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The lives of our greatest heroes often undermined the gospel they so eloquently preached.
In the last year, the greatest challenge to my faith has been reading about the church’s history (mainly from Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity). In many ways, the story of Christianity is full of light—mission, education, art, healthcare, abolition, compassion, justice—and I have read, taught, and loved that story for many years.
But there is an undeniable dark side: attacking, burning, crusading, drowning, enslaving, flogging, ghettoizing, hunting, imprisoning, Jew-hating, killing, lynching, and so on through the entire alphabet. What makes this difficult to stomach is that the people involved, as far as we know, have loved God, followed Jesus, and received his Spirit.
This poses several problems for believers today. There is an apologetic problem: If God is real, and his church is the light of the world and the salt of the earth, we really ought to be doing better. There is a practical problem: The consequences of our actions continue to sour the world, blighting efforts to cultivate peace and justice. There is a theological problem, namely that we are standing on the doctrinal shoulders of some who behaved appallingly. There is even a personal problem, in that the numerous specks in our ancestors’ eyes mean that there must be at least one or two logs in ours.
A short while ago, I had a bonfire in my garden, and as I threw more wood onto the blazing mound, I couldn’t help thinking, “We used to do this to people. God forgive us.” Considering our failures can be upsetting. Yet it can also be instructive, challenging, and even encouraging to reflect on what the dark side of our history teaches. We can learn a lot about our shape from our shadow.