Christian Civilization Gives Us Tomorrow – conversation with Joshua Mitchell

2021. december 21. 22:08
“The miracle of the Christian formulation in my view is that it both announces that man is stained and then says that this is not the final word about him. So the burden of our guilt can be lifted from our shoulders. There are all sorts of travesties in human history but through forgiveness and atonement we could have a tomorrow” – Joshua Mithcell professor at Georgetown University pointed out in a conversation with Lénárd Sándor.

Joshua MITCHELL is a professor of political theory at Georgetown University. He has been Chairman of the Government Department and also Acting Chancellor at The American University of Iraq – Sulaimani.. His research interest lies in the relationship between political thought and theology in the West. In addition to teaching at Georgetown University, Dr. Mitchell writes extensively about contemporary American politics, and is an avid conservationist, committed to stewardship on his small farm on the Eastern Shore.


On both sides of the Atlantic, we can see renewed efforts to rediscover the unique American and European Christian way of life that once elevated the Western civilization and culture. My very first question is when and how did we lose our way of life, our very soul,  so that now we need to seek a way to rediscover?

Throughout Christianity, there have been many moments of deflection, when something new has been tried beside Christianity. Even at the very beginning there was the heresy of Gnosticism.

So Christianity has always seen movements that attempt to supersede it and get passed it.

The Enlightenment is probably the most powerful one. It was based on the hope that we could build a foundation on reason alone. One can argue that this project is still with us, but I think it is safe to say that the current alternative to Christianity is not so much the Enlightenment as it is  the postmodern movement.

What have been the consequences of these deflections?

In the Gospels, in the Epistles of Paul, and in the writings of Saint Augustine, to name early sources, it was understood that man is a creature who rebels against Christianity and suffers under the illusion that his freedom consists in rebellion.  Eventually, of course, man  realizes that things do not work out well when he rebels.. I think what many people are realizing is that as we have moved through the Enlightenment, the French revolution, the Marxist revolution, and now what I call the “identity politics” revolution,

each time we have deflected from Christianity, the consequences have become graver,

the absurdity of life appears more visible and people lose their bearings and their orientation. One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The son who leaves the father. He takes the father treasure and goes his own way. He thinks he can live without his father, although he loses his way slowly but surely. He ultimately ends up sleeping with pigs and eating pig corn and then the husks of pig corn. Only when he is completely starving does he realize he has to go home to his father’s house.

So this serves as a metaphor of what has happened with the Christian civilization…

Yes, I think that is where we are right now. We have taken the treasure of Christianity, the idea of the dignity of the person, equality under God, the importance of guilt and introspection. We thought we can have those without Christianity itself.  So, we have gone farther and farther from our father’s home and we realize increasingly that we are starving. We are trying to find nourishment where it cannot be found, and now a lot of people are saying we have to return home.

There is a longing for a homecoming in the West.

Not everywhere but a lot of people are saying that this can’t be the life we are meant to live, and we have to somehow turn around now.

You mentioned the various phases of revolutions from the Enlightenment to Marxism to the “identity politics” or “woke” ideology. How could this latter one become such a dominant and omnipresent force in societies of West?

My argument is that people on the progressive Left who are advocating “identity politics” what we call “woke” politics are in reality practicing a deeply distorted version of Christianity itself. In the 1830s, Tocqueville wrote that the French Revolution was an “incomplete Christianity,” an “incomplete religion.”  I think the Marxist Revolution, which sought to bring about the “end of time” in a way is also a distortion of Christianity. “Identity politics” follows this pattern, but I am not sure people understand why.

What is your narrative and how does it relate to Christianity?

What I have been suggesting for the last year or so is that the Christian idea of scapegoat is the one we should pay attention to. Christ is the divine scapegoat: all the cathartic rage of the world is put on him with his crucifixion.

The Christian account of this is that as he is the divine scapegoat who once and for all the time takes away the sins of the World.

This results in a profound transformation of civilization. It put an end to paganism which believe that your rage can be directed toward people with other Gods. They hold that if we can purge them and destroy them or practice genocide against them, then we restore the purity of the World. So in paganism, there is an imminent scapegoat who can be found in the world of time. Christianity puts an end to that conception. It says that the problem with sin is so deep that we cannot solve this by scapegoating other groups. As we today are returning to a pagan world, this profound Christian insight that a divine scapegoat has to take way the sins of the world has been lost. I do not think this is a secular world. A more pagan understanding of the scapegoat is reemerging.

This is what the postmodern world embraces?

Yes, identity politics has the view that we do not need the divine scapegoat that takes away the sins of the world. It suggests that we do not need Christ any more. Instead,

we need to pick out one group and we need to scapegoat him.

For the moment, it is the white heterosexual male. I have no interest in defending racial politics, but it is very curious that the Left use categories like “people of color” as if everybody who is not white is one category. It is revealing because the main idea here is that there is one prime transgressor, one irredeemable group, which for the moment is the white male. Everybody else establishes their identity with respect to him. The white male is the transgressor, he is the one we need to purge. The sins of the world can be overcome if we purge them.

Along with the traditional institutions of the Western civilization…

All of the political projects on the Left relate to the things that the supposed white men have built. The nation state, for example, and the peace of Westphalia. Capitalism along with the dirty fossil fuels. The church is now thought of on the left as a white church that is homophobic. The family is considered heteronormative guilty of the sin believing that men are men and women are women. The attempt to purge all of these things is really an attempt to purge so—called “whiteness” and everything it brought. This is a deep sickness because Christianly speaking you can purge any group you want, but you cannot thereby solve the problem of the stain of man, because the problem of sin is so deep.

Where does it go at the end?

Identity politics scapegoating might start with the white man, but there is evidence that white woman will be next in line, and black man will be after that. Ultimately, this goes towards “transhumanism.”  What the left will finally conclude is that stain is man himself. So man has to be eradicated. I think you can see overtones of this with the climate change movement.  Here, man is the stain on Earth. Everything that man does has to be erased and perhaps man himself needs to be erased. There are people who believe in this. So the progressive Left takes the Christian insight that man is stained, which every Christian understands through the story of  Adam and Eve. However, their conclusion is not that there can be a divine scapegoat who takes upon himself the sins of man. There is no divine scapegoat left.

Man is irredeemably stained so ultimately transhumanism is the only way to eradicate the sin

that lies deep in man.

But is it fair to say that “identity politics” is built upon the same struggle and utopian vision as communism was?

Many of my colleagues argue that what we are witnessing today is a type of Marxism. Identity politics, they say, is cultural Marxism. But I think this is a terrible mistake. There are similarities to be sure, namely, that they are both distortion of Christianity. But while they are both rooted in Christianity,, “identity politics” is not rooted in Marxism. The central category of Marx is class and class relations. In this view the whole of history must be understood in terms of the opposition between classes. When Marxism faltered in 1989,

the new term that emerged was a term from that can be traced to the ideas of Nietzsche, namely “identity.”

For the last fifteen years everybody has been using the term “identity.” “Identity” nowhere appears in Marxism. Their similarity is that they are both looking for a purified World, but their way of achieving it differs.



But is this the point where they contradict to the Christian teaching?

Yes, for Christians, because of sin we live in a broken world until the end of time, when God  heals the world. The problem with these incomplete religions is that they long to bring about purity that only God can bring about at the end of time. The important thing that Christians understand is that we are never completely pure. Only God purifies. The burden of human life involves living with imperfection and impurity, living with the harm we cause and the harm we endure. This is why we say the Lord’s prayer in the mornings: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. We say this at the beginning of the day knowing full well that we are going to try our best, but we are never going to be completely good. The Christian account of all this is that human beings are always turning towards darkness. That is the bad news about human life. But the

Gospel good news—the New Testament—is that Christ can lift the burden of stain.

There is forgiveness, atonement, and redemption available for man. The miracle of the Christian formulation in my view is that it both announces that man is stained and then says that this is not the final word about him.

So the burden of our guilt can be lifted from our shoulders.

This is why the Christian civilization has been so powerful. There are all sorts of travesties in human history but through forgiveness and atonement we could have a tomorrow. The crises we face right now is that we experience the burden of sin and the burden of guilt, the claim that man is irredeemably stained, but we have no way to lift it from our shoulders.

Where does the current crises lead in your view?

What I have said above points to why Europe and America have become so exhausted. Our young people are frightened to death to say or do anything for fear that if they will be canceled or tracked down; they carry an unbearable weight on their shoulder.  It can never be lifted—or so they believe. This has given rise to what I call The Great Exhaustion in America and in Europe. A Christian civilization would suffer no such exhaustion.  A Christian civilization would understand that persons and nations lose their way, must repent, atone, forgive, and be forgiven.   Slavery in America, European colonialism—these happened.  And they now have conscience against them.  But neither America nor Europe seems to be able to reconcile with their past.  I cannot believe that God has put man in the world to spend his life and his last breath burdened by collective guilt.  Collective responsibility to heal wounds?  Yes.  But not at the cost of destroying the remnants of anything good and decent in our civilization. That is not now the identity politics left thinks about this.  It declares that Western civilization produced slavery, colonialism, nation states that gave us two world wars and produced the Holocaust. So we have to destroy all the artifacts of Christian civilization. That is now the project before us; and whether it takes decades or centuries, that is the only way we can atone for our sins.  A grim future, indeed.  If we had Christians strong enough to resist, they would respond that the world will never be pure. Every ruthlessly man knows that there is transgression everywhere, and we have to do what we can after that happens to forgive, to atone, and to start over. God did not put us on the world simply to feel guilty.

He put us on the world to be stewards of his creation.

  Alas, we have forgotten that.  Now we have only the weight of guilt on our shoulders, in both America and in Europe.

In the words of David Goodheart, we can witness a rift between the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres” in the Western World. While the “Anywheres” have no longer real attachments to local communities, the “Somewheres” insist on their roots and traditions. From this perspective what are the importance of local communities, nations and patriotism in preserving values of Western societies?

No civilization can be built without  “Somewheres.” Throughout history we understood that we live in a place and live in a time, we have a history, we pass on our tradition from one generation to the other. So the question is how did the “Anywheres” appear and what is that animates them in the first place? Tocqueville in the 19th century had a deep philosophical account of this. The longing of the “Anywheres” is to escape the limits of life and escape the stains.

So the cosmopolitans today look at people who believe in the nation and call them authoritarian

and all sorts of disgusting things because they think these people are limited and poisoned. Their desperate hope is that by fleeing from specific embodied life, they can free themselves from the stain. For example, many of my young students today say “I am not religious, I am spiritual.” Why do they say that? They are saying it because religion is supposed to be limiting. Being spiritual transcends the limits of any religion. This suggests a desperate hope to transcend limits.

Can we find any true freedom this way?

Well, the Christian insight is that we do not find freedom by escaping limits. Instead, we find freedom by accepting our limits. Saint Augustine wrote, “the fire that burns the chest purifies the gold.”  Mortal life involves suffering.  We have to decide how we will respond to our suffering, as individuals and as nations.  The question is whether we will be purified by our suffering or we will give up entirely and say there is nothing here that is worth saving.

It seems that the major institutions of the European Union is leaning toward this latter conclusion…

The initial argument on the European Union is that it is an economic integration. Later, people  said that an economic union is not complete, and we should think of it now as a political union. So now the effort involves constructing a political union.  But what we are really missing in that conversation is a third thing: the European Union as a public atonement for the world of nations and the horror it produced that finally ended in 1945. It is an announcement to the world that we will have no more nations: we will be a transnational union. This is a tragedy.  Without Christianity, Europe has only the weight of national guilt.  The identity politics left comes along and says your atonement consists of fully renouncing your nations.  And that is what Europeans are now doing, by the tens of millions.  That is not all.  You must also renounce capitalism, you must renounce your heteronormative family, you must renounce your homophobic church.. I see

the European Union as the prime embodiment of this project.

I see it not as a political project but a project of religious atonement.

Can one find atonement through politics?

No, because the problem of sin is deeper than what any nation does. It is in our heart, it is not that one nation is pure while the others are not. To be a human being is to be broken and to long for God to heel our wound. Christianity and Christians once understood this. When we lose sight of the insight that Christianity offers, but retain the guilt we arrive at what I call earlier The Great Exhaustion. Western Europe suffers from just this.

On the other hand, it seems that the Central European countries value and insist more on their traditions, religions and patriotism. What role the Central European approach might or should play in rediscovering that traditional way of life?

Central Europe is different. In Hungary and Poland, for example, the churches are stronger. Western Europeans have largely abandoned the church and religion.  When they speak to Central Europeans and wag their fingers at them saying they should feel guilty, Central Europeans who still have strong religious faith look to the Western Europeans and say “we know where guilt has to be worked through. It is certainly not to be worked through by renouncing our nations. It is to be worked through our churches.” 

So if you have a strong church tradition you have an anti-dote to the woke identity politics.

  People understand that the problem of guilt is not a political problem: you cannot solve it by renouncing our nations. It is a religious problem so you solve it by atonement, penitence and forgiveness in churches.

What role nation states do play?

Our question today is what is the grandest political form that humans can live in, which allows them to participate and build a community. The answer is the nation. There will be no transnational or supranational government. The highest unit we can have is the nation.  At the end of time God will gather together the nations.

But until the end of time, there will be nations.

That is why I am very suspicious of the current path of the European Union. I am not troubled by the transnational agreements and treaties between nations and group of nations. But the authority for them remains the strength of the nation itself. So I am not worried if the European Union sees itself as a supplement to the nations of Europe. The difficulty is that the European Union does not see itself a supplement; it sees itself instead as a substitute for those nations. That is not way that we can live together.

And on top of that, each nation is unique…

Yes, I think one of the lessons we have to pick up from liberalism itself is that we have to be very careful making universal claims about one particular form government. I myself think that democratic government is a wonderful form of government. However, I was born in the Middle-East, my father was with the United States Foreign Service. I grew up in Yemen and I spent more than half of the last fifteen years moving back and forth between Qatar and Iraq working in universities there. That long experience in the Middle-East has convinced me quite thoroughly that democracy is not a universal political form. Many of my student in the Middle-East say “why, Professor Mitchell, do you allow American students to come to us and give us lectures why we need to move toward democracy? We know that constitutional monarchy is the highest political form and we are tired of your American students telling us that democracy is the universal political form.” My view is that we have to live in a world that is pluralistic. We have to understand that it is impossible to agree on a certain governmental form that fits every region and every country around the world. 

What we need is a frame of mind that is truly pluralistic,

that has no desire to  impose the interests of one nation on the interest of another. In my view, each nation is an experiment that has to play itself out for hundreds or maybe even for thousands of years. We have to truly embrace the pluralism of the world and the pluralism of nations. The idea that we can have a universal government is short-circuiting God’s tremendous design, which is to bring about unity through pluralism, which may yet play out for thousands and thousands of years.

So pluralism, diversity and tolerance are virtues that come with human civilization…

Interestingly, diversity and tolerance are the words of the identity politics left. Yet the Left is not prepared to be truly tolerant and diverse. A liberal society understands that there are rules, and there are exceptions to the rule. But it recognizes that there is a range of ways of life and understandings that have to prevail. Because we are tolerant and we want to be diverse, we are happy to let others join in. But in reality the Left does not say that there are exceptions to the rule.  Instead,

it says that the exceptions are rule.

So, its view is that if you accept the historic church or the traditional family, there must be something wrong with you. You are intolerant, unless the exception to the rule is your standard.  That is a terrible mistake.  In spite of all the talk about tolerance, the identity politics left is in reality extremely intolerant.

Since we celebrate Christmas these days I am curious what other Christian virtues you would consider essential in preserving the Western societies and their unique way of life.

I actually see guilt as a virtue. I think what Christianity understood was that through guilt the human soul is deepened. We ask the question, “how am I implicated in what has happened?” Many of the civilizations around the globe are called face-saving civilizations. They do not accept personal responsibility, as much as we in the West do.  They are simply involved in trying to save face, and not being accountable for the transgression  they commit. I do think that Western civilization has become the dominant civilization because

our acceptance of guilt makes us face problems and take responsibility.

If we discover there are problems, we hold people accountable for them. When there are errors made, there are punishments, and then we restart. This is an extraordinary advance, because most of pagan civilizations and many other civilizations are face-saving civilizations. They are “shame cultures” while Christianity is a “guilt culture”. If we do not have a way of absolving guilt, it is terrible because we become exhausted and immobilized.  That is exactly where we are right now. But if we do return to the Christian way of absolving guilt, we can autocorrect and build something new.

The other thing

Christianity gave us is an understanding of representation.

Adam represents and stands for us, while Christ stands in for us. These are quite interesting theological concepts. But when you look at how government was thought through in the early modern period, it was arguments for representation that came out theology that gave rise to the idea of representative government. We take this for granted, but in large swaths of the Middle-East, there is no theory of representation because there is no theory of representation in Islam.  It is not a theological category there. This is something to be cherished. We want to have representative government. It is a gift of Christianity. 

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