This article originally appeared in the October 5, 1992 issue of Christianity Today.
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This year, the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America, one might have expected great commemorations and celebrations. Instead, the National Council of Churches came out against celebrating. The city of Berkeley, California, named 1992 "Indigenous People's Year." The Zurich, Switzerland, newspaper Tages-Anzeiger speaks of the "arrogance" involved when the "European West" thinks that it has "discovered" something and implies that the Spaniards and other colonizers massacred 120 million Indians. The French demographer Pierre Chaunu, who is a Membre de Institut Francais and a Reformed pastor, speaks of a "demographic catastrophe" (though it was caused not primarily by massacre, but by the unwitting introduction of diseases, such as smallpox, to which the native South and North American populations had not developed any immunity). It is as if the West, especially the Christian West, seems ashamed the Columbus anniversary is taking place at all.
Examples of the West's persistent feelings of inferiority abound. Stanford University, one of the nation's foremost centers of intellectual life, has "politically corrected" its required undergraduate course in Western Civilization. Hollywood films not only attack the white man's militarization, but also his culture and, implicitly, his Christianity.
It seems Christian North America is, in the words of H. F. Schrader of Lorrach, Germany, "constantly apologizing for the fact that it exists." Europeans and white North Americans have committed egregious wrongswrongs requiring repentancebut we must put the failings in correct perspective.
Sailing the ocean blue
Fourteen-ninety-two held not only Columbus's discovery of what would be called America, but in the same year, Columbus's patrons, the monarchs of the newly united Spanish kingdoms, Ferdinand and Isabella, succeeded in driving the Muslims and Jews out of the Iberian peninsula' Romantic historians speak of a fruitful Christian-Muslim-Jewish symbiosis in Spain before 1492, which was smashed by the aggressive "Christianizing" efforts of the victorious Spanish monarchs. But inasmuch as world history is a long and bloody tale of invasion, conquest, migration, and expulsionand even, at times, of exterminationit is hard to say who belongs exactly where. The Jews entered Spain, or the Iberian Peninsula, peacefully, in the context of the Jewish diaspora, but the Moors came by conquest. The invasions of the Christian West, unleashed by the followers of Muhammad, carried them up to Tours, in the north of France, almost to the English Channel, before they were turned back by the armies of Charles Martel in 732.
Why single out Christians? What business did the Muslims have carrying the crescent, with fire and sword, through the Christian lands of what is now Spain and France? We can ask what business the Christian Crusaders had in the Holy Landbut what business did the Arab conquerors have there four centuries earlier? What business did the Ottoman Turks have taking Constantinople in 1453 and ending a Christian Greek-speaking civilization that was over a millennium old? And indeed, what business did Lawrence of Arabia have in Arabia and modern Iraq, driving out the Ottoman Turks, with the perhaps unintentional result that those nations became oil-rich and aggressive toward one another and Israel? In other parts of the world, what business did the Mongols have in destroying the Christian civilization of Kievan Russia in 1242? Or the pagan Angles and Saxons in overrunning Romanized Christian Britain?
As the late Roman Catholic philosopher of history Christopher Dawson has pointed out, "Western civilization" does not represent the imposition of the West on the rest of the world, but is largely the transformation of Greco-Roman, Hellenistic culture by the gospel, by Christianity. We cannot repudiate Western civilization and dissociate ourselves from it without at the same time moving ourselves away from Christianity, and potentially from Christ himself. The implications of the Stanford undergraduates' chant, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!" are not a universalism in the sense of "making disciples of all nations," but the repudiation of the gospel and of the One of whom it tells.
The place for self-respect
There is no place in Christianity for racism, ethnocentrism, or illusions of racial, national, or ethnic superiority or inferiority, just as there is no place for individual pride, arrogance, and contempt for others. The second of the two "great commandments" directs us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Implicit in the commandment is the presupposition that we will not hate or have contempt for ourselves. This in no way contradicts the concept that each of us is a sinner who needs to repent.
The very facts that we are made, each one of us, in the image of God, and that God has sent his only Son into the world so that, through faith in him, we might obtain eternal life, demonstrate that we are not to be objects of hatred or contempt-not in the eyes of God, and therefore not in our own. "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought," Paul writes (Rom. 12:3, NIV). A certain level of self-respect is appropriate. We are not worthless nothings, for, as the late Orthodox scholar Georges Florovsky used to say, "God did not send his Son to die for nothing."
AmericansChristians and non-Christians alikeoften look at the rest of the world with a curious mixture of conceit and inferiority feelings. During the years between World War II and the Vietnam War, feelings of conceit tended to predominate; since Vietnam, we have tended to think of ourselves as losers. Europeans are less inclined than North Americans to think of themselves as inferior, but here, too, such "end of an era" feelings are growing, as the recent Tages-Anzeiger article shows.
After 70 years, during which an atheistic, materialistic, totalitarian system sought to crush Christianity and to spread its own power across the world, that awful menace has vanished. In the formerly Communist countries, there is now a call in many quarters for Christian values. How ironic it is that in the land that has, since World War II, been so dynamic in evangelism and world missions, we lose our sense of calling and mission. The poison coursing through the veins of our culture is not Marxism, but a kind of listlessness of the spirit, crippling even convinced Christians and paralyzing those without clear spiritual direction.
Compared to the standards of the New Testament and the principles by which we are called to live, individual Christians as well as the societies and governments that call themselves Christian have much for which to repent and to atone. However, viewed against the background of world historythe melancholy account of fallen humanityChristianity and the Christian West should not be singled out for censure. The primary means by which the gospel spread was missions, not imperialism.
Christianity has its charlatans and those who have exploited religion to become wealthy. But Christian missionaries who have gone to other cultures have almost invariably done so at great personal sacrifice, not to garner immense profits and live in luxury, like the notorious Bhagwan or the Guru Maharaj Ji. There are slums and poverty-stricken people in Albania, but it was the Catholic Christian Mother Teresa who went to Calcutta, not an Indian who went to Tirana. When the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations threw off their Communist regimes, it has been the Christian West (plus Japan) that has been willing to undertake massive financial aid. It was not, to cite one example, the fabulously oil-rich Muslim Arab states. For at least 40 years, the Communist powers have sought to undermine and to overthrow the Western democracies, yet nevertheless, we now are seeking to help their successors. There is no nation in the West that claimsor will admitto be inspired by Christian motives, but this conduct is consistent with Jesus' words in Luke 6:27-28: "Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (NIV).
Writing of Britons who seemed so ashamed of their imperial past that they were virtually paralyzed when it came to making sensible decisions in their own day, historian Lawrence Van der Post spoke of the "poison of shame."
The apostle Paul speaks of a "godly sorrow" that leads to repentance without "regret" and to salvation, and warns of "the worldly sorrow" that brings death (2 Cor. 7:10). The sort of thing that causes us to act, as a culture or as a nation, as though we regret Columbus's voyage, Western Christian civilization and, indeed, our own existence on this planet, is a "worldly sorrow" caused by Van der Post's "poison of shame." It dishonors not only ourselves and our Christian teachers and forebears, but also the Lord whom they served and whom we are supposed to love and follow, and, indeed, in the long run, it produces death.
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Christianity Today published an obituary on July 9.
Harold O.J. Brown's articles for Christianity Today include:
Superman on the Screen: Counterfeit Myth? | Heroes have disappeared. They have been replaced by superheroes-fantasy creatures. (April 20, 1979 issue)
The Passivity Of American Christians | The myths that are intimidating those who hold forth a biblical heritage, and what can be done about them. (January 16, 1976 issue)
A Decisive Turn to Paganism | Has the nation finally abandoned its Judeo-Christian heritage, or is there still hope? (August 1, 2004)
The Book Report: Things We Ought to Know | Charles Colson's apologeticand call to actionis in the tradition of Francis Schaeffer. (January 10, 2000)
Abortion and the Failure of Democracy | A review of James Davison Hunter's Before The Shooting Begins: Searching For Democracy In America's Culture War. (August 15, 1994)
The Link Interview: An Evangelical Appraisal | The strength of Orthodoxy, it turns out, is also its greatest temptation. (Christian History & Biography, April 1, 1997)
The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer | Thirteen years after his death, Schaeffer's vision and frustrations continue to haunt evangelicalism. (March 3, 1997)