Debates about “Western civ” are nothing new for those of us who teach history in colleges and universities. But it’s not often that they rise to the level of international news, like they did earlier this month.
In Europe for the G-20 summit, Pres. Donald Trump visited Poland, he said, “not just to visit an old ally, but to hold it up as an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization.” To cheers, he warned that
the West is also confronted by the powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests…. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.
Alluding to his hosts’ historic struggles against both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Trump concluded, “Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.”
Some critics were horrified by Trump’s ten mentions of “the West” and five of “our civilization.” Peter Beinart of The Atlantic concluded that, in Trump’s hands, “The West is a racial and religious term.” He placed the speech in the context of earlier white nationalist rhetoric from presidential advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. So did Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie, who contrasted John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s “ideological” vision of the West with Trump’s nativist one, “defined by ties of culture and religion” and supposedly threatened by Latino immigration as much as Islamist terrorism.
“To hear paeans to an entire Western civilization as if they were merely tribal is bizarre,” shot back Michael Brendan Dougherty in The National Review. He acknowledged that Trump makes an awkward messenger for the values he espoused (“if he embodies something Western, it is that civilization’s defects, its arrogance and avarice”) and that the West has a checkered past (“Like every other great civilization, it is filled with hypocrisy, and nobility. Capable of monstrous cruelty, and great beauty”). But Dougherty found himself still wanting to defend a civilization facing a kind of crisis:
Even if I disagree with Trump about the seriousness of some external threats to our common civilization, I believe that Western civilization is undergoing a deep crisis in its spirit, that it suffers from having lost its faith and also all the hope it had placed in the ideas and ideologies that it used as substitutes for faith.”
“There is no shortage of fair criticism of Trump’s speech,” agreed Jason Willick in the Washington Post. “But by identifying Western civilization itself with white nationalism, the center-left is unwittingly empowering its enemies and imperiling its values.”
So should Americans identify with “the West”? Do they need to defend “our civilization” against existential threats? More importantly (at least for readers of this blog), how should Christians in America answer such questions?
Let me propose that a non-Western intellectual might help us think through our answers: the Chinese writer-activist Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Imprisoned by his country’s Communist government for a third time after co-writing the Charter 08 manifesto, Liu died of liver cancer on July 13th — one week after Trump’s speech in Poland.
If, like me, you didn’t know all that much about Liu, get started with Perry Link’s tribute in The New York Review of Books (“The Passion of Liu Xiaobo”). Then pick up No Enemies, No Hatred, a 2012 collection of essays and poems edited by Link with Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liu’s wife, Liu Xia. Both in the NYRB piece and his introduction to No Enemies, No Hatred, Link emphasizes Liu’s complicated relationship to Western civilization.
On the one hand, Liu admired several liberal values that he found in the West, especially the United States, which (he argued in 2006) achieved great power status “without relying on the occupation and plunder of colonial territory, but… by supporting freedom, democracy, and national independence around the world, including independence from colonial rule.” (He later wrote that the election of Barack Obama “underscores the greatness of the American system.”) Liu was less impressed by his first interactions with Western scholars. Link writes of Liu’s visit to Columbia University, not long before the protests in Tiananmen Square:
People expected him, as a visitor from China, to fit in by representing the “the subaltern,” [sic] by resisting the “discursive hegemony” of the “metropole,” and so on. Liu wondered why people in New York were telling him how it felt to be Chinese. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Was “postcolonialism” itself a kind of intellectual colonialism? Liu wrote in May 1989 that “no matter how strenuously Western intellectuals try to negate colonial expansionism and the white man’s sense of superiority, when faced with other nations Westerners cannot help feeling superior. Even when criticizing themselves, they become besotted with their own courage and sincerity.”
Liu was about to publish his book Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals, but his experience in New York caused him to rethink his relationship to the West, as he explained in an epilogue reprinted in No Enemies, No Hatred. “Western culture,” Liu continued to believe, “can serve as a comparison that helps to illuminate the contours, including the many flaws, of Chinese culture, as a critical tool with which to attack China’s obsolescence, and as a source of wisdom that can bring new lifeblood to China.” But he also lamented his own “obsequious” posture (“I have viewed the West as if it were not only the salvation of China but also the natural and ultimate destination of all humanity”) and concluded that Western culture’s “tradition of critical reason” required “one to adopt a critical attitude toward everything—the West as well as China.”
Most pointedly, Liu criticized the West for falling short of its own aspirations. While it “requires concern for the fate of all humanity and for the incompleteness of the individual person,” the West “cannot save humanity in an overall sense.” Like any civilization, he concluded, “it possesses all the flaws of humanity in general” and is unable to address the true problems of the late 20th century:
Humanity so far has been unable to conceive a completely new civilization that might solve such problems as the population explosion, the energy crisis, environmental imbalance, nuclear disarmament, and addiction to pleasure and to commercialization. Nor is there any culture that can help humanity once and for all eliminate spiritual suffering or transcend personal limits…. Humanity has been seeking a final destination ever since its banishment from the Garden of Eden; Western culture is not that final destination, but merely a stage in the journey.
Liu’s allusion to Genesis is particularly noteworthy, and sets up further biblical reflection as the epilogue continues: “Even more lamentable, the Western notion of ‘original sin’ has grown weaker over time and general awareness of repentance is in sharp decline…. How can people who lack a sense of ‘original sin’ ever hear the voice of God?” (The collection also includes a poem inspired by Augustine’s Confessions.) In the end, his critique of the West was less political than spiritual: “By its own hand, humanity in the West has killed the sacred values of its heart.”
While he doesn’t seem to have converted to Christianity (unlike some other Chinese dissidents), Liu admired “the miraculous triumph of Jesus over Caesar.” Writing from a labor camp in 1998, Liu extolled Jesus with words that seem particularly timely for Western Christians tempted to make alliances with contemporary caesars for the sake of “our civilization”:
Jesus is a model of martyrdom because he withstood the temptations of power, wealth, and glamour, and remained steadfast even when threatened with crucifixion.
Most important of all, Jesus exemplified opposition without hatred or the desire for retaliation; his heart was filled with boundless love and forgiveness. Completely eschewing violence, he epitomized passive resistance, serenely defiant even as he meekly carried his own cross.
No matter how profane and pragmatic our world is, we will have passion, miracles, and beauty as long as we have the example of Jesus Christ.