Does religion unite or divide us?

John Dickson on the impact of religion in public life.

Good and bad religion alike both unite and divide, but they do so in radically different ways. Religion at its worst fosters tribalism, setting the faithful against the infidel. Christian examples are well known: the Crusades, Inquisitions, Northern Ireland and the awful covering up of child sexual abuse. No doubt there are Hindu, Jewish, Islamic and even Buddhist examples. The atheist ideologies of Stalin and Mao remind us that irreligion also has the pernicious power to unite and divide.

But a fair reading of history won’t stop there. Religion at its best unites and divides in a very different way. Like the debates about climate change or asylum seekers, some important and noble causes rally and repel at the same time. In their aim to unite us around truth and goodness, some movements drive people apart. Christianity provides a special case in point.

The first few centuries of the church brought together Jew and Gentile, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Our texts and inscriptions from this period reveal the unparalleled success of a movement united in the conviction that all humanity bears the divine image and that God himself bore the image of a man to die for others on a cross. This amounted to a moral revolution, and the slogans of the revolution, “love your enemies” and “do to others as you would have them do to you”, were as divisive as they were unifying.

Christians have not always lived up to their ideals, ideals that will always unite and divide.

Roman elites despised the bleeding-heart ethic of the crucified Lord, just as Nietzsche would 1800 years later. But the movement gained momentum. By the third century, there were more people on the church’s daily food roster than were listed in all other Roman clubs and associations. By the 4th century, a troubled Emperor Julian wrote to his pagan officials warning of the influence of Christian charity: “For it is disgraceful,” he wrote to High Priest Arcacius in ad 362, “that the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours too.”

Christians have not always lived up to their ideals, ideals that will always unite and divide. But just as we would never judge Bach’s sublime Cello Suites on the performance of a novice, so we would do well to pause before judging the glorious original composition of Christ on the sometimes ordinary performance of his followers.

Dr. John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and teaches the history of early Christianity at Macquarie and Sydney Universities.

This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.