By Heather Gray
July 8, 2017
On July 6, 2017, Donald Trump spoke before the Polish people – here is an excerpt.
….This continent no longer confronts the specter of communism. But today we’re in the West, and we have to say there are dire threats to our security and to our way of life. You see what’s happening out there. They are threats. We will confront them. We will win. But they are threats.
We are confronted by another oppressive ideology – one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe. America and Europe have suffered one terror attack after another. We’re going to get it to stop.
During a historic gathering in Saudi Arabia, I called on the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations to join together to drive out this menace which threatens all of humanity. We must stand united against these shared enemies to strip them of their territory and their funding, and their networks, and any form of ideological support that they may have. While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.
We are fighting hard against radical Islamic terrorism, and we will prevail. We cannot accept those who reject our values and who use hatred to justify violence against the innocent. (NBC)
Trump thinks western Christian philosophy is superior and/or more “civilized”? He thinks the west and the United States do not attack the innocent? Trump says there are those that “Export terrorism and extremism all around the globe”. He thinks countries guided by American and European Christians have not been engaged in terrorism and extremism all over the globe? He thinks that America itself has not been filled with its own so-called Christian terrorists, such as the Ku Klux Klan and others? To say his comments were hypocritical is an understatement.
Does Trump know any of the history of Christianity and his own country’s behavior? Obviously not!
In his speech in Poland, Trump also said the following:
We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes – including Syria and Iran – and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself. (NBC)
Civilized? Trump refers to Syria and Iran “in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself.” Is he serious? What civilization is he referring to? In the 1950s the United States overturned the only ever elected head of the Iranian government – Mohammad Mosaddegh – and installed the dictator, the Shah of Iran, to serve the US interests so that Britain, in particular, and the west overall, could access to the Iranian oil at the expense of the Iranian people. Is that civilized behavior? Then in the 2000s, by inappropriately invading Iraq, the United States starts this latest conflict in the region along with excessive violence that led to massive resistance. Is that civilized? Those in the Middle East – Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, etc. – are supposed to sit there and not protect their land, their people or resist this U.S. and western violence? What would the United States do if their land and people were being ravaged, invaded and drones being used sometimes inadvertently to kill innocent civilians? Yes, the United States would resist, as I am sure you are thinking.
What I’ve mentioned above but touches the surface of the huge amount of U.S. intervention in the 20th and now 21rst centuries all over the world. All of this is coupled with the vast increase of the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about as he left the presidency and, unfortunately, the U.S. has not taken heed to his ominous and important message.
But in this article I am focusing on the devastating and often violent impact of Christians and Christian doctrine in world history.
My Journey with Christianity
When George W. Bush was president (2001-2009) I kept hearing all this rhetoric about faith based this and faith based that. There were plans and implementation in the Bush administration to further erode the separation of church and state. As a result, the dangers of organized religion became more acute to say the least. In fact, I thought that if Bush, and now Trump, was so concerned about those who support terrorism then he probably needed to scrutinize how right-wing Christians here in the United States have supported terrorists here and throughout the world.
Below is some of my personal journey with Christianity – a religion in which I was raised. It takes one to know one!!!
Christians have much to atone for in their long and egregious history. This is particularly so in the European and United States international context that I want to address here. Have they done some good as well? Probably, but you’ve got to look at what the Christians have done with some skepticism before affirming that statement. This community is divergent at best.
Interpretation of Jesus
There are a lot of interpretations of Jesus. I have mine as well. To me, Jesus was a revolutionary and should be considered the one of first of the liberation theologians. He grew up in the Middle East, during a time of the stressful occupation of Rome. As a devout Jew, he was obviously concerned about the corruption of his faith and of the Jewish leaders by the “pagan” Romans and their culture.
The Romans invaded the Holy Land in 63BCE. They were skilled European occupiers and doing what military occupiers do best – oppress and control the people socially and economically, grab whatever resources are available in the occupied land, and identify the elite in the occupied population as puppets who would serve Roman interests. There are parallels here, of course, to the U.S. and European present day oppressive military incursions in the Middle East and since the fall of Ottoman Empire in 1918.
The Romans, after all, selected the chief priest of the Temple in Jerusalem and other civic leaders, such as the infamous King Herod; the Romans were taking all the good farmland in the area; and they were constantly killing or oppressing Jews who opposed their rule.
No doubt the Romans, like any good occupier and likely with the complicity of the Jewish elite, were consistently using and abusing the poor as Jesus routinely made reference to the less fortunate. Not surprisingly, uprisings, or, as the U.S. refers to them in Iraq, insurrections against Roman rule were frequent. (Read The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception; Holy Blood, Holy Grail; or The Messianic Legacy by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh for more details on the historical Jesus.)
Most scholars concur that Jesus had no intention of starting a new religion. To do so would have been blasphemous against the Jewish faith. The historical task of creating Christianity was left to Paul whose credentials are mixed at best. Paul was named Saul before his conversion on the road to Damascus after the Romans had murdered Jesus. He was a Roman citizen, also Jewish and had never met Jesus. He had been persecuting his fellow Jews who opposed the occupation.
It is understandable, then, that the inner circle of Jesus’ followers, such as James, did not trust Paul. Nevertheless, James, who is often referred to as the brother of Jesus, and others rather cautiously taught Paul Jesus’ philosophy and then sent him to Turkey where he wrote letters back to Jerusalem about his work. Some contend that sending Paul to Turkey was an indication that he was not trusted, otherwise they would have kept him in Jerusalem to work in the heart of movement there. Paul was recalled, however, once it was understood what he was doing. There were also plans to assassinate him as described by Baigent and Leigh. (Read The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception for more details on Paul).
So what was Paul doing in Turkey? Well, he was creating a new religion, which was common practice at the time. The prerequisite conditions of a new religion required a virgin birth, resurrection and, importantly, there had to be a direct link to God before anyone would believe you had a religion worthy of merit. For some strange reason, we humans seem to want miracles then as now, and what’s even more strange is that we are inclined to believe these miracles as fact. Paul obviously knew what he was doing. Anyway, the rest is history, as they say.
To summarize, if you look at the historical Jesus he seemed to be concerned about the poor, about corrupt power, about loving your neighbors and about maintaining Jewish traditions and faith void of Roman influence – my simplistic summary. This, to me, was his revolutionary posture. It appears he chose not to side with those who cozied up to Roman power. He was not a sellout. Obviously, the Roman occupiers and the Jewish elite didn’t like this.
While there have been all kinds of books about the wonders and glory of Christianity (the music is nice after all), when it’s organized it can also be dangerous, extremely violent and oppressive. This is born out in history and impossible to recount all of it here, but look at Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World and Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism by Karen Armstrong or Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics and the Western Psyche by Shadia Drury for an excellent account of Christian abuses and analysis; and, for more contemporary corruption by U. S. Christian conservatives look at Spiritual Warfare by Sara Diamond.
But, I have my own personal journey with Christianity apart from the documented historians and philosophers.
Learning at University about the World’s Religions
As a student at Emory University in Atlanta, I was required to take a religion class. It was my introduction to the politics of religion. A church committee, I was taught, selected the books of the New Testament in 100 AD. Think about it – the committee was the scholarly elite in Europe at the time. They had a vested interest, likely in portraying Rome in a positive light, and selected books accordingly. Some books, like that of Thomas, were left out that disputed Paul’s version of the resurrection, virgin birth, etc. (read Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief: The Secret Book of Thomas and The Gnostic Gospels). And so the Bible is supposed to be the word of God? Well, it certainly appears to have its mortal and political twist.
In 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine even called for a gathering of church leaders to meet in Turkey – known as the first Synod of Nicea – where the decision was to be made by these “mere mortals” whether Jesus was the son of God or not. So a committee made this decision? Well, yes, and they decided, in their rather dubious infinite wisdom three hundred years after Jesus died, that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God. Then, at this meeting, they developed the Nicene Creed that goes like this “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, both visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God etc. etc.” and is recited by Christians today all over the world. This provided some clarity and unity, as the Emperor obviously wanted, for Christian leaders to conveniently sweep in and control the masses.
Then there’s the “Christian” Michelangelo. It’s a sad twist of history that he depicted God, Adam and Jesus, for his painting on the Sistine Chapel, as white males. By doing so, he created an unfortunate legacy of people throughout the world who think of God, Adam and Jesus as white males. This is the ultimate of white supremacy and insult. It’s true that Michelangelo was of European descent so that if there was to be a depiction of God, Adam and Jesus, as the Pope likely wanted, they would be of the European stock as that was their background and audience irregardless of the consequences that they might or might not have foreseen. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbles would likely appreciate the effort of epitomizing whites in this manner.
Yet, historically, Jesus was, after all, described as dark skinned and woolly haired. He was essentially from north Africa after all. Let’s have some honesty here. And God as human? I don’t think so.
While Christ the Lord transcends skin color and racial divisions, white Jesus has real consequences. In all likelihood, if you close your eyes and picture Jesus, you’ll imagine a white man. Without conscious intention or awareness, many of us have become disciples of a white Jesus. Not only is white Jesus inaccurate, he also can inhibit our ability to honor the image of God in people who aren’t white. (Israelite)
Jesus of Nazareth likely had a darker complexion than we imagine, not unlike the olive skin common among Middle Easterners today. Princeton biblical scholar James Charlesworth goes so far as to say Jesus was “most likely dark brown and sun-tanned.” The earliest depictions of an adult Jesus showed him with an “Oriental cast” and a brown complexion. But by the sixth century, some Byzantine artists started picturing Jesus with white skin, a beard, and hair parted down the middle. This image became the standard. (Christianity Today)
Contrary to Christianity, Islam generally and wisely does not allow depictions of God or Muhammad.
Here is my poem about Jesus who I honor for his revolutionary work and legacy against injustice:
About Jesus Christ
From Someone White
(Heather Gray – 1996)
Wooly haired, brown skinned, brown eyed African brother in the struggle
A freedom fighter against the timeless decadence of colonialism.
It was Rome then
It’s facsimile today.
A luta continua.
The Europe and America and the “Doctrine of Discovery”
Then I studied Latin American history where there is an abundance of historical accounts of European Catholic priests on board ships who would bless and Christianize the land before embarking from their ships. They were, then, “shocked” and “appalled” to find that the indigenous peoples of this new land were not Christians, even after having been blessed by the priests from afar, no less. This could and probably should be considered a ploy – a justification for massacring, enslaving or condescendingly oppressing the native population that the Europeans and their U.S. descendants have always done, without abandon, in their occupied foreign lands.
In fact, the massacres by so-called European Christians both in North and South America were immense thanks largely to the Papal Bull from 1493 known as the “Doctrine of Discovery”.
The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. (Gilder Lehrman)
US history, as well as inherited Indigenous trauma, cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against Indigenous peoples. From the colonial period through the founding of the United States and continuing in the twentieth century, this has entailed torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, systematic military occupations, removals of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, forced removal of Native American children to military-like boarding schools, allotment, and a policy of termination. (Truthout)
In the 1970’s I lived in Singapore. In early 1973 I joined other international journalists for a tour of Vietnam during the war. In Singapore I had lost a baby after 7 months of an excruciating pregnancy where I was in bed or in the hospital most of the time. I wanted to explore adopting a Vietnamese child and visited three orphanages in Saigon. The children in the first two were relatively well cared for and the institutions were clean, even in spite of what were probably relatively limited resources. Christians did not head these orphanages.
Then I visited the third orphanage administered by a French Catholic priest. I was utterly appalled. The children were filthy and groveling and crawling on dirty floors. Some of them were strapped in chairs outside. One child, the mixture of a Vietnamese and Black American, was blind and screaming. My colleague told me this Catholic priest was notorious throughout Saigon. His attitude was that it didn’t matter what happened here on earth because the rewards were to be found in heaven. This was, apparently, the priest’s justification for the abysmal treatment of these children. Not that all Christian orphanages are likely to be problematic or abusive, of course, but I’ve wondered since how often Christians utilize this rationale. Here’s some prose honoring the young child in Saigon:
In a Saigon Orphanage 1973
A Tribute to an American/Vietnamese
Abandoned Child of War
(by Heather Gray – 1996)
I remember your black skin
Your slanted sightless piercing eyes that saw through me and beyond.
I remember your rich black curly hair
I remember you sitting in the sun while strapped in your chair
I remember your dignity
I’ll remember you always.
Later, I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Recall that in 1975, Mozambique and Angola had finally wrenched themselves from Portuguese colonial rule. As was usually the case, the United States sided with the colonizers, the Portuguese in this case, rather than supporting the Mozambican freedom fighters. The church was also complicit, of course. The Catholic Church in Mozambique sided with the Portuguese against the freedom movement. So for some time after 1975 the Mozambicans wisely placed restraints upon the Catholic Church, much to the chagrin of American Christians.
To undermine the newly formed government in Mozambique, the European apartheid “terrorists” in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were instrumental in creating, arming and funding the brutal Renamo to fight against the Mozambican Frelimo government. The Mozambican government was primarily socialist and you know what Christians would think about that! Rightwing U.S. Christians and anti-communists became associated with the support of Renamo.
The tactics of Renamo were notorious. They would often recruit their forces by kidnapping children from villages. To control these youth, Renamo leaders would, on occasion, force them back to their own villages to kill their parents and/or siblings. Occasionally these youth would escape the camps. Some say the soul is reflected in the eyes. Friends of mine spending time with these children told me the eyes of these kids were void of anything distinctly alive or emotive. This is what American right-wing Christians were supporting in Mozambique. There were parallels in Angola with the Christian-right, including Pat Robertson, of course, and anti-communist support of Jonas Savimbi, the infamous Angolan UNITA thug and terrorist who viciously fought against the freedom movement there.
In the late 1980’s I spent some time in the Philippines. The Philippines is another victim of a long history of European and United States colonial and military occupation and oppression. For 400 years the Philippines was occupied by Spain. Of course, the Spanish occupiers used their Christian ambassadors, Catholic priests, to control and “civilize” the masses. Priests fanned out throughout the Philippine islands. These early priests are legendary, in the Philippines, for their arrogant attitudes, pillaging and raping of the women.
The Filipino resistance to Spanish colonial rule was finally becoming productive in the late 1800’s. At this time Spain was devoting its resources to the Spanish-American war that was won by the Americans. As the United States forces landed in Manila Bay in 1898, the Filipinos erroneously thought the Americans were there to help them fight the Spanish. Not so! The Americans wanted the former Spanish colony for themselves. From 1898 to 1902 the Filipinos valiantly fought the American forces.
The human cost of the war was immense. Some scholars estimate one million Filipinos ultimately died in Philippine-American war. The US President William McKinley justified this brutality, however, saying that after praying to “Almighty God”, a message came to him that Americans were in the Philippines to “uplift and civilize and christianize” Filipinos. He was obviously not aware that the Filipinos had been “christianized” for 400 years by Spain. While many Filipinos became devout Catholics, I’m sure that many would have rather done without this violent Christian so-called “civilization”.
After 1902 the United States occupied the Philippines until after WWII and thus began the first major imperial venture of the United States outside its region. The U.S. military bases in the Philippines were retained, however.
In the mid 1980’s retired U.S. General John Singlaub, president of the World Anti-Communist League, led an aggressive and violent anti-communist campaign in the Philippines to counter the growing anti-US bases movement in the country. Countless leaders, including Christian pastors, working for the poor in the rural areas were labeled as communists and subject to harassment or summary execution. Like the Spanish use of Catholic priests, the U.S. evangelicals flooded the Philippines to bolster the U.S. image and likely to dilute the movement against the U.S. bases. So the Filipinos not only had to struggle with endless human rights abuses from the government and the U.S. supported Philippine paramilitary but also the arrogant, flagrant and well funded Christian evangelicals.
In 1989, I visited a refugee camp in Negros – the poorest island in the Philippines. The camp was filled with people who had been evacuated from the hinterlands by the Philippine government to root out the members of the New People’s Army. The NPA was engaged in armed struggle against the Philippine government and was a strong proponent of the Philippines ending the military bases agreement with the United States. This camp was the largest refugee community in the Philippines since WWII. Thousands of families lost everything. Children and the elderly were dying. I talked with a mother who angrily told me that American Christians were there selling Bibles. She said, “I don’t have enough money to feed my children, much less to purchase a Bible.”
In Negros, a German colleague and I had joined an international group in the dire task of exhuming the graves of suspected resisters (adults and children), that had been assassinated by the Philippine paramilitary, so an investigation could be pursued regarding this atrocity. Shortly after, we happened upon a church in Dumaguete in Negros. An American evangelical was preaching. He warned the people that the rapture could come at any time. If, for example, you were on a plane and not “born again” and the pilot was, you would be left to suffer a dubious fate as the pilot would immediately be swept from the plane and sent to heaven. We left in disgust. U.S. evangelicals were creating all kinds of characteristic havoc in the Philippines. Was this meant to dull the senses from the anti-communist violence that saturated the countryside?
The above are some of my personal experiences internationally that I know can be echoed by other witnesses throughout the world. Our domestic Christian community also needs serious scrutiny. The history of Christianity, organized or not, is fraught with tragedy yet, in some instances, kindness and compassion. Where’s the balance? I’m not sure. It is also true that in virtually all the instances mentioned above, regarding European Christian atrocities, the mindset of oppression engendered by the “Doctrine of Discovery” from 1493 likely played a preeminent role.
There are people who call themselves Christians who do courageous work for the poor and who fight for justice and liberation. The United Church of Christ in the Philippines, for example, has routinely been in the forefront of the freedom movement. Countless liberation Catholic priests were doing incredible work for the poor, advocating for land reform and an end to oppressive policies generally in Asia and Latin America. Christians played an instrumental role in the movement for abolition of slavery in the United States. The South African Council of Churches took profound and courageous stands against the apartheid state. In the 1900’s, a Spanish Catholic priest was the founder of Mondragon in the Basque area, which is the most profound and successful cooperative movement in the world. The Catholic Maryknolls in the United States and elsewhere have done profound work for the poor and liberation efforts all over the world. The role of many of the U.S. Black churches and leaders in the freedom movement in the United States are legendary. These are just a few of the many examples. To me, these are the real Christians and the list goes on and on.
While thousands of Christians are likely doing good work, I still say proceed with caution. History has shown that many Christians are inclined to easily side with the powerful elite against the people and to wreak havoc on indigenous beliefs and traditions that are often enforced by military and economic muscle. Greed and power are invariably at the core of it all. Can these folks be trusted? I’m not sure. I also ask, does the good and compassionate work of some Christians outweigh the historic and contemporary tragedy, death and destruction from other Christian behavior? I’d say the jury’s out on that one as well.
Christians seem to wear many hats. Perhaps without the compassionate Christians, briefly described above, there would be no check on the dark side of this religion.
Finally, however painful it is to recite this snippet of the European abusive Christian history, there is likely no way we can move forward without learning our past, accounting for it, as well as hopefully apologizing and making amends – as in reparations – and dialogue with each other in whatever way possible rather than this on-going violence and uncalled for arrogance.
Here is the link to an “Open Letter to the Pope” by Atlanta’s Joe Beasley calling for the repudiation of the 1493 Papal Bull the “Doctrine of Discovery”.
HEATHER GRAY has produced “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was adapted from one she wrote in 2004 on Counterpunch. It has been edited and updated.