One of the really impressive books I have read on the subject of Global or World Christianity is Lamin Sanneh’s autobiography, Summoned from the Margin. The book has any number of reasons to recommend it, but I was struck by one remarkable passage he quotes from Winston Churchill. While nothing can dim Churchill’s overall achievement, he was occasionally capable of astonishing acts of stupidity or moral blindness, and this is one. I think it also does much to help us understand changing Christian attitudes to race and empire.
Here’s the situation (p.167). Following the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine, the numerous and influential Christian communities appealed to Churchill in 1921, pleading that “Christians” be added to “Muslims” in the roster of Arabs objecting to British policy. Churchill’s reply was frosty, rejecting any hint of Christian solidarity, and declaring “it is no good pretending that you are more closely united to the Christians than the Jews. That is not so. A wider gulf separates us from you than separates you from the Jew. I am talking of the Semitic races.” (My emphasis. The affair is also described in Laura Robson’s valuable Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine, 69-70).
Churchill’s brusque words encapsulate one of the uglier aspects of colonial empire. Whatever the rhetoric, many British and other imperialists had no intention of spreading Christianity, if that implied treating new believers on any terms of equality. In the early decades of British rule in India, imperial authorities would immediately deport any missionary found on the territory, to avoid potential disruption to their money-making enterprises. Their later counterparts in Africa disliked and distrusted Christian converts, vastly preferring to work with Muslim soldiers and civil servants. Churchill in 1921 proclaimed the doctrine simply: whatever your faith, the key dividing line in the world was racial. Christianity was of its essence European – or just maybe, Euro-American. This was the very time that Hilaire Belloc made his celebrated remark that “Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.” Such an approach makes nonsense of the popular modern assumption that European empires somehow wanted to dragoon the non-White world into missionary Christianity.
Imperial attitudes had a special resonance when applied to the Middle East, and other regions where ancient Christian churches still flourished – churches that were already old when Churchill’s own ancestors farmed pigs in German forests. In the 1920s, Christians still comprised perhaps 15 percent of Palestine’s people, and were very well represented among the professional and educated classes. Naturally, they strenuously opposed any prospect of a Zionist takeover, and were at the forefront of nationalist resistance. Right through the twentieth century, Palestinians of Christian origin like George Habash led the most determined and resourceful guerrilla groups fighting the state of Israel.
In some alternative world, I suppose that Western powers might have paid more attention to that Christian element, and sought to preserve the interests of that large community of fellow-believers in the growing struggle between Arabs and Jews. Of course that did not happen. You can argue at great length about the rights and wrongs of the Israel/Palestine situation, but very rarely have Western churches and Christian populations demonstrated much awareness that “Arab” is not synonymous with Muslim. Palestinian Christians? What a bizarre idea.
Fortunately, puzzled Westerners won’t have to rack their brains to deal with this conundrum much longer. These days, the Arab Christian share of the population of Israel/Palestine has fallen to perhaps one percent, and is vanishing fast. Not that too many Westerners seem to notice, or care. The gulf is just too wide.
And don’t get me started on “Christian Zionism.”