Knowing Our Story
Christians know the church in general has done some bad things at times. Think of the religious wars of Europe, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and even some contemporary scandals. Of course, some of these tragedies in history are more the result of politicians struggling for power than they are offenses of the church, but we remember them as church affairs.
History hasn’t always been fair with how it treats the church. One example is historian Jacques Le Goff and his treatment of the church’s treatment of lepers in his book, Medieval Civilization:400-1500. Jacques writes, "(The Church’s) attitude towards the excluded remained ambiguous. The Church seemed to detest and admire them simultaneously; it was afraid of them, but the fear was mixed with a sense of fascination. It kept them at a distance, but fixed the distance so that it would be close enough for the outcasts to be within reach. What it called its charity towards them was like the attitude of a cat playing with a mouse. Thus leper hospitals had to be sited ‘a stone’s throw from the town’ so that ‘fraternal charity’ could be exercised towards the lepers. Mediaeval society needed these pariahs, who were exiled because they were dangerous, and who yet had to be visible, because it eased its conscience by the cares which it expended on them. Even better, it could project on to and fix them, magically, all the evils which it was banishing away from itself." (P.316).
Goff’s account is both interesting and, well, a bit ridiculous. He is writing about how the church cared for lepers in the years 400 to 1500. What was the group that was caring for the lepers? The church. It wasn’t the government. It wasn’t a secular relief agency. It wasn’t the United Nations. It wasn’t an organization of atheists. It was the church, a group of people who believed in Jesus and sought to practice the care and ministry that he practiced. So, they cared for lepers.
The church, Goff said, put the lepers at a distance. But, it turns out to not be too great a distance since it was only a stone’s throw away. That is actually pretty close. And there is good reason why the church built the leper hospitals just outside of the town itself: so the diseased individuals would not infect other, healthy people. Separation of lepers from the main population was a very ancient practice. The church merely continued it, and for good reason.
What does Goff’s statement that the church’s treatment of lepers was comparable to that of a cat playing with a mouse mean? It is really a pretty ridiculous statement. The church was caring for the lepers, providing them with a hospital, beds, clothing and food. Who else was doing it? Ministers, priests, nuns and church members willingly served the needs of these desperately ill and suffering people. And Goff calls that a cat and mouse game.
Goff also says the church needed the lepers to ease their consciences by the care it rendered them. Eased their consciences of what? No one made the church care for the sick and dying. Christians voluntarily rendered such service because Jesus did, and they believed he wanted them to as well.
Christians, we need to know our history. Christians began establishing hospitals as early as the 300s. St. Basil, the great preacher who died in 379, started a hospital in Cappadocia and cared for lepers with his own hands. He didn’t have to do that. A wealthy woman now called St. Fabiola, who died in 399 AD, started the first hospital in Western Europe. Though she was wealthy, she frequently walked the streets herself to seek out the sick and hungry to help. Why? To play cat and mouse? To ease her conscience? No, to be like Jesus.
That’s part of our great history, folks, and we need to know it to temper some of the false criticisms levied against it by such folks as historian Jacques Le Goff. He has to acknowledge the church’s care for the sick and dying, but then he has to color the story by assigning unholy motives to the Christians who provided the care. That’s not good history, Jacques!
Christians need to know their history. But, we also need to continue the great relief work of our earlier brothers and sisters. Hospitals, orphans homes, and food banks are ways we can continue to be like Jesus in our world, alleviating suffering and bringing heaven to earth. (For more on this, see David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p.29ff.)