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.
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.
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.
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.
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.