By Stephen Mattson 5-16-2016

The Christian tradition is rich and complex. It’s full of both wonderful and horrible moments, events, and people. To generically categorize or judge Christianity one way or another misses the reality of its existence and ignores significant historical truths.

For followers of Christ there are important lessons to be learned from honestly evaluating our past and critiquing the present. We must admit to ourselves that “Christianity” has sometimes been — and sometimes is — evil, being contradictory to how Jesus lived and what Jesus taught.

The Crusades — when countless lives were slaughtered under the guise of a righteous cause — show us that faith can’t be spread through violence, political power, or military might.

The Inquisition — when people were jailed, tortured, and murdered because of opposing theological beliefs — taught us that faith cannot be forced or coerced onto others. Whether it’s through aggressive legislation, physical persecution, or societal pressure, this type of combative faith is essentially a false religion based upon fear, judgment, and death instead of hope, inspiration, and the love of Jesus.

The abuse of indulges — a form of payment meant to reduce or completely remove the penalties of sin — revealed the susceptibility of religious authorities to manipulate faith in order to serve their own personal agendas. We learned that even if we believe God is perfect, the people and institutions and practices that represent God certainly aren’t.

The manipulative influence of politics in today’s religious culture exposes the limits and failings of trusting our faith to politicians, laws, and government. No earthly ruler can adequately replace the role of Jesus, no legal system can replace the role of the gospel, and no official state can replace the role of Christians — and yet we continue to hope and pray that they will.

Corruption, sexual abuse scandals, hypocrisy, bigotry, racism, nationalism, violence, and other horrific traits continue to permeate the Christian tradition today, and it serves as a warning to Jesus followers about the dangers of idolizing even our most respected religious icons.

This is the worst form of Christianity: when it’s founded on something other than Christ.

But the Christian tradition has also done some amazing things.

Throughout history Christians have provided many social services including hospitals, orphanages, and schools that have ministered to people in some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable areas. Even today, endless nonprofit organizations and groups continue to serve people in need across a wide variety of venues.

This sacrificial service affirms God’s deep love for all of humanity.

Additionally, Christians have fought for human right causes, and have stood with the oppressed to demand equality, civil rights, social justice, recognition, empowerment, and freedom. In many cases, Christians nonviolently resisted evil and worked toward bringing about peace.

Many followers of Jesus were persecuted, abused, exiled, and martyred during the process of helping those in need — gaining nothing while giving everything.

This is Christianity at its best: founded on Christ.

All of this proves that Christians have the ability to do both good and bad things, to be either a positive or negative influence — sometimes both.

Ultimately, for those who strive to emulate the life of Christ, the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, goodness, gentleness, kindness, and self-control — are produced and implemented in a way that brings about restoration, redemption, hope, forgiveness, and love.

Today’s Christians must ask themselves: What will our legacy be? How will history judge us? And most importantly: Am I emulating Jesus?

As we strive for social justice and attempt to love our neighbors, are we relying on Christ, or are we relying on the military, political leaders, the government, church authorities, institutions, and abusive ideologies?

Are we motivated and inspired by the love of Jesus, or are we driven by fear, judgment, hate, jealousy, envy, wealth, fame, recognition, and an appetite for power?

It’s important to critically assess ourselves because Christendom has a tendency to perpetually perceive itself as being righteous and holy — even when it’s not.

The Crusaders, Inquisitors, and misguided people of the past who robbed the poor, abused, and killed in the name of Jesus were convinced they were doing God’s work and faithfully carrying out God’s will — even when they obviously weren’t.

And those who opposed them and saw the evil for what it was were quickly and brutally brought to ruin. But despite what the religious consensus was at the time, history ultimately proved them right, because history will always judge Christians tomorrow by how they are treating the marginalized today.

Let this serve as a warning to us: Christianity has gotten it wrong — our moral convictions, our social expectations, and standards of what we believe is good and right and true — before, and we will surely get it wrong again. So let’s be slow to judge and quick to love.

I pray that history will show that Christians today trusted Christ more than anything, that they worshipped Christ more than anything, and that they loved Christ more than anything. God help us.

Stephen Mattson is a writer who currently resides in the Twin Cities, Minn. You can follow him on Twitter (@mikta) or on Facebook.

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