Sunday, May 25, 2014

Does English Christianity have a long tradition of tolerance?

The Czech priest Tomáš Halík has scooped the latest £1.1 million Templeton prize for promoting religion. Halík used his acceptance speech to warn of the 'explosion of barbarism within, the extreme nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia that are once more raising their ugly heads in the countries of Europe.' We are told that secular pluralism and tolerance, while admirable, have only created multicultural ghettos where people view each other with suspicion and distrust: the radical Christian message of love is needed to transform Europe into a mutually enriching home for people of all faiths and of none. And then there's this:
When I first visited Britain almost half a century ago, I arrived from a country whose violently imposed state religion was so-called “scientific atheism”. Not only was religious freedom totally suppressed in the name of the militant ideology of scientific atheism, but so too was freedom of artistic creation and scientific research. I was happy to be allowed to visit Britain, a country with a long tradition of tolerant Christianity – the wise and cheerful Christianity of Chesterton and C.S.Lewis.
As an Irishman, I have to stop him right there and ask when, exactly, was this long period of tolerant English Christianity?

It will not be found in the 17th century when Christian sectarianism ripped Europe asunder and the protestant Oliver Cromwell raised his blade over Ireland and thanked the Lord for his indiscriminate massacre of tens of thousands of Irish Catholics. Nor it is to be found in the discriminatory penal laws of the 18th century as Ireland suffered under the fist of the Protestant Ascendancy. But our darkest years came during 19th century when a quarter of the population died or desperately fled in deplorable conditions during the long predicted Great Famine to the satisfaction of Protestant government figures like Charles Trevelyan who thought the famine "the judgement of God". The increasingly secular 20th century brought some relief but also brought the partition of the country into largely Protestant and Catholic spheres as the Irish naively leaped into the leeching arms of the Roman Church and Protestants retreated to Ulster. So where is this long tradition of tolerant English Christianity? It cannot be found in the annuals of Irish history.

Perhaps some readers are readying the standard defense of denying that these events were religious in nature and were instead motivated by power or greed. But in doing so they ignore the sociological consequences of religion: the obsessive devotion to the one true faith, the fanatical propagation of sectarian mono-culture through childhood indoctrination and constant reinforcement through repetitious ritualized chants, and above all, the creation of an exclusive community identity. Christians are commanded to love their neighbor, but they are also expected to convert their neighbor.

Halík may believe God is love, but in the shadow of the cross lies a sword that has cut our flesh too often.

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