Renowned atheist, journalist, and prominent liberal author, Christopher Hitchens, released a New York Times best seller in 2007 titled: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens is one of several contemporary and atheistic apologists who promote science and rationalism as the answer that will bring ultimate good and freedom to mankind.
According to Hitchens, religion, namely Christianity however, subverts progress, as it is the primary source of global strife, and it deceives people. Hitchens, like many who share similar views, loves to broadly include every nation, leader, and army that has ever lived, has ever held the title “Christian,” and all whom committed atrocities of any kind as proof of religion’s perniciousness to the world.
Skeptics, such as Hitchens, deny the miraculous, as well as the Bible’s validity, and the truth claim of Jesus Christ. Such skeptics are not willing to acknowledge the spiritual world and God’s incredible grace by which they even have breath today. As for a man who closes his heart to faith, he cannot look at history objectively and he fails to see the incredible and pervasive good Christianity has done for the world in areas of social justice, knowledge, and what will be the primary focus of this article: Christianity’s role in the abolishing and curbing of cruelty. Christianity really is and has been good for the world as true believers have taken the words of Jesus to: “be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful.”
I have done a little bit of research and have found the following (actually small) list of historical examples of Christians who advocated, banned, and fought to end cruel practices, many of whom stand to this day.
4th century A.D. After close to 300 years of Christian persecution by pagan emperors, Constantine I became the first Christian emperor and upon legalizing Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 there began a series of laws in subsequent years abolishing forms of cruelty: human sacrifice, infanticide and crucifixion was outlawed. Constantine set a precedent that began the elimination of various traditional Roman practices incompatible with the Bible’s high regard for human life. The brutal and ruthless Olympic Games were officially abolished in 393 A.D.
16th Century A.D. The cruelty of the Spanish Conquistadors is historically infamous, as they were little more than seekers of riches and glory rather than followers of Jesus; however, genuine believers were undoubtedly in their midst. Upon conquering the Aztecs, the Mayans and the other indigenous groups, they outlawed the merciless practice of human sacrifice done among those people who appeased their gods by bloodshed (think the scene from the movie (Apocalypto).
Dominican Spanish priest Bartolome de Las Casas was one of the first priests to travel to the New World with the goal of evangelizing the Natives. His writings are the primary source documenting the voyages of Christopher Columbus. De Las Casas witnessed the terrible cruelty of slavery under which the Indians were forced to submit. He voiced in his sermons his detestation of the treatment of the natives, instances of mass murder as being incompatible with the Christian faith, and urged the cessation of slavery among the indigenous. His advocacy for natives in the Caribbean eventually led to the passage of the “New Laws” in 1542 which abolished native slavery for the first time in European history. His writings are extremely influential and some of the new laws he helped implement are very similar to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights centuries later.
19th Century A.D. William Carey, founder of the modern missions movement brought the gospel message to India beginning in 1793. Doing work among Hindus, Carey witnessed the widespread and often compulsory tradition of Sati, a horrifying and excruciating practice in which a widow is burned alive along with her dead husband on a funeral pyre. For 25 years Carey relentlessly lobbied against Sati and finally in 1829 an edict (which still stands to this day) was passed outlawing widow burning. Additionally, Carey fought for humane treatment of lepers and ended the practice of burning them alive. William Carey’s social reform driven by his Christian faith profoundly changed the country of India.
The British empire had been involved in the African slave trade since the 16th century. Slave owned products such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton to Britain represented about 80 percent of the country’s income. The conditions were horrific for those forcefully brought from Africa on the “middle passage” to the Americas. William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian and political reformer devoted time and effort to pass legislation to abolish the slave trade in England. He, like De Las Casas, saw slavery as incompatible with Christian morality. Wilberforce was finally successful as Great Britain passed a law abolishing slave trade in 1807. This led to other European countries, and eventually the United States, following England’s lead to abolish the slave trade and all forms of slavery.
These few examples demonstrate Christianity’s monumental role in social justice, namely, eliminating cruelty where it exists. The motivation behind these men’s actions to advocate mercy in a world that cares little for it was their love for Jesus Christ, and the simple fact that when one’s faith is pure and faultless, deeds are the invariable outcome. Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew that we are to be the salt of the earth and that our light must shine before men. Christianity has always been a light in darkness; it has always held the individual’s life in the highest regard. Based on the belief of humans being created in the image of the almighty God, Christians will always be at the forefront of causes promoting mercy and without any doubt benefiting the world we live in.