The Neo-tribalism and the Gospel of reconciliation

Kin-Yip Louie
Heavenly Blessings Associate Professor (Theological Studies)



2016 can be regarded as a year full of political surprises.

Firstly, British voters decided to withdraw from the European Union (EU) in the referendum in June. Before the vote, the support for Brexit and Bremain were similar in opinion polls. The Conservative government and most of the social elites were opposed to Brexit. Many political commentators also felt that the public would not make a hasty vote. But the result was astonishing. Prime Minister Cameron, who pushed forward the referendum, resigned immediately. Then, in November, mainstream polls predicted that Hillary would win the presidential election in the United States. Some survey even claimed that her chance of winning would be more than 90%. Eventually, Hillary won the popular vote but ended up losing the election.1 Looking back at Hong Kong, the rise of the localist groups is nothing new. However, the storm generated by the oath-taking of two young localist members-elect of the Legislative Council, which has not been settled yet, was surprisingly intense.

Reject integration. Emphasize self-identity

Even though these incidents occurred at three corners of this planet, they reflected a common phenomenon in the developed countries today—the rise of neo-tribalism. It is called “neo” because it is not based on separation in time and space, nor is it from the lack of a common history among people of different backgrounds. Rather, this ideology deliberately denies the path of integration, that it re-emphasizes the uniqueness of self-identity. Being the disciples of the LORD, we should be concerned most of all about whether our social culture and system can establish justice and love, not the success or failure of a particular politician or political party. From this point of view, believers should ponder upon both the good and bad aspects of neo-tribalism.

From the perspective of mega—cultural trends, neo-tribalism is the reaction of the West against the ideals of the Enlightenment. It is also a variant of the Postmodernism. The dream of Enlightenment, which started at the 17th century, was to build a universal framework of rational thinking. In fact, rational thinking was only a tool. The ultimate goal was to establish a common moral kingdom to replace the medieval kingdom of Christ, and to establish peaceful unity of the world. On the other hand, the emergence of capitalist society and technology has improved the living standard of the West by leaps and bounds. Capitalism and technology itself is another kind of rationalism, demanding the society to build up a system according to the standard of productivity and efficiency. The popularity of this universal value and the gospel of affluent society reached a climax in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell down.2

After 1989, two important trends have shattered the dreams and shaken the faith of the Western great unity. One of them was the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which has become an extensive force in global geopolitics. People begin to doubt whether the secularism of Enlightenment was an inevitable development. At the same time, it forces the Western society to rethink about their identities, including the significance of Christian tradition today. On the other hand, a series of international economic turmoil, especially the financial tsunami that began in 2007, have made many people skeptical about that the international financial and trade system was a mutually beneficial win-win game. They even see the social elites who advocate universal values as a group of hypocrites who try to justify the status quo in order to protect their own interests. For these people, they need leaders who are able to speak out frankly the conflict of interest and to protect their autonomy and interests. In the context of Hong Kong, those who emphasize the economic integration between China and Hong Kong are perceived as being on the side of the great unity. The localist group, however, put the distinctiveness of Hong Kong and its autonomy as a priority. The great unity is no longer the paradise people looking forward to, but it is an oppression and a fraud.

Don’t be xenophobic. Proclaim the values of Christian Faith

How should Christians regard neo-tribalism?

On the one hand, neo-tribalism always set up a hypothetical enemy to build its own identity. In the words of Trump, the enemies include Chinese manufacturers, Mexican immigrants and global Muslims. In the words of those who support Brexit, the enemy is the EU system that takes away the autonomy of the United Kingdom. In the words of the localist group, the enemies include the Beijing government and the “locusts” from Mainland China. Of course, believers should not be xenophobic. We and our enemies are both sinners. (Let us be honest! A person or a country always has enemies.) Even if there is a conflict of interest, we do not need to regard ourselves as the embodiment of righteousness; nor should we regard the people who oppose us as demons. On the contrary, we should be open-minded and seek reconciliation without sacrificing justice.

On the positive side, tribal culture does reflect the potential hegemony of universal moralism. For example, in the United States, Obama was a popular person, but some of his social policies have exacerbated social tensions. The radical policies of Obama, including the toilet options for transgender students, environmental protection, as well as medical insurance and other issues, through which he proposed in the name of improving the society, actually caused a lot of resentment among many Americans. This is not only one of the reasons that led to the loss of Hillary Clinton, but also a major cause for the defeat of the Democratic Party in both the Congress and the State governor elections. For those British in support of Brexit, they were similarly dissatisfied with the fact that they could not establish their own laws and systems according to their own values. Tribalism reveals that all policies are inevitably built upon a certain set values. The so-called “universal values” are often excuses for obstructing rational discussion. Tribalism, on the contrary, may bring up more diversified discussions in the public space. Christians should actively proclaim their values through these opportunities.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:17-18) Even a first century person such as St. Paul realized the difficulties of witnessing the truth in a diversified society. Christians cannot please everyone, but we still have to strive to live out our faith in the public arena. In the Epistle of Romans, Paul left us a lot of thought-provoking exhortation. Our society is filled with resentments, and it will drive people to despair and to anger. If believers want to stand up bravely for God, to proclaim boldly the truth of God and to walk humbly in acts of love, we must first be rooted in the love and power of God. Only when we integrate the spiritual practice of contemplation and social action can we then enter the world without conforming to the world. Believers ought to be the ambassador of peace and the warrior for truth at the same time. This double testimony is the best evidence that Christ has overcome the world.


1. Many people may wonder why the US presidential election system would allow such things to happen. In short, the US election system is designed to balance the interests of the different regions and the populace. If the presidential election is determined solely by the popular votes, candidates may ignore the interests of the states with less population and would only cater to the needs of the more populated states. Even though more populated states have more electoral votes, they are not allocated in strict proportion to the population. In this election, majority of voters in the more populated states, like California and New York, voted for Hillary but Trump won the election in more of the states.

2. Enlightenment thoughts and the system of capitalist society can be considered as complementar y in contemporary history. But is it necessarily so? This question is quite complicated and it is difficult to make a judgement. In the 1990s, some Western scholars thought that the Western democratic capitalist society will eventually sweep the whole world. Such idea was represented by Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1st ed., New York: Free Press, 1992). Of course, there were scholars with opposing views. They thought that there was no common trend among civilizations. Instead, there would be clashes between the major civilization. This idea was represented by Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1st ed., New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). From hindsight, both the Common Trend theory and the Clash of Civilizations theory fail to recognize the diversities and fluidity within the major cultures.


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