Christ the King and the 'clash of civilizations'

The Jubilee Group Christ the King Lecture 2002
given at St Margaret's House, Bethnal Green, London, on 23rd November 2002


'In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time he who is the blessed and only sovereign, the King of Kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.' (I Tim 6. 13-16)

This is the remarkable text which is set for the evensong of the festival of Christ the King. What I want to try and do is to reflect on this in the context of an imminent second Gulf War, with all the background involved in that.

Let us go back to 1989, the collapse of communism and the end of history. This posed a huge problem for the United States, the world's most indebted nation, because it survives on what has been called 'military Keynesianism', the pump priming of the economy by the expenditure of millions of dollars on arms.1 How do you justify such expenditure without an empire of evil to oppose? Whatever you think of the ontological status of Satan you have to allow that old nick looks after his own, because Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was such a gift for US planners that you might think it was planned by the CIA itself. Following the war came the theory and, in what is now a notorious article in Foreign Affairs , an in-house Washington journal in 1993 the Harvard political theorist and US foreign policy advisor Samuel Huntington outlined his theory of the 'clash of civilizations', developed at book length three years later.

In the post-Soviet era Huntington argued that ideology had ceased to be the primary marker of conflict. Accepting the description of the Gulf War by a Moroccan scholar as 'the first civilisational war' he argued that with the economic advance of Asian societies, and the demographic advance of Muslim societies, a civilization based order is emerging.2 Human history has thrown up seven major civilizations Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, and Latin American (n.b. Africa has no civilisation) and we can expect these to be the leading foci of conflict. Analysing conflicts around the world, Huntington argues that we can see that most conflicts happen around civilizational fault lines, especially between Muslim and non Muslim countries, and solidarity can be expected primarily from 'civilizational kin'. The West will rally to the West, Muslims will help Muslims, and Confucian countries will rally to Confucian countries. Countries which share major civilizations are 'cleft countries' and many are involved in conflict.3

Civilizations, in Huntington;s view, are the ultimate human tribes, and the clash of civilizations is tribal conflict on a global scale. At present the dominant division is between 'the West and the rest'. Dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance and Sinic assertiveness.4 The Gulf War showed the futility of taking on the United States without nuclear capacity. Since, with the exception of China, other countries cannot mobilise similar conventional forces, the way to mount a challenge to the West is to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Terrorism and nuclear weapons are the weapons of the non-Western weak.

For some time now, Huntington argues, the West (Europe and the United States) has lost its dominance and, on most models of the growth and decline of civilizations, can be expected to decline. The survival of the West depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilization as unique rather than universal and uniting to renew and preserve it against challenges from non-Western societies. Although it is China which will be the next great power, at present it is Islam which generates most conflicts. Islam and Christianity have been the other's Other since the first Muslim conquests, and memories of the last siege of Vienna in 1683 still haunt Europe. On the other side, the Dean of the Islamic College in Mecca, Safar al-Hawali, wrote during the Gulf war, 'Those Ba'athists of Iraq are our enemies for a few hours, but Rome is our enemy until doomsday.' 5 Nineteen of twenty eight fault line conflicts in the mid 1990s between Muslim and non Muslim were between Muslim and Christians. Muslims resent Western power and see Western culture as materialistic, corrupt, decadent and immoral. 'They also see it as seductive, and hence stress all the more the need to resist its impact on their way of life' 'In Muslim eyes Western secularism, irreligiosity, and hence immorality are worse evils than the Western Christianity that produced them.'6 It is not, as the Press suggest, fundamentalism which is the problem but Islam, 'a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.'7

Whatever one thinks of this analysis one can see how accurate a guide it is to contemporary United States' foreign policy, in all but one respect. Huntington's solution to the problem he outlines is, first, that the West must maintain technological and military superiority over other civilizations but equally that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world . He calls this the abstention rule. This is the part of his analysis which has not been followed. Avoidance of a global war of civilizations depends on world leaders accepting and co-operating to maintain the multicivilizational character of global politics. Civilizations must renounce universalism, accept diversity and seek commonalities.8 He also believes that the various post World War II institutions, largely designed by Europe, the United States and Russia, who are civilizational kin, will have to be re-shaped to accommodate the interests of other civilizations.

Religion plays a key part in Huntington's analysis. The crucial distinctions amongst groups, he argues, are their values, beliefs, institutions and social structures, and it is religions above all which are generators of value. Most of the great civilizations are grouped around one or other great religion. The tide of modernity which Marx and Engels saw sweeping superstition aside has in fact led to a regeneration of religion around the world, in response to the failure of modernity. This is not a traditionalist peasant movement but urban and middle class, perfectly at home with technology. The religious revival is an urban phenomenon and appeals to people who are modern-oriented, well educated, and pursue careers in the professions, government, and commerce. It is not just a Muslim phenomenon, but is true in India, in South Korea, in Russia and Latin America.9 Hinduism, Islam, but also Christianity are once again major political facts.

To call this thesis sieve like is to be generous. In the first place the omission of economics from the argument is astounding. The major economic fact of our world, after all, is globalization, a process led by US corporations. According to many analysts the dominance of Western corporations, trade and media means that the whole world is being Westernized. There are arguments against that view but in many areas the evidence for homogenisation is irresistible. Fundamentalisms are only partially to be understood as reactions to modernity. In some respects, in their positivism and their eager use of technology, for example, they are forms of it. The idea of a 'clash of civilizations' therefore flies in the face of the impact of modernity on every world culture. The agenda of global capital is dominance, and this carries with it cultural dominance which rides roughshod over civilizational difference. Huntington's account of the clash of civilizations obscures the real facts of the matter which is that global capital creates an increasingly borderless and homogenised world. It also flies in the face of the reality of recent global politics as Chomsky points out, in a world where Bush senior described the Muslim Suharto as 'our kind of guy', and where US regimes for forty years have attacked, and been complicit in the murder of, socialist priests in Latin America.

Even aside from capital Edward Said believes the thesis is preposterous because all cultures are hybrid and heterogeneous, 'so interrelated and interdependent as to beggar any unitary or simply delineated description of their individuality.'10 It is a typical piece of Orientalism, and the question is whether one can divide human reality into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, and societies in this way and survive the consequences humanly. The notion of distinct cultures seems always to get involved either in self-congratulation or hostility and aggression. Hans Küng agrees, pointing out that the civilizations overlap and interpenetrate, not least in the great cities of 'the West'.11 One can apply to Huntington the words Said applies to another American analyst: No merely asserted generality is denied the dignity of truth; no theoretical list of Oriental attributes is without application to the behaviour of Orientals in the real world. On the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other hand there are Arab-Orientals; the former are'rational peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things.' 12 This applies particularly to the description of 'Islam's bloody borders', invoked not thirty years after the end of the Vietnam war, and within living memory of the two most destructive conflicts in history, both originating in Europe. The rhetoric of 'weapons of mass destruction' belies the fact that the possessor of most of these is the United States, and that only the West has so far used them.

Even if we grant civilizational difference we can arrive at a very different view of the likely outcome. One analyst concludes, for example, that 'The partial mixing of cultures, the rise of lingua franca and of wider 'Pan' nationalisms, though working sometimes in opposed directions, have created the possibilities of 'families of culture' which portend wider regional patchwork culture areas.'13 Not conflict, then, but cooperation.

The thesis is inherently essentialist, though in this the compliment is returned. Both Huntington and Ziauddin Sardar identify 'the West' with Christianity. But, the theologian at once responds, Christianity is no monolith, but, rather, an ongoing debate in which complete consensus is unlikely to be found. We can remind ourselves, for example, that there were Christians, like Billy Graham, who thought the 'crusade against communism' was of God, and those, like Daniel Berrigan, who thought it was of the devil. Arguments about insiders and outsiders are amongst the earliest disputes in the community (Galatians), alongside arguments about power and hierarchy (Mark 10). Christianity lived with monarchy in fact what today we would call tyranny far longer than it has lived with democracy. Karl Barth thought that Christianity had a 'nisus' towards democracy but he, and virtually every other major theologian, has insisted that it is identified with no one form of government. There is a respectable argument to the effect that Christianity gave rise to concern for the individual, but in every manifestation except perhaps American Protestantism it has always insisted on the priority of the community. As for private property, this is something the Church has always had, and continues to have, the severest reservations about. Of course Christianity has shaped the history of the West, but often in oppositional ways, and the two cannot be identified.

Huntington eschews such nuances. He defines 'the West' not by modernity but by Christianity, language, separation of church and state, centrality of the rule of law, social pluralism, representative bodies, and individualism. The United States is culturally defined by 'the heritage of western civilization' and politically by the principles of the American creed on which Americans overwhelmingly agree: liberty, democracy, individualism, equality before the law, constitutionalism, and private property. Since he sees the United States as the champion of 'the West' these factors also come to be defining characteristics of that entity. But some of these things, like democracy are exceptionally late on the scene it is not yet a century since women acquired the vote, and scarcely a century since this was extended to all men. The separation of church and state had to be struggled for over a thousand years and is not everywhere complete for example in Britain. The rule of law is also central to Islam, though it is a different law in view. In general Huntington's definition of the West owes a great deal to Locke. But Marx and Lenin are also products of 'the West', Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis, Luther and Karl Barth as well as Voltaire, Rousseau, Darwin and Nietzsche. And, as US commentators have pointed out, Huntington ignores the extent of opposition within what he calls 'the West', the plight of African Americans, urban rebellions, anti capitalist movements and so forth.14

The same anti essentialist point may be made about all the other civilizations, and of course it ignores the point that there are many conflicts which are intra civilizational and which are basically struggles for autonomy, around language or smaller cultural units. This was the view Hedley Bull took in his thesis that the most likely future for the world was increased balkanisation smaller states grouped in larger federations. 15These might of course be civilizational, but it suggests that local cultures come first. As Benedict Anderson puts it, an analysis of our contemporary world might also suggest that 'the end of the era of nationalism is not remotely in sight'.16

The thesis, then is, we can say, a classic piece of false consciousness, an ideological intervention which obscures the real facts of power. It is, say the authors of Globalization and its Discontents, globalization, driven by neo-liberalism, that is pushing the peoples of the world into a sense of despair and hopelessness. Any response, they argue, will have to be rooted in multiculturalism.17 I agree, but where does that leave the idea of 'Christ the King'? I am going to suggest an answer which draws on the work of the Sri Lankan theologian Aloysius Pieris but first I will briefly spell out what I mean by multiculturalism.


Medieval and early modern Europe, and perhaps most other societies as well, have dealt with difference by assimilation, by ghettoisation and by repression. Behind these strategies was the view that there was one normative way to be human. Nevertheless it is not true to say that these societies were monocultural. Groups like the Jews and the Gypsies resisted all attempts at assimilation. Regional cultures varied, and still vary, very significantly as do class and occupational cultures. There were a great many cultures, in this sense, and to that extent cultures always have been, multi-culturally constituted.18

As we would expect, Huntington is one of those opponents of multiculturalism who regards it as the enemy within. It should give us pause for thought, however, that the demand for a common culture is shared not just with Norman Tebbit but by Raymond Williams. It is this demand we need to tease out. The presuppositions behind multicultural discourse are those of Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, applied now not to the individual but to the group. The aim of the good society is not just equality of opportunity for individuals but equality amongst socially and culturally differentiated groups who mutually respect one another.19 The rationale for this multiculturalism is ethical and involves a change in the understanding of justice. In the Western understanding of justice, inherited from Rome, justice is blindfolded. Blindness to difference, however, can involve a tacit setting of standards by the dominant group which makes their norms universal and produces an internalised devaluation by members of minority groups. In such circumstances justice needs to stand not just for equality but for the right to difference though multiculturalism then faces the classic liberal dilemma of what to do about groups in society which are illiberal, or committed to imposing their own religion or polity.20

At this point I want to distinguish between thick and thin multiculturalism. By the latter I mean the patina of difference created by the presence of ten or twenty different cuisines on offer from restaurants in the high street. Much that passes for multiculturalism is in fact simply an expression of the culture of the globally affluent, undergirded by the metaphysics of the stockmarket and the ethics of managerialism. Thick multiculturalism, on the other hand, is the negotiation of genuine difference. Such multiculturalism can be defended by arguing that different cultures represent different talents, skills, forms of imagination, ways of looking at things, forms of social organization, senses of humour and psychological and moral energies. All need radical changes because of their deep-seated sexist, racist and other biases.21 Such a multiculturalism, driven by a spirit of critical self-understanding, opens up a theoretical and moral space for a critical but sympathetic dialogue with other ways of life in a common search for a deeper understanding of the nature and potentialities of human life.22

There are a great many valid criticisms of the multi-cultural project, which I don't have time to go in to but, after having weighed them all up, we have to ask what the alternative is. As Michele Wallace puts it, multiculturalism is not the promised land but it stands for something worth pursuing, namely for the recognition of the significance of cultural diversity and for integrating the contributions of minority groups into the fabric of society.23 Not the clash of civilizations, then, but a multiculturally constituted world. In this context, what does it mean to speak of Christ the King?

Acknowledging Christ the King in a multicultural society

The rise in multiculturalism goes hand in hand with the rise in globalization, the heart of which is to be found in the twofold movement of the extension of corporate power on the one hand, and of the rise of finance capital on the other, both linked to the development of Information Technology. As such it is a form of that global imperialism which Huntington's analysis conceals.24 To speak of Christ the King in such a situation, therefore, we have to address the realities of corporate power and of the cultural imperialism which goes with globalization. Aloysius Pieris offers us a way to think about this in speaking of Jesus as the irreconcilable antinomy between God and Mammon and the irrevocable covenant between God and the poor made flesh. The task of the church, he argues, is to live out this gospel in fellowship with the authentic spirituality and liberative dimensions of other religions, or in other words, in fellowship with what Huntington diagnoses as the heart of non Western cultures. Each of these religions has their own version of the Sermon on the Mount, the Truth that sets us free from being tied to things that cannot give us freedom. The church has to experience solidarity with non Christians by witnessing to the spirituality common to all religions (by practising the beatitudes); and reveal its Christian uniqueness in proclaiming Jesus as the new covenant by joining the poor against Mammon's principalities and powers that create poverty and oppression. In the Base Human Communities which have been developed not only in Asia but also here, 'Each religion, challenged by the other religion's unique approach to the liberation aspiration of the poor, discovers and renames itself in its specificity in response to other approaches.'25 The task of each religion, however, is to call people into a spirituality of nonacquisitiveness and nonaccumulativeness which guarantees a healthy, ecologically balanced sharing of our resources. It is not only the church which does this, but the church must also do it. On this understanding the cross is not, as it is for much Protestant preaching, 'the price for sinners paid' but the price fixed by the rich who refuse to be evangelised by the poor. 'If one day we truly take up this cross as a body and go underground and pay that price for the sake of our intimidated masses, that day the world will see the miracle it is yearning to see, a church which has been evangelised by the poor, and therefore, a church that has become Good News to the poor, as Jesus was'.26

Pieris warns that the liberating spirituality of the religions is gradually being extinguished by the wave of capitalistic techniculture that has begun to shake the religious foundation of all cultures. 'The market economy (which thrives on the quest for profit) and consumerism (which plays to our accumulative instinct) have enthroned Mammon where, once, the human person and the human community as well as the earth on which we live, were the sole beneficiary'. It is this capitalist culture which has to be challenged.

Preaching Christ as King, we have known from the very beginning, entails opposition to Mammon. But do we really do that if we do so 'in fellowship with the liberative dimensions of other religions'? And if so, how do we do it?

One of the objections to a multicultural society is that, if it means equal respect for all its groups, and if these groups have incompatible ideas about what constitutes truth, this seems to imply indifference to the truth. Lesslie Newbigin's response to this dilemma was that we must welcome plurality but reject the ideology of pluralism. We must argue for the public truth of our beliefs, but in a way that is prepared to meet, and be convinced by, the truth of others' positions. This does not mean a liberal indifference to the truths of the creed. Here it seems to me necessary to add to Pieris' rather attenuated account of the essence of the gospel. Pieris argues that only God's solidarity pact with the poor and God's irreconcilable antipathy to Mammon are absolutely unique to the gospel. Without wanting to get into a uniqueness competition it seems to me we have to add to that all that follows from the resurrection, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the community called to embody forgiveness. Christian political action is rooted in response to that gospel. It does believe that the God in whom there is none before and none after, but one perfect equality, (to quote the Athanasian creed), the God who takes flesh in Christ, is the shape of the final order of all things. What does it mean to believe that and live it in fellowship with the liberative dimension of all other religions?

In the first place, the Christian claim to finality, to the kingship of Christ, includes a disavowal of coercion. Johan Baptist Metz argues that if Western Christianity is to mature into a culturally polycentric World Christianity, then it must realize its biblical heritage as the ferment of a hermeneutical culture, a culture of the acknowledgement of others in their otherness, which in its heart is freed from the will to power.27 For Newbigin one of the major points of difference between Christianity and Islam is that for the latter it is impossible that the cause of God should be defeated and for this reason the crucifixion must be denied. What is unique about the Christian gospel, he argued, is that those who are called to be its witnesses are committed to the public affirmation that it is true and are at the same time forbidden to use coercion to enforce it an ironic point given Christianity's history.28 Constantinianism, the identity of Church and state, has to be disavowed. 'The sacralizing of politics, the total identification of a political goal with the will of God, always unleashes demonic powers.'29 For Newbigin it is only the gospel which enables us to affirm both that God has made God's will and purpose known and to affirm that God has ordained a space in which disbelief can have the freedom to flourish.30 Disavowing coercion does not mean that we believe that the gospel has no implications for practical politics. On the contrary, the lordship of Christ over all life means the very opposite. For that reason, 'any preaching that does not make it clear that discipleship means commitment to a vision of a society radically different from that which controls society today must be condemned as false'.31 How are Christians to effect political change in a democracy? To answer that question Newbigin went back to Eliot's Idea of a Christian Society and wanted to see a renewed lay understanding of the church, so that 'through the presence and activity of committed and competent Christian men and women in the various areas of the common life of society the Christian vision of society could become effective in practice.'32 That seems to me to represent what we can call the Lord Halifax view of Christian political involvement. Much more radically what is at issue, as Pieris implies, is understanding the discipleship group as a political community, engaging both at the local level in a constructive multicultural politics, and at the national and international level in debate, protest and in the continuing task of envisioning an alternative future to that ruled by capital. Not the clash of civilizations, then, with Christianity at its heart, which is the revival of Christendom or crusading mentality invoked by Huntington, but rather an attempt to be discipled by the Christ who rules as a servant, an attempt to be faithful to the Spirit of Pentecost which speaks in the tongues of every culture, and a praxis committed to dethroning mammon and enthroning the God of life. That, it seems to me, is what it means to proclaim Christ as King in opposition to the thesis of the clash of civilizations.

1 CfR.Burbach, O.Nunez, B.Kargarlitsky, Globalization and its Discontents, London: Pluto 1996 p.110

2 S.Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order New York: Touchstone 1996

3 Examples are Cyprus, Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia/Eritreia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia. In his view, immigration could lead both Europe and the United States to become cleft countries.

4 Huntington, Clash p. 183

5 Huntington, Clash p.250

6 Huntington Clash p. 213

7 Huntington, Clash p.217

8 Huntington, Clash p.318

9 Huntington, Clash, p.101

10 E.Said, Orientalism 2nd ed. Harmondsworth:Penguin p.351

11 H. Küng A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics London: SCM 1997 p.116

12 Said, Orientalism p.49

13 Antony Smith argues that there are overlapping cultures based on Arabic, Swahili, English, French, Chinese, and in Europe there are a family of cultures which share certain traditions 'Toward a Global Culture?' in Featherstone(ed) Global Culture p.188

14 Burbach et al, Globalization p. 147

15 H.Bull, The Anarchical Society Basingstoke: Macmillan 1947

16 Anderson, Imagined Communities p.3

17 Burbach et al Globalization p. 145

18 B. Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism:Cultural Diversity and Political Theory Basingstoke: Palgrave 2000 p.163

19 I.M.Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference Princeton: Princeton University Press 1990 p.163

20 Bhatt shows how Shabir Akhtar, for instance, uses multiculturalism to articulate a discourse of minority rights which denies such rights to others. Chetan Bhatt Liberation and Purity: Race, New Religious Movements and the Ethics of Postmodernity London: UCL 1997 p. 243 Khurram Murad, Director of the Islamic Foundation, describes the Islamic Movement as 'an organised struggle to change the existing society into an Islamic Society based on the Quran and the Suna and make Islam, which is a code for entire life, supreme and dominant, especially in the socio-political sphere' Cited in Newbigin et al, Faith and Power London: SCM 1998 p.110

21 Parekh, Multiculturalism p.168/9

22 Parekh, Multiculturalism p.111

23 Cited by Hall in Un/Settled Multiculturalisms p.211

24 J.Petras & H Veltmeyer Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the Twentyfirst century London: Zed 2001

25 Pieris, Fire and Water p.161

26 A Pieris, Fire and Water Maryknoll: Orbis 1996 p.153

27 J.B.Metz, 'The One world' in H.Regan and A.Torrance(eds) Christ in Context Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1993 p.219

28 Newbigin, Faith and Power p.148

29 He contrasted this with Islam, where the laws of the state are the law of God and Church and State are one. Foolishness p.116

30 Newbigin, Faith and Power p.159

31 Newbigin et al Faith and Power, p. 132

32 Newbigin et al Faith and Power p. 157