“We know what our race does to strangers”

I was tempted to include the passage below, unattributed, to see which of my readers would recognise it, and to whom they would attribute it if they didn’t – but I repented of being a smartypants. This is CS Lewis, writing in an essay, ‘Religion and Rocketry’, which first appeared in 1958 in Christian Herald, and was then collected in Fern Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianitypublished posthumously in 1975, about our possible future encounter with alien life during our exploration of space – an exploration which was just beginning, practically, as he wrote.

We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space. Our ambassador to new worlds will be the need and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert. They will do as their kind has always done. What that will be if they meet things weaker than themselves, the black man and the red man can tell. If they meet things stronger, they will be, very properly, destroyed…

I therefore fear the practical, not the theoretical, problems which will arise if we ever meet rational creatures which are not human. Against them we shall, if we can, commit all the crimes we have already committed against creatures certainly human but differing from us in features and pigmentation; and the starry heavens will become an object to which good men can look up only with feelings of intolerable guilt, agonized pity, and burning shame.

Of course after the first debauch of exploitation we shall make some belated attempt to do better. We shall perhaps send missionaries. But can even missionaries be trusted? ‘Gun and gospel’ have been horribly combined in the past. The missionary’s holy desire to save souls has not always been kept quite distinct from the arrogant desire, the busybody’s itch, to (as he calls it) ‘civilize’ the (as he calls them) ‘natives’… Would [our missionaries] denounce as sins mere differences of behaviour which the spiritual and biological history of these strange creatures fully justified and which God had himself blessed? Would they try to teach those from whom they had better learn? I do not know.

These ideas, of course, are developed at far greater length in Lewis’ remarkable work of science fiction, the Cosmic Trilogy. But here they are starkly polemical, crystal clear in their passion for racial, cultural, economic and climate justice, and the very brevity of their expression lends them an impact that strikes us here in the 21st century more forcibly, perhaps, than do Lewis’ attempts at describing the consequences of the exploration, and attempted exploitation, of a solar system we now know to be very differently constituted.

It is Lewis’ next paragraph that stunned me on re-reading it from a Quaker perspective, for it reflected so much that has been written by Quakers about opposing war, injustice and violence during the Word Wars and after:

What I do know is that here and now, as our only possible practical preparation for such a meeting, you and I should resolve to stand firm against all exploitation and all theological imperialism. It will not be fun. We shall be called traitors to our own species. We shall be hated of almost all men; even of some religious men. And we must not give back one single inch. We shall probably fail, but let us go down fighting for the right side. Our loyalty is not to our species but to God. Those who are, or who can become, his sons, are our real brothers even if they have shells or tusks. It is spiritual, not biological, kinship that counts.

(You must forgive Lewis his relentless use of masculine terms. He was a man of his time, and if you re-read the final sentence I have quoted, carefully, you will see that his breadth of spirit encompasses both sexes as well as all races and species.)

2 thoughts on ““We know what our race does to strangers”

  1. Raymond Lamb

    Excellent Mike. So regrettably true, but promoting material such as this may win more over. I hope so.
    Thanks again.
    Ray

    Reply

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