Christian civilization and the refugee crisis

To say that I am unsympathetic with the idea, practice, or nostalgia for Christian civilization is an understatement. The coercive nature of such “civilization” strikes me as unavoidable. At worst Christianity collapses into and becomes equated with a particular culture’s norms, which gains further legitimation through Christ’s blessing. Equipped with this blessing such a culture becomes the norm; it defines what it is to be civilized. The step from here to the violent preservation (defending civilization itself!) and expansion (providing enlightenment to the unenlightened) of this norm, at all costs, is a natural one. We’ve seen this played out over and over again by the destructive conquests of western Christianity.

But are there more sympathetic ways to go about the project of Christian civilization? Some may well argue that working the idea of neighbour-love, as articulated by the Christian tradition, into a society’s basic self-identity and organizational principles is a laudable goal. Such people may even go on to say that such efforts have been crucial to the formation of better (more peaceable and compassionate) civilizations and cultures over the years. Even if this is possible for a society (and I’m not sure that it is), I still am unconvinced that it is worth striving for.

The current refugee crisis has renewed this skepticism. I’ve been struck by the language coming out of the government in Hungary in particular. Much of the rhetoric that supports the Hungarian government’s deplorable attitude towards and treatment of refugees is rooted in the need to “defend Christian civilization” and preserve the Christian make-up of its society. It is for this reason that it cannot act in a compassionate manner when it comes to Muslim asylum seekers. It’s not limited to Hungary, though. Australia’s abusive treatment of asylum seekers can also be traced to a need to defend a Christian culture. (I’ve never understood it when recent settlers on colonized territory hold forth on the need to accept the culture one is moving into, especially since they always do so in newly imported languages.) Many suspect that Canada’s system of prioritizing religious minorities when accepting refugees is a ploy to accept Christians over Muslims, in line with what many conservatives see as Canada’s Christian heritage (and we know that, in any case, it is a terribly inefficient manner of processing refugees).

Such rhetoric is entirely incompatible with what I describe as a more sympathetic version of Christian civilization. I read the articulated reasoning as follows: We must despise and mistreat our desperate neighbours in order to preserve a society that practices neighbour-love. It’s nonsensical. My suspicion is that this is the same for all versions of Christian civilization, for the point of civilization is that it is the norm and standard. And norms cannot accept the vulnerability required by neighbour-love. Furthermore, the normal can only exist as the normal if there is an other to act as a threat to its existence. Christians should not deny difference, but our commitment to neighbour-love does mean that we must learn to see difference as something other than a threat. Or, to put it differently, we ought not to see threats to our existence as something that overrides the commitment to neighbour-love. This means that we need to learn let go of the desire to be the norm, and this means relinquishing the project of “Christian civilization.”

This is what I had written two weeks ago. Then Germany – whose government stresses the Judeo-Christian heritage and composition of its country, and whose leader has proclaimed the failure of multiculturalism – announced its willingness to take in a total of 800 000 refugees before the end of the year. Pope Francis, who as pope must have some investment in Christian civilization, called for every single parish to take in a refugee family, and this is not the first time Francis has called on Catholics to be involved in assisting refugees.

Such actions made my strong conclusion feel a bit out of place. It may be that there is a fundamental incoherence or impossibility to the generosity of a Christian civilization; Hungary may have it right. But evidently this impossibility is not enough to stop people from trying, and perhaps they will succeed in creating the impossible. In any case, as long as people are trying, there is much potential for coalition and cooperation between them and we who reject the premise of Christian civilization. We share the task of being the church.

Together we may even be able to say decisively that any Christian civilization that decides to protect its existence by fearing difference – that decides to neglect neighbour-love in the case of its society’s “others” – has lost any Christian reason to exist in the first place.

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