Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) comments on race earlier this month elicited a warranted firestorm of indignation across American politics and media. In an interview with The New York Times, King said: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King responded by claiming that his syntax was misrepresented and that he was defending “Western civilization” rather than white supremacy or white nationalism.
King’s defense understandably rang hollow, as he has a long history of making comments ranging from insensitive to downright unacceptable. From the Left, many have claimed that that the term Western civilization has always been used to justify white racial superiority. Yet for those of us who study history, though, it is abundantly clear that Western civilization, both as a concept and in practice, has never meant white civilization.
Indeed, when properly understood, it is the most universal human project in history. King fails to recognize this, but it’s worth exploring how early Judaism and Christianity rejected racial and cultural division.
Western Civilization’s Ancient Universalizing Tendencies
The universal nature of Western civilization is visible in the ancient writings of the first great monotheistic religion, Judaism. This may at first seem inherently contradictory—was not the Jewish faith known for its exclusivity and strict ethnic boundaries? Doesn’t the Hebrew Bible contain stories of the Jewish people massacring other people groups in the promised land, indeed, eradicating them?
Moreover, the Jewish god YHWH (or Yahweh) is strident and uncompromising in his demand that his covenant people not miscegenate with the local pagan peoples of the Levant. This, however, is a limited and incomplete interpretation of God’s intention for the Jewish people.
Yes, YHWH called the Jewish people to a strict monotheistic exclusivity, but this was by no means along racial or ethnic lines. Indeed, the Old Testament is littered with examples of non-Jewish individuals being blessed by God, and even welcomed into the covenant community.
An oft-overlooked story in the Torah is that of Miriam and Aaron’s criticism of Moses for marrying a Cushite woman, and their attempt to use this to undermine his authority (Numbers 12). The Cushites were an African people, meaning Moses’ wife was probably black, especially given how YHWH responds—he punishes Miriam by making her leprous. In other words, if Miriam is proud of her skin color, God will make her as white as possible!
God also spares the Gentile, meaning non-Jewish, harlot Rahab when Joshua attacks Jericho, and she becomes a member of the covenant people. She is even named as an ancestor of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Another messianic ancestor is Ruth, a Moabite woman who marries a Jewish man. The prophet Elijah in turn raises the son of a widow from Zarephath, a pagan Phoenician city.
On a more theological plane, YHWH’s covenant with the Jewish people was intended as a witness to the peoples of the earth, one that orients all races and ethnicities toward worship of the one, true God. This is in stark contrast to the deities of the ancient world, who were typically not universal, but wedded to particular places and particular peoples. YHWH promises Abraham that “all the nations of the earth” will be blessed by his descendants (Genesis 22:18).
The psalms pick up this theme: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (Psalm 22:27). We read of God’s “saving power among the nations” (Psalm 67:2), and that “all the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name” (Psalm 86:9). This theme is consistent across the prophets: Isaiah 52:10, Amos 9:12, Zechariah 8:22, Jeremiah 16:19, among others, all make reference to a universal salvation meant for all peoples.
A Truly ‘Catholic’ Christian Civilization
The promises of this salvation reach their fulfillment in the person and message of Christ, who himself preaches to and heals the Gentile peoples living among and nearby the Jews (Matthew 15, Luke 7). On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the small band of Christ’s followers and enables them to speak in many of the languages of the ancient world (Acts 2). Thus begins the expansion of the church and the Christian faith across the Roman Empire and beyond, including the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), whom the Ethiopian Orthodox Church views as one of the founders of its unique brand of Christianity.
Among the great theological contributors of early church are many Africans, including Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, and, of course, Augustine. The last is widely recognized as one of the intellectual giants of the ancient world, and foundational to both Western theology and philosophy, especially in his “City of God,” which proposes a global spiritual society.
As Robert Louis Wilken expertly recounts in his “The First Thousand Years,” Christianity’s movements west pivoted the locus of the faith to Rome, but it also had deep roots across the east. In addition to North Africa and Ethiopia, Christian missionaries had success in the Middle East, Persia, India, and China. Archaeologists have discovered the remnants of Nestorian Christian communities in China, while the Western Church had periodic, limited contact with the Syro-Malabar Church of India throughout the ancient and medieval period, ties which were strengthened once Portuguese explorers arrived in the late fifteenth century.
Inasmuch as Christianity is a component of Western civilization, the latter is an inherently universal, and racially and ethnically diverse organism. Indeed, one of the most remarkable qualities of Christianity has always been its ability to borrow, re-fashion, and incorporate concepts and practices from various cultures into its own beliefs and praxis. One need only look at the etymology of concepts like liturgy and sacrament or the doctrine of the Trinity to see how much the faith is indebted to the Greeks and Romans, among other cultures.
Western Civilization In The Americas Was Never All-White
Even in an American context, the paradigm of Western civilization has been far more complex than something that can be reducible to a single race. Consider the role of the American Indian. Although the European settlers often had aggressive and violent interactions with the original inhabitants of North and South America, it is impossible to imagine an American identity apart from the contributions made by the native peoples.
These are visible in geographic place names (Alabama, Illinois), words in American language (both English and Spanish), cuisine (corn), sports (lacrosse), and literature and the arts. From James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans” to practically every American Western movie ever made, the Native American experience, even when trivialized or poorly represented, is palpable as a reminder of their place in our historical cultural memory.
The role of African-Americans is perhaps even more central to the idea of an American identity as a subset of Western civilization. Much of the United States, both north and south, was built upon the backs of black slaves and freedmen, as was the Caribbean and large chunks of South America, including Brazil, where slavery wasn’t outlawed until 1888.
Moreover, it is simply impossible to imagine an American identity without the contributions of black writers, musicians, inventors, politicians, and athletes. An America without the blues or jazz would be an impoverished America, as would be an America without the eloquence of Frederick Douglass, profundity of Langston Hughes, or spiritual leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Surely all of these are an indelible part of Western civilization in an American context. The same can just as much be said for Asian-Americans, many of whose ancestors built the infrastructure of our nation and have added to it layers of cultural complexity across the same areas cited above.
What made the Jewish and Christian faiths so different from the other belief systems of the ancient world was their fundamental rejection of racial and ethnic tribalism in favor of universal truths and values. In this respect, they also joined with other early contributors to the idea of Western Civilization: ancient Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato proposed a universal logos or “rational structure” that encompassed the cosmos, while Roman statesman Cicero declared that “one eternal and unchanging law” can “bind together all races in every era.”
Early Christian writers in turn set the foundation for the possibility of a unified Western civilization between Jews, Greeks, and Romans. For example, St. Paul cites with approval the pagan Greek writers Epimenides and Aratus: “For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children’” (Acts 17:28). St. John meanwhile borrows from Greek philosophy when he refers to Jesus as the divine logos (John 1).
There is no room for “blood and soil” in the Western tradition, at least not in the sense of racial or ethnic superiority. The West’s very nature, from its beginnings in Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, was always oriented towards universal truths that transcend our ancient tendencies towards arrogant tribalism.
Of course, a significant part of Western civilization owes its creation and preservation to people who would probably identity as “white.” But insofar as we reduce Western civilization to something racial, we undermine its true intellectual and spiritual potency, something capable of appealing to all humans precisely because it reflects what is good, true, and beautiful across all people groups. To equate Western Civilization with something as pedestrian as “white civilization” is, in effect, to stop believing and participating in it altogether.