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.