Civilisation and humanity

Guest Column: Fr Oskar Wermter

In ancient Rome it was with great pride that a man could say Civis Romanus Sum — “I am a Roman citizen”. The concept of “civilisation”, which could be translated as “a State that has humane laws and upholds them, especially its constitution, a Bill of Rights that guarantees Human Dignity and safeguards Human Life” was very controversial in colonial situations.

The claim to being “civilised” was used as a justification for colonising the allegedly “uncivilised” indigenous population while giving rare privileges to the colonisers. The majority were considered “uncivilised”, while the ruling “minority” claimed that theirs was a white man’s country, depriving the majority of proper citizenship-status.

In ancient Rome there were those who could claim: “I am a Roman citizen,” which gave them rights and privileges as “owners of the State”, which the large number of (mostly foreign) slaves could not claim to possess.

We know that in many parts of the world, for thousands of years, people were divided into the ruling class and servants (“indentured labour” in feudal societies) or serfs (the private property of their masters). Economies were based on much discrimination. Politics was marked by the conflicts between landowners and peasants, generals and foot soldiers, learned elites and uneducated, illiterate “masses”, the capitalist upper class and the proletariat.

It was not just foodstuffs and clothes, household goods and furniture that were being traded on market places. Slaves, regarded as just another form of household goods, were also there for sale.

It was assumed that the civilised elite had the right to use the uncivilised as their “chattel”, among others: Their work instruments. Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) in the new world used the indigenous, locally-born Indios as slave labourers on their big plantations. Many Indios died of infectious diseases or of sheer exhaustion. Slave labour wiped out whole populations.

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) settled the Indios in villages, where they learnt many trades and skills which made them independent and protected them from being abused as plantation slaves. Nevertheless, Christians, even their shepherds, had slaves themselves. There was a heated debate going on for centuries about the moral law concerning slavery. Eventually the anti-slavery movement helped abolish the institution of slavery. Galley slaves (a form of punishment for criminals who had to row large ships called galleys) were no longer chained to their seats and ships were driven instead by sails or steam engines.

Scholars understood that a fellow Christian cannot be used as a slave, because he is now a brother (Philemon 16). Master and servant are both citizens in the same “kingdom of God” and the slave must be treated as an equal and, therefore, as a free man or woman. This led to the church no longer allowing Indios or Africans or any other people to be made slaves, but giving them the same status as citizens.

In theory, Romans and Greeks had the same philosophy, but they did not give up slavery because their economies depended on huge slave populations, just as it did in Islamic countries and in countries under colonial rule.

But the teaching of Christ in Scripture became more and more common and accepted in different countries and cultures. Socialism was aiming at forming new egalitarian societies, based on new forms of industrial production and mining.

But there were setbacks. Soviet Russia condemned dissidents to forced labour in highly dangerous mines. Colonial agricultural production needed farm labour, forcing the unemployed local population into labour migration, separating men from their wives and destabilising families. It was assumed that indigenous people had no culture, no civilisation, no rules governing family life and no status as citizens in the countries of their birth.

Colonised populations launched revolutions and wars of liberation to take their countries back from the civilised powers that had condemned them to an uncivilised status. The United Nations introduced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), setting a standard for Western civilisation which gradually became a worldwide standard.

Philosophers and theologians had argued about whether the indigenous people of America, Africa and Asia were fully human. The leaders of the Enlightenment talked about freedom, human rights and dignity. The French Revolution had the slogan “Liberty, Fraternity, Egalite”. But this had, for a long time, no practical consequences. The humanity of the uncivilised, if not “barbarians”, continued to be fought over by believers as much as by agnostics.

The church produced a man like Father Peter Claver who spent his life in Cartagena or Columbia giving spiritual comfort to the cargo of slave ships from Africa, for example Angola.
He provided them with medicines and food which they had lacked while crossing the Atlantic. For a long time the church(es) did not doubt the morality of capturing prisoners of war or even civilians.

Though in theory condemning possession of human persons, landowners, including church bodies and wealthy miners continued the practice.

Eventually the full humanity of enslaved people, equal rights and equal dignity and worth were recognised in a long drawn-out political battle, even military campaigns (for example, civil war between Northern and Southern States of the USA which began in 1861).

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, based his anti-slavery stance on the fact that persons — never to be used as tools or things — had inborn rights which are inalienable and belong necessarily to humanity. Christianity makes it necessary to remove ….the essence of slavery. Christians were to treat slaves as brothers. For hundreds of years the church ignored the letter to Philemon. Now the church remembered the brother — and sisterhood of all men and women “in Christ”, whether freemen or serfs. Slavery was declared inhuman and uncivilised, in fact evil ( Galatians 3: 28).

This fundamental equality of all men and women became the foundation of modern States. People are civilised if they are fully recognised as citizens of their country and State.
Civilisation goes together with full citizenship. The use of police and army in political assassinations is uncivilised and violates the status of citizens. It fails to recognise their full humanity.

Some years ago a law was introduced in Zimbabwe that deprived citizens of foreign origin of their citizenship. That was indeed an uncivilised legal provision which deprived genuine citizens of their human rights and dignity, unworthy of a country claiming to belong to the civilised world, where the full humanity of all citizens is honoured. Citizenship is a right, not just a privilege. No one should ever be deprived of it.

Mass migrations due to lack of employment and to political oppression often land migrants in countries where they have no citizenship, become alienated from their own culture and are not regarded as civilised and in possession of their inalienable human dignity. They may be detained as illegal and may suffer imprisonment under inhuman conditions. Which raises the question whether such a host country is fully civilised by world standards. Human rights activists will act on their common humanity and endeavour to treat such outcasts as their brothers and sisters. That would be a manifestation of civilisation in a political and humanitarian sense. People who have fought for their liberation out of slavery must forever respect the lives of free citizens.

We may have learnt in our history lessons in school that slavery and the slave trade were abolished in the early 19th century under the leadership of the British parliamentarian William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833). But the slave trade is by no means dead. It has come back in our time, not only in Arab-speaking countries, but also right here in southern Africa, in Europe and elsewhere. We now know it as human trafficking.

Traffickers trick women and girls, especially, into feeding the sex industry with sex workers who are sold to men for cash. Young jobless women accept offers of jobs somewhere overseas and end up as sex slaves. Without money, deprived of their passports, they are abused by traffickers who exploit the current mass migration across the continent for their business.

Very dedicated social workers, some of them religious women, fight an unending battle for the freedom of our sisters and daughters and for their dignity in our civilisation. The battle is not yet over.

Fr Oskar Wermter Sj is a social commentator. He writes in his personal capacity.

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