Opinion: Coercive power is where Christianity is most unlike its founder

Dr. Robert Montgomery believes the best option for all nations is to work together for good of all
Dr. Robert Montgomery believes the best option for all nations is to work together for good of all

As a student of history and society, as well as being a co-missionary, I became interested in how Christianity, starting from a corner of the Roman Empire spread throughout the world, including to my barbarian ancestors, my family, and me. I became convinced that Christianity spread in spite of itself because in its history, it created a considerable amount of antipathy towards itself which is still seen in many societies, including our American society. Christianity became very unlike its founder, Jesus Christ, in many of its aspects. Probably the area where Christianity became most unlike its founder was in its association with coercive power.

My parents were Christian missionaries to China, and I came to believe what they believed, but at the same time growing up in Asia, I saw the hostility of people to Christianity based primarily on the association of Christianity with Western colonialism. Later, I became a missionary to Taiwan working primarily among the indigenous or aboriginal population. In the case of the tribe or language group closest to me, the Christian message was carried by a tribal woman. She was carried from village to village by young men, without the notice of Japanese soldiers who opposed the spread of “the American religion.” The larger language group that I began visiting in 1956 had about 100 villages with churches they built themselves. A couple from another tribal group had taken the Christian message to them with the additional help of a Taiwanese pastor. I had a wonderful time getting to know such receptive people in the indigenous population in Taiwan, who are only about 2% of the population, but now make up about 40% of the church. They were fortunate in having practically no contact with white people, who had forced China, including Taiwan to import opium under “free trade.”

Nations thought of as “Christian” came to dominate other lands beginning with Constantine, who legitimated Christianity about 300 years after Jesus Christ. Christianity was made official before the end of the century. Fortunately, the power of Rome to dominate other countries declined, although the Byzantine Empire (“New Rome”) remained powerful and created hostility in the Middle East toward Christianity. Under a weakened Rome, Christianity spread north among the European tribes, who were considered barbarians by the Romans. The tribal rulers in Western and Eastern Europe adopted the pattern of the state church, which exists to this day. Resistance to authoritarian Christianity developed within “Christianized” Europe with the Protestant Reformation. After that, the Secularization Movement was initiated. It was fueled by the new freedoms to question church and state authorities. Even though the followers of secularism thought that science was on their side, many of the earlier developers of science were Christians who wanted to understand God’s creation with the minds God had given them. Some Christians later did start “a war with science,” particularly in reaction to the theory of evolution, which they felt contradicted the Bible’s account of creation.

In Europe, anti-Christian ideologies, such as fascism and communism developed, but both have lost power. Autocrats remain. Putin, the autocrat of Russia, has even returned to the “mother church.” This association of Christianity with coercive power will not help Christianity. However, authentic faith continues to grow in various societies that practice democracy and some that don’t. Many people continue to have antipathy toward Christianity for a variety of reasons, including sexual misconduct in the church and also a sense that Christians want to coerce belief. The antipathy to Christianity since the enlightenment of the eighteenth century, created the expectation that religion will fade away. However, such people have been largely disappointed as Christianity continues growing, especially outside of the West. Secularization has actually revealed the uniqueness of faith.

To stop creating antipathy towards it and to grow over time, Christianity will need to disassociate itself from a coercive approach and demonstrate its value to individuals and communities. Freedom of religion aids in this demonstration so that America became a very religious nation with many expressions. Unfortunately, some Christians still want Christianity to gain national sponsorship. Most Americans, including myself, recognize this coercive approach as another example of the “in spite of itself” actions that created antipathy and greatly hindered the spread of Christianity. Instead, the basis of the spread of authentic Christianity is in the revelation of its transformative power, in contrast to coercive power, to create inner liberty for faith, hope, and love.

Rev. Robert L. Montgomery, who holds a Ph.D. in social scientific studies of religion, lives in Black Mountain.                

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Opinion: Coercive power is where Christianity is most unlike its founder