By Gavin Jones
Christianity has been with us for two millennia give or take a few years, and its presence has been both a unifying as well as destructive force.
Ruling elites, be they democratically elected politicians, dictators, monarchs or other figureheads have worked hard to align themselves with the faith in order to project an aura of legitimacy in whatever they say or do.
Charles I of England believed with a passion that he possessed a divine right to rule, a doctrine which gave him authority bordering on dictatorial powers not from his subjects but directly from God. Because of his self-righteous arrogance, he was beheaded at Whitehall in London on January 30, 1649 and the parliamentary system that exists in Britain today could be said to stem from that momentous event.
The Emperor Constantine used Christianity politically as a unifying force by making it the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
When confronted by military defeat after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin allowed churches to reopen, thus employing religion as a tool to unify and strengthen the population’s resolve to resist the German military juggernaut.
Dictators throughout history have aligned themselves with the church and there are many instances when the latter have turned a blind eye to the excesses of regimes in order to survive, retain privileges, eliminate the presence of other faiths and, more recently, resist communism. In Spain, the Catholic Church entered into mutually beneficial, unholy alliances and endorsed joint monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in the late fifteenth century, and their heirs and General Franco in more recent times.
In Ancient Greece and Rome, the gods had an all-pervading presence in their respective societies with important decisions being taken only after animals were sacrificed and their entrails examined to determine whether or not to go along a certain path, especially when it came to waging war. In other societies such as the Maya, human sacrifice was carried out to appease the sun god. These rituals spawned religious castes whose very words and actions dominated the lives of everyone, be they rulers or ruled, and gave them authority over all things as they were acknowledged as the representatives on Earth of a heavenly being.
One of the prime examples of the ‘destructive force’ instigated by the church was Pope Urban’s sermon at Clermont-Ferrand in 1095 exhorting people to take the Cross and rid the Holy Land of the infidel. This in effect gave carte blanche to those going on Crusade to commit whatever excesses necessary to achieve their goal of restoring Jerusalem to the Christian fold. The end result was rivers of blood, not only of tens of thousands of Muslims but also Jews and Christians, which literally flowed in Jerusalem’s streets upon the city’s capture in 1099.
In the England of the Middle Ages, the church exercised not only spiritual but also temporal power with at least a quarter of the realm’s landholdings owned by it. Because clerics tended to be the only people in the kingdom who could read and write, they were thus able to control the mindset of the population. Together with the king and the barons, the church profited from the feudal system for centuries and this triumvirate effectively enslaved and bent the majority serfs to their economic and social will.
This stranglehold was only broken in the 1530s with the failure of Henry VIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, to annul his monarch’s marriage to the then barren Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey was removed from power and Henry became supreme head of a church which at a stroke saw its political power stripped away forever. The catalyst which led to these momentous changes was the king’s desire to produce a male heir in order to safeguard the dynasty and avert potential civil war.
Caesar is quoted as having said that the immense power of the Druids was the weakness of the Celts and that no nation that is ruled by priests drawing their authority from supernatural powers is capable of true progress. It’s difficult to argue against this premise, especially if one looks at countries around the world whose societies are dominated by religious fervour.
This brings us to the situation on the ground nearer to home, namely Cyprus. During the period of the last four rulers of the island – Lusignans, Venetians, Ottomans and British, which spanned almost eight centuries – it was the Greek Orthodox Church which became the standard-bearer of the Cypriots in just about every aspect of life: religion, education, welfare, rebellion. It even became tax farmers for the Ottomans.
It was therefore hardly surprising that on independence in 1960, a cleric would become the island’s first president, a fact which Westerners have always found difficult to reconcile with their own secular-dominated societies. However, since Makarios’ death in 1977, it’s apparent that his appointment was the swansong of the church’s political dominance of the state, despite his heirs making sundry pronouncements which often fly in the face of reason and diplomatic good sense.
However, the Cypriot church’s wealth is another matter and it continues to have a commanding role. This has been amassed over a long period of time with bequests of land and property still being made by the faithful. The Roman Catholic Church sold indulgences to fill its coffers (and help build St Peter’s in Rome) with a shorter time in purgatory being the reward the more one paid, a sort of guaranteed stairway to heaven.
Whilst most churches have share portfolios, own chunks of real estate such as valuable freeholds and shopping malls in major cities and other investments, they’ve learnt to adopt a low-key approach and not flaunt their wealth. Not so when it comes to the Cypriot church with regular announcements concerning their interests in brewing, water-bottling, cement production, hotels and property development. It’s even been reported in the press that it wishes to open its very own bank.
A short, sharp shock akin to that instigated by Henry VIII, with the state taking over the church’s assets and curbing its influence in temporal affairs even further, seems a highly unlikely prospect in Cyprus. However, change is afoot with the younger generation paying only lip service to the institution to which their forefathers paid unconditional reverence and, in many cases, willed monetary legacies. Perhaps they’re increasingly more likely than their ancestors to voice the same disdain towards their church as that expressed by christianity’s founder towards the merchants and money changers in His House, Jerusalem’s Temple.