To heap Burning Coals
John Richardson reflects on the current crisis
In the early part of the sixteenth century, in the midst of contesting for the Reformation of the Church, Martin Luther wrote ‘On the War Against the Turk’. The reason for this was, of course, that Muslim armies were continuing their westward sweep across Europe, reaching Vienna in 1529. The military response by Christian states had been ineffective and was weakened by disorganization and even betrayal. Many nevertheless believed this to be a ‘holy’ war – a righteous contest between Christianity and Islam. Yet contrary to the prevailing climate of opinion, Luther argued that the place of priests was not in front of the armies but on their knees with their people, for (he said) the only weapon the Christian had against the Turk was the pater noster. Luther thus continued to maintain his strict distinction between what the State was permitted to do and what the Church was required to do under the same circumstances.
This distinction would be useful for us to bear in mind in the present crisis. For almost forty years following the end of the Second World War, the map of the world was drawn in political terms. ‘East’ and ‘West’ were primarily political distinctions, and conflicts tended to occur on the boundaries of these two systems. Tibet, Korea, Berlin, Taiwan, Cuba, Vietnam – the flashpoints of the second half of the twentieth century marked where the tectonic plates of Capitalism and Marxism collided. Even the conflict in the Middle East was essentially a proxy war between Russia and the United States.
At the time, the situation seemed fraught with constant danger, particularly since global nuclear war was potentially only a ‘four minute warning’ away. Yet with hindsight there was a refreshing simplicity to it all. Physically, psychologically and tactically NATO faced east. And despite the protests of the CND and others, the doctrine of MAD actually worked. The mutual terror of nuclear deterrence never actually descended into nuclear terrorism of the sort with which we now know the world to be threatened.
It is commonplace to say all that changed on September 11th 2001, but of course the real changes had taken place long before then. There were hints in the early 1980s when, following the Iranian revolution, the staff of the American Embassy were held hostage for a year. Even at that stage it was clear that all things American excited a peculiar rage amongst Muslims. But as the dust of the Berlin wall settled it became apparent that far from an aberration, Iran was a trendsetter in the new global political scenery, as throughout the 1990s radical Islam became an increasingly potent political force. And whilst a positive promotion of Islam in general and shariah in particular formed one strand of the Islamicist agenda, anti-Westernism formed the other.1 Indeed, it is arguable that anti-Westernism is vital to Islamicism’s survival and growth, since without the West to rail against, Islam would have only itself to blame for its own failings.
This anti-Westernism has now grown to the extent that it forms a significant, and by far the most violent, element in the conflicts of the twenty-first century. When Samuel P Huntington referred to Islam’s ‘bloody borders’ in his 1993 essay titled ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, he admits he ‘made that judgement on the basis of a casual survey of intercivilizational conflicts.’2 This is remedied in his greatly-expanded 1997 work, where he quotes evidence that, for example, there were in 1993–94 ‘three times as many intercivilizational conflicts involving Muslims as there were conflicts between all non-Muslim civilizations’.3 He continues,
The conflicts within Islam also were more numerous than those in any other civilization including tribal conflicts in Africa. In contrast to Islam, the West was involved in only two intracivilizational and two intercivilizational conflicts.
Of course, it is always easy to point the finger at others, and the finger has duly been pointed at the West, yet the reality remains that the number of violent conflicts between broadly Western states and non-Western non-Muslim states is small to the point of, in some years, non-existence. Similarly, armed clashes between and within Western cultures are now (with significant exceptions) almost unheard of.
Recently, Western leaders have vehemently denied there exists a war between Islam and the West. However, Huntington questions this:
If Muslims allege that the West wars on Islam and if Westerners allege that Islamic groups war on the West, it seems reasonable to conclude that something very much like a war is underway.4
Bearing in mind that Huntington is writing in 1997, his next words are chillingly prescient:
In this quasi war, each side has capitalized on its own strengths and the other side’s weaknesses. Militarily, it has been largely a war of terrorism versus air power. […] To date, each side has, apart from the Gulf War, kept the intensity of the violence at reasonably low levels […]. Yet the participants in this war employ much more violent tactics against each other than the United States and Soviet Union directly employed against each other in the Cold War. With rare exceptions neither superpower purposefully killed civilians or even military belonging to the other.
Welcome, then, to the twenty-first century. Yet Huntington’s thesis is not simply that the West faces the possibility of a long, drawn out war with Islam. Rather, this is simply one example of the newly emerging global relationships where civilizations – what we might call cultures – contribute more to alliances and conflicts than do political views. Islam may have bloody borders, but everywhere we see the world-map being redrawn along civilizational lines.
And this brings us back to the exceptional conflicts within Western civilization mentioned earlier. For of course there is a long-running and bloody intracultural conflict on our own doorstep, in Northern Ireland. This has all the features Huntington identifies as important for a ‘fault-line war’ – communities with radically different traditions, looking to external ‘core states’ to provide practical and moral support, the existence of demographic pressures and, of course, differences of religion, which Huntington identifies as ‘a central defining characteristic of civilizations’.
Northern Ireland teaches us clearly that even cultures with a Christian heritage are capable of vicious cross-cultural conflicts. But it also teaches us something of how such conflicts are resolved. Unlike political wars, ‘fault-line’ wars are never settled by victories, surrenders and treaties. Instead, Huntington notes, they rumble along, punctuated by a succession of cease-fires. A more lasting peace is usually only achieved when the ‘core states’ step in and negotiate with one another whilst forcing the combative groups into line. Thus in Northern Ireland, Dublin has negotiated with Westminster, whilst simultaneously joining with the United States in leaning on Republican terrorist groups whilst Westminster has arm-twisted the Loyalists.
Above all, however, Northern Ireland teaches that in political terms civilizational conflicts can only be resolved through compromises which, at the grass roots, often seem like betrayals. Yet rather like Church ‘union’ schemes, such political settlements have the depressing habit of leaving four groups in place of two, as the extremists on each side repudiate the ‘peace deal’. Thus Northern Ireland how has the Real IRA and a stronger DUP at the extremes, as well as Sinn Fein and the UUP in the middle. And the picture in Northern Ireland could be multiplied across the globe, wherever ‘fault lines’ between civilizations are to be found.
At the outset of the Third Millennium, the world faces a future dominated by such ‘culture wars’. It is in this situation that the Church must live and witness. And however it might perceive itself, the Church is clearly accused by others of involvement in those ‘culture wars’. In many Islamic communities, for example, the American-led action in Afghanistan is perceived as a combined Jewish-Christian onslaught on Muslims. The idea may seem preposterous to us, but that it seems entirely plausible to others is part of the cultural war itself for, as American and British politicians have observed, this war is also about hearts and minds.
And this brings us to consider the proper and unique response the Church can make in this situation. The usual goal in waging war is to win. Jesus himself ridiculed the notion of a king who started a war without reckoning whether he could finish it. However, cultural wars are not like political wars. In a political war, defeat can be accepted by the majority with something approaching grace. The defeat of South Vietnam by the North, for example, meant the average South Vietnamese simply became part of a Communist Vietnam. But cultural wars are not won by mere conquest. Even a conquered people can remain stubbornly a people, and where Jew confronts Palestinian, Greek faces Turk, or Catholic opposes Protestant, defeat seems intolerable and absorption unthinkable.
Yet cultural absorption has taken place. In England, Catholic and Protestant no longer trade shots or even insults. Unfortunately, it is not because Christians have become more Christian but because society has become less believing that England succeeds in being a ‘multi-faith’ community. Indeed, this is precisely why ‘Westernization’ is so vilified, feared and resisted in Muslim countries. Yet current experience is demonstrating that secularization is itself one ‘culture’ amongst many, not (as Western Liberals tend to assume) the natural state of civilized humanity. Thus the present tendency of Western Christians to regard secularism as a benign despot under which religious freedom can flourish without religious conflict may turn out to be naive and unsustainable.
Jacques Barzun’s monumental From Dawn to Decadence suggests how the secularist experiment may already be drawing to a close, as the West simply runs out of ideas. Yet this presents Christians with an opportunity to speak with a new and necessary voice, for the Church is the only possible faith-community which is potentially both multi-cultural and benevolent towards other communities. However, we have not yet learnt to be non-threatening to others, particularly where we ourselves feel threatened. We have not learned to turn the other cheek to our enemies or to overcome their evil with good. Nor, crucially, have we learned to urge this advice on our political leaders.
The Bible is quite specific in its instruction: ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12.21). And it says this not just because it is right but because it works – evil is overcome by good. As the Church faces the twenty-first century world of intercivilizational cultural conflict it thus has the unique opportunity to proclaim a unique ethic, not merely of doing good (with which all cultures would agree) but of responding with good. And in this way, victory is truly possible in the cultural wars – not the victory of defeating an enemy, but of winning him over. For here again the Bible is quite clear that we have not just an ethic but a tactic: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head’ (Romans 12.20).
Evil can, and sometimes should, be resisted violently. But violence can only resist evil, it can never overcome it, and it can never usher in the kingdom of God.
John P Richardson, who lives in Elsenham, near the factory that put the jam in bread and the motorway junction that put the jam in traffic.
1. I use ‘Islamicist’ to distinguish those groups which are not content to coexist with or within other cultures, but actively seek their elimination or domination by Islam.
2. See S P Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (London: Touchstone Books, 1997) 258 n
3. Ibid, 256-7
4. Ibid, 217
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Opening Page