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Hasn't the Church been Guilty of Great Injustice?

If Christianity is the Truth, then why has the Church been responsible for so much injustice and why has it been supportive of war, violence and oppression? Didn't the Church benefit greatly from the slave trade? People who raise this issue know that the Church throughout history has not lived up to its creed. Ready examples include the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. The questioner assumes that the Church's collusion with evil in the past invalidates its message today. After all, why on earth would a corrupt and evil organisation be worth listening to?

What can I, as a Christian, say in response? It's pointless to deny that the Church has been implicated in evil by either, not speaking out in times of oppression (as in Nazi Germany) or by playing the world's games of acquiring land and power (as in the Crusades). Another thing I have to admit is that the Church will continue to be implicated in evil for as long as sin remains in this world. That may sound shocking to some who assume that the Church should be perfect, because they are under the mistaken impression that Christians claim to be perfect. In fact the opposite is true: the gospel of Jesus has nothing to say about being good enough to go to heaven but everything to say, about the goodness and mercy of God which reaches out to sinful people and sweeps them into heaven (1 John 1:5-2:2). It is for this reason, that we are resigned to the fact that the Church will always be a mixed bag - with some good stuff, and some rotten stuff - this side of heaven.

However, after saying all this, I do believe that the Church is the World's best hope. The reason I have for saying this, is because the Church is different to every other human institution. History is full of organisations and movements which started with admirable (or despicable) aims but which eventually stuttered to a halt. What accounts for the Churches longevity? Sociologists would note, from a human perspective, how the Church is a resilient organism which is able to reinvent itself in every generation and culture. Evidence for this is seen in how the demographic centre of Christianity has moved several times during the Church's history unlike all the other major world religions which, while growing, still remain rooted in the soil that begat them. Islam is still a predominantly Middle Eastern religion and worship in a mosque looks the same from Bradford to Bahrain. What is it about Christianity that allows it to keep slipping free, from the cultural clothes that would try and bind it, to a particular time and place?

I believe the real difference between the Church and every other human organisation, is a spiritual one - God is at the heart of the institution we call the Church. From the Church's earliest days, when a light from heaven, changed the life-direction of a murderous religious fanatic named Paul (see Acts 9), the possibility has always existed, that God can call his people out of the societal and cultural darkness they get themselves trapped in.

Examples are legion: The Churches in the southern states of America accepted the status quo of segregation and racism. And then God raised up men like Martin Luther King, who trained the words of the biblical prophets, on the church and the nation. The result: the church repented and the nation followed .

When the majority of the German churches sided with Hitler, it was people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose connection with the light of heaven, allowed them to pierce the darkness of evil.

When European society blindly accepted the rightness of New World slavery, it was people like William Wilberforce - who'd discovered freedom in Christ - who demanded freedom for all.

Were men like Bonhoeffer, Wilberforce and Martin Luther king, simply good men who were duped into working for a flawed institution? Would they have been better off fighting for their causes without the Christian baggage? The biographies of these men show it was their Christian convictions which motivated them to stand up for supposedly "lost" causes against society. It was what they learned from Christ's teaching in the Bible that allowed them to stand above the clouds of moral confusion.

So why do I say that the Church is the world's best hope? The reason is simple: when the Church stands up for truth, and remains true to its creed, society gains. The classic example of this is the Civil Rights Movement in America. There were many in America who were anti-segregation but their solutions were the usual palliatives: more education, more money. Then along came Martin Luther King.
When Martin Luther King returned from Europe after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he had an audience with President Lyndon B. Johnson where he asked that black Americans in the south were given voting rights. The President said this would be impossible to achieve for at least 5-10 years because he had exhausted all his political capital trying to push through the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Politics is always about the art of achieving the possible.

Martin Luther King did not give up. He went to the sleepy town of Selma, Alabama and confronted, in a non-violent way, the racist sheriff Jim Clark and his angry white men. What followed would be called "Bloody Sunday". In response to the brutality on display that day, 2 weeks later, hundreds of clergy from all denominations across America joined the march for civil rights. The whole nation was watching.

After Selma, It took just 5 months, not five years, to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For Martin Luther King, faith was the art of achieving the impossible. He didn't check which direction the political wind was blowing; he changed the direction of the wind.

As long as God remains at the centre of the Church, society will be transformed. The Church is the world's best hope for justice, peace and reconciliation. The reason for this is simple: The church is not another flawed man-made institution. The Church is heaven-sent and heaven's scent. Through the Church, the light of heaven breaks forth into the present.

Rev. Dr. Mark Duggan

Published in the Bramley Baptist Church Magazine, Nov-Dec 2008

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