The Lights of Christendom
by Donn Taylor
The other day I heard one of those wonderful World War II songs, “When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World.” It’s still a beautiful song, and it still captures the nation’s heartache for a generation of young people wrenched out of normal life to fight a war to save civilization. It also captures the nation’s longing to return to that peaceful life. But viewed from the perspective of seventy years it also reveals—through the phrase “all over the world”—the nation’s naiveté in picturing that life as a kind of human norm.
In actuality, that degree of humane civilization was the norm only in a few places on the globe: the United States, Canada, Australia, and most of Western Europe except National Socialist Germany and Fascist Spain. The rest of the world, despite the best humanitarian efforts of empires, remained in varying states of savagery. In saying this I don’t wish to diminish the crimes of imperialism or to deny the commendable state of a few nations like Argentina before the Perons. But with those few exceptions, the generalization holds good.
The same condition exists today, except that the savagery may be even worse. The lights of humane civilization still exist primarily in the places previously named, though some might argue that the lights are dimmer now than they were seventy years ago.
However, the entire world was savage two thousand years ago in the time of Christ. The Roman Empire then was the height of civilization. But in spite of the positive heritage it has given us through law and governmental organization, its basic savagery is evidenced by the practices of crucifixion, slavery, and the bloody circuses of the arena. After the Edict of Milan ordered tolerance for Christianity in A.D 313 and the Emperor Theodosius made it the empire’s official religion toward the end of the century, Christians themselves retained many of the secular empire’s practices of violence. In that age, for example, the Bishop of Avila was tortured by church authorities until he confessed heresy and was then executed. Even the venerated Augustine of Hippo practiced violent punishment and, in a moderating note, wrote that heretics should be examined “not by stretching them on the rack…but by beating them with rods.”
Although the organized church of that time was savage in persecuting heresy, its missionary efforts over five centuries succeeded in the gradual taming and civilizing of the Northern European barbarians. And though the internal persecutions and wars continued sporadically for centuries, there came a time in the early seventeenth century when those horrors largely ceased. And from that time forward Western Civilization—Christendom—gradually emerged from the moral jungle of world-wide savagery into what we now accept as civilization.
But why did that civilization not develop in, say, China or India or Persia? Why only in the Christian West? Why, today, does the rest of the world still live largely in the same or worse degree of savagery as it and the West did in the time of Christ?
Historians can cite many contributing causes, and many of these have merit. But I hold to a simple basic explanation that, if it cannot be proved conclusively, also cannot be denied. In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel the Pharisees berated Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath. Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (NASB). That is, He revealed God’s and His own continuous working in the world. I believe that this divine working is the force that brought Christendom out of the savagery of ancient times into what we now regard as civilization, and that the lights imaged in that beautiful song are the lights of the Gospel.
Objections can be raised, of course. The West did produce the brutalities of imperialism and wars of conquest, and within Christendom there were the twentieth-century mass murders committed by National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union.
For the atrocities of National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union, we need only note that both governments were violently anti-Christian.
We need not excuse imperialism when we note that Western civilization’s moral progress has been gradual and remains incomplete. Nevertheless, that progress is obviously present. Slavery, for example, was a normal world-wide practice dating back to the earliest times. Why, then, was it only in the West—in Christendom—in the nineteenth century that people began believing it was morally wrong? And if imperialism still flourished throughout the nineteenth century, by the early twentieth century many people in the imperialist nations had come to believe that it, too, was wrong. That belief led to a wholesale liberation of colonies after WW II.
Thus, gradually, God’s working in the fallen world has brought Christendom to a level of humane ideals and practices unknown previously or elsewhere in the world. What does this mean to us today? As Christians, we are privileged to serve among His agents to ensure that those lights of the Gospel do not dim, but burn ever more brightly in our lifetime.
Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. His publications include three suspense novels and a book of poetry. He speaks frequently at writers’ conferences and to smaller writers’ groups. He and his wife live near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and articles on current topics. His Web site is www.donntaylor.com.
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