Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union Samuel P. Huntington, the distinguished Harvard political scientist, postulated a “clash of civilizations” as the new paradigm in global politics. But today, 25 years later, it is increasingly clear we are actually faced with a “clash of tribalisms.”
Jihadists have set Muslims more against each other than against the infidel West. Sectarian rivalries now risk dragging the Middle East into the pre-Islamic era of incessant tribal warfare. Religious fundamentalism is fracturing Israel’s democracy. Libya, South Sudan, and other sub-Saharan Africa states are disintegrating into warring fiefdoms. Russian irredentism has carved up ethnic enclaves in the former Soviet republics. Iraq Kurds have carved out their own defacto state, and those in Syria and Turkey are fighting for the same. Radical Hindu nationalists threaten India’s religious pluralism. And radical Buddhist monks threaten the national unity of Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
The same tribal winds are buffeting the European Union and the United States. As refugees flood into Europe amid Jihadist terror attacks, and as extreme right wing, nationalist, and anti-immigrant parties gain ground, the goal of a single Europe has become an ever-receding mirage. And at a national level, separatism is rife in Belgium, Britain, Spain, and Italy. In the United States hyperpartisanship, identity politics, ideological absolutism, racism, deep and widening class cleavages, reinforced by a fragmented news media, have created insular subcultures that are tribal-like in their fears, hatreds, resentments, scapegoating and conspiracies.
This tribalism is very evident in the 2016 presidential elections. Many pundits have, and not without justification, blamed some of this on the Republican Party, on its obstructionism and decades-old dog-whistle politics. But set against the retreat to tribalism around the world, it becomes clear that it is an expression of a broader and deeper malaise: loss of faith in modern political and economic institutions, which is leading many to seek refuge in tribalism, be it ethnic, religious, class, gender, or digital. It is crucial to remember, however, that this “loss of faith” and “regression to tribalism” is not new. It recalls the anti-modern tribalisms that appeared in Germany, Russia, and Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Communism, Nazism, and Japanese nationalism were reactions to modernity and industrialization; they were attempts to provide for the individual the type of collective cohesion and security those premodern tribes once assured. Indeed, Karl Popper in his 1945 classic, The Open Society and Its Enemies, described Hegelianism, Marxism, Fascism, and some social theories as “relics of ancient superstitions.” Modern civilization, he argued, “has not yet fully recovered from the shock of its birth—the transition from the tribal or ‘enclosed society,’ with its submission to magical forces.” In fact, “the shock of this transition is one of the factors behind the rise of reactionary movements which have tried, and still try, to overthrow civilization and return to tribalism.”1 This is also true of radical Islam. It’s a spiritual refuge, a reaction to the anomie and alienation of modern secularism. Significantly, as Michael J. Mazarr showed, in its moral critique of modernity, resentments, nostalgic vision, and even in its pungent spirituality, radical Islam is at one with past anti-modern tribalisms.2
These striking historical parallels demand a universal historiography or paradigm that would illuminate the common denominator not only beneath the past anti-modern tribalisms but most of all beneath our global present, which post-cold war tribalisms want to retreat from. Again, a universal historiography is called for by the very global ambitions of these tribalisms. All of them, past and present, have not been content with just a tribal homeland; they aspire for world dominion. Greeks, Romans, French, British, Russians, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Islamists, and even the “candidates” (“Make America Great Again”) want their tribe to rule the world.
But world dominion, the bringing of diverse tribes, races, languages, and peoples under one rule, raises at once and acutely (as ancient Rome realized) brings into harsh focus the problem of unity: how to weld the many into one. Rome’s answer was the emperor cult and pax deorum (peace of the gods). He placed its gods and those of the conquered people into one pantheon. “This is how paganism,” in Rousseau’s words, “became one and the same religion throughout the known world.”3 Of course, Yahweh, the God of Israel, did not join the pagan pantheon, nor did Jews and Christians participate in the pagan ecumenism.
And for that, Romans persecuted Christians (Jews were not persecuted because Judaism was licit). The crux is that in the case of Christians, the gospel drove a dagger at the heart of Roman imperial ideology. By setting the God-man Jesus against the man-God Caesar, it explicitly repudiated the emperor cult. By denouncing pagan gods as evil demons at war with God, it sabotaged the pantheon and shattered the peace of the gods. Finally, by uniting Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female in the church, the gospel set a parallel universal institution that challenged and ultimately overwhelmed the empire.
Again, as the mystical body of Christ, the church achieved effortlessly not only what imperial Rome and all empires had attempted (and will attempt) without success—it also solved pragmatically, in history, the philosophical problem of the one and the many. To the question What is the unifying idea, principle, or being above the flux or behind the multiplicity or pluralism in the human and natural order? the gospel presented the crucified and resurrected Christ. Paul put it crisply: Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . . For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:17-19, NIV).4
It is “the most paradoxical fact,” wrote Karl Löwith, “that the cross, this sign of deepest ignominy, could conquer the world of the conquerors.”5 Christ displaced Caesar. The Roman Empire was Christianized. History itself was temporalized, split in half and centered on Christ and the cross. As symbolized by the Apocalypse, all streams of ancient history, Jewish and Gentile (the many) converge on Christ (the one), then flow out of Him again (the one) toward a future that embraces (the many) all “those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Revelation 14:6, NIV), culminating in the second coming of the divine Christ.
The phrase “every nation, tribe, language and people” appears seven times in the book of Revelation, and in all the cases it’s about the unseen cosmic struggle over who is the world’s real or true Sovereign. To be sure, it first appears in Daniel 3:4, where King Nebuchadnezzar erects a huge golden statue and orders all “peoples, nations, and languages” (NKJV)6 to fall down and worship it. When three Hebrews defy the king, he throws them into a fiery furnace, where they are joined by one like one of the gods. When they come out unharmed, the king acknowledges Yahweh as the only true God and proclaims it all over his empire.
The book of Revelation mirrors the same plot. The beast, inspired by the dragon, sets up a counterfeit of the true God and uses totalitarian economic and political means to coerce worship (Revelation 13), but it is defeated, and all “peoples, nations, and languages” worship the true God. Then the dragon, the beast, and all the wicked are thrown into the lake of fire, eradicating evil forever (Revelation 20). This is what really brings the “end of history,” to borrow from the title of Francis Fukuyama’s famous book, written to explain the historical significance of the end of the cold war and the “triumph” of liberal democracy.
In reply to his critics in the afterword to the second paperback edition, Fukuyama rightly reminded them that the phrase “end of history” was “not an original one, but comes from Hegel and, more popularly, from Marx.”7 What he did not say was that Hegel’s concept of history (and also Marx’s) as a dialectical process with a beginning, a middle, and an end is not original either. Hegel borrowed it from the Bible, the Apocalypse in particular. To be sure, “the apocalypse is omnipresent” not only in Hegelianism, but in German philosophy and culture as a whole, as Klaus Vondung showed in The Apocalypse in Germany, in which he traced the secularized uses of apocalyptic symbols and themes in German from early nineteenth to the late twentieth century.8
German borrowing and secularization of the Apocalypse was in response to the same historical event—the French Revolution—that stimulated interest in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation in Europe and America. According to Ernest R. Sandeen, as the revolution unfolded, “students of this apocalyptic literature became convinced (in a rare display of unanimity) that they were witnessing the fulfilment of the prophecies of Daniel 7 and Revelation 13,” especially after 1798, when French troops, under Louis Alexandre Berthier, captured and banished the pope from Rome. “Commentators were quick to point out that this ‘deadly wound’ received by the papacy had been explicitly described and dated in Revelation 13.”9 Thus many Christians became convinced that they were at the very edge of eternity. The Second Great Awakening and specifically Adventism flowed from this conviction.
Adventists and converts to premillennialism saw in the fulfillment of prophecy God’s providential action in history. Thus they “abandoned confidence in man’s ability to bring about significant and lasting social progress and in the church’s ability to stem the tide of evil . . . or even prevent its own corruption.”10 For them, only Christ’s second coming will provide the final solution to human problems. In contrast, Hegel and thinkers in Germany, England, and France set out, in various ways, to devise philosophical and artistic systems that would renew humanity and create heaven on earth. They deliberately excluded God, even as they secularized biblical doctrines, deified themselves, and incorporated divine prerogatives into their all-embracing ideologies or shifted them to nature, science, and history.
The twentieth century was the ideological experiment of this self-deifying godlessness. As we know, it was a diabolical failure. Between them the man-gods—Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot—were directly responsible for more than 140 million deaths. This diabolical failure fully vindicates a pessimism in human ability to establish a heaven on earth. I find it highly significant that Adventism’s birth in the mid-nineteenth century coincided with not only the birth of Darwinism and Marxism,11 but also an emphasis on the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12, which gives a divine alternative narrative.
Against Hegelian and Marxist claims to solve the divisions and contradictions of modern life, the “eternal gospel” proclaims the reconciliation achieved by Christ (verse 6, NIV). The solution to humanity’s hateful divisions is found in the worship of God. The explicit mention that this God is the Creator of “heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (verse 7, NKJV) directly negates Darwinism. That this call to worship the Creator-God is followed by an announcement of the fall of “Babylon the Great” (verse 8, NIV), points to the utter futility, substantiated by history, of all human attempts to build unity and harmony without the Creator-God.
Indeed, this futility is being substantiated, before our very eyes, by the unraveling of nation-states, the crumbling of economies, and the fraying of social bonds. The reaction, as we can see, has been a retreat to tribalism. But since tribal unity has always been based on hatred of the other, the regression is being accompanied by violence and will lead only to greater violence, given violence’s inbuilt capacity to clone itself. This is a frightening prospect in our closely interconnected and interdependent global order.
There is tension between globalization and tribalism. If the retreat to tribalism intensifies, the problem of global unity, of peaceful coexistence of all “peoples, nations, and languages” will become very acute. But any human attempt to provide a final solution to the tribal, economic, political, and religious conflicts of our global present will create only a Babylon, Confusion, because it cannot be achieved without great violence. Indeed, the Apocalypse predicts global violence against those who refuse to join this end-time Babylon. That is why the three angels’ messages are set in the context of judgment and accompanied by the most severe warning of the impeding outpouring of God’s wrath (verses 9-11).
The point is that only God has a global and final solution to the human predicament, “to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment” (Ephesians 1:10, NIV). And “this calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus” (Revelation 14:12, NIV). These are they who will make up the final tribe.
1 Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (London: Routledge, 1945), p. xxxv.
2 Michael J. Mazarr, Unmodern Men in the Modern World: Radical Islam, Terrorism, the War on Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 33-63.
3 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 178.
4 Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
5 Karl Löwith, The Meaning of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 3.
6 Bible texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
7 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 341.
8 Klaus Vondung, The Apocalypse in Germany, trans. Stephen D. Ricks (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2000), p. 1.
9 Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 6.
10 Ibid., p. 13.
11The Great Disappointment was in 1844, the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, and On the Origin of Species in 1859.
Author: Elijah Mvundura
Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.