I’ve been gradually ploughing my way through a thought provoking tome entitled ‘Saving Paradise’ by Brock and Parker. Having done a survey of Christian art through history, they argue that the Cross wasn’t always the key Christian symbol as it is now, Paradise was. They’re not denying the vital significance and importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection but are claiming that Christians originally understood this as being not about suffering, sin and death as tends to be the case now but with restoring Paradise to this earth. They argue that when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire a shift took place and the symbol the Cross was brought to the fore and emphasised in order to justify war and the exercise of power through brute force; God brought peace through violence against his Son, and so we can bring peace through violence against our enemies. This theology was explicitly used later to justify the Crusades.
A disturbing chapter is devoted to the relationship between the Puritan settlers who sailed to America to colonize it and build there a new kingdom for God, and the Native Americans. I’m sure the story is more complex than one chapter allows it to be told, but reading it leaves the impression that the colonizers were met with offers of peace and co-existence from the ‘Indians’, but greeted them with either suspicion, or acceptance but only on their terms rather than equal footing. Such was their missionary desire to build a kingdom for God and usher in Christ’s return that they sought to convert the ‘Indians’ to their way of life as well as faith, or to remove them so that a proper fresh start could be had there. And this is exactly what they achieved. Many were wiped out by diseases they brought over with them, but more were killed, and those that were left were shipped out into reserves. A sickening story of dreadful deeds done in the name of Christ.
The irony of this sad story is that they were so fixated in looking for a future Paradise, that they overlooked elements of Paradise present right there in front of them; the chance for peaceful relationships with those that were different from them, the openness of the ‘Indians’ to seeing the divine or spiritual in life all around them, and the wonder of the American forests and countryside which the Indians lived in harmony with but they ravaged as they cleared the land. I wonder, how would Jesus have responded to the welcome they might have given him?
As so often, reading this left me questioning if there are ways in which I am blinded by my theology to seeing what God is doing around me in our world today? Are there expressions of Paradise outside the church in contemporary culture which we can and should value and applaud? Where are God’s fingerprints on evidence today?