Letter to a Non-Christian Nation

Viktor Orban Hungarian national galleryGermany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper published an op-ed by Orban in which he claimed that he was defending European Christianity against a Muslim influx by stopping thousands of refugees from leaving Hungary. […] “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim… That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots,” he wrote. (From Muslims threaten Europe’s Christian identity, Hungary’s leader says by Rick Noack, The Washington Post, September 3, 2015).

Dear Mr. Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary,

I know you grew up in a former communist regime and that you were educated as an atheist. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why you display a certain view of Christianity that could be questioned by the very sources of Christianity itself.

There is no such thing as a Christian culture or nation. True, this is a provocative statement that needs some clarification and nuance. It would be better to write that, from a Christian point of view, some cultures are Christianized and others are not. If you want to know what that means, you should take a look at the Gospels, Paul’s letters or, in short, the New Testament as a whole. These writings are about a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, who approaches his own Jewish culture in a particular way.

First of all, this Jesus, considered by many as a great spiritual leader, has great respect for the habits, traditions, scriptures and laws of his people. Hence he says (Matthew 5:17):

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

However, by claiming that he wants to fulfill the cultural traditions of his people, Jesus already implies that these traditions are not ends in themselves but that they are directed towards a goal surpassing them. In other words, the cultural traditions are means relative to the goal they should help to accomplish. Jesus is very clear about that goal in a conversation with a lawyer (Matthew 22:35-40):

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

The priority of neighborly love implies that the existing culture is tested against the extent to which it helps to avoid making victims and to which it allows for authentic human lives. According to Jesus of Nazareth, man should not live according to rules, as if preserving a (cultural or social) system and its rules would be an end in itself, but according to the demands of neighborly love. Rules (in whatever way they are defined) should be means at the service of individual human beings and society as a whole. When Jesus and his disciples are criticized for doing things that are, strictly speaking, forbidden on the rest day – the Sabbath – Jesus answers (Mark 2:27):

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Christians are convinced that the salvation of the world lies in the imitation of the way Jesus, a Jew, lived his life and approached his own culture. Because of his salvific character, at least in principle, they call him “the Christ”. As a Jew, Jesus reached for the sources in the Jewish tradition that hierarchically structured the relation between neighborly love and the particular culture of his people. To imitate Jesus means that you should look within your own culture or social organization to the sources that allow you to make your cultural or social traditions relative to the goal of neighborly love. Note that Jesus never competes with existing social, political and cultural systems. He does not abolish these systems. The following scene magnificently illustrates this (Matthew 22:15-21):

The Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Jesus in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

According to the Jesus of the Gospels, to serve God means to love one’s neighbor, and this can be done in a myriad of social and cultural ways. Christianity is universalist but this universalism in no way implies a monoculturalism. It is universalist and transcultural because it challenges every culture to question itself from the perspective of neighborly love. On the other hand it is also multicultural because it does not compete with nor merely abolishes existing social and cultural systems but transforms them by (re)orienting them to the goal of neighborly love. Hence, from a Christian point of view, cultures, communities and societies are Christianized or they are not Christianized, meaning that they do or do not question themselves from the perspective of neighborly love. This also implies that so-called Christian communities are called to question themselves from this perspective. A Christianity that imposes itself by merely suppressing or destroying particular cultures and communities betrays itself. We all know that it has done so, many times during its history.

Of course, in order to practice neighborly love like Jesus we should know what he means by it. Once again he is very clear on the issue in question (Matthew 5:43-48):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Well, how about that? Our neighbors are not just our own people. They are also “other” people, not of our own, “strangers”. Jesus even considers our “enemies” to be our neighbors.

Throughout the Gospels it becomes clear that Jesus criticizes the universal tendency of human communities to structure themselves according to the identification of a common enemy or a common victim (be it an individual or a group). So on the one hand, concerning the group people are part of and that often manifests itself at the expense of a common enemy (for instance an adulteress who is about to be stoned – see John 8:1-11), it is no surprise that Jesus sows discord. It is no coincidence that he claims (Matthew 10:34-36): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” This intention of Jesus, to create conflict where there is a certain order, is actually and paradoxically a plea against violence. Family members who slavishly obey a pater familias, tribe members who harmoniously feel superior to other groups, criminal gangs who blindly pledge allegiance to the mob boss, cult members and fundamentalist believers who are prepared to fight for their leader till death, anxious employees who sell their soul to keep their job in a sick working environment, (youthful) cliques who strengthen their internal cohesion by bullying someone, whole nations who bow to the demands of a populist dictator and execute so-called “traitors” – Jesus doesn’t like it one bit.

Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrinations, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus likes it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says. Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical.

In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. That’s why he can say on the other hand, eventually (John 14:27): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

So, dear Mr. Orban, if you want your nation or Europe as a whole to act like a “Christian” nation or continent, you should not build a peace and order based on the exclusion (or even destruction) of a people because of their culture or religion. To quote Jesus once more, “If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” Maybe we could challenge each other to discover our own cultural resources that criticize our all too human tendency to build communities and cultures at the expense of victims and sacrifices. To speak to you once more, from “our” shared paradoxical cultural resources (as a Christian “culture” does not really exist because Christianity belongs and does not belong to any one culture), from one Christian to the next (Colossians 3:8-11):

Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.


E. Buys

Each Its Culture Until the Refugee Threat

Modern democracy makes it possible for each individual citizen to hold, express and exercise ‘own’ opinions and ethical principles, ‘own’ religious views and ‘own’ cultural preferences as long as they do not go against the democratically established laws of a particular state. A society of such individuals should, by its very nature, become ‘multicultural’ and ‘multi-religious’. And yet, what often happens is that many people insist on having their very ‘own’ opinion while the specific content of that opinion is the same as nearly everyone else’s. So the paradox is that a mono-culture arises of citizens who all understand themselves in the same way: as being autonomous individuals who make their own choices and pursue their own projects. This is the cultural mantra of the West. The very idea of having ‘own ideas’ is more important than really having them.

down with conformity

In reality, ‘diversity’ is often not defined in terms of specific values or belief systems (be it theist or atheist convictions and opinions), but in terms of economic value. Hence ‘culture’ becomes a matter of ‘taste’ and ‘lifestyle’ more than anything else. The more people believe that they have their own individuality to construct or to express, the more manufacturers and producers can launch something ‘original’ to satisfy the self-concept of potential consumers.

Be like all your friends and express your individualityConformity Homogeneous Originality

cultural conformity cartoon

It should be noted that producers want to make money. They want to launch ‘the next trend’ rather than satisfy the supposedly very specific demands of one very unique individual. In other words, the illusion that we are autonomous individuals (mensonge romantique in the words of René Girard) who constantly have to make own choices keeps us at the marketplace where we are offered competing choices by different producers. [Moreover, we wouldn’t experience the desire to be original if we were.] Commercials make use of powerful models to guide these choices and that’s how, eventually and again paradoxically, new types of conformity are established (as people imitate those powerful models and each other – for more on this, read La Mode(rnity), a previous post).


It is remarkable how some people, who are convinced that they have very own individual opinions and views, all of a sudden make reference to something like “our culture, our values, our convictions and our habits” when they are confronted with “strangers”. Some voices in Europe consider the refugees as a threat to their particular state, both economically and culturally. Moreover, it is often the so-called ‘cultural difference’ that is presented as one of the main obstacles to social and economic integration of refugees. Multiculturalism Tolerance CartoonOnce again, as so many times in the history of mankind, it is the perception of a common threat or enemy that structures a common identity – past internal differences that, in light of that common threat, eventually don’t seem very fundamental. See, for instance, how the German Emperor Wilhelm II (1859-1941) begins his speech at the outbreak of the first world war (Source: Kriegs-Rundschau I, p. 43 – Original German text reprinted in Wolfdieter Bihl, ed. Deutsche Quellen zur Geschichte des Ersten Weltkrieges [German Sources on the History of the First World War]. Darmstadt, 1991, p. 49; Translation: Jeffrey Verhey) – Berlin, August 1, 1914:

“I thank all of you for the love and loyalty that you have shown me these past days. These were serious days, like seldom before. Should it now come to a battle, then there will be no more political parties. I, too, was attacked by the one or the other party. That was in peace. I forgive you now from the depths of my heart. I no longer recognize any parties or any confessions; today we are all German brothers and only German brothers. If our neighbors want it no other way, if our neighbors do not grant us peace, then I hope to God that our good German sword will see us through to victory in these difficult battles.”

Let us hope that we Europeans, faced with the refugees coming to Europe, do acknowledge our internal cultural diversity so that we might discover in a new light our shared humanity as living out the possibility that the other may be truly ‘other’.

Satanic Arab Spring Circle?

It seems that, in order to understand international politics today (or maybe “as always”?), we need to understand what is happening in the Middle East. Well, at least we’ll get a major part of “the bigger picture” from our attempts to come to terms with the contagion of violence in that region. French American philosopher René Girard and his mimetic theory prove to be very helpful in analyzing the current situation. Let’s start, in this post, with what seemed to be a hopeful sign for the Arab World a few years ago, the Arab Spring.

Arab Spring Deposed Elite Puppet

In 2011 several Arab countries experienced political turmoil that, because of its revolutionary character, would later be described as “the Arab Spring”. The world could observe two patterns in this tumultuous period. On the one hand, in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, long term presidents were willing to give up their position, sometimes under pressure from the military. The free elections that followed were mostly won by Islamic political parties. The revolutions in Libya and Syria, on the other hand, turned violent because Muammar Gadaffi and Bashar al-Assad both refused to give up their presidency. NATO was willing and able to intervene in Libya and end Gadaffi’s leadership but could not undertake a similar action in Syria.

Arab Spring Egypt Rise of ExtremismDespite NATO intervention, Libya doesn’t seem to be much better off than earlier, under Gadaffi’s dictatorship. The West allowed the same mistake to be made in Libya as the US made in 2003, in Iraq. Military, police and intelligence services were disbanded because of their association with the former regime. It would destabilize Libya as it did Iraq, leaving the nation to rivaling tribal militias. Moreover, it made Libya one of the most important exporters of weapons in the region. The political chaos in Libya had a direct influence on the Egyptian situation, and this in turn contaminated the Arab world as a whole. Many thousands of islamists and jihadists escaped the Egyptian prison during the revolution of 2011, regrouping themselves in the Egyptian Sinai Desert, and buying weapons from the Libyans (among others).

Arab Spring Egypt Morsi Manipulated by MilitaryMeanwhile, the newly found political power of the Muslim Brotherhood (a movement with parties in different Arab countries) in Egypt came to an end. Egyptian army officials and generals seized power after the Muslim Brotherhood was held responsible for several terrorist attacks (although many of those attacks were claimed by Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, an organization linked to al-Qaeda). President Morsi, himself a Muslim Brother who briefly took the place of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, was replaced by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and membership of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared illegal – as it is in Syria. Anthropologist Mark Anspach predicted how the Arab Spring is, ultimately, indeed directed by the military in Egypt (read his very interesting article The Arab Rulers’ New Clothes by clicking here).

Arab Spring SicknessThe question in all this is “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Consecutive Egyptian leaders more or less allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to organize itself, using it as a buffer against more extreme islamists and as a means to blackmail the West. If the West would not support the undemocratic, dictatorial regimes the only lurking alternative would be an extremist political Islam. That’s why the Arab Spring was also in general, in many respects, a movement carried out by religious forces against dictatorial regimes that were perceived as corrupted puppets from a decadent secularized West. It’s not what we, westerners, normally understand as democratization.

Arab Spring US PolicyThe dilemma between economically manipulable and manipulating dictatorships on the one hand, and political Islam on the other, is faced by the West again and again, to this day, in the Arab world. Bashar al-Assad knows this politically tricky situation for the West too. He wanted to use the threat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) to seek new alliances with the West and its Arab allies. Apparently he secretly allowed the jihadists to somewhat organize themselves so he could position himself as potential “savior”. False messiahs are the ones who create the disease they allegedly want to save the world from, but in order to be able to keep on playing “the doctor” they keep the world sick. However, it doesn’t really seem to work for Bashar al-Assad. His enemies didn’t become his friends, but surely it was worth the try from his perspective…

Arab Spring Egypt Revolution CycleAnyway, the age-old enmity between dictators and so-called representatives of suppressed religious (and/or ethnic) groups provides each party with a reason of existence. As if life is not worth living if one doesn’t have an enemy… Moreover, both parties seem to remain blind to the fact that they resemble each other more and more as they tend to imitate each other’s violence and cruelty. René Girard speaks of mimetic doubles as rivals mimic each other in their (mutually imitated and thus reinforced) desire to obtain the same position. It’s no wonder that al-Qaeda and IS rival each other, indeed because (and not “although”) they are so much alike.

Of course, as René Girard righfully points out, enmity between rivaling parties can easily end if they find a common enemy that reunites them. It seems “the West” and what it stands for – its consumerist, so-called “decadent” culture – is well on its way to provide the competing extremists with that “Big Enemy”. Moreover, our consumerist culture alienates many of our own children too. Some of them become depressed, commit suicide because the consumerist way of life leads to feelings of “emptiness” and “unfulfillment” – the market demands that its consumers are never satisfied, that their desires are continuously (mimetically) awakened (read Thou Shalt Covet What Thy Neighbor Covets by Martin Lindstrom). Others find a new sense of identity and fulfillment in extreme political and/or religious groups. After the smoke clears, however, the satanic monster of violence coming from some of those groups is all that’s left, as humanity itself disappears in the process.

Tunisia remains a small beacon of hope amidst all these storms. The Muslim Brothers there were prepared to accept political concessions, the army did not intervene in the political process, and Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki was able to position himself as a “father of the people” instead of as a leader of one political or tribal party. The Tunisian example demands imitation more than ever, as we are confronted with the new face of horrific violence, the terror of ISIS. In many ways the war against ISIS shows how the West is fighting itself, the Arab world is fighting itself, and humanity as a whole, in this globalized world, is fighting itself.

Walead Farwana wrote a compelling article, The History of the Islamic State, on the ISIS movement. It is possible to shed some Girardian light on his writings by using the types of the scapegoat mechanism identified in previous posts.