War in ‘civilized’ Europe is nothing new. Here’s why white Westerners think otherwise.

Europeans are supposed to be the ones who save ‘heathens’ from their bad behavior.

Civilian volunteers attend a training camp of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces in Brovary, northeast of Kyiv, Ukraine, March 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

(RNS) — It wasn’t long after Russia invaded Ukraine before commentators began differentiating between war in Europe and war elsewhere.

On Feb. 25, a day after invasion began, Charlie D’Agata, senior foreign correspondent for CBS News, described Kyiv as more “relatively civilized, relatively European” than other combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. (He later apologized.) An ITV reporter in Poland described the war as “the unthinkable … and this is not a developing, third world nation, this is Europe.”

On March 9, the United Kingdom’s Prince William took his turn, explaining that, “it’s very alien to see this [conflict] in Europe.” Expressing his frustration over the war in Ukraine, he lamented, “We feel so useless.”

Too many people seem shocked that war could happen in Europe — where World War II began in much the same way barely a lifetime ago. This collective surprise seems rooted in the idea that white Westerners simply don’t behave this way any longer. This kind of behavior is for the impoverished and remote. It’s for the Third World.

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Western society used to have another word for “impoverished and remote” people who could be expected to behave in “uncivilized” ways: heathens.

The word was usually used in religious contexts, but it was never simply about belief. It always included expectations about who was inclined to be what white Westerners considered less than fully “civilized.” 

“Heathen” — the word and the concept — is related to the Latin “pagan,” which described those dwellers in the countryside who resisted Christianization. Heathens were wanderers in the “heath” who clung to their old gods. As Europe became increasingly Christianized, the category of the “heathen” came to cover the vast majority of the non-European world — the “heathen world.”

In the 19th century, Christian Europeans and Euro-Americans saw themselves as God’s special emissaries to save the “heathens” and bring them into the “light” of Christianity. Christianization equated to civilization.

The Bible taught the right attitude toward the land and the proper division of gender roles that marked a people as “civilized.” The Christian man was supposed to domesticate the land and its beasts and make the wilderness blossom as the rose. The Christian woman was to domesticate the home, raising her children and feeding her family with the land’s abundance. All were to live in peace and harmony. 

The “heathens,” by contrast, were supposed to do nothing useful to the land because they feared the spirits who dwelled in it. Heathens were said to live polygamously, as their false idols did, and to give their allegiance to violent despots who claimed to have the gods on their side. Fundamentally, the heathens were supposed to be unable to govern themselves or care for their lands and their bodies.

This view was a fabrication that meant to set the European (and, later, the Euro-American) apart as Christian, civilized and therefore superior. The “heathen world” served as a foil, enabling Europeans and Euro-Americans to feel gratitude for who they were. If it also prompted guilt for not doing more to save the “heathen,” it also gave them an outlet for expiating that guilt — they could help the helpless. They could prove themselves as saviors so long as they were not the ones in need of saving. 

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Prince William’s lament — “we feel so useless” — gives voice to a white Western sense of befuddlement and confusion over a world where Europeans are the ones fighting each other instead, where Europeans are the ones in need of help.

History is full of Western armies marching into countries that didn’t belong to them, justifying their own violence in the name of quelling “heathen” violence and saving their “heathen” souls. It rationalized everything from the enslavement of African-descended people, to the creation of residential schools that separated Native American children from their families, to the annexation of Hawaii. 

The coverage of the Ukraine war, with its references to “civilized” countries, tries to distinguish Europe from what were not so long ago termed “s–thole countries.” Euphemisms such as the “Third World,” “developing countries,” “impoverished and remote populations” are just 21st-century replacements for “heathen world.”

(Kathryn Gin Lum is an associate professor in the religious studies department at Stanford University and author of the forthcoming “Heathen: Religion and Race in American History.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

This story has been updated.

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