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The real culture war just down the road

Father Michael Kelly SJ
 
The only upside of the outrageous and appalling destruction of the Sri Lankan bombings of innocent Christians celebrating Easter is that it draws a line in the sand about religious abuse.
 
This act says that all the arguments and chatter across the world about religious hostility are about nothing if they don’t address this simple fact: across the world, we have missed that this is about something more basic than religion. It’s about humanity and the conflicting narratives about how humans prosper.
 
And there is little comfort in the way that discussion is progressing across the world, especially in the engine rooms of argumentative conflict in the west.
 
The most tedious thing about life in western societies right now is the unproductive engagement between culture warriors in Europe, North America, and smaller places such as Australia and New Zealand, where contending narratives line up against each other.
 
Liberals berate conservatives, the right in economic and political terms show contempt for the barely surviving representatives of the left, and nationalists create their populist following as they berate those who favour multilateralism and inclusive national and international policies.
 
But there is a looming fact in world affairs that dwarfs these contests mostly occurring among an ever-diminishing population of usually male, white, often assertively Christian but really just reactive ideologues cloaking themselves in the old faith.
 
Out there in the real world, the coming contest isn’t even spoken about, much less seen for how soon it could be upon us. The contest that dwarfs others is that between an ascendant China and an expansive Islam.
 
The two great post-Cold War hegemons are China and a broad collection of, at times, very divided Islamic states. Though the perennial Islamic fight is between Sunnis and Shias, one thing unites them: their religion is the true religion and the sooner the world accepts that, the better it will be for everyone, especially Muslims.
 
China has never been in any doubt that its culture—like its cuisine—is the world’s best and today, its leaders’ dream for their people is not a suburban house, a job and a car for every Chinese citizen, but the country’s accomplishment of world leadership in every economic, social and political field.
 
This is not crystal ball gazing. It’s plain to see this pattern already well into creation.
 
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the embodiment of its 21st-century programme of economic expansion, with China at its hub and as the principal beneficiary.
 
Islam’s pointy end is the villainous behaviour of suicide bombers and fanatical terrorists who have blown up the Middle East and exported their deadly obsessions all over the world. But beneath this explosive and destructive expression of the most lethal form of religion lurks a belief system of absolutes, of insiders and outsiders, of us and them.
 
You don’t have to have a crystal ball to see what will happen when the two worlds collide.
 
Just look at the western province of Xinjiang, where over a million Muslims are in re-education camps preparing themselves under government instructions to be more cooperative Chinese citizens.
 
So, what is to be done? Just watch powerlessly at the human and social degeneration that is underway? Or do something about it? If so, what?
 
Either ‘the civility of encounter’ or the ‘incivility of conflict’
 
Continuing the brutal ideological contest born of fear of difference and at times invincible ignorance only serves to maintain the power of the dominant, and sees nothing change.
 
Ending the culture war in a tit-for-tat way that all too often leads to destructive wars is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
 
It takes time, patience, listening and entails a lot of risk. Often, it appears naïve, utopian and just stupid.
 
But when the alternative to a long and difficult process is certain failure, why not take the risk? And there is an example of how to do it: Pope Francis with both Muslims all over the Middle East, North Africa and in Asia, and in his approach to the People’s Republic of China.
 
His approach to both is the same: encounter, recognition of difference as the starting point (not the conclusion to) engagement, and agreeing a way forward that step by step heads towards a deeper relationship.
 
He’s called soft headed and naïve for what he has done by signing the agreement with China on the appointment of bishops.
 
Frequently, commentators ignore the fact that the provisional agreement has a very restricted focus: agreeing on candidates jointly, which historically, until the 19th century, was the common way of proceeding. Sovereign authorities and the Vatican would come to an agreement on nominations, with the pope appointing the agreed to candidate.
 
From the pope’s point of view, he is simply doing his job and healing a rift in the Church at a local and national level. His critics like to say he’s doing anything from being the tool of communists to dancing on the graves of martyrs.
 
But the heart of his strategy is one well known in any negotiations: leave the table and you’ve lost the opportunity to have any say in the outcome.
 
The same strategy was on show when he went to visit, to engage with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi from February 3 to 5. He became the first pope ever to go to the Arabian Peninsula.
 
“There is no alternative,” Pope Francis said on that occasion: either “the civility of encounter” or the “incivility of conflict.”
 
Pope Francis added that future generations should develop like trees that are well rooted in the soil of history, which, “growing up high and next to others,” transform “the polluted air of hate into the oxygen of brotherhood,” an idea that is the linchpin of the document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Coexistence, signed by the pope and the imam.
 
Pope Francis’ next went to Morocco from March 30-31. The “triptych” composed of Egypt, the Emirates, and Morocco—not counting the trips made to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Bangladesh.
“There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future. Religions, in particular, cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures.
 
“The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretense, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace.
 
“If we believers are unable to give each other a hand, embrace each other, kiss each other, and also to pray, our faith will be defeated.”
 
Here, Pope Francis speaks of all “believers” and of “faith,” enlarging the perspective beyond that of Christians and the Catholic faithful.
 
The best is always the enemy of the good. The way forward starts just where we are in imperfection, but with the opportunity for encounter and growth. 
 
 
Jesuit Father Michael Kelly is the CEO of UCAN Services.