Note 2: Tertullian: The Christian Colonization of the Other. 2/21/99

The idea that the impulse to colonization has its origin in Western thought as recently as the end of the Middle Ages, or at the beginning of the Renaissance, that it was, in fact, an impulse that came into Western thinking simultaneously with the initiation of the voyages of conquest at the end of the fifteenth century with Columbus's journey to America, is a view that fails to take into account the deeply rooted missionary zealotry of the Christian colonization of Western Europe in the early years of the first millennium. Attributing the spread of Christian bigotry in the New World to the rise of secular humanism in the Renaissance is a strategy meant to deflect the blame for the devastation caused by good Christians and true in native America from its real agents in the church to people and ideas that have come to be seen as enemies of the true faith in secular humanistic and scientific ideals. This is not to say, of course, that Eurocentric humanism does not shoulder its own burden in the destruction of native culture in the Americas. Secular humanism in Europe after all is nothing more than the same complex of ideas expressed in Christian bigotry transformed into less religiously oriented terms meant to accomplish the same goals, the subjugation of the Other to the yoke of perceived Eurocentric superiority for the sake of material exploitation, that have always already driven Europe in its desire to prove itself the master race of (wo)man's domination of nature. Christian bigotry and Eurocentric secular humanism, in other words, are just two branches of the same insidious desire to dominate the Other and to destroy what Europeans have always seen as the Satanic evil lying at the heart of the natural world.

Tertullian, a third century Christian theologian, who died around 260 A. D., in his Treatise on the Soul, included a brief discussion of the progress of the "human race" as he perceived it at the time. He notes, for instance, that

"the human race has progressed with a gradual growth of population, either occupying different portions of the earth as aborigines, or as nomade tribes, or as exiles, or as conquerors . . . or by the more ordinary methods of emigration, which they call 'apaikiai' or colonies, for the purpose of throwing off redundant population, disgorging into other abodes their overcrowded masses."

The impulse to colonization mentioned here as a "more ordinary method of emigration" tends to conceal the fact that "exiles" and "conquerors" generally pave the way for civilized people to overrun the land occupied or controlled by mere "aborigines" and people who belong to "nomade tribes." This is true because civilized people always believe that their occupation and exploitation of aboriginal land, or territory held by nomadic tribes, constitutes a far more efficient and effective use of natural resources than that which can be accomplished by transitory populations of hunters and herders who depend upon mere nature to supply their needs and wants. Colonies, as Tertullian notes here, serve the purpose of providing "abodes" where civilized nations can throw off "redundant population." This perception of social reality, even at this early date, serves to devalue both the land that is targeted for appropriation and the excess population that will be sent to occupy it. This too is clear from the fact that this Christian theologian refers to such people as the "overcrowded masses" who must be gotten rid of simply because they are redundant. The fact that civilization must periodically "disgorge" its excess signifies how little regard Tertullian has for people who crowd his own exalted and privileged space. He goes on to note that

"Surely it is obvious enough, if one looks at the whole world, that it is becoming daily better cultivated and more fully peopled than anciently. All places are now accessible, all are well known, all open to commerce; most pleasant farms have obliterated all traces of what were once dreary and dangerous wastes; cultivated fields have subdued forests; flocks and herds have expelled wild beasts; sandy deserts are sown; rocks are planted; marshes are drained; and where once were hardly solitary cottages, there are now large cities. No longer are (savage) islands dreaded, nor their rocky shores feared; everywhere are houses, and inhabitants, and settled government, and civilised life."

This passage seems to suggest that all is well in the developing spread of society. Tertullian here anticipates an attitude that permeates Eurocentric perceptions of the balance that stands between culture and nature. Antonio Gramsci, for instance, as noted elsewhere in this document, in his Prison Notebooks, argues that "one can provide a quantitative measurement of the difference between the past and present, since one can measure the extent to which man dominates nature and change" (360). That is precisely what Tertullian is doing here in spite of the fact that it took 1670 years or so for Gramsci to state what was always already obvious to a third century Christian theologian. Also perfectly evident here is the Christian sense that the evils represented by nature, characterized with terms like "dreary and dangerous wastes" and "savage islands," which civilized people are taught to fear and dread because they are occupied by "wild beasts," are well on their way to being obliterated and destroyed under the relentless spread of "settled government" and "civilised life." Frederic Jameson has made this same, or a similar observation, without the Christian overtones, in The Political Unconscious (113-116). That "pleasant farms have obliterated all traces" of "dangerous wastes," that "cultivated fields have subdued forests," that "flocks and herds have expelled wild beasts," are all ideas and ideals that have been practiced, pursued, and celebrated by Western civilization since it began its journey out of Jerusalem and Rome into Europe and the Americas at the beginning of the first millennium. Tertullian, however, was not completely pleased with progress up to that point:

"What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint), is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race; and yet, when the hatchet has once felled large masses of men, the world has hitherto never once been alarmed at the sight of a restitution of its dead coming back to life after their millennial exile."

Fortunately for us, we have still not seen the return of the dead after the "millennial exile" promised to repentant sinners in the New Testament. One way to comprehend Tertullian's statement here may lie in the belief that no one has returned from the dead because the people who have died prior to this point were not Christian in the first place, never did, nor were they ever likely to, repent of their heathen sins, and so did not deserve to return to life under any circumstances anyway. The brutality of Tertullian's suggestion that natural disasters are the best hope nations have of reducing populations seems perfectly consistent with Christian belief. In this conclusion to his observations about the state of human society, Tertullian finds a useful scapegoat for social problems in his assertion that nature itself has failed to supply all the wants and needs of (wo)man's "teeming population." The oddest aspect of this statement might be the notion that the disasters of nature that everyone can expect to befall us sooner or later are here applauded as a "natural" means of "pruning the luxuriance of the human race" back to a number that can fit into the world's available space. In the Middle Ages, of course, Luxuria was one of the seven deadly sins, a tradition doubtless started here by Tertullian's recognition that at the heart of the earth's overpopulation lies the sin of lechery.

Chaucer's Parson has some enlightening things to say about Luxuria in his sermon that includes discussion of all seven deadly sins and a few other thrown in for good measure:

"And therfore [God] putte grete peynes agayns this synne in the olde lawe. If womman thral were taken in this synne, she sholde be beten with staves to the deeth; and if she were a gentil womman, she sholde be slayn with stones; and if she were a bisshoppes doghter, she sholde been brent, by Goddes comandement. Forther over, by the synne of lecherie God dreynte al the world at the diluge. And after that he brente fyve citees with thonder-leyt, and sank hem into helle." (X.836-839)

One thing made perfectly clear in this passage is that God was surely opposed to the sin of lechery and let no opportunity pass wherein He could punish anyone taken in the sin of having, or desiring to have, sex with another person. The punishment meted out under the "olde lawe" (Old Testament) was always death; by being beaten with staves, by being stoned, or by being burned at the stake. One has to take note of the fact that there was an hierarchy involved in deciding the appropriate punishment: common women got the stave, noble women got the stones, and bishop's daughters got the stake. One could spend a lifetime trying to figure out why the form of punishment varied from one social class to another. Men, of course, were never guilty of lechery and that raises the question of how heterosexual women were able to commit the sin in the first place. When things got bad enough, God drowned the entire world in Noah's flood to punish the sin and after that found it necessary to destroy five extra cities with lightning-bolts before he delivered them all to hell.

It is important to note here that the Parson's discourse, which is totally representative of the dominant ideology of the fourteenth century, perfectly consistent in every way with it, is one directed specifically at the Other. The male-dominated hierarchy of the church singles out women as being the sole and absolute source and cause of the sin of lechery and establishes specific class-oriented punishments for them alone when the sin is uncovered. Men were not considered to be guilty of lechery because women were not able to control their desire, always acted on it, even in cases of rape, and were therefore seen as trapping innocent, hapless men in the web of their seductive wiles, as Eve had done to Adam in the Garden of Eden, thus turning them into victims rather than perpetrators of the act.

Even today, women who are raped find no justice if the man can convince the judge or jury that he was tempted into his act of violation by the woman's slutty dress or behavior. Clinton tried to use that strategy in the Lewinsky affair when he told people that she was a stalker. While most people were not taken in by his claim, there is just enough credibility present in such ideas to raise as many levels of doubt as necessary in people who do not have to say so publicly. To argue that Clinton's strategy did not work is to miss the point of its intent. He was not trying to convince anyone that he was guiltless. He was playing against the Christian ideology that men are not really to blame when they fall victim to a determined seduction brought to bear against them by a woman who cannot control her desire for his sexual attention. The House Managers were then caught in the ultimate dilemma of having to deny the fact that their case was about sex, because any good Christian and true would be forced to side with Clinton against Lewinsky, and pursue instead a denunciation of Clinton's perceived willful disobedience in refusing to adhere to the Rule of Law. What the Managers of the impeachment trial could prove was sex. What they could not prove, but were forced to try, was perjury and obstruction of justice. Being a good Baptist and true, Clinton knew exactly how to handle the House Managers.

A more significant point here in terms of Tertullian's argument is the fact that his appeal to natural disasters in helping civilized states rid themselves of "overcrowded masses" of unproductive citizens points directly back at the notion that God uses such means as floods, warfare, earthquakes, and pestilence to punish the sin of lechery. Lechery is the direct cause of overpopulation. Reducing that threat to civil government therefore becomes God's duty in punishing the guilty masses who have caused the problem through their lack of self-control. The fact that this discourse is directed at the Other, women, in the first place, and ultimately, at all people of color, explains why it is always already necessary to accuse the inferior classes of humanity of being guilty of Luxuria. After that fact is established in the common mind, through the hegemonic use of ideology, it becomes perfectly proper to punish some by beating them to death with staves and burning the others at the stake. No good Christian and true ever backed away from that responsibility when the opportunity to execute God's Rule of Law fell on their capable shoulders.

The lesson here seems to be that just when you think the monsters have all been driven from the savage islands of our republic, a House Manager stand forth in the well of the US Senate and demands the death penalty for a President guilty of having had sex in or near an oval. Tertullian would have been proud of the moment that made the rest of us ill. Chaucer's Parson would have been at the head of the lynch mob. The House Managers acquitted themselves with honor and glory. The idea that colonization has no history before the Renaissance is lost in the fact that Tertullian always already knows how best to use it when it becomes necessary to clear a little under-utilized land for the material expansion of the only people on earth who deserve the spoils of conquest and exploitation. Native Americans have always already realized who and what moves the whiteman through our land. And it has always already been a religious impulse because genocide needs God on its side to go forth without fear of censure or impeachment, so to speak.

To return to Index click X in the upper right-hand corner of the page.

To view Myth of Eden Index click here.