Billmon has a long piece on the Pope today. As usual, it is extremely well written. He uses it as a springboard to comment on the history and significance of the Church, in particular, the Catholic Church. If I had read his piece before I had read Elaine Pagels' "The Gnostic Gospels," I probably would have agreed with him wholeheartedly. However, once you find out about some of the machinations that went on in the first few centuries, and how it was that the current version of the Church was actually the winner in a Darwinian battle for memes, it gets you thinking.
Billmon claims that, on the whole, the Church has been good for mankind (marginally). He also has admiration for an institution that has lasted intact for almost 2,000 years. I guess I would share some admiration but disagree on the first part. The reason I disagree is because, as a result of those machinations that Pagels describes, rather than a Church that focused on implementing the teachings of its founder, Christ, there came about a Church that was obsessed with what happened to its founder, Christ. (This obsession with Christ's death, e.g. in "The Passion of the Christ" which I did not see, has important structural significance for the Church. But, read Pagels and others for this.)
Man is by nature aggressive. You don't have to subscribe to a Darwinian theory to agree with this, though it helps. At the same time, if we are to have civilization, we have to live together. While I respect that Christ is many things to many people, it seems to me that the central meme of his teaching was getting along with one another. Sort of an anti-violence regime. Where I part company with Billmon is that I do not think that the Church has ever had this as its central teaching. (when it did, those who did like the Cathars, or Huguenots they were deemed heretics; Julian Barnes also has written about them) In fact, I would even go so far as to say that, in spite of its longevity, that the Church is the longest running scam in history. It says that its adherents believe in one thing, when they almost universally do the opposite.
Now there is no doubt that there have been holy people in the Church. But there have been selfless people outside the Church at the same time. On the balance, belonging to the Church doesn't seem to have made much of a difference in the most basic of behaviors, that towards one's fellow man.
Examples? How many do I have to give? Let's start with Hitler, (see Anschluss below. Stalin was once a seminarian. The British are held up as paragons of virtue but the reality of the British Empire from Cromwell to Cruzon was one of brutality in the name of civilization. (there is a review of the the awful experience in Kenya during the "emergency" there in the 50's in a recent New York Review of Books). Our own treatment of Native Americans and Cortez's actions in Mexico as described in "The Conquest of New Spain" by Bernal Diaz are further examples of Christians acting like barbarians.
Of course, no diatribe on this site would be complete without mentioning our own beloved Christians in what used to be a government separated from the Church. When hypocrites start chiming in on moral values it is time to run for cover. Except, there is no place to run.