Throughout the centuries, one of the biggest sources of crises of faith has been the ignoble, hypocritical behavior of Christians. Józef Tischner, a Polish priest, philosopher, and Solidarity chaplain, once said that he never met anyone who lost his or her faith by reading Marx or Lenin, but he knew many who had lost it as a result of talking with their parish priest. Every Catholic has been confronted with the fact that throughout the past two millennia professed followers of Christ have, in fact, done violent things. How should we respond?
In addition to trying our hardest to put Christ’s teachings into life and correcting distortions of history, we should emphasize that all of humanity is marked by original sin and thus even high-ranking officials in the Church are prone to erring. The fact that even Buddhism, seen as synonymous with peace and harmony by many, is marked by an ignored history of intolerance attests to this. Rather than discarding Christianity because of the human weakness of some of its practitioners, the veracity and value of our religion should be evaluated by its unadulterated teachings.
In the West, many believe Buddhism to be a tolerant alternative to Christianity. The late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who, given her strong denunciations of Islam at the end of her life, can hardly be called a leftist hippie, wrote in her book The Rage and the Pride: “I have found out that at no time did [Buddhists] make a territorial conquest under the pretext of religion, at no time did they conceive the principle of Holy War… [i]t is a fact that Buddhism’s history does not register any Ferocious Saladin or any Leone [sic] IX, any Urban II, any Innocentius [sic] II, any Pius II, any Julius II, I mean popes leading armies and slaughtering people in the name of God.”
Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence will know that Fallaci was uninformed. In seventeenth century Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate banned Christianity and persecuted Christians in ways no less cruel than those of Nero. The film shows Buddhist inquisitors who make Torquemada look like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer of Jewish origin who fled German-occupied Poland for neutral Sweden to avoid certain death, coined the term “genocide.” He considered the Japanese persecutions of Christians to be a prime example of genocide, just like that of his fellow Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany (interestingly, Lemkin writes in his memoirs that he first conceived of genocide as a young boy when reading about the persecutions of Christians in Nero’s Rome in his countryman Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis).
Buddhist oppression was not limited to Japan. In the 1940s, feeling threatened by Red China, armed lamas (monks) guarded the Chinese-Tibetan border. In 1949, the Swiss Augustinian monk Blessed Maurice Tornay had actually tried to travel to Lhasa to ask the Dalai Lama to sign an edict of toleration protecting Christians from persecution. On his way, he was attacked and killed by lamas. Prior to the Chinese invasion Tibet was hardly a Shangri-la: the country was a feudal theocracy and cruel corporal punishments were levied even for petty offenses (of course, I write this not to justify the communist Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent horrific human rights abuses). More recently, Buddhist terrorists in Myanmar have killed Muslims in the name of faith, as they continue to kill Christians in Sri Lanka.
The Buddhist apologist will respond to these facts by saying that these violent fanatics do not practice true Buddhist principles. Indeed, the Buddhist dharma preaches peace and compassion. When faced with dark chapters from his or her religion’s past, the Christian should respond in a similar way. According to Christian doctrine, none of us are free from original sin. Thus we are all capable of doing wrong. Even holy men and women are aware of their sinfulness in God’s eyes: Pope St. John Paul II went to confession every week; Pope Francis goes every two.
One can point to historical examples of intolerance or violence committed by Christians that run counter to the Scriptures and to Church teachings. Take, for instance, the abuses against Jews throughout European history, often attributed to Christianity and Christians’ accusations of Jewish deicide. Those who mistreated their Jewish neighbors failed to follow Christian teaching. Meanwhile, numerous popes beginning with Innocent IV in 1247 have condemned “blood libel” rumors (i.e., the accusation common in the Middle Ages that Jews kidnapped Christian children and used their blood to make matzos).
The same goes for the ignoble treatment of Native Americans during European colonization. In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a bull incurring excommunication for those who mistreated or robbed the Indians. Thus Christians who mistreated Jews or Native Americans are not examples of the evils of the Catholic Church; rather, they are examples of sinners ignoring and disobeying their Church’s teachings.
It is impossible to imagine a world without sin, but as a thought experiment let’s try to imagine every single person trying to follow Christ’s teachings at least as faithfully as the saints did. In such a world, there would be no war, poverty, abortion, or dictatorship. No religion places such an emphasis on love like Christianity. Even followers of supposedly peaceful Buddhism have acknowledged that no religion preaches love like Christianity. For example, in his memoir Freedom in Exile, the present Dalai Lama writes: “I am also very impressed with the practical work of Christians of all denominations through charitable organizations dedicated to health and education. There are many wonderful examples of these in India. This is one area where we can learn from our brothers and sisters: it would be very useful if Buddhists could make a similar contribution to society. I feel that Buddhist monks and nuns tend to talk a great deal about compassion without doing much about it.”
Throughout the centuries, many critics of Christianity—Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Kurt Vonnegut all come to mind—admired the figure of Jesus Christ greatly, but were simply put off by the hypocrisy of his followers. This shows the power and uniqueness of Christ’s ethical revolution, and it also makes us wonder why a sharp intellect like Jefferson or Vonnegut was incapable of the simple observation that Christians, who are sinners like everyone else, fall short of the moral teachings of Christ. Furthermore, not everyone who identifies as a Christian takes those ideals seriously.
While people in the post-Christian West are often reminded of misdeeds associated with the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusaders, the many sufferings of Christians at the hands of the followers of other religions or their impressive contribution to improving human welfare are ignored. While Silence, which does a wonderful job of showing the extreme persecutions of Christians in Buddhist Japan, did poorly at the box office and was nominated for only one Oscar (for cinematography), last year a film presenting the Boston Archdiocese as if it were a local chapter of NAMBLA and incorrectly stating that sex abuse cases among a tiny minority of Catholic priests were unrelated to homosexuality (most victims were adolescent boys) won the Academy Award for Best Picture. During his acceptance speech, the film’s producer buffoonishly lambasted the Church and the pope, ignoring the fact that since 2001 no institution has adopted such strict procedures in combating sexual abuse. Yet the plague of the sexual abuse of minors is much greater among public school teachers, for example.
The next time we hear our faith criticized because of the ignoble conduct of some Christians across the faithful, we should point out that intolerance and hatred are common to all humans. Not even Buddhists are exempt from this. We should above all refer our interlocutors to the New Testament and papal documents. Their true practitioners were men and women like St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, the Missionaries of Charity in India and the countless lay Catholics who volunteer their free time at homeless shelters and homes for people with disabilities. If everyone followed Christianity as faithfully as they, our world would be so much better.