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Christian Zionism (Extended Version)

Christian Zionism
By Paul Kivel

Christian Zionism refers to the movement of Christians who interpret the Bible to say that God gave the Jews the divine right to rule over Israel, which they interpret to encompass the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and Jerusalem including Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount). It is much more than a pro-Israel, pro-Zionist lobby. It is a widespread network of individual and institutional support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine that has taken various forms over the last 400 years.

The Christian Zionist movement has a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy in Palestine/Israel. This movement is powerful, extensive, well-organized, and effective. At times it works with and supports the Jewish pro-Israel lobby, but it is completely independent and has its own religious and political agenda.
According to Pastor John Hubers with the Institute for the Study of Christian Zionism, today Christian Zionism is characterized by a few core beliefs including:

1. God’s covenant with Israel is eternal, unchanging and unconditional.
2. The Bible gives Christians the obligation to support Israel, otherwise harm will come to them and to the United States. Many Christian Zionists cite Genesis 12:3 as proof of this mandate: “I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you I will curse.”
3. The prophetic books of the Bible such as Daniel and Revelations refer to current times, not Biblical times.
4. The modern state of Israel is a catalyst for the final prophetic countdown to the end of the world.

A substantial number of Christians support Israel as a vehicle for accelerating the end-time prophecies so heavily emphasized by Christian fundamentalists. But there are also many Christians who do not believe in End Time scenarios who uncritically support Israel because of the other Biblical mandates mentioned above. According to Pastor Hubers, “It would not be an exaggeration to say the majority of American Christians who give uncritical support to Israel today have been influenced in one way or another by the tenets of Christian Zionism whether they buy the package or not.”

Christian Zionist organizations and leadership both represent and influence the approximately 70 million evangelicals in the U.S., a majority of whom are passionately committed to supporting the state of Israel no matter what its policies and have great antipathy towards Muslims and Arabs in general — and Palestinians in particular. Besides lobbying for pro-Israeli expansionist policies, Christian Zionists also provide a tremendous amount of direct financial support to Israel, coordinate a large pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian constituency, and give direct aid to illegal settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. In fact, as the rest of this article documents, the history of the creation of and continuing support for the state of Israel has been largely determined by ruling class Christian Zionists in Britain and, more recently, in the U.S.

Historically, the belief by some Christians that Jews must be gathered to the “Holy Land” dates back to 1585 when Rev. Thomas Brightman advocated Jewish restoration in Palestine. One of his students wrote a treatise in 1621 which popularized this idea. By the 17th century the conversion of the Jews was a major Christian concern, with many theologians predicting that their conversion and subsequent “restoration” was imminent. Belief in the critical nature of the Restoration of the Jews to Palestine wasn’t exclusive to theologians. It was promoted by Napoleon Bonaparte, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Herman Melville, Samuel Coleridge, John Milton, George Eliot, Robert Browning, and many others.

In 1811, Rev. Lewis Way generously funded the recently established London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. But perhaps the most important 19th century Christian Zionist was Irish pastor John Darby (1800-1882), a missionary for the idea of Jewish restoration for over 60 years, who traveled extensively preaching this cause. His fervor about conversion and restoration of the Jews and the alignment of this policy with British imperial interests gathered many influential supporters, including the extremely well-connected Lord Ashley, a very prominent British politician. Lord Ashley was the person who popularized the phrase, “A nation without a country for a country without a nation,” a phrase not widely used by Jewish Zionists until the mid-twentieth century campaign to sell the world on the concept of a Jewish homeland.

The beginnings of a Jewish Zionist movement came together in the mid-nineteenth century fueled by rising nationalism and anti-Semitism throughout Europe. This Jewish movement was strongly supported by British Christian Zionists who had three major goals. They wanted to rid England of Jews (anti-Semitism); they wanted to establish a British trade outpost in the Middle East in preparation for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (British imperialism and capitalism); and they wanted the Jews to be restored to Palestine so Biblical prophecy could be fulfilled (Christian Zionism). There was also humanitarian concern on the part of a small number of Christian Zionists, such as well-known author George Eliot, for the plight of the Jews in Russia during the period of pogroms. By supporting Jewish Restoration as it was called, prominent Britons could be humanitarians on behalf of the Jews while not having to accept them as residents of Britain or its colonies — anti-Semitism under the guise of Christian charity and self-interest.

Christian hegemony has always worked to further extend, and then to justify, the imperial ambitions of Christian ruling elites by pitting Arabs and Jews against each other. The British had designs on the declining Ottoman Empire and were in competition with the French for influence in the area. Palestine was a political division of the Ottoman Empire and viewed as a prime area for extending British influence. Historically, Arabs and small numbers of Jews had lived together in Palestine for long periods of time in generally amicable relationship. Christian Zionism created the impression that Arabs and Jews had competing interests and Palestine could only be ruled by one or another of the two groups. They conveniently believed Jews had the prior moral claim on the land, even though there were only a few thousand Jews settled in the area.

In the late nineteenth century, Christian Zionists such as William Hechler introduced Theodor Herzl, head of the emerging Jewish Zionist movement, to the Turkish Sultan (who controlled Palestine), to the German Kaiser, and to major British politicians including Lord Balfour and David Lloyd-George.

The Jewish Zionist movement did not have the clout and connections to swing significant support for a Jewish homeland. But with Christian Zionist support in gaining access to the corridors of British imperial power and Christian Zionists in top government positions, the idea of a Jewish homeland gained widespread support because it also served key British political goals in the Middle East.

After a hundred years of lobbying by Christian Zionists, and more recent work by Jewish Zionists, in 1917 anti-Semitic Christian Zionist Lord Balfour was able to achieve a British Declaration to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. This Balfour Declaration also guaranteed protection of the civil and religious rights of the Palestinians. In 1939, the British government went further and, while still supporting a Jewish homeland, also assured the Palestinians that Jewish migration would be limited and committed itself to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the next decade.

By the end of the 19th century, Christian Zionism had also gathered momentum in the United States. A disciple of Rev. John Darby, the apocalyptic preacher William Blackstone, decided that to hasten the second coming,the U.S. should make the ingathering of Jews to Palestine a priority of U.S. foreign policy. In 1891, he delivered a petition to President Harrison, signed by over four hundred prominent U.S. Christian politicians and business leaders urging a focus on a Jewish homeland. This was before Herzl composed The Jewish State (1896) and before the first Jewish Zionist Congress (1897). Blackstone was recognized as a “Father of Zionism” at a major Jewish conference in 1918. Not a friend to Jews, like most prominent Christian Zionists, he ardently believed that when the Jews did gather “…in the land of Israel [they] were destined to suffer and die during the reign of the Antichrist and to burn in hell for the rest of eternity.

The United States, lobbied by both Jewish and Christian Zionists and in conjunction with its own imperial interests and anti-Arab and anti-Islamic biases, eventually came to replace Britain as the main supporter of Israel in the Middle East. In 1948, President Truman, although not a believer in the end times scenario, did believe in the Manifest Destiny of the U.S. to lead the countries of the world to freedom. He also used his reading of the Bible to justify U.S. recognition of the State of Israel minutes after its independence was declared. At another level, Truman, believing the U.S. was in an international conflict with the evil and godless Soviet Union, wanted to beat them to the punch with this foreign policy coup because of the significance of Israel to the Christian “free” world.

For many Christians in the United States, U.S. support for Israel was not just for the Jews. The special role of the United States in the restoration of the Jews fulfilled their expectations about the unfolding of history and confirmed their beliefs about the United States’ unique role and mission — its manifest destiny to fulfill the divine plan. In other words, they believe the continued existence of the Jewish people and their promised return to Palestine was proof “for the existence of God and for His power in history.” It also confirmed the truth of the Bible and of Biblical prophecy.

Even today, for many Christian Zionists, the day Israeli independence was declared — May 15, 1948 — is considered the single most important date in the twentieth century because it was a sign of God’s plan being fulfilled. Israel is sometimes referred to as “God’s timepiece” by major Christian Zionists, such as Hal Lindsey.

But despite Truman’s support and widespread popular enthusiasm for this newly created state, general U.S. foreign policy did not place much emphasis on support for Israel until the 1967 war which forced U.S. policy makers to reevaluate Israel’s usefulness as an ally to the empire. Meanwhile, in the 1950s and ‘60s, Christian Zionist efforts to focus attention on support for Israel began to pick up momentum. In 1970, the publication of Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which has since sold over 30 million copies in 54 languages, launched the rise and consolidation of the current generation of Christian Zionism.

Recent U.S.-based Christian Zionist efforts to support the state of Israel are just a new chapter in an old tradition of apocalyptic Christianity, which is an influential subset of Christian hegemony. Not only does it promote an unconditional support for Israeli policies and expansion, but it also promotes long-standing western Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism that fuels further violence in the Middle East and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. In the rhetoric of Christian Zionists, Palestinians have no claim to the land, have no legitimate grievances, and should simply be driven from the area and dispersed to other Arab countries. Deeply reminiscent of U.S. genocidal policies towards Native Americans, the level of racism and Islamophobia in Christian Zionist policy promotes an uncompromising, expansionist, no-peace-negotiation stance on the part of Israel and the U.S. towards the Palestinians and continues to be a major obstacle to any progress in ending the violence and creating a lasting and just solution to the crisis in this area of the world.

Most of the powerful Christian conservatives in the U.S. are and have been Zionist, including Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Benny Hinn, Ralph Reed, Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, John Hagee and Gary Bauer. Their over 200 advocacy groups include the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, Christians and Jews United for Israel, Christian Coalition, Southern Baptist Convention, Bridges for Peace, Jerusalem Friendship Fund, Jerusalem Prayer Team, Stand with Israel, Christian Broadcasting Network, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Family Research Council, Council for National Policy, Christians for Israel/USA, and what has become the largest of them all with over five million members, Christians United for Israel.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews alone, with a donor base of 500,000, raised around $250 million for Israel between 1995 and 2005. This money goes to a wide variety of projects, including bringing 250,000 Russian and Ethiopian Jews to settle in Israel. Christian Friends of Israeli Communities works with U.S. churches to “adopt” Jewish settlements in the West Bank. By 2006 they had funded programs in over a third of the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. Many of these groups run tours of the “Holy Land,” bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to Israel.

These Christian groups with a Christian Zionist agenda — all of them tax-exempt and therefore government subsidized non-profit organizations — raise and spend millions of dollars lobbying in Washington on behalf of Israel and its occupation. They also intervene in the foreign policy debate on the Palestine-Israel issue. For example, after the Al-Aqsa Intifada began in 2000, Christian Zionist groups sent thousands of visitors to Israel on Solidarity Missions.

Recently, Christian Arabs in the Middle East and U.S. Christian denominations have been denouncing Christian Zionists and their war-mongering and imperialist policies, but with little effect. In 2006 Arab leaders of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, and Lutheran churches in Jerusalem jointly declared that:

“Christian Zionism is a modern theological and political movement that embraces the most extreme ideological positions of Zionism, thereby becoming detrimental to a just peace within Palestine and Israel. The Christian Zionist programme provides a worldview where the Gospel is identified with the ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism. … We call upon Christians in Churches on every continent to pray for the Palestinian and Israeli people, both of whom are suffering as victims of occupation and militarism.

Beyond their lobbying, funding, and organizing work, Christian Zionists have had an even more powerful longer-term impact on mainstream Christian views of the Middle East. Today, tens of millions of Protestant Christians in the United States and more around the world support Israel with an uncritical fervor, often exceeding even Jewish support. They also supported the war against Iraq in large numbers and currently are pushing for war with Iran. The majority of U.S. Christians who give unqualified support for Israel today has been influenced in one way or another by the tenets of Christian Zionism disseminated over the last 150 years by conferences, missions, the Moody Bible School, the Scofield bible study guide, sermons, tracts, articles, and best-selling books and movies such as the “Left Behind” series. Because of this legacy and the constant labelling by Zionists of any criticism of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine as anti-Semitic, Christian organizations are often confused about how to respond to illegal and internationally condemned Israeli policies.

Some Christian groups such as Churches for Middle East Peace have a history of supporting demands for Palestinian liberation, and some have criticized Christian Zionists. However, Christian Zionist propaganda and Jewish pro-Israeli campaigns have made it difficult and challenging for most mainstream Christian groups to take a critical stand against Israeli aggression. In addition, they know Christian Zionists are no less willing than their Jewish pro-Israel lobby counterparts to brand criticism of Israel’s policies and actions as anti-Semitic.

It is clear the Christian Zionist lobby has established a pervasive influence in Washington DC. Decades ago, Jewish pro-Israel leaders recognized the crucial resources that Christian Zionists could bring to their campaign for unqualified support for Israel’s aggression in the Middle East. U.S. ruling elites and the U.S. military/industrial complex have their own imperialist agendas and are only too willing to “respond” to lobbying from Jewish and Christian Zionists when it suits their purposes.

All of these groups thrive on a climate of unending war on terror and on media portrayals of Muslims and Arabs as irredeemable enemies of western civilization. Together they foster an environment of fear and hatred among a large constituency in the United States who support war, dehumanization, and violence towards Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis–all those in West Asia who are outside of Christianity and its designated protectorate, Jews in the Holy Land. As journalist Victoria Clark notes, “One has to look back as far as the Crusades to find another example of such a large group of outsiders involving themselves in the Middle East on a religious pretext….” Policy analyst Walter Russell Mead echoes the significance of the Christian Zionist movement when he writes, “One thing, at least, seems clear. In the future, as in the past, U.S. policy toward the Middle East will, for better or worse, continue to be shaped primarily by the will of the American [Christian] majority, not the machinations of any minority, however wealthy or engaged in the political process some of its members may be.”

U.S. policy in the Middle East is shaped by diverse forces, such as U.S. foreign policy goals, the Dept. of Defense, and the military/industrial complex, including the arms, aviation, and oil industries. The Jewish pro-Israeli lobby and the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia also play significant roles. But we are missing a crucial piece if we ignore the centuries-old role Christian Zionism plays in shaping policy decisions and public opinion, in supporting the Jewish Zionist agenda, and in providing direct support to the Israeli government and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It is time for us to understand and challenge the role Christian Zionist institutions and leaders play in supporting Israel’s devastating occupation of Palestine and fomenting continuing aggression and war throughout the Middle East.

Christian Narratives

The following is excerpted from Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, by Paul Kivel. 

A narrative is a pattern of story telling used to explain the world and compel people to action. It assembles, collects and repeats stories, shaping them to convey values to the listener/reader. The narratives described below, all used for over a thousand years to prescribe a specific worldview, are repeated today in everything from sermons and news stories to movies and children’s cartoons.   

Conversion Narrative

Many of the values clustered around the belief humans are sinful and must find God to be saved fit together in a conversion narrative. Even before Augustine’s Confessions, Christians wrote about how they had been sinners who lost their faith, abandoning God, until they saw the light and were saved by his grace. In early US Colonial times, such influential preachers as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards wrote similar confessions about how they had found their way from sin to salvation. Sunday services were filled with ordinary Christians who confessed their sins and accepted grace, allowing them to become church members regardless of past behavior. An entire vocabulary became associated with these experiences, including concepts of sin, evil, guilt, blindness, darkness, despair, confession, grace, seeing the light, repentance, redemption, penance, healing, release, testifying or witnessing, acceptance of God, salvation and a new life of joy. Once they committed themselves to God, those saved took on the obligation to save others.

Today, twelve-step programs follow such a conversion narrative. A person is a sinner/alcoholic until they give up control to God/a higher power and let God’s grace into their life. They are then saved and on the road to recovery. Temptation, however, is only a drink away. The constant presence of temptation is also part of the conversion narrative.

The US criminal legal system gives a special, mitigating force to self-conversion of a criminal: judges see confessions of guilt as indications that the indicted have seen the evil of their ways. These indications may be affirmed by an evaluation of a prisoner’s charitable acts/good behavior and result in plea-bargaining, a reduced sentence or early parole.

Racial conversion narratives are another example of how this deeply engrained framework manifests in our culture. As historian Fred Hobson has described, racism has been called a social problem, a disease (sometimes a cancer), a poison but “most often it has been described by those writers who have examined it in very personal terms as, simply, ‘sin’ or ‘evil.’”9 White Christians like Lillian Smith, Larry King,10 and scores of others11 who became anti-racist activists have confessed to racial sins such as moral blindness and complicity with an evil system. Sometimes their message to other white people has shifted from “stand up and fight against racism” to “repent and see the light” just as they have. They may be too secular to say “Come to Jesus,” but the message can sound similar. Oftentimes other whites see them as saints (even though people of color are rarely so sanctified for their own anti-racist efforts). As historian Hobson suggested, for white racial converts, “… the Civil Rights Movement was about much more than race. It was about personal and cultural salvation in a broader sense.”12

The song “Amazing Grace” is probably the most well known conversion narrative. Written by a slave trader who came to see the sinfulness of slavery, the song tells of his redemption. The song has been recorded thousands of times, is sung literally millions of times a year and is possibly the most popular folk hymn of all time.13

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.
14

Although slave-trading Captain Newton’s personal redemption is enshrined in the song, there is little acknowledgment of what he did during his years of slave trading, or of the enduring impact that slavery had on millions of African-Americans.

Currently as well, many white people can have a personal revelation about what some call the evils of racism; the experience might be very powerful and change how they understand racial injustice and their complicity with it. Unfortunately this experience does not always lead to work for racial justice. Personal transformation can be so important it becomes all that matters. Challenging the continuing operation of racism may not feel as imperative in comparison.

Or, conversely, they may think their task is to get other whites to have a similar conversion experience. They then take on the role of missionary – trying to convert as many white people as possible to save them from the sin of being racist.

The Jeremiad

The key story of a paradise lost in Western culture is the story of Adam and Eve and their fall. This story’s central role in Christianity is not simply to describe a mythical fall but also describe human sin, women’s culpability and the degenerate nature of society. The longing for highly romanticized and idealized times are long-standing currents in Western literature and art, especially romantic portrayals of Greek, Roman, Native American, pre-modern and non-western societies. 

More commonly, such nostalgia15 is expressed as a yearning for the good old days, simpler times when life is projected to have been better. Agrarian life, the time of the so-called Founding Fathers, the days of the frontier, the 1950s, 1960s or our childhoods – whether we believe we can get back there or not, few of us are immune to the appeal of some former period. Many people want to believe that community, religious faith or deference to traditional values once characterized society.

Jeremiads, named for the rhetorical style of the biblical Jeremiah, are narrative assaults on existing society held to be corrupt, with appeals to return to days of former glory. Sometimes referred to as lamentations of decline, they involve the invocation of a prior, more virtuous period – a golden age with righteous leaders -from which we have fallen. A jeremiad commonly contains a listing of current sins or signs of decline, an exhortation to repent, a promise of restoration and forgiveness and is usually coupled with a prediction of dire consequences if we don’t change our ways.

The jeremiad is a pervasive rhetorical device used by both political and religious leaders to evoke the belief we cannot claim the future without reclaiming some (often false, highly selective or sanitized) version of the past. As political science professor Andrew Murphy has written, “… the story of American moral decline and divine punishment has served as a powerful tool for political mobilization throughout the nation’s history…”16 However, the exhortation to return to the past will generally distract us from developing collective principles and practices we need to solve today’s challenges. 

Captivity Narrative

The August 9, 2010 cover of Time magazine portrayed a grisly picture of an Afghan woman whose nose has been cut off. The caption on the cover read “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.”17 This cover appealed for political support of a war which claimed to rescue Afghan women supposedly held captive by Afghan men, specifically the Taliban.

In captivity narratives other cultures are barbaric and oppressive and Christian ones are civilized and must act as rescuer. Conveniently overlooked is the complicity of our culture in the history of colonization contributing to oppressive conditions and the opportunistic way strategies of intervention are imposed.     

From stories of Christian knights rescuing the Holy Land and damsels in distress to Disney movies of princely heroes rescuing sleeping beauties, The Christian West has long told stories of “innocent women and children” under threat by some supposedly uncouth band of men or other evil force. Early frontier stories of white Christian women (and sometimes missionaries) being captured by Native Americans are a precedent to contemporary admonitions that Christians have a moral obligation to invade dangerous lands, fight infidels and rescue the women in enemy hands. Versions of captivity narratives are also used to reinforce control and punishment of domestic groups labeled as Other in the US. For example, the myth that African-American men are physically and sexually dangerous to white Christian women who therefore need protecting by white Christian men (only assumed to be safer for them) was one justification for lynching and is currently used to rationalize high levels of racial profiling and incarceration.18     

The use of captivity narratives is particularly evident when social problems are identified which threaten the innocence of the presumed pure: women and children – and beyond them, presumed innocent members of any group we are members of, for example American citizens who were casualties of 9/11. We then become quick to identify a group of the devil’s agents whom we then target for public scorn, state control or outright war. Such moral panics occur especially in times of political and economic uncertainty: depressions, periods of increasing inequality of wealth or high immigration. At such times, ruling elites try to direct attention to some group designated as threatening the moral fabric of society. The list is constantly changing and never-ending: Muslims, communists, immigrants, terrorists and a host of others. The implied dangers appeal to deep-seated beliefs that women and children (or by extension citizens) are innocent and corruptible, that white Christian men can protect them and that such dangers are a normal, accepted and even expected part of any social landscape.

The captivity narrative is based on dualism and echoes the cosmic battle between good and evil. It consistently sets up Christian men as moral, clearly differentiated from them (any number of Others wanting to destroy us). Women are often the passive, voiceless victims (or pawns) in captivity scenarios. Chinua Achebe described the “out there,” the “dangerous frontier,” as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” One could easily substitute Christian for European to encapsulate the savior myth.19

When a Christian or Christian nation enters voluntarily into such a perceived terrain on a mission to save or help, they reinforce an illusion of benevolence and reluctant acceptance of the white man’s burden. Rescued frontierswomen in Westerns and princesses in movies can be portrayed as grateful for their rescue. The citizens of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq cannot; the illusion of benevolence cannot be maintained in the real world. 

Women do face severe challenges in many countries. In complex situations it can be difficult to know how to be allies to those living under oppressive conditions. However invoking a captivity narrative to justify armed intervention that then leaves women in worst political and economic conditions is hypocritical and unjust. The hypocrisy is more pronounced when the US did not claim any interest in the women of Afghanistan over the years it was arming the Taliban, nor in the dire straits today of women in the Congo. 

Traditionally, the US has labeled Communist rulers, evil dictators and sinister warlords – all supposedly holding their populations hostage – as the evil enemy and have declared war against them. More recently, US ruling elites have shifted to phrases such as humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping to describe these relations of rescue. The opportunism of such military actions – although apparently justified by reference to civilized values, rescue of subjugated populations and the evil of our opponents – remains the same.20

We Need a Savior

From the belief that people and populations are held hostage to evil can follow the notion they need a savior to rescue them. Whether in the children’s book series the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis; movies such as Avatar or Crazy Heart; the popular Hollywood trilogies Star Wars, The Matrix or Lord of the Rings or the hopes so many pin on the next presidential candidate, North American culture is filled with examples of Christian-derived savior figures.

When people believe they need a savior, whether God-sent or not, they are likely to devalue their own ability to bring about change. Individuals can also play out a savior syndrome in their own lives: seeing themselves in the role of hero to those less fortunate. White-teacher-to-the-rescue movies such as Dangerous Minds, The Ron Clark Story and Music of the Heart are based on this syndrome. The behavior of a teacher, social worker or other public employee who considers themselves both morally superior and burdened by caring can undermine the dignity and autonomy deserved by those seeking services. People who see themselves as well-intended saviors often end up being enthusiastic participants in systems that perpetuate various kinds of oppression. When they fail to transform those around them, they can blame failure on those we label unresponsive individuals rather than social systems. 

The savior is represented most iconically as a lone Christian knight, soldier or superhero but can also take the form of a missionary, revolutionary or doctor. They are usually men, rescuing and protecting women and children or victims of dictators and barbarians. Generally, they wear white. White women can substitute for men in the role of saving people of color, especially youth. US media and literature is so replete with these tales of capture and rescue, protection and defense, revenge and punishment it is difficult to find exceptions.

The necessity for saviors, coupled with beliefs in the United States’ exceptionalism and manifest destiny, has leads many people to assume that the US is a nation that can and should save others. Our victories certify God’s approval and the sanctity of our acts. Our violence has often been labeled redemptive because it redeems the world from evil as well as redeeming those who participate in the so-called cleansing. In this salvation narrative, soldiers are killing people who need to be killed because they are dangerous and unredeemable. No matter how many were murdered in the process, we are taught the US saved the Vietnamese, Afghanis and Iraqis. The more we tell stories of the great white male leaders who saved us in times of crisis, the more we falsify history and encourage contemporary passivity.


Footnotes:

9. Fred Hobson. But Now I See: The White Southern Racial Conversion Narrative. Louisiana State University, 1999, p. 16.

10. Larry King. Confessions of a White Racist. Viking, 1971.

11. See Hobson’s But Now I See for a detailed look at narratives from US southerners.

12. Hobson, But Now I See, p. 108.

13. Jonathan Aitken. John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Crossway, 2007 and Steve Turner. Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song. HarperCollins, 2002.

14. “Amazing Grace” by John Newton quoted in Hobson, But Now I See, p. ix. This bodily metaphor is also, of course, profoundly disparaging of the wholeness and integrity of people with disabilities.

15. Nostalgia is “[a]n affective state characterized by positive, yet bittersweet, associations with some aspect of the personally experienced past”: Andrew R. Murphy. Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11. Oxford, 2009, p. 131. Arthur Dudden describes nostalgia as “a preference for things as they once were, or, more importantly, a preference for things as they are believed to have been.” Arthur P. Dudden. “Nostalgia and the American.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 22#4 (October-December 1961), p. 517.

16. Murphy, Prodigal Nation, p. 111.

17. The cover statement did not include a question mark, leaving the reader to conclude that barbarous violence against women is the only thing that can happen if we withdraw.

18. For an egregious example of the impact of these beliefs on the lives of young men of color see: Sarah Burns. The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes. Vintage, 2012. 

19. Achebe used the word European instead of Christian in the original, quoted in Sherene H. Razack. Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism, 2nd ed. University of Toronto, 2004, p. 7.

20. For a discussion of humanitarian intervention see Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism. For a look at peacekeeping missions see Razack, Dark Threats. For an insightful look at how recent Western documentary films such as Half the Sky frame their stories in captivity narratives see Richa Kaul Padte.“Half the Story: When Will Western Documentaries Realize They’re Using the Wrong Lens?” bitch, Issue #57 (Winter 2013), pp. 43-5.

The Way We Think

The following is excerpted from Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, by Paul Kivel. 

Christian dominance goes much deeper than even our language and issues of privilege, credibility and sexuality. Core concepts of sin and salvation, universal truth and progress over time are embedded in the way we organize knowledge to understand the world. When we hear about the discipline of the market, the achievements of science or technological progress, we might take these concepts to be universal. Yet there are multiple ways to organize economic interactions, practice science and focus technology. We need to demystify the concepts behind accepted ways of thinking and seek alternatives. What kinds of economies, sciences and technologies will serve all of us without destroying our livelihoods or natural environment? It helps to ask: Who benefits? Who pays? and Who decides? in the current system? 

Our Bodies and Feelings are Sinful

In hegemonic Christianity the body (female) is juxtaposed to the soul (male) and our disciplined and rational minds (male) are juxtaposed to our uncontrolled emotions (female). Bodies and feelings are our weaknesses, sources of pain, suffering and temptation. Our body/feelings are said to tempt us to overeat, to enjoy sex, to indulge in leisure, to “be lazy,” to cross boundaries.

The Christian concept of sin children internalize prepares them to accept and enforce hierarchies of class, race and gender. The socialization doesn’t have to be brutal or even overt if children are taught early on to intuit from the culture around them which beliefs and behaviors are taboo. The sense of crossing the line of what is acceptable (to sin) produces guilt and often even a fear-based paralysis, making it difficult for people to challenge those taboos and those who benefit from them. Lillian Smith, a southern white woman, wrote about how Christian training in the concept of sin enforced racial segregation in the US.

When we as small children crept over the race line and ate and played with Negroes or broke other segregation customs known to us we felt the same dread fear of consequences, the same overwhelming guilt we felt when we crept over the sex line and played with our body, or thought thoughts about God or parents we weren’t supposed to think. Each was a “sin” and “deserved punishment,” each would receive it in this world or the next. Each was tied up with the others and all were tied close to God … The lesson of segregation was only a logical extension of the lessons on sex and white superiority and God.1

In the early church the body and feelings were not taken to be sources of sin, and for many, such as early church leader Cyril, the body, emotions and the physical world were sources of inspiration to be treated with reverence. Paradise was considered to be attainable by human communities on this earth and involved respecting our bodies and nature.2

Over time, the church understood that sexual temptation could lead people to challenge its anti-sex prohibitions and thereby undermine its authority. Its leaders constantly railed against the dangers of sex and lamented its powerful effect. As just one of countless examples, the Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, wrote:

There is one evil, an evil above all other evils, that I am aware is always with me, that grievously and piteously lacerates and afflicts my soul. It was with me from the cradle, it grew with me in childhood, in adolescence, in my youth and it always stuck to me, and it does not desert me even now that my limbs are failing because of my old age. This evil is sexual desire, carnal delight, the storm of lust that has smashed and battered my unhappy soul, drained it of all strength and left it weak and empty.3

Christian theologians have long praised the virtuous life as pure, transcendent and undistracted by bodily/earthly needs and desires. They believe the devil tempts people through the body (and indirectly via women); only with strict, purifying religious discipline – including fasting and sexual abstinence, or at least, highly monitored temperance – can temptation be overcome. To defend against succumbing, they teach that control of bodily desires through faith, will and vigilance is the source of salvation.

As the Inquisitions extended their long shadow over Europe and Christian civil authorities became more able to control people’s daily life, stronger prohibitions emerged on sexual activity, dancing and public festivals. Secular authorities enforced these prohibitions as a way to preclude public gatherings that might lead to organizing and rebellions. Christian leaders cited morality and virtue as justification for the prohibitions, contrasting model Christians to wild and savage Native Americans and Africans, as well as women and working-class people. This ideological legacy has played an important role in shaping current social concerns about the regulation of bodies and our sexual desires.

Judgment

God judges individuals on their beliefs and behavior, sexual or otherwise. Over the centuries, judgment has become an essential element of Christian belief. Would God declare a person good enough to go to heaven, or sinful, condemned to hell? Christianity teaches only God can judge. But first the Catholic Church, as God’s representative on earth, and then most Protestant denominations set up courts and inquisitions to decide in God’s name. Some denominations went so far as to bar virtually any activity that was fun or leisurely. Actions were condemned as indulgences – a waste of time that should better be used for pious living and good works. Work – constant hard work  – and the avoidance of temptation were the only paths to salvation.

Churches also developed judicial processes because of their concern for doctrinal purity and the dangers of heresy. The process was not one of judgment, forgiveness and rehabilitation. It consisted of condemnation and punishment. Individuals decreed heretical, and therefore sinful,4 were found guilty, expected to be repentant, and punished in any case. Our secular legal system was adapted directly from canon law; such concepts as punishment, testimony and repentance demonstrate its Christian roots.

Today, after centuries of external enforcement, most people subjected to this framework have internalized it and now monitor themselves. As Lillian Smith noted, once the concept of sin is internalized, it can be seamlessly and unconsciously transferred to any behavior those in authority want to enforce. In order to avoid sinful behavior (and for many, sinful thoughts) a person has to constantly evaluate whether they are transgressing i.e. misbehaving.

Am I working hard enough?

Am I getting enough done?

Am I pretty enough? Thin enough? Strong enough?

Am I successful enough? Caring enough? Competitive enough?

Am I spiritual, religious, or activist enough?

A judgmental framework makes it difficult to feel fundamentally good about oneself. One way to compensate for judging oneself inferior is to pass judgment on others and feel superior or righteous as a substitute for feeling OK. This leads to a climate of shame, blame and separation from others. I have found from my years of conducting workshops with diverse groups of people that many have difficulty even describing others’ behavior without condemnation. They may describe their children (or other people’s) as lazy, spoiled or rebellious. They may describe their colleagues as self-serving or hypocritical, their partner as self-centered. When those being described are further removed from their direct experience because of race, class or religion the verdicts get harsher, using words like terrorist, evil or barbaric.

The critical voice in people’s heads overrides acceptance and love and makes it hard for them to work with others. Instead of identifying problems and solving them, judgmental people easily end up blaming others and polarizing relationships into situations where they are right (and therefore good) and someone else is wrong (and therefore bad). The judgmental attitude makes it difficult to avoid condemning people who make what we label bad choices or who don’t meet our expectations.

Loving people in their vulnerability, complexity and imperfectness is not always easy. Yes, individuals are responsible for their choices. But holding a belief that everyone is a sinful individual can be toxic; it too easily leads to condemnation of others – and of one’s own habits. Moreover, because judgment generally accompanies the belief that an individual with enough strength of character can overcome anything, it assumes each person is completely to blame for any perceived imperfection or lack of success. Based on these beliefs we have created a punitive society with millions locked in prisons, jails and other detention centers – and with a constant stream of self-judgment in our own psyches.

Salvation

Modernity became a “secular theory of salvation.”5

After the Papal Reformation of the 12th century when the promise of salvation was reinterpreted as something to be fulfilled not on earth but in the afterlife, there was a complete philosophical reorientation within Christianity. For the first time in its 1,100-year history, Christianity offered guaranteed salvation after death to those who fought in the Crusades and the promise of salvation to anyone who was free of sin. Purity, including chastity (sinlessness), on earth became the key to eternal life in heaven. 

Salvation is part of judgment in two ways. Salvation is what God grants through his final judgment. It is also what is needed to save a person’s soul to prepare for that event. When a person decides another’s beliefs or actions are leading that person into moral danger, they feel entitled to advise them about how to save themselves. After all, when another’s eternal life is at stake, one has an obligation and a responsibility to give advice, to critique, to help them for their own good. Because the object of such a salvific intervention may not think they are in danger, much of Christianity is vested in saving people from themselves. This intervention also accrues Christians good moral standing because they are acting virtuously and charitably towards others. However, constant fear of moral peril short-circuits one’s ability to simply listen to others, to be fully present for them without anxiety and to resist the need to give advice.

The compulsion to save others is widespread today. Those who would not describe their actions as saving ones might use secular language such as helping others, but if help is premised on the inadequacy of the person receiving help, assistance only increases disempowerment and dependency. I believe with support, most people have the ability to figure out how to solve their own problems. However, if one feels responsible for the salvation of others, it can be difficult to trust the personal strength, knowledge and wisdom of those other people. 

Purity

Within the Christian imagination, sin is often conceived of as dirt, pollution or a dark spot on the soul. Since sex is a primary sin we use phrases like dirty thoughts, dirty feelings and dirty pictures in association with it. To be free of sin is to be pure: innocent, uncontaminated or clean. Why do we use the phrase “clean and sober” if not to remind us that there is a deeper stain from sinful behavior that cannot be removed by simply refraining from alcohol or other drugs?

Since 381 C.E.,6 dominant Christianity has attempted to enforce doctrinal purity. The phrase heretical filth, used to describe Cathars and Waldensians, was echoed over the centuries by references to Jews as filthy, women as unclean, Indians as vermin, Bolsheviks on trial as filthy scum and Nazi depictions of Jews as rats who carried disease. Almost all campaigns of violence were attempts at purification by the elimination of filth or pollution. Cleanliness was indeed next to Godliness and physical cleanliness was often seen as a substitute for or representation of moral and spiritual cleanliness. For example, individuals may feel dirty or sullied by thoughts or behaviors they have been taught are sinful, or by contact with people they’ve been taught are contaminating. Since white is the color of purity and cleanliness, white Christians may conclude people of color are dirty or contaminating. The source of pollution may change over time – Jews are no longer accused of poisoning wells; people now fear recent immigrants of color contaminating our society – but concern for purity remains. We see fear expressed in public policy discussions when homosexuals are accused of spreading AIDS or of defiling the sanctity of marriage.

The valuation of purity leads many to work for the so-called cleansing of society through prohibitions on sinful behavior and elimination of contaminating groups. Those who promote such campaigns believe they are virtuous and doing God’s work, which easily leads to a feeling of self-righteousness. Since one is helping purge the community of evil, one identifies as a moral crusader, an “ordained agent of purification.”7

However, to maintain one’s claim to virtue and justify feelings of self-righteousness a person must maintain their purity. A plea of innocence is not only a denial of responsibility; it can also be a failure to acknowledge complicity. Our society is based on inequalities of wealth and power – multiple, intersecting systems of oppression. Many people are in great need. No one is disconnected from these problems; innocence and guilt are not useful referents. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”8 The dominant Christian focus on moral purity leads many people to feel guilty about injustice but unable to act responsibly because they want to claim innocence. Instead they may support campaigns of purification rather than efforts to address the roots of injustice, allowing themselves to maintain a sense of personal purity or innocence.      

Public health campaigns – from the prohibition of alcohol to abstinence-only sex education programs – highlight how many see the pursuit of purity as an antidote to sin. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of social issues, Christian-dominated thinking urges us to adopt single issue campaigns based on a binary sense of all or nothing, sinfulness or purity.

[…]

Charity

The Christian concept of charity as an individual act that brings salvation to others is a variation on the savior narrative on a personal level. The world is God’s creation. Therefore, one challenge given to Christians is to carry out God’s will by doing good works (charity) and spreading the gospel (missionary work). This limited vision of in-the-worldness suggests that one can do holy works in the world even though the world is not sacred. Through charity, a person shares their love of God.21 The world is the site of one’s acts of charity and service, but the world’s transformation is not the goal. This contradiction can lead people to be more concerned about their good intentions than the real impact of their actions.

The concept of charity was dramatically transformed in the mid-19th century. The role for increasing numbers of white women, as they were being confined to domestic roles in middle-class households, became not only care of children, but also a new humanitarian mandate to care for the poor, the infirm and all of those who were called primitive people (such as slaves and Native Americans) who needed Christian love and salvation. During this period, white women’s efforts to provide services for the indigent and disenfranchised increased dramatically.22

White women were thought to speak with female moral authority because they possessed a humanitarian sensibility deemed appropriate and unique.23 In a period of no government assistance, their work was helpful in providing a network of social services for those who needed them. At the same time, they became symbols not only of gender-based moral sensibility but also of racial superiority. Even as they worked for abolition, women’s suffrage and services for immigrants and the poor, they consolidated the power of white Christian civilization and caring as the highest form of human morality. The privileges allowing the middle-class and wealthy to be generous were materially dependent on the unpaid or low-paid labor of the very population they were helping. With that relationship obscured, what was called (and still is called) humanitarian work served to maintain the dependency of those in need. Charity is a one-way relationship, not a reciprocal one, and it reinforces unequal power relationships between those with privilege and those without, while at the same time reinscribing larger hierarchies of race, class and gender.

By the end of the 19th century, the United States began to define itself not just as a nation of generous individuals, but a benevolent nation helping benighted peoples such as Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Filipinos. Of course, we had to take over those countries and exterminate many of their citizens to exercise our generosity. But as President William McKinley stated so explicitly, it was both our generosity and our god-given responsibility to help them become Christian and civilized.24

Even today, these relations of rescue, whether individual or national, continue to justify interventions that are rarely beneficial to those receiving such so-called help.25 Many people are socially engaged, of course. And they may be guided by Christian values to be so. But when we respond to suffering only in the form of individual acts of compassion, we neglect examining the underlying system that distributes resources in such a way some people prosper and others languish. The causal connection between the accumulation of wealth by charitable individuals and the people whose problems may actually be caused by the exploitive accumulation of wealth is obscured.

In addition, charitable acts are useful to the recipients in the short term but provide no long-term solutions to social need. A million charitable donations to soup kitchens or homeless shelters will neither provide living-wage jobs to eliminate the need for soup kitchens nor construct affordable housing to eliminate homelessness.

Christian charity may be felt to be an obligation, but it is a discretionary one. Once one has been charitable, one’s obligation has been fulfilled. In an effect labeled moral credentialing, researchers have found that some people, after performing what they consider to be a good deed, may feel that next time they get a pass. They become less likely to act charitably in future situations because they have already established their virtue.26

Some Christians work for social change rather than only for social service. But groups from Abolitionists to contemporary peace and environmental activists, always a minority, are often persecuted by other Christians. As religious researcher and sociologist Stephen Hart notes, “… many Christians invest more energy and concern in their faith and churches than in anything else outside their families and jobs, and non-Christian bases for public involvement are strong for only a small proportion of Americans.”27

I am not critiquing Christians’ participation in abolition, suffrage, anti-Indian removal, anti-poverty and other efforts. However, I would contend that because they did not understand how their values shaped such efforts, despite their intentions, much of these activists’ work remained steeped in attitudes of benevolence which ultimately undermined their efforts. The actual impact on those being helped was not always examined, and people operating out of a charitable framework did not necessarily understand their interdependence with those they were “helping.” The same concerns have been raised today about the complex impact of the paid and volunteer work large numbers of people perform in the nonprofit sector providing services to local communities, and in NGOs “helping” those in other countries. Without examining the structural roots of social problems, people doing such work may only be providing a palliative for the impact of corporate and governmental policies which benefit them.28


Footnotes:

1. Lillian Smith. Killers of the Dream. Norton, 1994, p. 84. I thank Sally MacNichol for her article “We Make the Road by Walking: Reflections on the Legacy of White Anti-Racist Activism” in Jennifer Harvey, Karin A. Case and Robin Hawley Gorsline, eds. Disrupting White Supremacy From Within: White People on What We Need to Do. Pilgrim Press, 2004 which drew my attention to this quote.

2. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Beacon Press, 2009, pp. 115-168.

3. Jeffrey Richards, Sex, Dissidence, Damnation. Routledge, 1994, p. 23.

4. Heresy was a kind of sin, an intentional defiance of God’s will as defined by the Church.

5. Ashis Nandy. Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias: Essays in Politics of Awareness. Oxford, 1988 quoted in Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other, p. 31.

6. In 381 C.E. the Roman emperor Theodosius declared that there was only one set of beliefs that counted as orthodox and all others were heretical (dangerous and punishable by religious and secular law).

7. Jonathan Kirsch. The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God. HarperCollins, 2008, p. 238.

8. Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Toward a Just Society” in Susannah Heschel, ed. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996, p. 220.

[…]

21. The root of “charity” is caritas, a Latin word for love.

22. Peggy Pascoe. Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939. Oxford, 1990. pp. xvi-xxi.

23. Thomas L. Haskell. “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part I.” American Historical Review Vol. 90#2 (1985), pp. 339-61 in Tracy Fessenden. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton, 2007, p. 247, note 22.

24. While trying to decide what to do about the Philippines, McKinley stated that he got down on his knees and prayed. He then realized that “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” Quoted in Howard Zinn. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. Harper Perennial, 2001, p. 313.

25. Pascoe, Relations of Rescue quoted in Susan M. Ryan. The Grammar of Good Intentions: Race and the Antebellum Culture of Benevolence. Cornell, 2003, p. 76.

26. For the original work on moral credentialing see Benoît Monin and Dale T. Miller. “Moral Credentials and the Expression of Prejudice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 81#1 (2001), pp. 33-43.

27. Stephen Hart. What Does the Lord Require?: How American Christians Think About Economic Justice. Rutgers, 1996, p. 132.

28. For insightful articles about the impact of nonprofits and NGOs see: Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. South End, 2007.

Key Christian Concepts

The following is excerpted from Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, by Paul Kivel. 

Dominant Christianity’s core concepts have shaped Western culture, uniting large numbers of Christians and defining who was vulnerable to persecution for heresy. These concepts continue to have a major impact on Christians and non-Christians alike. As Michael Steele has written:

… there is a certain uniformity across the centuries to Christianity’s claims involving the universal truth of its message, or its incessant proselytizing and demands for conversions, its aggressiveness when encountering a new, different Other, and its consignment of various Others to both earthly and eternal hells.1

Much of that uniformity comes from many Christians’ reliance on very specific interpretations of the Bible, which is understood to be a God-given and therefore a trustworthy guide for how to live in the world. Obviously the Christian Bible is a complex, self-contradictory body of work open to a wide variety of interpretations and shifting meanings. Its core consists of two parts. The Old Testament is a translation, reinterpretation and reordering of earlier Jewish texts (the Tanach). The New Testament is a series of narratives written by followers of Jesus several decades or more after his death.2

Christian authorities have affirmed various interpretations of these texts over time, including significant shifts in the meanings attributed to major historical events, such as the significance of Jesus’ life and death. Many of the current interpretations were consolidated during the Papal Revolution in the 12th and 13th centuries, with further revisions coming out of the Protestant Reformation. There continue to be shifts in the interpretation of and emphasis on various texts, passages and even words.3

The Church traditionally declared heretical any belief or behavior which the ruling elites of the time decided were dangerous to their power or simply out of line with what they wanted people to believe. Officially sanctioned beliefs governed not just spiritual but also social matters, such as whether the earth or the sun was the center of the universe, the roles of women, the economics of poverty and charity, who could preach and who could learn to read and write. To fully understand these impacts it is necessary to understand the force authorities used to propagate these sanctioned ideas and the range of beliefs for which they persecuted people.

Enforcement has taken many forms over the centuries. Dissenters have faced disparagement, banning, flogging, shame and isolation as well as torture and death. Entire communities and nations have been colonized or eradicated. Ruling elites altered or destroyed what they called heretical texts, thereby limiting access to alternative viewpoints. These same elites used every available educational, social and cultural medium to reinforce dominant messages and acceptable thinking and behavior. They also made sure human models deemed exemplary were praised and glorified (made saints). They attacked the slightest deviance from orthodoxy.

Christendom conquered with military force. But along with force came a worldview that saw itself carrying an undeniable truth that was modern, civilized (and civilizing), saved (and saving) right (and righteous). In addition to land and bodies, Christendom colonized minds. Without understanding its foundational concepts, one cannot decolonize one’s consciousness.

I would contend that, although Christianity has tried to destroy dissenting visions, these visions are intrinsic to human beings and ultimately indomitable. They can be suppressed but not eliminated, even by centuries of dominance.     

Early Christians adopted some of the concepts discussed below from Greek, Roman, Jewish and other traditions. They created others from the teachings of Jesus as retold, edited, interpreted and translated in the first three centuries after his death. Later theologians overlaid newer concepts on this foundation. These teachings do not reflect the only interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life or the Gospels. Although some of the concepts are not unique to Christianity, they are discussed here because their rootedness in our daily lives results from Christian dominance within Western societies. It is the codification, institutionalization and enforcement of these beliefs that make them such a powerful force.

Christianity includes such a variety of sects and denominations that for almost any general statement about it there will be some group that can be pointed to as an exception. However, not all denominations are equally influential. In addition, some forms of Christianity have had a greater impact on western culture than others in various historical periods or regions. Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism (Episcopalianism), Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism are among those denominations most practiced by ruling class elites and therefore most significant in shaping dominant Christianity.

There are of course many ways to interpret the texts and teachings of Jesus, and many ways to understand early church leaders or to practice Christianity. What follows is an attempt to delineate the Christian concepts that have become dominant in our society. They are taught and enforced as a package, and as such provide a totalizing framework for understanding the world. These are the roots that hold the tree of Christian hegemony in place and nourish the branches – its everyday manifestations in our lives. 

Dualism

Borrowing from the Persian-centered religion Manichaeism, early Christian leaders established their religion on a series of moral binaries. These included Christian/non-Christian, good/evil, saved/sinner, God/the devil, heaven/hell, male/female, spirit/flesh and mind/body. This dualistic perspective has dominated Western thought, constraining our thinking about gender, race, religion, ability and national identity.4 Even our secular language has come to assume an inside and righteous place in which we (the good folks) stand and a range of Others -marginalized groups considered outsiders (inferior, exploitable and ultimately expendable).

Dualism shapes all aspects of our thinking. We come for example to assume there naturally are white people and people of color, even though there is only one human race which contains a continuum of skin colors; we speak of two genders, despite physical evidence that not everyone falls into one of those two categories. The moral overlay leads us to assume the two (false) sides of a binary are opposite or opposing and one is superior to the other. Instead of thinking there is gender diversity, we quickly move to talking about opposite sexes and the natural superiority of men, as if men and women didn’t share most human qualities and one gender is not inherently superior to the other.5

Nowhere is this moral binary more evident than in the nearly constant ways we judge things good or bad in everyday conversation. We use this framework to render an instant either/or judgment we assume can be indiscriminately applied to our children’s behavior, the weather or what kind of day we’re having.

That’s good.

He’s a bad boy.

She’s a good person.

We’re having bad weather.

They are going through a bad period.

We live in relatively good times.

I’m sorry to hear your bad news.

The weather is not good or bad, it just is. Rain might be inconvenient, disappointing, uncomfortable for some and welcome, needed or comforting for others. Our simple judgment gives the weather a moral status and our binary shorthand lets us avoid actually describing the weather or acknowledging the personal and relative nature of the statements we make.

Similarly, people are not good or bad. We are each complex, not easily summarized or dismissed by a judgment. We may do things that are illegal, immoral, unhealthy or thoughtless, but that doesn’t make us bad people. And we know good people are sometimes not what they seem. We may even internalize judgment and believe that we are a good or bad person.

A moral binary worldview encourages individuals to split themselves psychologically by claiming superior qualities and disclaiming inferior ones, perhaps even projecting the latter onto others. If a person is striving to be a good Christian, and good Christians are pure, truthful and virtuous, that person may simply deny or dissociate from those parts of the self that don’t fit the image. As Walt Whitman famously declared, “I contain multitudes,” and, we might add, complexities and contradictions. What can a person do with those qualities found within but which they perceive to be anathema? Or qualities that are ambiguous, complex, inconsistent?

If someone has a different opinion than I do, it is simply a different opinion. However, people often assume that if it is different it must be opposite – opposed to – in competition with me and my opinion. Dualism provides no room to hold several possibilities in mind because it encourages us to find Truth and to condemn everything else as lies and spiritual error.

I’m not suggesting we entirely abandon the use of the words good and bad. But it would help undermine Christian hegemony and reconnect us to each other if we more often described the world around us without resorting to simple moral judgments. We would be more able to acknowledge and respond to the complexity of ideas, people and even the weather. In addition, if we used I statements (I think, I feel, I believe) it would help us acknowledge that what is true for us (our truth) is not necessarily true for others. The bad news about the rain on our picnic can be acknowledged as the good news for the farmer whose crops need moisture.

The following list contains examples of the way our language and thinking reflect a dualistic value-laden perception of the world. It is easy to see how the moral judgment is built into the binaries.

Qualities

Christian / Non-Christian, pagan

good / bad, evil

light / dark

male / female

rational / irrational, superstitious

sane / insane, crazy

moral / immoral

civilized / uncivilized, primitive, barbaric, savage

pure / impure, tainted, contaminated

clean / dirty, corrupt

God-like (in the image of God) / animal-like, bestial

normal / abnormal

calm / emotional, angry

angelic / satanic, devilish

decent, well-intentioned / dishonest

God-fearing / godless

disciplined / wild

refined / crude, brutish

thoughtful / impulsive

innocent / sinful

in control / out of control

saved / damned

chaste / sexual, wanton

committed / promiscuous

strong / weak

superiod / inferior

white / black

modern / traditional

religious, holy / secular, profane

scientific / superstitious

democratic / despotic

Western / Eastern

If you think about the terms in the right column you will notice the sense of danger attached to these concepts. For example, dirty contaminates clean or pure; profane pollutes sacred or holy. This dualistic vision conditions people to be afraid all of the time because anything pure, clean or innocent can become contaminated. Constant vigilance is therefore called for, which not only necessitates constant anxiety; it can lead to pre-emptive attack to prevent contagion. Attack can always be justified, in turn, by the constant threat of danger and the belief the devil is always looking for weakness and opportunity to attack.

Moral dualism may also distort our attitudes towards others. We may generally accept people as good, and then, if they do something we find offensive, condemn them as bad and reject them. Dualism makes it difficult to stay in relationship with people in their complexity – loving and caring for them, yet still holding them accountable for their actions.

An assumption of polarity – either/or thinking – makes it difficult to see the complexity of situations and limits our ability to solve problems. The challenges we face are rarely simple. Few fall into an either/or framework. Too often, people quickly assume a polarity, an us-versus-them framework, to understand what is happening.

The Cosmic Battle: Good and Evill

A major Christian belief, connected to this binary framework, is that everything not associated with good and Godliness is connected to the devil (Satan) and his minions. Being opposite, or the Other, is interpreted as being in opposition to God. The world is understood to be a stage for cosmic struggle. This framework assumes, in the words of Belgium political analyst Jean Bricmont:

Good and Evil exist and do battle in and by themselves, that is independently of any given historical circumstances. The “bad guys” – Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden, Milosevic, Saddam, etc. – are demons that emerge from nowhere, effects without causes. To combat Evil, the only solution is to mobilize what is Good: arouse it from its lethargy, arm it, and send it off to destroy Evil. That is the philosophy of permanent good conscience and of war without end.6

When evil becomes cosmic, any social conflict or war easily escalates into a crusade. Political leaders can manipulate fear of evil to declare a holy war against a demonized enemy. If one refuses to fight, one’s loyalty to country and God can immediately be challenged.   

Acceptance of the cosmic battle leads to a belief in the redemptive power of violence. Regular violence, the kind employed by the evil ones, is cruel and fanatical. We, being morally virtuous, are reluctant to use violence, but since we define our enemies as inherently evil, totally uncompromising and irredeemably dangerous, we have to kill them. We are required to use any means necessary so we can cleanse the world and redeem ourselves as virtuous saviors.

There are many different military metaphors used in dominant Christianity to convey this cosmic battleground, such as spiritual warfare, soldiers for Christ, battlefronts for Christ and militant discipline.7 Even early academic institutions such as universities and monasteries were described as sites where Christian scholars fought for God on a frontline of the cosmic struggle, using words and ideas as weapons.8

These violent metaphors encourage a militant response to those labeled enemies. The association of difference with darkness and danger – whether the threat is perceived as monsters, aliens, or people with darker skins, different bodies or “foreign accents” – increases the probability of escalation and diminishes the possibility of negotiation.

Moral absolutism insures continuous war, with a shifting series of people and nations standing on an opposing side. The devil is believed to wear many guises, and Christendom is perceived to be constantly under attack. The very definition of the United States as a good, God-fearing country is dependent on its contrast to groups of barbaric and Godless others.

On the interpersonal level, belief that there is a devil actively trying to destroy everything good leads to a somewhat paranoid response to other people. A person expecting ever-present moral danger would naturally have to be wary around anyone not fully and visibly committed to God. Christians may be commanded to love one’s neighbor, but they are also socialized to fear and mistrust all those who are members of suspect and possibly dangerous groups.9

Fear can lead people to take an absolutist “you’re either with me or against me” stance. Such binary thinkers demand those around them take a stand, have an opinion, declare which side they are on. They will not accept that a person might be neutral, undecided or simply unwilling to submit to thinking using an either/or dichotomy. In the dualistic mind there are no both/and or and/and/and options. Those socialized as male in particular are expected to take a strong stand for what they believe in. If they don’t hold and assert their positions aggressively they may well be judged less than a man.   

If one views one’s opponent as evil, compromise or negotiation is out of the question. After all, Faust is only one better-known moral tale about “making a deal with the devil.” With stakes so high, believers will likely want to determine the two options, find out who stands on either side and charge forward to victory for God with no hesitation, and certainly no mercy.   

The cosmic battle between good and evil can play out on a personal level as well. In the fourth century, Augustine urged people to understand good/bad imagery as an allegory for the “moral conflict within each person.”10 Therefore, each individual’s struggle to lose weight or to avoid gambling, drug abuse or sexual temptation can take on great moral significance because it mirrors the cosmic battle. Personal struggles may evoke feelings of sinfulness and personal failure – or virtuousness and self-righteousness – because of the moral significance attached to them.

Love Within Hierarchy

Love is a core (some might say the central) value in Christianity. God loves all people; therefore Christians are enjoined to love one another. Jesus’ caring for the disenfranchised and the sacrifice of his life for humanity are ultimate examples of the unconditional, selfless love Christians should express towards others.

Christians are encouraged to love others regardless of who they are or what they do. “Love the sinner but hate the sin” (which all too easily became “Kill the Indian but save the man”).11 Such love, as with God’s love, is supposed to be universal: anyone can become a Christian and be saved.

Although all are described as children of God, if a person does not make the choice to accept God/Jesus then they will not be saved. In other words, all Christians are brothers and part of the community of the saved, but heathens and heretics are explicitly not included. The phrase “all people are children of God” is like the phrases “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence or phrases like “the public is invited” or “all are welcome” in racially segregated communities. There is often an implicit assumption that those who are members of the community and entitled to loving-kindness, human rights or freedom share some unmentioned but critical quality or characteristic which entitles them to inclusion. In dominant Christianity, that quality is acceptance of Jesus/obedience to God. Native Americans, Jews, Muslims and atheists are not eligible unless they convert to Christianity.12

I am not merely asserting that some Christians have not understood or lived up to the admonition to love one’s neighbor. I am saying that dominant Christianity has established concepts of love and brotherhood that intentionally exclude huge numbers of people and mark others as inferiors.

Hierarchy and obedience are key concepts relating to love. “Jesus is Lord,” “Dear Lord,” “Our Father” – these are standard Christian phrases. The word Lord originally referred to medieval rulers who had great power over impoverished peasants.13 This medieval European hierarchy eventually became the model for colonial hierarchies imposed on peoples throughout the world.14

Hierarchical structures and institutions preceded Christian ones. But elites grafted these relationships of dominance onto the moral hierarchy within Christianity. A natural order or Chain of Being defined every group’s place.15 All people, therefore, have a duty to fulfill their natural roles and obey those superior to them. As Martin Luther wrote, “When in doubt, obey.”16 Everyone is understood to have a duty to obey God’s laws. Community members have a duty to obey religious authority. Women have a duty to obey men, and correspondingly children their parents and adults in general. The word often used as a synonym to obedience in Christian theology is submission, a word that implies a humbling of self below another’s greater authority.

Through this emphasis on hierarchy, love is intimately tied to obedience. God loves people, but only favors them when they are obedient. Otherwise, he becomes angry and destructive, even to the point of destroying them. Similarly, the love of a man for a woman in heterosexual marriage is contingent on her obedience. A man’s duty in traditional wedding vows was to love and protect, hers to love and obey. When one is obligated to abuse a beloved “for her own good” love is rendered conditional on woman’s obedience to God and other authorities. Absolute, unconditional love (which respects a beloved’s autonomy) becomes abstract and even contradicts actual love, which requires obedience to and sometimes discipline from those in authority. As Professor of American Studies Melani McAlister has pointed out, this kind of love is a model of conquest. Both parties participate in “a consensual but unequal union.”17

If you have been taught to love, forgive and even turn the other cheek, it can be difficult to confront those who are attacking you. This paralysis is reinforced when the abuser justifies their behavior by saying, “I only hit you because I love you.”18

This connection of love to hierarchy and obedience can also be confusing to the abuser because they have learned that those in authority have a responsibility to enact obedience for the moral good of those they have authority over. Resisting authority becomes disobedience to God, or God’s representative, and jeopardizes the soul of the disobedient one. A willful person is someone with a strong sense of self who can’t give that self to God. A person can go to hell for being disobedient and it is up to a husband, parent or other authority figure to save the willful and disobedient from that fate through discipline.

Traditionally, any level of abuse has been accepted as legitimate to enact obedience, because one is doing it for the good of the person being disciplined. If a husband fails to discipline his wife or a parent their child, then they are morally remiss. They have failed in their role as guide and protector, and they also fail to protect the community from the danger disobedience brings. In this view, those who do not punish can become complicit with evil by not being successful in guiding their charges away from it. This puts the salvation of everyone in authority at risk. 

Christians are required to submit to any authority legitimized by their religion. In the Enlightenment, obedience to so-called proper authority became a secular legal principle in European natural law. This was accepted as true for whole nations as well as individuals, justifying wars of aggression against those identified as pagans as well as domestic violence and child abuse. Very often analogies were made between the naturalness of children obeying adults, women obeying men and pagans submitting to Christians. Prominent Spanish theologian Gines de Sepulveda in 1545 justified the destruction of indigenous peoples in the Americas in this way:

Bringing to submission by force of arms, if this is not possible by any other means, those who by their natural condition should obey others but refuse their authority. The greatest philosophers declare that this war is just by law of nature … It is just and natural that prudent, honest and humane men should rule over those who are not so … the Spaniards rule with perfect right over these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands who in prudence, intellect, virtue and humanity are as much inferior to the Spaniards as children to adults and women to men, since there exists between them as great a difference as that between … apes and men.19

Similar reasoning was also a common way to justify slavery. Slavery and wives submitting to husbands were often referred to as parallels, the naturalness of one being used to support the inevitability of the other.

In the US today, many men still feel entitled to discipline women when they “step out of line,” don’t fulfill expectations or are perceived as disobedient. Men with this perspective can easily come to think a woman’s refusal to comply upsets a divinely sanctioned male dominance.

In the 21st century, parents still routinely hit their children because they are disobedient. One study found that 2/3 of US parents spank their children.20 The discipline meted out to children is most often justified by claims of the child’s disobedience. Even very young children are perceived to be willful – with a will that needs to be broken, or at least bent, so they will grow into respectful and obedient adults.

This interlocking of love, hierarchy and obedience sets up continuing cycles of violence in many families. Men are trained to defer to their bosses and, if living with women, to be the boss at home. Although some heterosexual couples strive for egalitarian relationships, these can be undermined by the deep expectations of duty and obedience that both men and women carry within.21

Moreover, when people expect love to be embedded in relationships of hierarchy and obedience it can undermine their attempts to bring about more democratic and egalitarian communities. It can also undermine attempts to fight injustice because resistance requires challenging those in authority and dismantling internalized lower moral worth when one is supposed to be inferior – and therefore obedient.

While many individual Christians believe love and obedience are not related and that violence subverts love, this theology so intertwines the concepts that some claim their abuse is a loving act.

Sinners Need Salvation

The primacy of the sinful individual’s moral standing with God is another foundational Christian concept. The most important questions to ask someone are do they accept God/Jesus, and are they acting on God’s behalf in the world? In other words, are they, or will they be, saved or damned? Human beings are perceived to be fundamentally sinful and unsaved until they make an active determination to “come to Jesus” or make themselves right with God – sometimes described as accepting God’s grace. Some Christian denominations believe that if a person is born a Christian they are saved, and only those not born a Christian have souls that are in mortal danger. But even if they are born saved, these Christians still face a lifetime of temptation. Other denominations believe even those born Christian need to be born again, or at least baptized. In any case, the dominant belief is that people are not good, spiritually healthy and whole as they are.

Within dominant Christianity it is critical that the self be righteous (right or justified) with God, not just in one’s external actions but also in one’s intentions, one’s thoughts, one’s heart. Each person stands alone and since the penalty for not being saved is eternal damnation, the stakes are high. People will claim their innocence to protect their souls. In our society, most people want to be good -innocent of wrongdoing – not necessarily because of their impact on other people, but because it reflects their state of righteousness.

The emphasis on individuals as sinful can give people a deep sense of moral unworthiness that ruling elites under capitalism then exploit, encouraging people to become tireless workers and avid consumers. These elites can take advantage of latent beliefs about good and evil, as well as feelings of guilt, inferiority or badness, to manipulate people into buying products, goods and services they do not need and that may even be destructive. Christianity is not the only religion to set strict moral expectations and then to exhort people to live up to them. But Christianity begins with the assumptions that humans are sinful and every day is a battle against temptation. These teachings create a basic feeling of inadequacy in many, since every person has a body and that body has needs for food, pleasure and intimacy. The belief one is born in sin (and Jesus died for one’s sins) puts a much higher moral stake on one’s daily, routine behavior than in many other belief systems.

When the importance of one’s moral worth is reinforced by centuries of Christian persecution against those who don’t measure up, anxiety about one’s salvation combines with terror of damnation to enforce compliance. Because purity of intent is believed to absolve an individual from the consequences of their actions, when someone is confronted with a simple mistake, an uncharitable act or any questioning of their integrity, often their first response is to defend their innocence.

I didn’t do it.

I didn’t mean it.

I didn’t know about it.

It wasn’t my fault.

I didn’t intend it.

Behind such statements is the justification, “I am really a good person regardless of what happened.”

In most cases, the person or group bringing up the problem has no concern about the moral goodness of the person they are confronting. They are likely just bringing up a situation that needs attention. Everyone makes mistakes; problems are simply things that need to be addressed. But in a culture based on a God who judges sinful individuals, an immediate claim of good intention can seem a defense against personal complicity in a situation where something is not right.

For example, a man might use this framework as a way to avoid taking responsibility for sexually or physically assaulting another person in a relationship. He might say, “I didn’t mean to hurt my partner,” or “I didn’t intend to hit her so hard.” These defenses count on us being sympathetic because of their good intention. The hidden belief is that nothing bad could result from such action if the actor is a good Christian at heart. In fact, we who hear this statement often operate under the same belief and absolve people of responsibility for what was done by talking about what a good person the doer is. The framework of individual responsibility leads to excessive focus on who is to blame, rather than on correcting the larger, institutional dynamic which produced the problem.

For example, as staff members of the Oakland Men’s Project,22 my colleagues and I were regularly called to schools to deal with issues of violence. Usually some small group of boys (usually low-income, and boys of color) had been identified as a problem, and the solution predetermined by those in charge: “How can we neutralize their ability to interrupt the other students and disrupt the classroom?” It was very difficult for school personnel to understand that violence committed by individuals is the result of many larger factors, including a culture of disrespect and alienation of the students from school and curriculum. The students certainly carry some responsibility for their behavior. But the teachers, administrators and general adult community share responsibility for the context in which young people make decisions.

A Christian framework would have us simply discipline the youth involved because they are held to be solely responsible and are judged to be a bad influence on other students. That leaves everyone else feeling they are good people. Meanwhile the roots of the problem go unaddressed, and violence is likely to continue. If the boys themselves don’t choose to shape up, those in authority may decide they don’t deserve further help, and the rest of the community may feel justified in abandoning them because they are unrepentant.23 

The concept of the sinful individual is inherently fracturing of community. It encourages extreme egoism (focus on the self). It sets the individual and their moral integrity apart from the community and its development. When a person focuses on me rather than we – on one’s own intentions and virtue rather than on our collective responsibility – it is difficult to confront social problems. Rather than saying, “Yes, we have a problem and we must do something about it,” people say, “There may be a problem but I am not connected to it. My only concern is my personal integrity, and you have to prove to me that I bear responsibility.”

Reinforcement of egoism leads people to see themselves as separate from others, especially those they don’t know or don’t like, rather than as part of the human community. It encourages us to see every other person as an individual consciousness, either on my side or the other side, but always unique, isolated, self-contained. Charity becomes something one does because others are in need, not because we are all interdependent. Ultimately, this way of thinking keeps our attention on our individual thoughts and judgments, rather than on our feelings and interconnectedness.   

One Truth, One Way to God

Another fundamental Christian concept is there is only one truth in the world and that truth is contained in Christianity. The Jesus of the Gospels stated very simply, “I am the Way.”24 The Pope has reaffirmed this by stating Jesus is the “absolutely necessary way.” As religious historian James Carroll writes, the dominant ideology of Jesus over the centuries became that Jesus, “obliterates the integrity of all other ways to God.”25

Many religions claim to be one way or the best way, but few claim to be the only way. For many Christians, knowledge of The Truth comes with the obligation to spread the Gospel and convert others. Everyone who does not accept Christianity is judged to be ignorant of this truth, deceived by the devil or heretically to have rejected the truth outright.

If a person believes they have The Truth and all others are misled, this can lead to arrogance and disrespect for others’ beliefs and cultures. If a society or nation-state believes it embodies God’s truth, that state must go to war to defend its truth. Dominant Christianity has relentlessly searched out and tried to destroy the belief systems of other cultures and even of dissident groups within it, partly because of its claim to hold the truth.

The emphasis on having The Truth, with ideas certified by those in authority, is an intellectual process placing authority in those who decide what is right thinking. Rather than valuing people for how loving or caring they are, they are judged on whether they accept Jesus and/or Christian beliefs. If there is one truth there is no room for doubt, for complexity, for multiple truths or meanings. In a one-truth culture it can be difficult to avoid speaking in absolutes and to limit oneself to what one knows to be true from personal experience.

The claim to be in unique possession of The Truth enables the possessor to claim universal authority. That authority was established early in Christian history as various Popes issued bulls declaring they had divine dispensation to be the only true representative of God on earth. These documents, with neither humility nor irony, declared that God gave Christians the entire world. In his capacity as head of the Christians, the Pope was responsible for the lives and properties of everyone, everywhere in the world, for all time, regardless of whether they were Christian or not.26

Imagine any other group in the world declaring that they ruled the entire world, known and unknown, by divine right and everyone in the world was required to bow down to their God and submit to their authority or they could be killed. The audacity and arrogance of this claim was and is unprecedented. European elites took this mandate and used military force to compel people across the globe to submit to their authority.

The belief in one universal truth can lead to the claim that dominant Western beliefs are universal truths. It is possible then to make generalizations about culture, science, art or philosophy, for instance, assuming they are true everywhere for all people. For example, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell selected stories from other cultures, homogenized them and claimed to have discovered universal myths and archetypes. The limits of their understanding – their Western subjectivity – are rarely discussed. Their unqualified generalizations about the world’s diverse peoples are often presumed to carry a universal truth because these generalizations have been authorized by Western academic institutions. The unique understandings of other peoples are ignored or discounted because they are considered subjective – limited to only a particular understanding.

The claim to universal truth becomes a justification for appropriation of anything that exists in the world. In the early colonial period other peoples and things were simply destroyed. Today they are preserved, catalogued and displayed in museums,27 but the relationship of dominance remains the same.    

That Christians claim to have access to The Truth and its universal perspective may limit some readers’ ability to accept portions of this book’s contents. Dominant Christianity has always accepted universal statements about the Other. But when Christians are the subject to generalizations, they suddenly become very discerning about the limits of generalizations and full of the particularities of different kinds of Christians and Christian denominations. Dominant groups almost never accept that observations made by those in subordinate groups are valid. The credibility and privilege those in power possess grants them the authority to make what they call objective statements about Others, while the lack of power validates the dismissal of what they call those Others’ subjective statements.

What would we gain if we each acknowledged the validity of other worldviews in a cosmos too vast and complex for simple generalizations? What would we gain if we held our truths a little less tightly and considered what we could learn from broadening our perspective? I’ll offer some alternatives, beginning with conceptions of time. 

Temporal Focus

Different concepts of time are like different languages. They reflect unique worldviews and ways of being in the world. Everything within a culture is refracted through that culture’s temporal or spatial framework. Concepts of time can reflect a linear or cyclic understanding. Even using different natural processes as measurements of time – like solar or lunar cycles – can have major ramifications for how a people live. 

In dominant western Christianity time is linear (loosely tied to the solar cycle) and finite (with a specific beginning and end). The important times are when God is involved in the world: the Creation and the Final Judgment leading to salvation or damnation and the end of life on earth. Also of importance is his intervention, the period of Jesus’ life and death that interrupted normal time. The period from Jesus’ death to the final judgment, the time in which we find ourselves, is just a transition period. Individual human and world events are important only as they are portents for or confirmation of humanity’s progression towards the final judgment. Dominant Christianity has declared that this theological framework is a universal spiritual history applicable to all peoples and all cultures, although non-Christians do not actually become participants in this history until Christians encounter them and bring them what Christians call the good news.

In this linear temporal system one returns to the past condition of paradise through the future coming again of Jesus and the Judgment. The focus of attention on an Edenic and pure past state (nostalgia) and the aspiration to achieve such a state again in the future (hope) promotes a view of the world we live in as a place in which people are wayfaring strangers traveling through a land of temptation and corruption. The present is continually pressured by and measured against the past and the future – and must always come up wanting. The end result is the desanctification of the world, the present moment and our lives here on Earth. With such a view, it is difficult for people to find their lives and relationships sacred; it is difficult to appreciate the beauty and perfectness of the world as it is.28

Many cultures are temporally focused but have cycles of time which either change or repeat themselves. While the Christian concept of time might be represented by an arrow, the time concepts of other temporally-focused cultures (e.g. Hindu or Mayan theologies) might be represented by a circle or wheel. There is an understanding of change, but not an incessant push for progress and development. A circle is intrinsically non-hierarchical: there is no beginning, no end, no higher, no lower.

Other cultures have a strong emphasis on place. For example, Yantan Sioux scholar Vine Deloria Jr., son and grandson of Episcopal ministers, described the difference between Christian and Native emphases:

Christianity has traditionally appeared to place its major emphasis on creation as a specific event while the Indian tribal religions could be said to consider creation as an ecosystem present in a definable place. In this distinction we have again the fundamental problem of whether we consider the reality of our experience as capable of being described in terms of space or time – as “what happened here” or “what happened then.”29

Still other cultures, such as Taoism and Buddhism, have no creation stories or give them minimal attention. Their stories are neither temporally nor geographically focused. Their theologies emphasize the ongoing human struggle for balance, harmony and attunement with various understandings of cosmic consciousness.

Relationship with Nature

And God said unto them [the humans], “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth over the earth.”30

Earth plays a traditional role as the mother of life in many cultures, but in Christianity a male God is the father of life (without the aid of a woman). This has had profound consequences in the West, where the majority culture has not valued others’ complex, interdependent relationship to the places they live. Cultures which honor the Earth’s sacredness have been dismissed as superstitious or naïve.

Christianity’s basic message about the material world is that only humans have souls, and we were given dominion over the earth and everything on it. In the third century B.C.E. dominus meant slave master. Later, dominium came to mean absolute ownership.31 It is hard to read the word dominion as meaning anything less than complete control.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church quickly began persecuting pagans. Churches were built on sacred sites, and many sacred trees, springs and other places were destroyed.32 The annual calendar was completely changed to mark events in the life of Jesus rather than the seasons, solstices and equinoxes. Pagans were persecuted for celebrating long-standing holidays, observing sacred rituals, honoring local gods and holding sacred the Earth and its inhabitants. Dominant Christianity has waged hundreds of wars to exterminate all forms of religious practice recognizing the life spirit in non-human form. These actions were not just about eliminating a rival belief system or consolidating power. Even in its formative years, Christianity was clear in its conviction there was no spiritual force except their God, and he was not of the world.

When humans are considered superior to animals and plants and the world only a way station from humans, destruction of the earth is inconsequential. Some Christians believe such destruction might even be necessary to fulfill biblical prophecy. For those evangelicals who believe in the imminent arrival of the end of the world, there is no urgency to attend to earthly matters because the world will not last much longer anyway. For others, and there is a growing environmental movement within some Christian circles,33 taking care of the earth is our responsibility and essential to our well-being. But even when the word dominion is interpreted as stewardship, the basic concept can continue to hold humans separate from the earth and in charge of it. In no sense do these words contain a concept of a mutual or reciprocal relationship between people, other animals, plant life and the Earth.

There have certainly been dissident voices within Christianity. St. Francis of Assisi, 12th-century founder of the Franciscan order, believed all animals, not just people, were God’s creatures and humans had a special responsibility to care for the earth and all of its animate and inanimate inhabitants. He preached humility and interdependence and was alleged to talk with and preach to animals. Church leaders considered his radical teachings dangerous and tried to stamp out his subversive ideas.34

The war against nature continues today as multinational corporations bulldoze, mine, clearcut and pollute indigenous sacred sites and entire geographic regions. These wars also underlie the last 500 years of scientific development in the West, based on an understanding of nature being both inanimate and spiritless, completely subject to human control. In a society based on Christian beliefs, human superiority and entitlement is assumed. No matter how environmentally sensitive one is, it is difficult to live in balance and harmony with the natural world. These beliefs have led to destruction of many of those peoples who have acted most responsibly in living sustainably on the earth.

Challenging Dominant Concepts

The concepts described above are the center of the dominant Christian worldview. While individual Christians hold a variety of beliefs about Jesus and the nature of Christianity, and each denomination has interpreted Christianity somewhat differently, ruling elites have enforced the values described above for many centuries.

Individual Christians can interpret these beliefs in different ways. They can ignore some, emphasize others and look for denominations and individual churches which feel compatible with their individual understanding. How they interpret their beliefs in their everyday life is much more indicative of their attitudes and behavior than whether they are fundamentalist or liberal, traditional or modern, catholic or protestant. Just as white people were slaveholders, abolitionists and held diverse opinions about slavery, Christian beliefs will produce a wide variety of ways of living in relationship to Christian dominance. 

In many ways it is easier for people who are not Christian to critically assess these concepts because they may hold to another set of beliefs, juxtaposed to Christian ones. For a large subset of Christians, depending on how they were raised, the worldview I describe is the normative one. It is difficult to see what you have been socialized to consider normal, natural, just the way things are. If you have been raised to see the world in binaries of good and bad, or to see the material world as a source of temptation and evil, you might conclude reality actually is as you believe it to be. Even if you were raised in a non-Christian subculture you might reach the same conclusion because you have been exposed to this way of thinking throughout your life. It might seem secular, rational, the only true way to understand the world.

We all have work to do to challenge the ways our thinking has been colonized and our cultures distorted by Christian hegemony. In particular, those who are not Christian have to look critically at our own traditions, determine the impact dominant Christianity has had on them and bring them alive for our needs today. Without understanding the impact of these foundational Christian concepts we haven’t a chance to succeed in this crucial task. Our work is to identify and challenge the ways these concepts are limiting, so that those of us who resist the domination will not end up internalizing, repeating and amplifying them.


Footnotes:

1. Michael R. Steele. Christianity, Tragedy, and Holocaust Literature. Praeger, 1995, p. 8.

2. For more on this history see: Robin Lane Fox. The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. Knopf, 1992.

3. For a history of the changing meaning of Jesus’ life and death through Christian history see: Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise. For one discussion of the shifting meaning of Christian words through time see: Marcus J. Borg. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – and How They Can be Restored. HarperOne, 2011.

4. Ziauddin Sardar briefly describes the four-fold logic of Hinduism and the seven-fold logic of Jainism in Postmodernism and the Other, p. 42. See also David Loy. Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy. Humanity, 1997.

5. This dualism and opposition is epitomized by John Gray’s popular book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex. HarperCollins, 1993.

6. Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism, p. 44.

7. The texts of popular Christian hymms such as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Stand Up for Jesus, Ye Soldiers of the Cross” and “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” translate this martial spirit into song and then reinforce uncompromising militarism. 

8. David F. Noble. A World without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science. Random House, 1992, pp. 149-50.

9. For example, during the anti-communist McCarthy trials when US Senator Joseph McCarthy was at the height of his influence in January 1954, nearly 50% of the US population believed the threat of communism was so great that they approved of his actions: Richard Hofstadter. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays. 1952, reprint Harvard, 1996, p. 70.

10. Quoted in Jonathan Kirsch. A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization. HarperCollins, 2006, p. 119.

11. Capt. Richard H. Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian boarding school, used this phrase to describe the brutal process of converting and civilizing Indians by eliminating every part of their indigenous language and culture: Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), pp. 46–59 in Richard H. Pratt. “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” in Francis Paul Prucha, ed. Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian,” 1880–1900. University of Nebraska, 1978, pp. 260–271.

12. These others are eligible for charity, concern and even, in some cases, respect, but they are not considered full and equal members of the human community.

13. “Lord: 1: one having power and authority over others: a: a ruler by hereditary right or preeminence to whom service and obedience are due.” [online]. [cited December 2, 2012]. Merriam-Webster online Dictionary, merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lord. As a reminder of the pervasiveness of Christian dominance, both online dictionaries I consulted about this word had advertisements for Christian websites above the definitions.

14. For a Native American perspective on the use of the word “lord” see Clara Sue Kidwell et al. A Native American Theology. Orbis, 2001, pp. 67-70.

15. This cosmological chain of being, adapted from the Greek neo-Platonists, was eventually elaborated by philosophers and scientists into a biological chain of being with man at the top, and a racial chain of being with white people at the top.

16. Gerrit Jan Heering. The Fall of Christianity: A Study of Christianity, the State and War, trans. J.W. Thompson. Fellowship Publications, 1943, p. 56 in Michael R. Steele. Christianity, The Other, p. 101.

17. Melani McAlister. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000. University of California, 2001, p. 79.

18. Little girls are often told that boys tease them because they like them, establishing this conflation between love and abuse at an early age.

19. Pablo Richard. “1492: The Violence of God and the Future of Christianity,” in Boff and Elizondo, 1492-1992: The Voice of the Victims, p. 62.

20. The study found that 65% of parents had spanked their three-year-old children at least once during the previous month: Michael Smith. “Spanking Kids Still Common in U.S.” MedPage Today, August 23, 2010. [online]. [cited July 30, 2012]. tmedpagetoday.com/Pediatrics/DomesticViolence/21816.

21. See the section on parenting in Part 6 for more discussion of this issue.

22. The Oakland Men’s Project (1979-1999) provided violence prevention and education programs.

23. For a discussion of how this process actually works in a school see: Ann Arnett Ferguson. bad boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity. University of Michigan, 2000.

24. “Jesus saith unto him, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.'” John 14:6 KJV.

25. James Carroll. Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. Houghton Mifflin, 2001, p. 232.

26. Sometimes called Papal supremacy, this doctrine gave the Pope “… supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 937. [online]. [cited October 27, 2012]. vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2A.HTM.

27. In places like Iraq these objects are still being destroyed.

28. For elaboration on these ideas see Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise, especially pp. 415-20.

29. Vine Deloria, Jr. God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th anniversary ed. Fulcrum, 2003, p. 78.

30. Gen. 1:28 KJV.

31. Orlando Patterson. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Harvard, 1982, pp. 30, 32 quoted in Steele, Christianity, The Other, p. 83.

32. Indigenous people throughout the world are still struggling to protect sacred sites from Christian predation.

33. See, for example, Mallory McDuff. Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate. New Society, 2012.

34. New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia. “St Francis of Assisi.” [online]. [cited February 28, 2013]. newadvent.org/cathen/06221a.htm.

Christian Hegemony and the Other

The following is excerpted from Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, by Paul Kivel. 

Compared to original (white, male) Christians, all other people have been defined in some sense as Other. The most prominent groups of others include

  • Jews. Accused of killing God, Jews have long been the Other who resides inside Christian societies and is forever reviled and persecuted for rejecting Jesus.
  • Muslims. Muslims are the infidel and exterior enemy, who since the Crusades have represented resistance to the expansion of Christianity throughout the world.
  • White Christian women. Portrayed as causing the fall of humanity from paradise, tempting men sexually and interacting with the devil, women are seen as weak and needing protection, but also treacherous and powerful, needing to be controlled by men.
  • Heretics. Those who disagree with orthodox Christian beliefs, either defined by the Catholic Church or Protestant denominations, are seen as misled and dangerous to society.
  • Homosexuals. All those who are gender variant and engage in sexuality that is not heterosexual within a formal married relationship are portrayed as flaunting God’s will and as subversive to dominant Christian values.
  • Heathens. Those who had not yet been exposed to Christianity, such as the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, were considered blameless. But once exposed, they were essentially offered the choice to convert or die. If they willfully rejected Christianity they were considered unredeemable and therefore expendable.
  • People who were lepers,21 people with disabilities and those with other physical conditions. These groups were usually considered to have rejected and/or to have been rejected by God. They could become healed if they had strong enough faith; otherwise they were condemned to suffer for their lack of belief.

Behind all of these groups was the devil, the enemy in the cosmic battle between good and evil, inspiring these groups to seek the destruction of God’s order. Jews and Muslims, African slaves and Native Americans could convert to Christianity to be accepted in Christian society and avoid persecution. But the price of conversion was the abandonment of their cultures, languages and often their very families and communities. And still, conversion was always suspect. No matter how thoroughly they assimilated, members of these groups are often, even today, considered untrustworthy.

US President Barack Obama, for example, is still considered by many to be a “hidden Muslim,” even though he is a lifelong Christian and is publicly visible as one. There was a national uproar during the 2008 presidential election about remarks his minister made. According to a May 2012 poll, three and a half years into his first term, 16% of those polled stated that Obama was a Muslim and 75% were unsure he was a Protestant.22


Footnotes:

[21] Leprosy was widely believed to be a punishment by God for sexual sin because lepers were lustful: Jeffrey Richards. Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. Routledge, 1991, p. 14.

[22] Religion News Service. “One In Six Americans Believe Obama Is Muslim, Only One In Four Identify Him As Protestant.” Huffington Post, May 10, 2012. [online]. [cited December 2, 2012]. huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/10/belief-that-obama-is-musl_n_1506307.html?view=print&comm_ref=false.

Original Christians

The following is excerpted from Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, by Paul Kivel. 

The original Christians were West Asian and North African Jews, predominately Arab. Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and all of the early leaders in the church were Jewish Arabs of varying ethnic and cultural identities, and with diverse but certainly not white skin tones. The bulk of early Christian churches, monasteries and other religious centers were in the Middle East. The center of the early church was in Constantinople, in present-day Turkey. When a second center was established in Rome it remained weak and marginal until the seventh to eighth centuries. It wasn’t until the rise of Islam, the weakening of the Eastern Church and the consolidation of its power that the Roman church emerged as a powerful international force. During this process western Christianity was Europeanized and whitened, its roots whitewashed.

Women, people of color and many others could become Christians of a sort, but they were considered inferior imitations of the real thing because they were contaminated by their difference from the white male physically and the morally perfect images of God, Adam, Jesus, the Apostles and a long line of church leaders continuing into the current day. A person from any of these groups was considered more likely to revert to non-Christian ways, succumbing to evil and becoming a subversive element.

“Original” white male Christians feared the destruction of the Christian community and God’s work on earth. From this perspective, if Christian hierarchies were disordered, then God’s kingdom was in disarray and Christianity would fail. White Christian men had to be willing to sacrifice their lives as soldiers of Christ – knights, gunslingers or superheroes – to save Christian civilization.19 Male behavior based on control, obedience and the ability to commit violence in the name of God was essential to fulfilling this role. Terror of being out of control, (losing it), fear of disorder and a sense of constant danger were key components of this personality and social framework.

At the same time, because of that ongoing violence, all others experienced terror based on fear for their very existence. This trauma leads to emotional, spiritual and somatic stress. It is not post-traumatic because dominant western Christianity is still attacking individuals and cultures. Widespread media images of danger –demonization – and everyday forms of attack which non-original Christians and non-Christians experience produce an onslaught of aggression and a constant sense of insecurity in all those labeled Other by dominant Christianity.20


Footnotes:

[19] Somewhat more secular Christian roles include teacher, missionary, scientist, explorer.

[20] Most white male Christians are also poor or working class, disabled, gay, bisexual, transgender, immigrants or part of other non-original Christian categories; they have complex identities and, often, ambivalent loyalties to dominant western Christian norms and institutions. 

Christian Hegemony and Symbols

The following is excerpted from Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, by Paul Kivel.

Christian symbols such as the cross, nativity scenes, knights in shining armor, the fish symbol, an apple to indicate temptation and images of the devil are not just signs of the presence of Christians or Christian buildings. They carry history.13 The historical use of the cross in Western societies demonstrates this easily.

Christian missionaries did not just arrive with the “good news.” Once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the cross sanctioned the sword, which then allowed the cross to be effective.14 Constantine’s Roman soldiers marched with crosses on their helmets. Crusaders had crosses embroidered on their clothes (the word crusade means marked with a cross).15 Columbus sailed with crosses on the sails of his ships, immediately planted a cross in the beach of the islands where he landed and claimed he was on a holy (as well as mercantile) mission. The Virginia colonists marked Jamestown with a cross.16 The Inquisition tried and condemned people under the sign of the cross, burned people on a cross and required many of those who were not killed to wear a visible cross at all times on their clothes. Before enslaved Africans were dispatched onto boats for the Middle Passage they were baptized under the sign of the cross, and many had crosses branded on their arms. 

As Argentine theologian and historian Enrique Dussel has described it,

Planting the cross on an island, on a beach, in a village, in the square of Aztec Mexico or Inca Cuzco, is an act of “dominion”, of possession; it proclaims the sovereignty of the Spanish state in the person of the King. It is a “social relation” of domination.17

The frequent use of the cross by Christian anti-abortion and white supremacist groups like the KKK and their current racist counterparts is not accidental.18 A burning cross is more than a symbol; it is a reminder of this history and threatens similar violence to come.


Footnotes:

[13] For example, knights in shining armor were originally members of Christian orders fighting in crusades to defend Christendom and womanhood.

[14] At times there were militant Christian orders, such as the Knights Templar, whose members carried both cross and sword.

[15] Glynnis Chantrell, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Oxford, 2004, p. 129.

[16] David E. Stannard. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford, 1992, p. 101.

[17] Enrique Dussel. “The Real Motives for the Conquest,” in Leonardo Boff and Virgil Elizondo, eds. 1492-1992: The Voice of the Victims. SCM, 1990, p. 37.

[18] For example, in 2012 abortion provider Dr. Julie Burkhart had a giant cross erected in her backyard as part of a campaign of threat and intimidation. Amanda Robb. “Bringing Abortion Back to Wichita.” Ms. (Winter 2013), p. 13.

Low End Theory’s Christian Dominance Flow Chart

The website lowendtheory.org created this brilliant flow chart. Read their commentary below. “Class Prep: Trying to map—in a vulgar but systemic way—the biopolitical structure and gendered techniques of Latin-Christian Europe’s (post-Doctrine of Discovery) approach to enslavement and settler colonialism in Africa and the Americas. Emphasis here is on the ways in which the mission of saving souls and the mission of accumulating wealth (in the form of lands and of bodies-as-commodities) operated as two sides of the same coin as the mode of producing wealth converged with the mode of producing, and reproducing, Christianity as an imperial project.”