In the late 15th century, a global conquest emerged that would continue for four centuries. The strategy was simple: European nations arrived on foreign shores declaring ownership based on the notion of Western superiority and strength. Your land is now our land, your resources are now our resources, and your culture is now our culture.
Why? Because we say so.
Now on the other side of the conquest, some have begun to recognize and lament just how painful the path of Western imperialism truly was for other cultures. For example, this past Columbus Day, social-media feeds were disrupted by the hashtag #IndigenousPeoplesDay.
Progressives, in particular, are leading the way in raising awareness about the shameful parts of our imperialistic past, and for this they should be commended. It is easy for Westerners, like myself, to romanticize our culture’s history while ignoring or even rewriting its ugliness. So I am thankful for voices reminding me that the story of my culture hasn’t been as pleasant for people outside my culture.
And, yet, the same people lamenting our imperialistic past are often the very ones championing imperialism’s newest frontier. Make no mistake, Western imperialism continues undaunted, though admittedly its ambition has changed. The quest for world dominance has been replaced by the quest for worldview dominance, and the latter is as aggressive a campaign as the former once was.
Nowhere is this new conquest fiercer than the advancement of the sexual revolution.
I recently visited the United Kingdom, where the new sexual ethic of secular Western culture has become an all-out militant march. Under the banner of tolerance, it is quite clear there is no tolerance for opposing views of sexual morality. A few of the many examples I encountered:
▪ Someone scolding an expectant mother for throwing a gender reveal party, claiming it reinforced archaic social constructs about gender.
▪ A sign on the train asking people to be vigilant listeners and report to the authorities any language about sexuality or gender that they deemed judgmental or harmful.
▪ Chilling legislation in the Scottish parliament that would appoint a state official for every child to hold parents accountable in many different areas, seemingly including the worldview (e.g., sexual ethics) they are teaching their children.
But at the same time, the other conversation dominating British culture is a deep embarrassment over Great Britain’s history of imperialism and the need to correct it by welcoming and celebrating the diversity of other cultures. That is certainly a noble endeavor, but just how far are they willing to go in welcoming the culture of others? Does it include the ethics of other cultures?
Do Westerners not realize that the vast majority of people and cultures subscribe to a different sexual ethic than they do? Do they not see the arrogance of assuming it is only here in 21st-century Western secularism that we have discovered the true meaning of gender and sexuality?
To the rest of the world, it just feels like the same old imperialistic story. In its harshest forms, it is an aggressive purging of any competing ethic behind the shroud of hate-speech legislation. In its milder forms, it is a patronizing hubris that views other cultures as helplessly archaic and in need of our sophisticated, educated and enlightened ethic.
But either way, the message is the same: Our worldview is taking over your worldview, and there is nothing you can do about it. Why? Because we say so.
Will the conquest ever end? Oh, how beautiful it would be if the West repented of its imperialistic past by actually listening and learning from other cultures. Does the West have the humility to consider what Africa and Asia believe about sexuality and gender? Do the metropolitan centers of America care at all what rural and middle Americans think? Is there still room in public discourse for religious opinions that derive ethics from a transcendent ethical standard?
If your answer to questions like these is, “No, because those people are either helplessly naïve and behind the times or just outright bigots,” then you are proving my point. That is Western arrogance at its finest and a sure sign that you would benefit from taking some time to get to know people who don’t think like you.
Can the West lay down its imperialism and humble itself before the rest of the world? Regrettably, it seems this is simply too much to ask of most Westerners. It is, after all, a 500-year habit we’ve developed.
We don’t listen and learn, we conquer and colonize. Once it was other worlds. Now it’s other worldviews.
The Rev. Robert Cunningham is senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Lexington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.