One of the dumber pieces of Christian apologetics runs along the following lines:
Imagine you are walking home one night. You encounter a group of ten men in a dark alley. Wouldn’t you be relieved to know they are just coming from a Bible study?
The implication is supposed to be that of course you would be relieved, and that this presumed hypothetical relief somehow testifies to the idea that Christianity makes people nice, and that lack of Christianity leaves people at best morally ambiguous. Apparently, the idea must be that a group of ten men coming from a synagogue, a mosque, a bookstore, a godless university, a neighborhood watch meeting, a CPR training session, or a multimedia presentation on the history of sports in Mozambique, would be just as likely to slit your throat open and drink your blood as let you continue through the dark alley in peace. It is the kind of apologetic for which it is an appropriate rebuttal to simply roll one’s eyes and shake one’s head.
Intelligent Christians, who do not want to see their faith polluted with bad arguments, may rejoice that comparatively few people are so unburdened by common sense as to take the dark alley apologetic seriously. However, man being the sinner he is, there are still a few pompous fishers of men who dangle the apologetic before audiences, and invariably a handful of fallen souls in each audience who, believe it or not, laugh with it rather than at it. No cautious weighing of the collected works of Richard Swinburne and Michael Martin for them, I suppose, when they can instead revel in easy stupidities. Some might say that it is too much to hope that such people can be redeemed, but let us be optimistic, and extend the dark alley apologetic for their benefit:
Imagine you are a Muslim or Jew walking home in Jerusalem in 1099. You encounter a group on ten men in a dark alley. Wouldn’t you be relieved to know that they are just coming from a Bible study?
Jerusalem was invaded in 1099 by the Christian armies of the First Crusade. The Christian clergyman Raymond of Agiles (or Aguilers) described the glorious Christian events that transpired:
[W]hen our men had mastered the walls of the city and the towers, then wonderful things were to be seen. Numbers of the Saracens were beheaded — which was easiest for them; others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers; other[s] were slowly tortured and were burned in flames. In the streets and open places of the town were seen pile of heads and hands and feet. One rode about everywhere amid the corpses of men and horses. But these were small matters!…If we speak the truth we exceed belief: let this suffice. In the temple and porch of Solomon one rode in blood up to the knees and even the horses’ bridles by the just and marvelous Judgement of God, in order that the same place which so long had endured their blasphemies against Him should receive their blood. (As quoted in Schlagel 2001:30)
Naturally, the Jews in the city were slaughtered as well. Another chronicler wrote that “Even the Saracens (the Muslims) are merciful and kind compared to these men who bear the cross of Christ on their shoulders” (as quoted in Ellerbe 1995:65).
Imagine you are a Frenchman walking home in Beziers in 1209. You encounter a group of ten men in a dark alley. Wouldn’t you be relieved to know that they are just coming from a Bible study?
In 1208, the aptly-named Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian crusade, the systematic slaughter of the heretic Cathars (or Albigensians). Ellerbe relates the wonderful Christian events that ensued:
The savagery of the thirty-year-long attack decimated Lang[u]edoc. At the Cathedral of St. Nazair alone 12,000 people were killed. Bishop Folque of Toulouse put to death 10,000. When the crusaders fell upon the town of B[é]ziers and the commanding legate, Arnaud, was asked how to distinguish Catholic from Cathar, he replied, “Kill them all, for God knows his own!” Not a child was spared. One historian wrote that “even the dead were not safe from dishonor, and the worst humiliations were heaped upon women.” The total slain at B[é]ziers as reported by papal legates was 20,000, by other chroniclers the numbers killed were between 60,000 and 100,000. The Albigensian crusade killed an estimated one million people, not only Cathars but much of the population of southern France. (Ellerbe 1995:74)
Peter de Rosa points out that
It has been reckoned that in the last and most savage persecution under Emperor Diocletian about two thousand Christians perished, worldwide. In the first vicious incident of Pope Innocent’s Crusade about ten times that number of people were slaughtered. Not all were Albigensians. It comes as a shock to discover that, at a stroke, a pope killed far more Christians than Diocletian. (de Rosa 1988:159-160)
Imagine you are a Jew, or for that matter, a Christian who has ever said anything even mildly critical about a priest or a point of Church doctrine, walking home in Spain in 1485. You encounter a group of ten men in a dark alley. Wouldn’t you be relieved to know that they are just coming from a Bible study?
The Spanish Inquisition was initiated in 1480. Ellerbe discusses some of the Christian activities that occurred in the Inquisition at large (which extended far beyond Spain):
The Inquisition extracted confessions from nearly anyone. The Inquisition invented every conceivable devise to inflict pain by slowly dismembering and dislocating the body. Many of these devices were inscribed with the motto “Glory be only to God.” The rack, the hoist and water tortures were the most common. Victims were rubbed with lard or grease and slowly roasted alive. Ovens built to kill people, made infamous in twentieth century Nazi Germany, were first used by the Christian Inquisition in Eastern Europe. Victims were thrown into a pit full of snakes and buried alive. One particularly gruesome torture involved turning a large dish full of mice upside down on the victim’s naked stomach. A fire was then lit on top of the dish causing the mice to panic and burrow into the stomach. Should a victim withstand such pain without confessing, he or she would be burned alive at the stake, often in mass public burnings, called auto-da-fe’. (Ellerbe 1995:83)
Speaking of Torquemada, who was appointed Grand Inquisitor in Spain in 1483, de Rosa claims that
His victims numbered over 114,000 of whom 10,220 were burned. Many others were sentenced to life in prison…He was no sadist. He burned thousands of people but seldom watched his victims suffer. His was a strictly theological odium; he acted completely out of love for Christ and devotion to the pope. (de Rosa 1988:170-171)
Imagine you are a Protestant in France on August 24, 1572. You encounter a group of ten men in a dark alley. Wouldn’t you be relieved to know that they are just coming from a Bible study?
August 24, 1572 was the day of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, in which 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in France by Catholics. In appropriate Christian fashion, Catholics continued to celebrate the anniversary of the event for centuries thereafter. Voltaire famously was so appalled by these horrible celebrations that he would become physically ill each time. Voltaire, however, was a deist, so one should probably be afraid to meet ten men like him in a dark alley, rather than the butchers and bigots he criticized.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I leave it as a fun exercise for the reader to find more examples. Opening a history book at random is a pretty effective way to find examples of Christians slaughtering or oppressing other people (other Christians, as often as not).
In conclusion, if you ask me, as a citizen of the United States of America in the twenty-first century, would I be relieved to discover that the group of men I am facing in a dark alley are returning from a Bible study, I will tell you this: to whatever extent I feel safe facing a group of men returning from a Bible study under any set of circumstances, it is only because the secular state prevents these groups from baring their fangs. Give them once more the power over life and death, and I will tremble to see even one approaching me in broad daylight.
I hope gentler readers will forgive the militant tone of this piece. There is such nauseating smugness in the dark alley apologetic that it is impossible for me to respond in a measured tone to the sanctimonious blowhards who spout it every opportunity. To all Christians who are not sanctimonious blowhards, I offer peace. After all, if the dark alley apologists were to have state power on their side, the average Christian would be as much subject to persecution by roving bands of self-styled vicars of Christ, as the average Jew, Muslim, or atheist.
de Rosa P. 1988. Vicars of Christ. New York: Bantam.
Ellerbe H. 1995. The Dark Side of Christian History. San Rafael, CA: Morningstar Books.
Schlagel RH. 2001. The Vanquished Gods. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.