[I started this post almost 5 weeks ago. Clearly, I haven’t reformed my procrastinating ways.]
Humans can be astonishingly self-contradictory. That’s what I took away from watching an episode of History Cold Case, a BBC documentary in which “skeletons of everyday people from across the ages are analysed in staggering detail” (description from BBC website).
A little background info: In the Ipswich Man episode, a skeleton of an apparently sub-Saharan African man is found in a medieval burial ground in Ipswich during the construction of a residential complex. The team of scientists on History Cold Case sets out to find out what an African was doing in England in the period around 1200-1500: where he came from, how he got there and why he was found buried next to a monk in a friary cemetery.
What caught my interest was the role of Christians in the Ipswich man’s journey to and stay in England, because in it I saw the ugly and the beautiful in those who profess the name of Christ. First, the ugly. The scientists were able to conclude within reason that the man was taken to England by knights returning from the Crusades, though it remains unknown whether he went as a captive or a free man. The Crusades were a horrible idea, to put it mildly. Most of them were organised in the hopes of padding the coffers of European noblemen, who had no intentions of spreading the gospel. This, of course is a broad generalisation.
Now for the beautiful. The forensic specialist was able to deduce from the man’s skeleton that he suffered a spinal abscess that almost certainly disabled him and most certainly caused him no small amount of pain. Back then, cutting-edge medical care was to be found in monasteries. A study of some of the other skeletons found in the same burial site revealed that all those individuals suffered from debilitating chronic diseases, leading the team of scientists to the conclusion that they were being cared for by the Franciscan monks who ran the friary.
How is it that the same age produced such contradictory responses in men? On one hand, there were those who went —ostensibly in Christ’s name— to destroy life and on the other were those who went—in Christ’s name—to take care of people with little hope of recovery (in the age before penicillin).
What will future generations say about ours?
[And now for an addendum borne from further thinking through things]
As this post languished as a draft, I came to realise my arrogance and short-sightedness. My attitude reeked not only of elder-brother syndrome, but also of chronological snobbery. I’ll start with the latter.
Chronological snobbery, a term coined by C.S. Lewis, is the mistaken belief that our age is superior to those that have preceded it. So we can look back even 50 years and think people then primitive in their thoughts and beliefs. Or indeed, I could watch a BBC documentary and think the Christians in the medieval period to be such brutes.
Elder-brother syndrome, named for the prodigal son’s elder brother in Luke 15, is being self-righteous and considering yourself better than someone else who does all sorts of vile stuff you’d never do. I’ve blogged about this syndrome before.
The truth is there are lots of people today who profess Christ and do all sorts of weird stuff (like protesting other churches). And there are probably many more who are pouring out Christ’s love to the “undeserving”. When faced with believers who’re not living up to what we perceive to be the right standards, we need to be more like Jesus and less like James and John, remembering that it is only through God’s enabling grace that we can live up to those standards.