' I have two answers to this. First, when it comes to politicians, which would you trust more – their self promoting public statements or their private conversations with friends and their actions in office? Second, the handful of statements he made early proclaiming faith need to be placed next to the almost endless number of statements mocking, deriding and denouncing Christianity.
Here is a small sampling of Hitler's direct quotes on Christianity:
- "We do not want any other god than Germany itself. It is essential to have fanatical faith and hope and love in and for Germany."
- “…the only way of getting rid of Christianity is to allow it to die little by little."“It’s Christianity that’s the liar. It’s in perpetual conflict with itself."“In the long run, National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together”
- “Kerrl, with the noblest of intentions, wanted to attempt a synthesis between National Socialism and Christianity. I don’t believe the thing’s possible, and I see the obstacle in Christianity itself.”
- “As far as we are concerned, we’ve succeeded in chasing the Jews from our midst and excluding Christianity from our political life."
- “There is something very unhealthy about Christianity.”
- “The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity. Christianity is a prototype of Bolshevism: the mobilization by the Jew of the masses of slaves with the object of undermining society. Thus one understands that the healthy elements of the Roman world were proof against this doctrine.”
- “When all is said, we have no reason to wish that the Italians and Spaniards should free themselves from the drug of Christianity. Let’s be the only people who are immunized against the disease.”
- “Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity. It will last another hundred years, two hundred years perhaps. My regret will have been that I couldn’t, like whoever the prophet was, behold the promised land from afar. We are entering into a conception of the world that will be a sunny era, an era of tolerance.”
And these are just a few, there are many other quotes that could be brought forward showing in Hitler’s own words how much he hated Christianity.
What About Nazi's Using Christian Phrases and Symbols?
Inevitably, people who think the Nazi's were Christian point to various Christian symbols, phrases, and slogans in the Nazi army. Are these evidence that the Nazi's were at least Christian-friendly?For example, the Nazi army had a slogan (and various badges and insignia) that used the slogan: "Gott Mit Uns," translated, "God with us." If Hitler and the Nazi's were so anti-Christian why would they do this? The answer is that they did not. The Christian symbols of the army were used long before the Nazi's took over and the Nazi's worked to slowly remove them. For example, the phrase Gott Mit Uns had been in place as a slogan for the military for generations and the Nazi's removed it from officer uniforms. They left it in place for the foot soldiers but this appears to be a concession (the army loved the phrase).
So, Hitler hated Christianity. Anyone that says otherwise is either ignorant of history or spreading intentional misinformation.
And for good reason. Christianity offered both a check from within his own nation and a check from without. It was from the most devoutly Christian nations that the most horror to the actions of the Nazi's was seen most clearly. Unlike atheist USSR that initially allied with Hitler, the United Kingdom and the United States clearly saw Nazism with the horror it deserved. The USA and the UK had some of the highest church attendance rates in Western Civilization and this gave sentiments to the population and leaders that were in direct conflict with the sentiments of Nazism. The Nazi's conviction that there is a superior race, desire to do away with those with disabilities, and brutal antipathy to mercy and forgiveness struck large portions of American and English populations are horrific. Despite the fact that Hitler had some sympathy among certain American and English elites, it was not hard for Churchill or Roosevelt to rally the public to the charge of bringing down Hitler. And within Germany there was also resistance from Christians. Priests and Lutheran pastors built underground networks to oppose Nazi philosophy and antisemitism. Pope Pius XII's anti-racist encyclical was used by German priests to oppose the Nazi's. Huguenots in Nazi occupied France helped save many Jews by hiding them and helping flee the country. The devout Huguenot pastor, André Trocmé, preached against discrimination and refused to even ring the church bell in deference to the Nazi's. Finally, a Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, participated in a plot that nearly succeeded in killing Hitler. And when the Nazi's finally lost the war, Christian moral teachings helped restore Western Germany and bring forgiveness to those who participated in the horrors.
There was a non-Christian factor that helped bring down Hitler as well of course. The Soviets led by Joseph Stalin were certainly a major factor in the end of Hitler's ambitions. Hitler, like so many failed world conquerors before him, made the mistake of invading Russia and ended up losing the war as a result. The Russians paid dearly for this losing as many as 16.5 million people (the US in comparison lost only 400,000. But one could argue that Stalin and communist Russia's efforts were less than altruistic in purpose. Stalin immediately scooped up whole countries at the close of the war including half of Germany itself. And it is quite debatable as to which was worse - Nazism or Communism? Stalin likely killed more than Hitler and was every bit as oppressive to those that were not killed. Communism more broadly left devastation and murder everywhere it spread. In China, Chairman Mao Zedong killed more than 40 million. In Cambodia, Pol Pot executed, by some estimates, 30% of the population. Everywhere communism spread freedoms were eliminated, poverty increased, people were "reeducated", enslaved, imprisoned, and murdered. Communism was dark.
And communism was virulently anti-Christian. Lenin's decree on the separation of church and state deprived the church of the right to own property, to teach religion in both state and private schools, or to any group of minors. The regime killed thousands of bishops, priests, monks, and laity. They seized church property and conducted a brutal campaign of violent terror. The government then conducted a broad propaganda campaign among all the available mass media. In the 1930s, the number of Orthodox churches in Russia fell from 29,584 to fewer than 500. Christians were harassed, beaten, put in Gulags and killed. Outside of Russia, similar anti-Christian campaigns were conducted in other communist states.
But again, the Soviet fear and hatred of Christianity was well founded. Because ultimately, Christians played a key role in ending it. Anti-Communist sentiments in the USA ran high. One of the main complaints with communism was the Godlessness of it. The United States added Christian words and phrases to our coins and the pledge of allegiance in response to the atheism of the Soviet Union. The failure of communism to get a serious foothold in the USA is at least in part due to the Christian sensibilities of the population. Evangelicals are largely responsible for electing Ronald Reagan in 1980 and one of Reagan's main issues was a tough stance against the USSR. His statement to the general secretary of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down this wall," inspired East Germans to do just that a few years later. At the same time Reagan was playing tough with Russia, the polish Pope John Paul II was elected. Poland, at the time part of the Soviet Bloc, loved that Poland had its first polish Pope. He was incredibly popular there. The Pope's condemnations of communism and promotion of Christian principles of freedom, kindness, and justice resonated there. Between the protests and unrest in Poland and Germany and other places throughout the Soviet Bloc it became increasingly clear that the USSR was not going to be able to hold together its giant collection of nations. And slowly it fell apart. And in 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to be. Russian Orthodoxy was reestablished. King Jesus defeated another foe. Today only a handful of communist countries remain. All of them continue to battle Christianity. If history is any guide, all of them will fall.
It is worth noting that both the Soviet Union and Nazism were not opposed to the Enlightenment or science. Both were known for their scientific efforts. The Russians were the first in space. The Nazi's had some of the world's greatest rocket scientists.If there is no other sign that the turning point of history was not the Enlightenment but the resurrection it is found here.
We live in a society that has been sold the myth that science and reason can give us morals. We live in a society that thinks that history turned when Newton came on the scene. We live in a society that has been fed Enlightenment propaganda for centuries. But standing outside our culture and looking back at the broad span of history we can see that this emperor too... has no clothes.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell has a beautiful overview of the work of André Trocme and the French Huguenots
A great biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is by Eric Metaxas simply titled, Bonhoeffer
Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens has a powerful description of the Soviet oppression of Christians.
Through the Eye of the Needle by Peter Brown talks about how Christians formed the first social safety nets.
Rodney Starks, God's Battalions, is an excellent defense of the crusades.