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Christians have committed terrible crimes over the centuries. Why is that?

Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders (1847), by Émile Signol

People who sincerely practise the faith are capable of acts of monstrous wickedness

During the Siege of Jerusalem, at the conclusion of the First Crusade in 1099, a priest led devotions on the Mount of Olives, attended by hundreds of Crusaders. After the Christian armies had captured the city, a thanksgiving procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre took place, attended by dozens of priests. In the interim, the Crusaders had murdered thousands of Muslims and Jews.

It is hard to understand how an army marching under the banner of the Cross could act thus. Yet throughout history we are confronted with the unsettling spectacle of Christians who behaved in ways dramatically at odds with the truths of the Gospel.

On one level, of course, all Christians are guilty of this. Equally, there remains something decidedly disturbing in actions carried out by Christians that are not just enormously brutal but systematically and determinedly so.

One needn’t accept the Black Legend of relentless Catholic iniquity to be horrified by the complicity of Catholic individuals and institutions in excessive judicial violence and slavery – and, perhaps worst of all, the cruel mistreatment of Jewish people down the centuries.

Oliver Cromwell was by all accounts a genuine Puritan Christian, a firm believer in his own need for mercy. His New Model Army sang psalms as they went into battle. Yet his conquest of Ireland in the 1650s was appalling. Even if we accept the revisionist accounts that downplay his responsibility for the massacres at Wexford and Drogheda, the subsequent “pacification” of the country – for which Cromwell was ultimately responsible, and which brings to mind Tacitus’s savage aside about creating desolation and calling it peace – was grotesque. Indeed, much British oppression in Ireland, from evictions to extra-judicial murder, was planned and carried out by men who sat in church every Sunday.

Protestant Northern Ireland, in which the government systematically tyrannised its Catholic minority, was run and defended by observant Christians, including clergy. On the other side of the sectarian divide, many leaders of the Provisional IRA were serious Catholics. Martin McGuinness apparently wore a scapular even as the organisation of which he was a leader routinely tortured people to death.

Considering another time and place, I was deeply troubled by Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, which describes how an auxiliary police battalion in Nazi Germany slaughtered thousands of Jews, including children. The men were from a reputedly anti-Nazi city, Hamburg, and had largely grown to adulthood before 1933, so had not been indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth. In many cases they were churchgoers. All were offered the chance not to participate. Few took it.

How to account for all this? It would be too easy, I think, to blame cynicism on the part of the individuals, ie to believe that they were only counterfeit Christians. This doesn’t move us on very far, however, and is patently untrue in many cases. No doubt there have been countless people down the ages who have merely pretended to Christian devotion because it gave them opportunities for enrichment and advancement. But as a matter of empirical reality, people who genuinely believe in and practise the faith for sincere reasons are capable of acts of monstrous wickedness. They fail to resist the inhuman pressures from within their own cultures, whether brutal anti-Semitism or cruel norms about the appropriate fate for captured enemy populations.

The question is simultaneously simple and impossible to answer. The obvious answer is that we are scarred by Original Sin, masters of self-deceit and rationalisation. As Kierkegaard said: “We Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers.”

There is, nevertheless, something a little glib and unsatisfactory about this. We are all burdened by the Fall, but we do not all yield to the undoubted temptation to commit great evils. Some resist in the most heroic fashion. That is where the impossible aspect of the matter comes in. The darkness of the human heart – deceitful above all things, as Jeremiah said – is perhaps the ultimate mystery of human existence. Anyone with even a little self-knowledge will know this. We are all familiar with it from our own small-scale daily battles to choose good over evil.

I’m not a theologian, but I know a little about poetry, and I think one answer – a possible protection against the temptation to enormous evil – lies in something TS Eliot wrote: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

Radical Christian humility, so hard to achieve but visible in the lives of so many great saints, is the opposite of the worldly aspirations and obsessions that so often lie behind great evils; a shield against the dangerous preoccupations of our particular cultures, and against believing our own ideologies are so important that they are worth killing for.

Niall Gooch tweets @niall_gooch