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No. 44: Neo-Tribalism and the Kosovar Situation

OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 44
Copyright (c) 1999 Biblical Horizons
February, 1999

In a significant essay in the 19 April 1999 issue of The Weekly Standard, entitled "Wars of Hatred and the Hatred of War," Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., points out a significant shift that seems to be taking place in the modern world. He begins by asserting his thesis, that a comparison of Hitler to Milosevic may be more apt than Bill Clinton realizes because "ethnic cleansing and genocide, while not the same, are kin and spring from different sources than the traditional oppression of minorities."

Fairbanks distinguishes between ethnic oppression and ethnic cleansing. Saddam Hussein, for instance, has not tried to wipe out or to move out the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq, but rather to dominate them. He has been cruel and brutal on occasion, but his goal has not been elimination. Similarly, in places like Rwanda and Burundi, what we have is conflict between two peoples (Hutus and Tutsis) over who will rule, not a policy of ethnic elimination. By way of contrast, Serbian nationalists do not object to Albanians living in Albania; they just want them out of what they regard as historic Serb territory.

Fairbanks writes that ethnic discrimination and conflict in such places as Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Iraq, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka is tragic, but not the same thing as ethnic cleansing. "It forces on ethnic minorities a bad situation, but not usually an impossible situation. One can live one’s life while accommodating oneself to the domination of another ethnic group and seeking to avoid victimization wherever possible." The conflict is over who gets the biggest piece of the national pie. "There are usually as much corruption, friendship, compassion, and favoritism as there is discrimination, precisely because such regimes stand for no principle that they rigorously impose." An illustration of this fact, familiar to me and perhaps to some of you, is the situation in the American South under paternalism, before the Civil Right’s Movement. As a group, blacks were dominated and oppressed, but there was plenty of "friendship, compassion, and favoritism" from decent whites to take up some of the slack, and "good niggers" could usually avoid victimization at the hands of evil whites. (I hasten to add, lest anyone misunderstand, that as a son of Georgia I rejoice that the evil system or paternalism has been abolished.)

Meanwhile, however, ethnic cleansing has or is taking place in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Croatia, Bosnia, parts or Georgia and Russia, and now Kosovo. In these places, people of differing racial, lingual, and religious orientations, who formerly lived side by side for centuries, are no longer willing to do so.

Why? Fairbanks refers to Michael Ignatieff’s book Blood and Belonging to argue that when an overarching and oppressive rule collapses, people tend to fall back into "the simplest, most instinctive definition of the political community: It is composed of people like us" [emphasis Fairbanks’s]. In short, it is a collapse into tribalism.

People must live among their own kind — that is the post-modern viewpoint. It manifests a radical collapse of historic understanding.

In the ancient world, only the early Romans and Greeks appear to have acted this way, and Fairbanks points out that these were democratic-republican types of communities. The great empires simply took over and dominated other groups, as the Romans wound up doing eventually. The Babylonians, Persians, later Greeks (after Alexander) and Imperial Romans thought that their civilizations were superior, and thus should dominate other inferior cultures.

We may add that after them came the Christian civilizations of East and West. However flawed, these cultures put into practice the Christian doctrine that God is One and Three at the same time, and so the human community should be unified and also diverse. Though poorly practised and not completely understood, the Christian ideal was that of many cultures as part of an overarching Christian oikumene. Thus was born a true "multiculturalism" with the Trinity as the overarching paradigm.

The rise of rationalism, first in the Renaissance and then in the Enlightenment, corrupted this nascent ideal. The One was given preference over the Many. Everyone should become alike, regardless of ethnicity and culture. In lesser ways, it was the goal of the empires, such as the British, to make the people they conquered conform to such a mono-cultural idea. The Americans think that way today: Everyone should become an enlightened, democratic, American. In its most vicious form, this ideal went on the march in international communism.

With the collapse of all forms of inter-ethnic rationalism except the American liberal one, we now see a reaction in favor of ethnic isolation. Ethnic movements are found all over Europe, from the Welsh in Britain to the Basques in Spain, from the Flemish in Belgium to the Kosovars in former Yugoslavia.

And we also see it in post-Western "multiculturalism," as Fairbanks points out, following the Hungarian thinker G. M. Tamas. We have shifted from integration as a goal (think of Martin Luther King) to ethnic isolation and racism (think of Louis Farrakhan). We now have academic departments in our uni-versities for Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Jewish Studies, and the like; and these are breeding grounds for absurd, extreme, racist, ethno-centric notions.

Gone is a universal standard, whether the Christian one or that of humanist rationalism. Fairbanks points out that Germany in 1933 was "the most intellectually sophisticated country, the most `post-modern,’ anywhere." Having abandoned any kind of moral absolutes, the Germans fell into thinking along the lines of blood and ethnicity, though they still retained enough of the older rationalism to seek to impose their race on other races. Americans are not much different today: The great sin now is to pass judgment on someone else who is merely "different." The American reaction to the Monica Lewinsky scandal shows that "different strokes for different folks" is the rule today.

Fairbanks summarizes: "The collapse of communism, with its deadening reign of a Truth in which no one believed, has opened the former Communist world to the impact of relativism. If no one has the right to judge what is good and bad, which form of government is better or worse, we must fall back on the only community that is given, prior to argument and demonstration: the community of ethnicity and religion. And if there are Others in our community, there is nothing to do but drive them out or kill them; the collapse of rationalism leaves no way of including them, the quality of values no excuse for ruling them. Thus, the possible consequences of this pattern of ethnic conflict are far worse than the consequences of the third-world pattern, the human price far higher. It simply becomes impossible for the outsider to coexist in a community dominated by post-modern ethnic consciousness."

I think that Fairbanks is on to something important. Long ago Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy predicted a return to tribalism for the same kinds of reasons Fairbanks discusses: relativism’s destruction of any universal human and/or cultural ideal. Rosenstock-Huessy observed tribalization as it occurred in Germany after the First World War, and saw it as a harbinger of a post-Christian future. What is happening in the former Communist nations is likely to happen elsewhere, in perhaps a more moderate fashion, for the same basic reason: the loss of a trans-cultural force or ideal. Tito kept the various groups in Yugoslavia together by force. Formerly, they had fought amongst themselves for domination of various regions, but they are not returning to that earlier model. It has been swept from their thinking. They are collapsing into tribalism.

Original tribalism held that only we are "human beings," and all others are sub-human "barbarians." A "live and let live" attitude could be found, but alongside a notion that we let them live just as we let other animals live. So we may enslave them if we wish, and treat them as we treat our cattle. Hitlerism shows this notion in modern garb. After all, many Jews were not slaughtered on the spot, but shipped off to camps, kept alive for future use. As sub-humans, they might be killed or enslaved.

Balkan tribalism does not seem to have sunk quite so low, though the evident Serbian policy of rape as a vehicle of warfare comes pretty close: They aren’t really human woman, so we can rape them as we choose, and thereby demoralize their men. Also, the Croats during the Nazi years gleefully slaughtered vast numbers of Serbs. This part of the world seems to provide an extreme case and a microcosm of things that happen elsewhere in a less extreme way.

Fairbanks wants a return to the ideals of rationalistic liberal democracy as a corrective. I submit that he fails to see that the period of European rationalism is over, finished, done. You cannot get the toothpaste back into the tube. Multiculturalism has no answer to give to retribalization; it is part and parcel of it. And multiculturalism is not going to go away any time soon. "Dead white males" (i.e. Western rationalism) are not going to direct civilization any longer. They will be challenged, and will lack the will to enforce their waning ideals.

Only a return to a fully Trinitarian and self-consciously Christian consensus will change this increasingly dire situation. This cannot happen with Croats and Serbs remaining "Christian" in name only, and of two different highly paganized varieties, and the Bosnians and Albanians remaining Islamic. Conversion of all groups is needed. Only the restoration of a truly catholic, Biblical Christianity will enable people of various cultural orientations to share the same neighborhoods.

The impossibility of a return to rationalist European/American humanism is displayed by Fairbanks in the second part of his essay. He deplores it, but has no answer for it. His proof is the inability of NATO to prosecute the war in the Balkans. NATO is only playing at war. NATO does not want to hurt anyone. The European/American leaders believe that Kosovo is worth fighting about but not worth killing over.

This is a monumental failure of nerve. It shows that despite the rhetoric, the NATO leaders don’t really believe in any kind of ideal that would motivate them to do what is needed. Men like Bill Clinton are only playing at war. Their eyes are on polls, not on ideals. The conflict has been ritualized — an insight worth pursuing in its own right — as we tell the "enemy" what we will and won’t do, and warn them in advance of our tactics. The English had no doubt but that it was the "white man’s burden" to subdue the warring groups of India and to rule them. No similar thinking is on the scene today.

Centuries of rationalistic humanism have had the effect of destroying both the archaic pagan way of living with others (domination by force), and the Christian one-and-many ideal (peaceful mutuality under the Triune God). With the collapse of rationalistic humanism (uniformity enforced in terms of an ideal), nothing is left but an extreme of ethnicity not seen in the "third world" of pre-Christian archaism. Thus, the crisis in the Balkans seems to me a harbinger of the general crisis that is coming upon the formerly Christian West. The crisis shows the total poverty of all solutions except the Christian one, and thus provides an opportunity for Christian apologists, if they will take it.

Jesus commands His people to disciple all nations, as the one nation of Israel had been discipled formerly. The material we have been considering shows us just how little progress has been made along these lines in history thus far, and how far we have to go. The model God sets forth in the history of Israel shows us that while some converts to Yahwism were circumcised and became Jews, many others remained as Gentile God-fearers. The unconverted "stranger" and the God-fearing "sojourner" in the land were to be treated the same as the "native" circumcised Jew: the same law, the same justice, the same societal privileges (except for the open worship of alien gods). There were also, from time to time, whole nations of converted Gentiles, such as Joseph’s Egypt, Hiram’s Tyre, Jonah’s Nineveh, and Cyrus’s Persia. These existed in peaceful mutuality with Israel. In Israel’s history we see what a situation of "discipled nations" might look like. In its way and with all its problems, the old Holy Roman Empire manifested something similar: an overarching Christian oikumene with many cultures existing in mutuality inside it. Thus, the true ideal is set before us.

The collapse of rationalistic humanism into tribalism provides an opportunity for the Church, as I have discussed in my book Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future. The local church is the true form of the tribe, providing in Godly form the things that ethnic tribalism seeks but cannot find. Thus, the present cultural collapse of the West provides an open door for the Church, if she is willing to take it. While "conservative" Christians will keep banging the drum for this or that tradition or denomination, Biblical Christians must look to the present situation and rebuild the local character of the gathered assembly, offering the Kingdom to men in Trinitarian terms as did the early Church.

I believe that this is beginning to happen, and that a happy future awaits our grandchildren, though there will be trials and tribulations as it is born. The martyrs of Littleton, Colorado, slaughtered by a neotribal group, are forming a rallying point for the local Churches. This also is likely a harbinger of the days to come.