Revilo P. Oliver: Christianity--Religion of the West. (03/27/2001)

For those of you who may not be familiar with the name, Revilo Oliver was a professor of Classics at the University of Illinois for thirty years who managed to become something of a legendary figure in the esteem of people on the extremes of right-wing conservative political fanaticism for his virulent racist views. To say that he was a purveyor of racism and racist attitudes to a generation of white American children at a major university is to say what is only obvious. Oliver died in 1994, which I mention only to dispel the notion that he was a throwback to a less tolerant age, say to the 1860's. I found examples of his work on a website maintained by someone who calls himself Yggdrasil. This person made a comment, in speaking about why he was not a Christian, to the effect that he "was not about to believe a faith that left [him] a second-class citizen, much less one that exposed [him] to divinely ordained genocidal attacks!" I found this statement in the context of, even as a kind of introduction to, an essay Oliver wrote decrying the fact that Christians were not as willing now as they used to be to defend themselves against the "genocidal attacks" Yggdrasil cites as the reason he does not accept the faith.

Before getting down to Oliver's essay, I thought it might be useful to put my reasons for doing so at all in a contemporary context. Sunday morning on Meet the Press (03/25/2001), a prominent Republican and Bush supporter, whose identity I no longer recall precisely, which may only indicate that I cannot tell one white person from another because they all sound alike, responded to a question about how the problem of AIDS in Africa should be dealt with by the new administration in Washington. He prefaced his answer by referring to the deplorable conditions Christians are being forced to endure in the Sudan and then suggested that some kind of military action ought to be taken to protect them from persecution. What one thing had to do with the other was not initially clear in my mind. He went on to explain, however, that the spread of AIDS in Africa was the result of an absence of character, an absence of a proper sense of morality among the people who were being infected by the disease. The best way to treat that problem, according to him, was to send more Christian missionaries into Africa to teach the kind of values that prevent the transmission of diseases. When asked if he would support sending money to buy drugs to treat people who were already infected, he declined to answer the question at all. I took his evasion as a no.

While this Bush-Republican voice was not named Revilo P. Oliver, I am hard pressed to find any distinction between them. I say this because of the attitudes Oliver expressed in The Liberty Bell in his essay entitled "Christianity-The Religion of the West." In that essay he refers to an uprising of native Africans against their German colonial masters in these terms:

"In 1905, for example, the Maji-Maji conspiracy in Tanganyika murdered all the missionaries and almost all the White men and women in the entire territory, and it required a German regiment and several companies of marines to restore the teaching of the Gospel. That was done by giving some forty or fifty thousand demonstrations that a Mauser bullet could penetrate even a Black hide that had been most carefully anointed with the grease of a boiled baby."

Precisely how much of this statement can be taken at face value is difficult, even impossible, to determine. That native African revolts against Europeans occurred during this period of African history is certainly true and well documented. In Namibia, at about this same time (1904-1915), the Germans suppressed an uprising by the Herero tribe with equally brutal tactics, where as many as 80,000 of them were killed, as opposed to only 50,000 of the Maji-Maji in Tanganyika, to preserve European control and hegemony over their colonial empire. Linking the revolt to an implied cause of African rejection of, and hatred for, Christian missionaries, as Oliver does here, and then further suggesting that the Germans acted only out of a desire to see that the Gospel be restored as a guiding principle for life and morality among the natives, where the actual motive was probably only an exploitatively economic one, generates a false impression that the genocidal war against native people really had a noble ground, especially since a reintroduction of Christian morals would prevent the loss of any more "babies" to the savage practices alluded to in this statement. This is a standard and typical rhetorical practice employed by anyone bent on proving that Eurocentric and Christian genocide against people of color is always necessarily justified by the others' innate and irredeemable savagery.

Oliver carries this ideological stance one step further by implying that native people, even when they are converted to Christianity by the tireless efforts of missionaries, do not really become Christians. He puts the idea in these terms:

"It was clear, furthermore, that the "converts," even those who had been most thoroughly imbued with an awe of the god of repeating rifles and locomotives, would conform to the White man's morality only under coercion, and that whenever they escaped from the White man's supervision they spontaneously reverted not only to their own mores but also to whatever form of voodoo they had practiced before."

Apart from its blatant racism, which should never be put aside, Oliver here commits the cardinal sin that has always shadowed, followed in the wake of, the spread of Christianity over the whole course of its life in the world occupied by people of color, by tribal people everywhere they live. The sin I mean is the blind assumption that Christianity, with its abject dependence on binary opposition and hierarchical structure flowing from the well of its creationist ideology, as the only legitimate way to define the human condition, stands as somehow innately superior to native belief systems that privilege instead concepts of a fundamental need and necessity for human beings to maintain themselves and their communities in harmonic relationships with the natural world. Reaching out from that same belief system, of course, in the absence of hierarchical structure, is a fundamental recognition that no one and nothing is superior to anyone or anything else in the universe. It is this fact that turns Christians to their hatred and fear of native belief systems ("voodoo" as Oliver sees it) because tribal people have always resisted European efforts to exploit natural reality for the sake of their own insatiable greed for wealth and power. When we resist a doctrine that justifies the destruction of our environment, of course, we boil babies and kill missionaries to protect ourselves from having to abandon our savage and immoral practices. Any lie is worth telling, apparently, to preserve the false consciousness that flows like any other poison from the well of creationist ideology. We stand fast, and always will, against such slander.

My only concern here is to point out the disturbing similarity between Revilo P. Oliver's perception of the "Christian" history of Africa and the apparent willingness of Bush-Republicans to follow along on that same path to the annihilation of the other. While I cannot document the fact that the one I heard Sunday morning is a disciple of Oliver, nothing he said strikes me as being any different than the position the University of Illinois allowed him to express during his tenure there as a professor of Classics. Oliver was certainly true to his calling, of course, since everything he believed was classical racism.