Edmondo Lupieri’s forthcoming In the Name of God: The Making of Global Christianity takes an unflinchingly critical look at the history of European encounters — so often characterized by war and conquest — with indigenous cultures from the age of exploration to the present and examines how those encounters have profoundly impacted both Christianity and the world. In this excerpt from the preface to the book, Lupieri explains why this book was so difficult for him to write — and why he hopes it will soon become obsolete.
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The author of this book is a middle-aged, middle-class white, partially Americanized European historian turned theologian. And a Catholic.
This book is not a book of history. It is a book with many stories. Stories that I chose because I thought they were important and meaningful to me. And I thought they could be so to others as well. While writing it, I had several goals. One of the most important ones was to show that our European ancestors were not ethically, nor religiously, nor even culturally ready to conquer the rest of the planet. Technological superiority and hunger for power allowed and generated the conquest, even if it took place “in the name of God.” Some individuals were wonderfully ahead of their times and, had they had enough power, the “conquest” would have been something different. Others made tremendous mistakes in good faith, but most acted out of sheer interest, either their own personal interest or the interest of a group they represented. Having said this, I am not so naïve as to think that other people or countries would have done much better. You cannot do history with “ifs,” but, if the Arabs, or the Turks, or the Mongols, or the Chinese had managed to conquer Europe and “discover” the rest of the world, can we sincerely believe that it would have been better? No doubt history would have been different, and we would be different too; but the brutality of massacres that punctuate the histories of non-European civilizations has nothing to envy over the European one.
This might mean that something is wrong. From a strictly historical and biological perspective, the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve is nothing else than a mythological construction to explain evil on earth without blaming God (and a couple of other things, like the implementation of Sabbath observance). But, independently of the fact that we may accept it or not, it may still teach us exactly that: that something went wrong “from the beginning.”
Since I am still basically a historian, I do not have easy answers for the kind of questions that may arise from such consideration — much less solutions. I can only invite other people, especially young people, to look back at our history, so that they may be able to look ahead afterward and try to do something new on this earth. Where we failed, others may succeed. Some Christian groups or churches do not seem to have learned anything from the past. I would say that the Catholic Church has dramatically changed its way of doing missionary activity. Their very concept of mission is different today; but how many years or generations will be needed to really change things, especially in situations in which the basic ambiguity of some appears to be able to frustrate the generosity of others? And is it possible for “things” to be changed?
In this regard, some stories in this book leave space for hope, but many among them seem desperate, and some even completely hopeless. For this reason, it has been the most difficult book for me to write, but the one I love the most.
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I have for this book a peculiar dream: I hope it becomes obsolete soon. I would love it if the stories I have collected were just the testimony of a regrettable past, the object of some thoughtful historical curiosity, and not something that is still influential today.
I have some hope, because things do develop, even if they change at different paces and even if they take different directions. Today, April 29, the Catholic Church reveres the memory of Saint Peter Martyr, an uncompromising hunter of heretics and one of the most exalted Dominican saints in the late Middle Ages. It is true that we found him transformed into a scary santo in some Indian pueblos, but he is also nowadays considered a quite controversial historical figure — still a model for some conservative Catholics, but almost a source of embarrassment for the liberal ones. Independently from any historical evaluation, it is also true that we, people of Christian tradition, have officially stopped burning each other for theological reasons.
This has been a long-term transformation and may be unimportant to many. And we may add that the various Churches stopped persecuting when they lost the support of an army, a fact that does not sound particularly “Christian.” But other things are changing quickly, even in our own life span. It is still almost unbelievable to me that, when I was a child, in this country where I now live, which is the model for our Western democracy, black citizens were not allowed to sit in the same seats as the whites in buses, in cinemas, or in restaurants, nor could they go to the same beaches. Nevertheless, now a black person has been elected the president of the United States. Is that the solution to the problems? Absolutely not. Can religions play a role toward some solution? Absolutely yes, as in the past. Will their role help in the progress of democracy? Sincerely, I don’t know. But here this book could hopefully help someone to think about what we have been, what we still are, and what we could be or do.
It may, indeed, appear to some that religions are just superstitions supported by an army. Or, if this was a situation of the past, that now they are just superstitions supported by a strong financial system, or at least by generous tax exemptions. This may be true in some cases. But I hope this book can at least show that things are much more complex than that. And that we can at least choose where to stand, be it “in the name of God” or not.