O Holy Night!
Some historians suppose that civilization evolves over time from backward religion to secular “enlightenment.” That is the modern fairy-tale.
But the hymn-writer offered a more credible account of how history really progresses, when it does:
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
The world really was caught in a funk, about equal parts “sin and error,” before that first Christmas morning.
The World in Sin
Sati, the Indian custom of pushing brides onto the funeral pyres of husbands, was praised in the Ramayana. It was reinforced by the Law of Manu, which made it clear that husbands were not merely masters, but gods. Alongside these ideas emerged the belief that some tribes were not born from Brahma but were “out caste” and not part of the human community.
In China, the status of women fell from about the time of Confucius. From the Song Dynasty the feet of young girls would be broken so when grown, they could waddle in a more sexy manner. But neither too far nor too fast.
The New World had not yet begun to redden sacred pyramids with human blood, and provide the cannibalistic feasts of the elite, with quite the fervency with which the Aztecs would later take that custom. But by 5 BC, human sacrifice had long been in vogue through most of the more “civilized” parts of the New World.
Even Greece and Rome were failing. That great city Athens, where genius had been distilled and concentrated like an elixir from the gods, was almost half slaves at her brilliant height. Some of her philosophers debated God and the Good, while others coolly compared boy and girl slaves. What the so-called “Ionic Enlightenment” would find shocking about our recent Weinstein-Moore-Franken hullaballoo is that anyone should find physical exploitation of youth of the lower classes in poor taste.
Then by the birth of Christ, Greek science and democracy had faded to the concrete, crosses, Coliseums, and the clever and enlightened cruelty of Caesar’s imperial Rome.
The Weary World Rejoices
The facts may be banned in state schools and forgotten even in Christian ones, but the “weary world” full of bloody heroes like Hercules, Achilles, Alexander and Caesar did have great cause to “rejoice” at the birth of Jesus.
Other teachers had spoken eloquently of love, like the Chinese prophet Mozi and the Stoic slave Epictetus. But Jesus did not merely teach love in the most eloquent sermons ever preached. He showed how love works. He fed the hungry, healed and comforted those cast onto the margins of society, touched lepers, and protected sinners who were about to be stoned, or who had been shunted off to the corners of their villages as outcasts. Even secular writers like the historian Will Durant trace radical changes in the psychology of the ancient world to the example of Christ. Allan Chapman, Oxford historian of science, notes that that compassion even impacted the rise of modern science.
Jesus treated women not as potential members of a harem to control as did Mohammed, Joseph Smith, or Hugh Hefner, with philosophical derision, or even with the cool negligence of Confucius or Socrates. Instead, he spoke kindly and respectfully (even when rebuking sins), offered “living water” and protection from lynch mobs, healed and fed and asked Mary to stay in class even when her bossy sister told her to get back in the kitchen with the womenfolk to cook the grub. Sociologist Rodney Stark shows that women had much better lives in the early Christian church than in other Roman societies, which is one reason the Church grew. I have traced that influence down through history and across civilizations to the Far East.
The Chains Broken by Jesus
“His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.”
Stark also describes how Christian reform movements, then abolition much later, grew up in response to Christ’s teachings. Slavery almost disappeared in Western Europe by the early Middle Ages. Zealous Christians following Christ’s example overthrew slavery not once, but twice: the first time in the Middle Ages, the second time under the aegis of Quakers and evangelicals led by the likes of William Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe. (I played a small role in the contemporary anti-slave movement, called to do so not by Richard Dawkins, but by the prophets, during a dramatic prayer session in a bamboo village in Thailand where young women were offered to visitors at bargain rates.)
Serving in East Asia, I was privileged with a front-row seat to perhaps the greatest liberation movement of all: Christian missions. I met little-known missionaries who fed the hungry, rescued prostitutes, brought new lives to drug addicts, improved agriculture, healed the sick, taught and spread the benefits of modern science (which many historians also partially credit the Gospel for in the first place.)
As an historian, I recognize that what I witnessed, and who I met, constituted but the tip of the tip of the tip of a great iceberg of cultural reformation. Whether “crusaders against opium,” as one author described missionaries in China or against the burning of widows in India, or more positively as educators, doctors, and dissiminators of modern science and agricultural technologies, missions utterly changed the world.
One study showed that even well into the 20th Century, some 97% of Chinese women in one part of China who had attained education, had been taught in mission schools. One important “Hindu” reformer in 19th Century India wrote that he had been studying the life of Christ for a quarter of a century, and that Jesus “walks daily all over this vast peninsula . . . He permeates society as a vital force, and imbues our daily life . . . ” (Gandhi would later be deeply inspired by Jesus’ teachings.)
The sociologist Robert Woodberry argues that wherever Protestant (in particular) missions have thrived, the institutions of free society have grown up, beginning however with the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Scandinavia, which skeptics often cite as a post-Christian paradise, was deeply impacted for the good by Christian outreach in three stages: Catholic, Protestant, and pietist, as the Cambridge History of Scandinavia shows. Even Scandinavian atheists cited by the atheist sociologist Paul Zuckermann often recognize that Christian moral teachings have shaped the best of their own beliefs.
That great cynic Mark Twain even felt constrained to credit the Gospel for liberating paradise:
“In those days (Hawaiian) woman . . . was not only forbidden, by ancient law, and under penalty of death, to eat with her husband or enter a canoe, but was debarred, under the same penalty, from eating bananas, pineapples, oranges, and other choice fruits at any time or in any place. She had to confine herself pretty strictly to poi and hard work . . . But the missionaries . . . liberated women and made her the equal of man.
“The natives had a romantic habit of burying some of their children alive when the family became larger than necessary. The missionaries interfered in this matter, too, and stopped it.” (363-4)
Oppression Shall Cease
“And in his name all oppression shall cease!”
Some oppression, OK, but all?
Maybe not all. But oppression has ceased millions of times in the name of Christ – only to start up again, since eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.
As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, even before the great 20th Century’s “enlightened” revivals of despotism, great tyrannies are often great innovations, but also throw-backs to ancient forms of repression. Hitler and Stalin were revolutionaries who rejected the light of Christ in favor of half-baked paganism and primitive communism. The Sexual Revolution, which has broken so many hearts and families, was also justified by fantasies about the pre-Christian (Polynesian!) past. Plato, the “father of faddists,” knew everything about communes but why they don’t work. The Age of Aquarius, in all its pantheistic, drug-induced numbness, harkened back to an imprecation from ancient India, “Have I not drunk Soma?”
O Night Divine!
The light of Christ still shines into the darkness. The darkness does not vanish, it just grows more devious. But now let us celebrate the Light. Let us raise “sweet hymns of joy,” and sing the hymns not merely because they are traditional and beautiful and give us hope, but because the best of them are also true:
“Let all within us praise His holy name
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born!”