Foundations and empires

Together with the current campaign to direct of our entire moral attention on an ill-defined thing called “racism” (worth critiquing in a post of its own), that programme also calls on us to repudiate the evils of another thing called “imperialism” (or “colonialism”) as one of the worst tributaries of that racist stream.

A few brave souls have braved cancellation by suggesting that maybe some good things came out of the British Empire, including the abolition of slavery for the first time in human history, but as for me I can’t put out of my mind the remark of my church historian friend Nick a few years ago.

He’s been engaged on a multi-volume history of the Church for years, and in a passing comment to me said, “Most of the spread of the gospel has been because of empires.” And on reflection, this is entirely true. It was the Roman Empire which, despite several centuries of opposition to Christianity, provided the soil in which it could both be sown and spread widely. At the extreme, it was the Empire’s trade-relationship with far-flung India that enabled St Thomas, if the traditions are true, to preach the gospel in Goa. And of course it was Roman annexation that allowed it to reach our distant British shores, and remain here until now.

The Roman Empire and its offshoots led to the phenomenon known as Christendom across Europe, and it was the trading power and enterprise of those mediaeval empires that sent Catholic missionaries to the far east. Closer to our own time, it was the western European empires that colonised the New World, and it was citizens of the consolidated imperial powers that developed later, among them the British Empire, that conceived, financed and executed the world mission program that accounts for a numerical majority of the world’s Christians today. Even now it is largely believers born into successful nations, with networks of power, who send most missionaries, whether that be the USA or, increasingly, China.


It’s been fashionable to condemn the historical British missionary effort because it seemed to work hand-in-glove with British political interests, but I think we should rather see things from God’s point of view, which is far more nuanced, and more charitable.

For with my friend Nick’s dictum in my mind, when I came to teach the book of Daniel I realised that the “villain”, the infamous Nebuchadnezzar II, is portrayed at least as much as a friend of Daniel and a half-aware servant of God’s grand purposes as he is as the cruel pagan destroyer of the temple. Daniel’s big message is that history – and specificially its empires – are in God’s hands, and rise and fall for his good purposes.

But even leaving aside the biblical theological aspects, opening one’s mind to what the history of empires actually brought about leads to the conclusion that, as well as the unfortunate suppression of other cultures and languages, the exploitation of people and resources, and the deaths caused by wars of conquest and many other causes, culturally vigorous empires brought to mankind most (if not all) of the genuine advances we all share.

Universities, for example, arose in the post-Roman cultural commonwealth of Europe, and have become a worldwide phenomenon only because European empires had the influence to impose them on subject nations.

The cultural revolution arose, as everyone agrees, in the peculiar conditions of Britain, as it was expanding to be a world power. The no-growth sustainability Luddites notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the world’s present prosperity is a result of that revolution. But it’s a morally complex tale: the Industrial revolution was only possible because of the capital built up largely by the proceeds of the Transatlantic slave-trade, yet it was the one thing that made civilization without slavery possible for the first time, and potentially for everyone. And so it has been argued that it was coal and steam, as much as William Wilberforce, that led to the abolition of slavery. It was certainly the Royal Navy, also recognised as a major factor leading to the Bristish Empire, that imposed abolition worldwide during the ninetweenth century.

Liberal Democracy (the worst form of government apart from all the others) was also imposed upon other nations by big powers (amongst which I include the US, as a quasi-empire pretending not to be one) before it was adopted enthusiastically by the most successful of them.

The same, as far as I have been able to judge, is true for virtually anything you can think of that benefits the whole world, from soccer and jazz to clocks and computers, and from agricultural advances to gunpowder.

Note that I’m not here trying to argue for the superiority of western culture, though that happens to have been the driving force of our modern world, but rather the paradoxical benefits of empires themselves, wherever they are, which we have grown accustomed to condemning as the epitome of human rapaciousness and cruelty. They are that, but they’re also the driver of good things. Silk, gunpowder and porcelain only spread round the world because the longevity of Chinese empires kept the trade routes open. Arabic numerals would, I suppose, never have developed or spread had the Islamic empire not swept across the Mediterranean, as likewise the works of Aristotle. Literacy was the legacy not just of Sumerian ingenuity, but of Babylonian imperial power, and the Phoenician trade script that became not only our alphabet, but that of most of the world, came to us because empires vied for supremacy in the bronze and iron ages. Metallurgy seems to have come to Britain with a new wave of conquerors.

I’ve given enough examples, I think, for you to add as many of your own as you like. I can’t think of a single useful idea from historic times that wasn’t either the product of empire, or became common currency through being spread by empire. Maybe bows and flint-knapping are exceptions, but we know too little of prehistoric culture to know: one very good reason for acquiring superior technology is being defeated by it.

Does that make empires “good”? “Why do you ask me what is good – none is good save God alone.” The whole nature of the human world since Adam is ambivalent: all is vanity. But some of that vanity has undoubted value, and the wise person will recognise the admixture of good and evil in all human institutions, rather than capitulating to the crassly simplistic version of history, morals and humanity peddled by so many in our day.

But even those bad ideas didn’t conquer the west on their own: Marxism, propaganda and postmodernism too originated and spread through empires western and eastern.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Politics and sociology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Foundations and empires

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Good thread. many many points. Yet i would say there is no such thing as racism and any ismology. this is a recent term by some forceful peoples to discredit opinions people have about different people groups including if they are another race. If they have the opinion its just that. iTs not immoral JUST because they have a opinion. its not wrong just because they have a opinion. Indeed they might be wrong or right.
    In humans all there is , regarding this people thinking about that, is accuracy or error or kindness or malice.
    Racism was invented nOT to say this or that opinion was wrong about that people, including actions, but to dismiss any option of it being right/actions.
    So racism is then used for a million reasons to accuse and dismiss opinins/actions of this people toward that. YET i insist racism is a myth and must be destroyed as a concept. We must not be governed by these things. Its a lie. We can’t just complain about its false use. The whole thing must go. THEN what remains is the operation of simply agreeing/disagreeing with accusations/opinions about one people to another. including the right to ascribe malive/evil to opinions.
    The british empire was not racist as that is a thing that doesn’t exist. if Brits presumed to superiority then it was right or wrong. if they presumed to rule well it was always wrong but THEY consented. no brits conquored anybody with weapons.
    no brits then would agree with racist motivations as real. Just opinions right or wrong.
    Likewise sexism, homophobia, anti semetism, and new ones coming are all imposed concepts from some forceful people. Instead case by case on accusations is all thats in the human heart. No where in the bibles long list of sins/crimes did isms ever pop up.
    They are a myth from the left. Thats why its hard to defend ones innocence from these accusations. This GROUND must first be taken. The GUNS of Narrone must be spiked.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      <blockquote<"Yet i would say there is no such thing as racism"

      It’s easy to snort at a statement like this. At one level, there is obviously a thing called “racism” because people call things “racism,” and it’s in the dictionary. In that sense, “God” exists whether you believe in him or not, because you can discuss him, pray to him or take his name in vain whatever his objective truth.

      But as Os Guinness might say, “If everything is racism, nothing is racism,” and the term has become so fluid that it has been undefined into meaninglessness. Specifically, critical race theory has redefined the vernacular understanding of something like “the hatred of another merely because of skin colour” into a catch-all condemnation of all those whom certain savants define as “white,” together with every thing any of those so defined have ever done. This is a definition which purposely exempts those defined as “people of colour,” whatever hateful things they might do.

      Even that tortuous postmodern academic “definition” is too inconsistent to constitute a real “thing.” On the one hand, “white representations” of Jesus are to be torn down because Jesus was a Jewish “person of colour,” whilst on the other hand hatred of the Jews by BLM as the very authors of “white supremacy” is OK. And hatred of “people of colour” who happen to reject the definition as “Uncle Toms,” ie “whites inside a dark skin” is also fine.

      And don’t get me started on the biological nonsense of race theory itself, which is fully explored both in my Generations of Heaven and Earth and in Joshua Swamidass’s Genealogical Adam and Eve. Not read them yet? Shame on you racists!

      Are there people in the world who hate all blacks because they are black? No doubt. And some of them expressed it within the British Empire, and some amongst Democrat Eugenicists in America. There are also people who hate redheads because they are redheads, or working people because they are not “smart.”

      Theologically, though, their sin is “hatred of your neighbour without a just cause,” not “the sin of racism,” and their civil evil is, or ought to be, any harmful action they take on the basis of that hatred. For the state to try to control the thought itself – or to eradicate the person because of the thought – is simply totalitarian. Queen Elizabeth I was wiser than today’s governments when she said, though imposing a common prayer book on her people, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.”

      One schizophrenic patient I knew killed someone by driving head on into their car, because it was displaying headlights by day. The voices in his head told him that all such drivers were part of a conspiracy against him.

      Insanity is not blameworthy, of course, but one could at least imagine some sane, but fanatical, follower of an Internet conspiracy theorist believing the same thing. Disguised green lizard people may be distinguished, perhaps, by their poor day vision requiring them to drive with headlights, and the only good green lizard person is a dead green lizard person. The law would rightly judge such a person for homicide if they immolated another driver, and the false belief would not be an excuse… but neither would the belief deserve judicial punishment apart from the homicide.

      But if I see a car with headlights on by day, I might well flash him to let him know his error. And it would be pernicious to accuse me of “lightism” either by accusing me of institutional belief in green lizards, or of an act of “micro-paranoia.” Real life is more subtle than that.

      And yet this is the nonsense that Cultural Marxist identitarianism has brought us to over race, gender and sexuality. And, arguably, over climate science and evolution as well (if you don’t obviously toe some party line, you’re an evil “science denier”). And over free speech as well, in which my very act of discussing the issue would get be cancelled as a racist on most social media platforms.

      There is no rationality in lumping together the awkwardness of unfamiliarity (such as my slightly anxious excitement as a child at seeing my very first black person in pre-Windrush Exeter in the 1950s, or the suspicious curiosity shown towards a Victorian missionary in a remote African village) with the callous rape or torture of a black slave by an owner.

      Even suspicion of encountering members of a people group, when there is a history of real risk (if you’re a Tutsi in Hutu country, or my grandfather who was shelled and gassed by Germans for 4 years on the Western Front) is not remotely the same thing as the gang that shoots a white woman for saying “All lives matter.”

      Those real example show how little utility “racism” has as a moral category, still less a legal one. A million Tutsi (and moderate “Uncle Tom” Hutu) were massacred in Rwanda in 1994, but “racism” doesn’t even recognise the two tribes as races, and critical race theory doesn’t even consider blacks capable of racism.

      The latter point is true of the murder of the woman as well, if it is once accepted that she was racist for valuing all lives equally, but her murderers are constitutionally incapable of racism. Who cares about manipulative buzzwords when an innocent woman’s blood cries out from the earth against her killers? I tell you truly, God counts them as mere smoke.

      And my grandfather’s recurring nightmares about being bayoneted by Germans, reflected in a lifelong distrust of the nation, are seen by peddlars of “racism” as merely a family disagreement between white supremacists. Sixteen million people died in the aggression of that war – and even that slaughter needs to be understood in nuanced terms, for it was more complex than the antipathy of “races” even in the broader sense.

      So does racism “exist”? Trivially, yes. So do Zeus and Athene, palmistry and the Freudian oedipal complex. But is it the crucial key to understanding society? Is it even a useful, or truthful, way of viewing the world? If it were, I think that God’s word would say more about it, instead of leaving true human insight to the Marxists.

      • Robert Byers says:

        I think you sgree or are open to racism, and other isms, as mere inventions of historic human. relationships.
        Racism was invented to STOP opinions and actions from one people to another. It was mostly about europeans seeing Africans and Asian s and Indians as intellectually and morally inferior and then actions from that that were unjust.
        Then it expanded because different peoples were living together.
        So mere opion became bad. Regardless whether it was sincerely, without malice, held.
        Racism is a tool to stop something. Then to advance something. its a polticial/power tool. It has nothing to do with real mankind.
        Nobody ever was racist. They simply held opinions about groups of peole including unjust and malice . Yet Romans thought that way about Celts .
        If racism really was a thing about race indicating this or that it still would be innocent though wrong.
        No. Racism is always a accusation of wrong conclusions and wrong/evil actions.
        Thats why it must be defanged and the plug pulled.
        I have always heard people cry racism because of opinions about Irish Catholics in America in the 1800’s. From those of the same “race” . Just not Irish or Catholic.
        Racism is a myth. If something has a opinion about blacks in britain then its simply right or wrong plus maybe done in malice or innocence. In fact racism always means WHITE people indeed as if whites are racist or once were. You could say this is a racist opinion! Yet its not. it might be true except racist is a myth. Yet I suspect in 1850 Britain 97-99% though blacks in Africa were dumber and badder. Probably only 5-10% thought it was innate/genetic but the rest thought it was for free will reasons. So they believed they could be civilized. Yet both groups today would be called racist. Yet only the 5-10% group would be close. A actual belief race interfers with a human beings smarts/morals.
        By the way I’m sure myself black Africans were in 1850 dumber and badder. Not innate but it was that way. Its true or not. Either way its a sincere moral conclusion. Not desrrtving to be told its evil/immoral or told its wrong just because of this conclusion.
        Racism isn’t what must go but the myth of racism. Then people can deal with opinions and actions about each other.
        Instead goverance is from those who control the discussion with this unelected recent concepts.
        This can’t be that hard. We must not allow accusations of racism to exist . Not just defend against them with tears are innocence.
        Ismolgy must go the way of marxism. The bad guys went too far and now all the people smell a problem. they are reader for leadership. racism is a myth and never did any people group think or act on racist ideas. Just on ideas right or wrong good or evil. There is no blanket concept like racism in human hearts.

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