The New Tribalism

In the African nation of Burundi, democracy lies shattered in the dust. The president and several officials were recently dragged from the palace and murdered. The killings sparked a new outbreak of tribal warfare between the Hutus, the president's ethnic group, and the Tutsis, who dominate the army. All across Africa hopes for democracy are being shot down by ethnic conflict. When African nations first achieved independence, their rallying cry was "self-determination." But as foreign-policy expert Robert Kaplan says, the slogan of self-determination is often a cover for one group seeking to dominate the others. In many emerging nations, violence-prone young males, who were formerly kept at bay by a strong central government, are now being dressed in uniforms and formed into militias. It's like putting a spark to the tinder of ethnic hatred. The result is bloody tribal warfare from Burundi to Sri Lanka to the former Yugoslavia. Christianity offers a unique perspective to understand what is happening in our world today. It all began 200 years ago with the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers thought they could have all the benefits of Christianity without belief in God. Without God they still hoped for a single, universal truth—uniting everyone in a common vision of reality. Without God they believed in a universal human nature—uniting everyone as brothers and sisters. Without God they held to a universal morality—uniting everyone in bonds of mutual obligation. These were the ideals that drove both liberal democracy in the West and communism in the East, in spite of all their differences. But gradually it dawned on people that without God this was all nonsense. No mere human being can possess absolute truth. No mere human being can stand above history to gain a completely objective perspective. In our own day, the secular ideal of universal truth has collapsed. So have the ideals of a common humanity and a common morality. Today the modern era, ushered in by the Enlightenment, has been replaced by the postmodern era—where the catchword is not unity but diversity. If there is no universal human nature, then each person finds identity not in our common humanity but as a member of a group. In Africa it's the tribe or ethnic group; in America it's the racial or gender group. Tribalism in the Third World and political correctness in the West grow from a common root. The conflict erupting across the globe gives Christians a new opportunity for apologetics. The crackup of both liberalism and communism is a graphic object lesson that you cannot have absolute truth apart from God. You cannot make universal truth claims unless you believe there is a God who stands above time and space, who has revealed truth from His objective perspective. Postmodernism at least has the virtue of honesty. It faces squarely the fact that secularism can support no universal truth, no universal human nature. But the price we pay for that honesty is ethnic warfare in Africa, racial and gender tension in America. Both reveal the social fracturing that follows when we lose our grip on divine truth.


Chuck Colson



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