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    PloughCast 14: Empire and Its Discontents

    Beyond Borders, Part 2

    By Phil Klay, Tom Holland, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    September 26, 2021

    About this Episode

    Peter and Susannah speak with novelist, journalist, and Iraq vet Phil Klay about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the folly of nation-building, and the promise of soft power.

    Then they welcome historian Tom Holland, author of Dominion, to discuss the difference Christianity made to the mind of the West and the idea of Empire. What is the unique capacity Christianity has for appealing to both fighters and pacifists? How have those two strands in its history woven together, and what can we make of the profound subversion of Roman ideals of power represented by the Cross?

    And in what sense can virtually every person in what was once Christendom call him or herself a Christian? Wokeness, Holland claims, can best be understood as a Christian heresy; Hitler, the head of the first movement to thoroughly repudiate Christianity not just institutionally but in principle, becomes a substitute for Satan. And we begin to look to the most marginalized, the most powerless, as Christ figures.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    I: Phil Klay: Afghanistan

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast.

    Susannah Black: Thanks for joining us. I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor in chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black: Phil Klay will be on to talk about Afghanistan and the aftermath of our long sojourn there. And then Tom Holland, who is not yet a friend of the pod, but hopefully will be a friend of the pod, is going to be able to talk about empire, his book Dominion, and the difference that Christianity has made to empires. Okay, welcome Phil Klay. Phil is a friend of the pod, friend of the community, and the author of Missionaries and Redeployment. Missionaries is his first novel; Redeployment is a series of short stories. And he’s also the host along with, I believe, Jake Siegel, of Manifesto! A podcast, which you should definitely listen to. I’m a big fan.

    And now let’s get to it. Obviously this was not your war: you were in Iraq.

    Phil Klay: By the time that I accepted my commission in 2005, it was already clear that the war in Iraq wasn’t going very well. So I think that a lot of the veterans of my generation have a very different attitude toward these wars. I was talking with one friend and he was like … He was furious because he was working on visas, trying to get people out during the evacuation in Kabul. And of course veterans’ groups and advocacy groups had been saying that the Biden administration needed to put more priority on evacuation, that this was going to be a disaster. They’ve been saying that for months. I’ve had meetings with folks where they talked about the cold shoulder they were getting from the Biden administration. And then they were in this terrible situation, desperately trying to get people out in an incredibly chaotic environment.

    It was this intensely emotional time after a long time of not paying attention; suddenly people were horrified by what was going on in Afghanistan. Of course that horror could have applied to many other pieces of the Afghan war; it was just happening with less intensity and less television drama.

    I went through northern Iraq in December of 2019. And it was very interesting because we went to a center for women who had been slaves under ISIS and then liberated. And there were these little kids there singing “Baby Shark.”

    And we’re in the midst of a society that has been through unbearable cataclysm, and then we went to Mosul. We were going to the shattered Old City, talking to people who had lived through the final days of the occupation. I met a man in a shattered house that the UNDP was rebuilding. And he’s talking about how he didn’t send his kids to school because everything was violent. Even math, he said, it was always “bullet plus bullet equals two bullets.” And towards the end, he said, it was so horrible: they had no food to eat, they ate cats, they ate rats. It’s hard to get water, you go down to the river to get water but soldiers would shoot at you from the other side. And he was just there with his kids feeling helpless because they’re crying, and there’s nothing he can do for them.

    And at the same time, you’re meeting with refugees from Syria who are furious that Trump pulled out some of the troops because Turkish-backed militias came in their wake and ethnically cleansed the area of Kurds. And the governor of Mosul is talking about how American investors need to come and we need American support – I think he said it was a golden opportunity to invest in Mosul.

    I didn’t leave thinking that we need to entirely pull back into our borders. And yet the failures of the projects were so apparent.

    Susannah Black: How do you make that call? If your response to the past twenty years is not isolationism, and if there’s something deeply problematic about the idea of nation-building, which especially as you’ve described it, ends up half the time being nation-smashing, how do you think about, I guess, America’s role as an imperial power?

    Phil Klay: It’s just we build castles in the air that we tell ourselves are real. That’s what was clear with the government in Afghanistan. That we had constructed a government that never had any real legitimacy. We wanted to really remake these societies from the ground up and you can never do that.

    In the speech where Biden – celebrated perhaps isn’t the word, but announced the end of the war, he also promised that we were going to continue killing people in Afghanistan. It’s a little peculiar for somebody to say that a war is ending and oh by the way, we’re going to keep killing people there. That sounds like the war is continuing, just in a different form.

    Nation-building might have been a failure. But that doesn’t mean that giving up on any concern with local political dynamics in countries where there are threats to us is the answer, and instead, we just kill people. Counterterrorism, drone strikes, special operations raids, airstrikes. We kill people and then we leave. And we don’t have anybody on the ground to tell us, does that make things better?

    II: Phil Klay: How to Ignore a War

    Peter Mommsen: What do you think it would have taken to get the American public shocked and horrified earlier?

    Phil Klay: I think it’s hard for people to get really invested in violence overseas. I mean, there’s any number of reasons for it. Human beings were naturally most interested in their most immediate challenges. I mean, everybody is. But beyond that, it disappeared as a political issue. So if you remember the Bush administration, the war in Iraq particularly was a galvanizing political issue. And Barack Obama would criticize that war, as the preferred candidate of the antiwar movement. Well, when he was elected, the antiwar movement lost all of its juice. But Obama was not an antiwar president. He gave a defense of American power around the world in the Nobel acceptance speech, and he and his administration immediately began making legal arguments expanding the scope of the executive’s authority to kill people anywhere and everywhere. We’re talking about as early as 2009, people are talking about a reterritorialized war.

    He did end the troop presence in Iraq. That was the war he had been against. But then when ISIS came back, he expanded it. He claimed that the war was over when in fact it wasn’t. It was a talking point in the administration in 2015. Where we were sending in special operators, who were sometimes getting into combat, but they were saying they’re not boots on the ground, technically. By which they meant we’re not putting large conventional forces on the ground in Iraq again. But we were increasingly sending more people on the ground, special operators, even though for some reason they didn’t count as boots on the ground. Maybe they were running around on hoverboards. And we were doing a lot of airstrikes and drone strikes. That year, a talk where Susan Rice was speaking to active-duty military; three-, four-star generals were in the room, people from the NSC, about a dozen severely injured troops, guys missing limbs, their faces severely burned. And she said, “In the Obama administration, one of our proudest accomplishments is ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Then somebody went, “hah!”

    It was deceitful but it was a very deliberate strategy.

    Susannah Black: Although nation-building abroad does not seem to have worked that well, the war did quite a lot to us as a nation. And one of the things that it did was … You’ve described this George W. Bush Republican and Obama-style Democrat, and probably Hillary Clinton-style Democrat too, consensus. You could call it a neoliberal/neoconservative consensus or something like that: that we were just going to do war, that was going to be our thing. And one of the things that that did was it actually opened up a pretty strong new movement in American politics. There was obviously the traditional lefty antiwar movement. But there was also this paleoconservative movement that popped up. The American Conservative magazine started publishing in 2002.

    detail from Paul Klee Dream City with geometric shapes in teal and black forming the suggestion of houses

    detail, Paul Klee, Dream City

    And one of its key issues, which it has been fairly consistent although not entirely consistent about, was opposing American adventurism abroad. Now, obviously, you can criticize them for the reasons that they would oppose that. But that anti-imperialism has had a pretty profound effect, I think, on our political culture and in a way, I don’t think that you’d have Donald Trump without that.

    Phil Klay: I wouldn’t say it’s anti-imperialism. I think it really is imperialist, certainly in the Trumpist form, but it was willing to call the Iraq War a disaster. Before the election of Donald Trump, I was at a wedding, a buddy of mine from the Corps in rural Pennsylvania. And as we’re driving … My wife’s Colombian-American and we pass the nineteenth Trump Digs Coal sign, and she’s like, “Am I going to be the only Hispanic person at this wedding?” And I was like, “No, no, no. It’s a military wedding. It’s going to be super diverse,” which it was. But I get there and I meet the other groomsmen and I text my wife, I’m like, “Not only are you not the only Hispanic person in this wedding, you’re not even going to be the only Colombian American.” And she’s like, “Really?” And I was like, “Yeah. And he already early-voted for Trump.” Now, when I asked him why, he gave a fairly straightforward answer. He’s like, “You and me were both Marines.” He’s like, “We both know guys who’ve been killed in these wars. We both know guys who’ve been blown up in these wars. We both know guys who’ve lost limbs or whatever in these wars. And what do we have to show for it? Just corpses overseas.

    “And who are the two candidates? Well, one is Donald Trump. Does he know much about the military? No. Did he say for a hot second in 2003, on a radio show, that he was for the war? Yeah. But he was almost immediately saying that we should declare victory and go home. He’s had this isolationist streak for decades. And at the very least, I don’t think he’s going to expand the wars. I think he’s going to want to pull back. On the other side, who do we have? Hillary Clinton. She’s a liberal hawk. Her lesson from Libya was that we should have been more involved. And she’s got a general who wants to expand our footprint in Syria speaking at the DNC. Is she competent? Yes. She’s going to competently expand America’s wars overseas and get us into greater disasters that will cause untold suffering. So I’m going to vote for Trump. I already voted for Trump.”

    You understand the deep distrust of foreign policy elites who, even as the Afghan government was just dissolving, were saying, oh it would have been sustainable if we’d just kept a couple of a thousand troops in the field. Would have been like Germany or Korea. The least plausible analogy ever –

    Peter Mommsen: Kabul was the new Stuttgart.

    Phil Klay: Being encircled by Swabia, reactionary rebels forcing everybody to shut down their beer halls and wear lederhosen, and then we deployed a few thousand troops and they all switched to making house music instead. That didn’t happen. That is a dumb analogy and people kept making it. Because it was all they had. It was crazy.

    Susannah Black: I mean, this is an obvious thing to say, but one of the upshots I think of both what you’ve said and what you’ve written is that you can’t make a polity from the outside in.

    Phil Klay: You can influence it. I mean, I do very much believe in soft power. There’s a lot that we can do to influence other societies. You just can’t dictate terms to them. We can’t reshape them in our image. That was always doomed to failure.

    Susannah Black: I feel like that might be a good place to stop, Phil. That was fantastic.

    Peter Mommsen: Thank you, this is perfect.

    Susannah Black: This is really extremely perfect.

    III: Tom Holland: Rome and Christianity

    Susannah Black: Welcome to Tom Holland, whom we’re very pleased to have on as a guest on our podcast; he is himself a caster of pod. With Dominic Sandbrook, he has a podcast called “The Rest is History” of which I’m a huge fan.

    Tom Holland: Oh, you’re too kind.

    Susannah Black: He’s a historian of various empires. He’s the author of Rubicon: the Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, Persian Fire, his history of the great Greco-Persian Wars, and I think thirteen other books if I’m right about that. Most recently, he’s the author of Dominion. He’s also an elite sportsman, an expert tweeter, and not the star of the new Spider Man movie. I knew you first as the author of Dominion, a book about … The subtitle is I think “the making of the West.”

    Tom Holland: Well, it has different titles in Britain and America, which highlights the cultural differences that the Atlantic separates. So in Britain, it’s “the Making of the Western Mind.” Because my editor didn’t want to have any hint of Christianity on the cover in case it would put off the book-buying public. Whereas in America, it was … I can’t remember, it’s got something like, Why Christianity is Brilliant or something like that. And there’s the Dalí crucifix. ”How the Christian Revolution Changed the World” is the American subtitle, which I think is actually a much more accurate description.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. I mean, if somebody picked up that book hoping to not find any trace of Christianity, they would be sadly disappointed.

    Tom Holland: Yes.

    Susannah Black: I wanted to talk with you because you’re not a Christian, you’re interestingly Christian-adjacent. And I think what was striking to me about Dominion was that it seemed as though you were writing … It starts I think in around 500 BC.

    Tom Holland: Yeah, it starts in actually 479 BC, which is in the aftermath of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480. And the reason that it starts there is that Persia is the first empire that effectively moralizes its own imperialism. So it sees the world in terms of good and evil, of light and darkness. And that obviously is a huge influence on Christianity, and indeed Islam. And there’s a tendency in the West to see ourselves as the heirs of Greece and of Athens, but I think we’re at least as much the heirs of Persia.

    Susannah Black: That’s fascinating; I’ve heard Zoroastrianism being spoken of as an influence on Christianity as well.

    Tom Holland: Well, it’s very, very complicated because it’s not actually what we would call Zoroastrianism under the first Persian Empire. I mean, it’s a kind of proto-Zoroastrianism. But a lot of the themes that will become part of what are institutionalized several centuries later as Zoroastrianism are there. And there’s no question that the Persian kings when they invade Greece, which is this mountainous backwater full of terrorists basically, the Persians are going in there basically to sort it out, to bring order and stability and peace there as they see it. And of course it all goes disastrously wrong. And we’re recording this in the aftermath of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I think there’s a sense in which America has been riffing on that very, very ancient Persian theme. And the idea that simply because America is a democracy and because Athens was a democracy, therefore there’s a straight line of descent from the two is very much complicated by the fact that actually, it’s Persia that provides the model for Christian and Islamic imperialism.

    Susannah Black: Yeah, we would like to see ourselves as a pre-Rubicon Rome or as something like Athens.

    Tom Holland: Yeah. Very different.

    Susannah Black: There’s such a distinctive flavor to the book. It reminds me a little bit of Hilaire Belloc’s history writing, but you end up writing about Christianity and eventually … Or Judaism first obviously, and then Christianity. But very clearly it seems to me, if you were a character in this book, you would not be one of the Jews or one of the Christians. You are speaking as one of the …

    Tom Holland: Well, I’m not sure that’s true because actually, I am a character in the book. Right at the end I include myself as a character. Well, I describe my mother but particularly my godmother who was, for me, a great inspiration, a model really of how to live. And she was a very devout Christian. And I suppose the final chapter is an acknowledgement that it’s ridiculous to imagine that I can stand outside. Because the central claim of the book is that the West is just completely Christian. That you don’t have to go to church or believe in God to be shaped by it so profoundly as, in effect, to be Christian. So to that extent, I would say I’m absolutely Christian because I think it’s impossible to be in the West and not to be shaped and influenced by it.

    I mean, the question of whether I think that Jesus rose from the dead is a different matter. I would like to, and there are times if I go to maybe at Christmas or Easter or if I’m in a place where … those thin places that people talk about, where the divine seems very close, that I can believe it. And there are the times where it just seems complete nonsense to me. But whether I’m in my skeptical or in my believing mode of thought, I never doubt that in my core assumptions, I’m Christian through and through and that’s really what the argument of the book is about.

    Susannah Black: Can you talk about how those core assumptions differ from, say the core assumptions of … Let’s talk about Rome for example. So obviously Rome features heavily in the book. What is the impact of Christianity on the Roman mind, I guess, or on the Roman Empire?

    Tom Holland: Well, let’s look at the core symbol of Christianity which is the cross. And the cross had an important significance in the Roman imagination as well, as an emblem of their power, and their authority to inflict torture on those who oppose them. And those who oppose them might be rebels in the provinces, or they might be slaves. And there’s a sense in which the distinction between those two categories becomes blurred, because to suffer on the cross for the Romans is the worst possible death. It’s the most humiliating; it’s the most agonizing. It’s not just that you suffer for hours, perhaps days, but that you do it in public. And so people can gather and watch as birds peck out your eyes or attack your genitals. They can laugh at you as you struggle to continue breathing.

    And the humiliating character of the death is precisely what then serves to affirm the dignity of Rome as an imperial power and the master, as someone who can inflict this suffering on the slave. Christianity obviously radically, radically reconfigures that. And the idea that the cross can serve as an emblem of the triumph of the slave over the master or the victim over the victimizer or indeed the provincial over the imperialist is so destabilizing. But it’s hard to put into words just how profound a cultural upheaval it represents.

    Susannah Black: You’ve talked about … I mean, obviously the title of the book is Dominion, lordship. I guess a way to ask this would be, it seems to me throughout the book that you’re talking about the West or the aspects of the West that are influenced by Christianity, which you might call the remnants of Christendom or the unshakable structural and deep-seated assumptions of Christendom, are an empire of the mind. That although they’re not a political empire, there is almost an invisible empire which I would say corresponds to something like what Christians think of as the Kingdom of God, that’s been permeating through the West over the course of Christianity’s rise. Is that what you were getting at with that title and through the book?

    Tom Holland: Well, the title points … The whole of Christianity is paradox. At its heart, it’s rooted in paradox. That God can become man, that death can become life, everything about it is paradoxical. But in historical terms, the paradox is that a faith that puts at its center “the first shall be last, the last shall be first,” of which the story of exodus, of the slaves being the favorites of God, or of course the crucifixion and the resurrection, that the cross becomes the emblem of triumph over worldly empire. But this faith in itself ends up becoming the most globally hegemonic way of explaining what humanity is here for. And there is obviously an incredible tension there between the power that Christianity has come to exert, and the nagging sense that actually it’s in powerlessness that God’s favors are to be found.

    And that has been an issue really right from the very beginning. Christianity claims that its message is for the entire world. So famously that’s articulated by Paul in his letter to Galatians. That there is no Jew or Greek, there is no man or woman, there is no slave or free in Christ. As Paul himself discovers, there are those who reject this idea that all cultural difference, for instance, can be dissolved into a single identity. Because most Jews don’t accept Paul’s message. So right from the very beginning, Paul and his followers have to wrestle with the issue of, well, what do you do with people who reject this message of universal Christian identity? And I think perhaps for that reason, it’s Christianity’s relationship with the Jews that is the most notorious example of what can rise from the insistence of Christians that there is a kind of universal identity. Because for those who reject it, what does that mean? It doesn’t always mean good things.

    detail from Paul Klee Dream City with geometric shapes in teal and black forming the suggestion of houses

    detail, Paul Klee, Dream City

    So whether it’s Jews or whether it’s the people who come to be described by Christians as pagans – and the idea of a pagan is an entirely Christian one – or Muslims in due course, or as various notions within Christianity evolve as to what being Christian should be, the idea of heretics, Catholics, Protestants, whatever. So that remains the enduring tension. And I think that we see in western countries at the moment, perhaps most convulsively actually in the United States, an anxiety about Christianity’s power that exists entirely within a Christian context. So there’s an awful lot of what’s been going on, I think since the ‘60s. Which I would see as a convulsion parallel to the Reformation. The ‘60s is up there with the 1520s as a period where deeply Christian assumptions get recalibrated. That Christianity has been rejected by increasing numbers of people within American society but for deeply Christian reasons: It’s rejected because it’s identified with power and with authority, with “the man.” But it’s rejected for reasons that make no sense outside of a cultural Christian matrix.

    Peter Mommsen: We actually have an article in the issue of Plough that this podcast is associated with, by the former president of one of the premier leadership bodies of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in this country – Russell Moore is his name – about why young people are leaving the church. And there’s recent polling over the last five years showing plummeting identification with White Protestantism by younger cohorts. And there of course has been much handwringing in Christian circles about why that is the case, why there’s plummeting levels of identification both as Christians and as churchgoing Christians. And I’d be curious … You’ve in a way answered that, but what would you say to a church leader in United States? Why are young people leaving Christianity? Are we on the way to becoming the next Sweden in thirty years?

    Tom Holland: Well, I don’t think they are leaving Christianity. I think they’re leaving Christianity in the way that Protestants left the Roman Church in the 1520s. I think that a new Christian identity is emerging and evolving. And obviously for those who in a sense are defending the status quo, that’s an incredibly traumatic and unsettling experience. But I mean, I would say that it’s deeply rooted. It seems to me as an outsider that the current convulsions in the United States are deeply rooted in the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and in fact in the need for that civil rights movement. Because that was an impeccably Christian movement. It’s the Reverend Martin Luther King. Because what King was doing was essentially summoning White Protestants and indeed White Christians generally to a recognition of biblical truth, that all human beings are created equally in the image of God. That if there is no Jew or Greek, then there’s certainly no Black or White.

    And it was because White Christians could recognize the truth of that, the impact of that, that the Civil Rights Movement proved as successful as it did. But what happened then in the ‘60s was that various other groups of people within American society that felt themselves to be disadvantaged drew on that campaign. The feminist movement, it was kick started by this; gay rights. And the problem for Christians of course was that whereas the argument that there’s no Black or White absolutely goes with the grain of Christian thinking over 2,000 years, the notion that there’s no man or woman in Christ, but there should be no man or woman in society generally, was more challenging. Because that hadn’t always been a part of orthodox Christian teaching. And of course, gay rights was even more problematic. So essentially, what happened over the ’70s, ’80s, into the ’90s was that a no man’s land began to open up between doctrinally professing Christians and groups like gay-rights campaigners, feminists, I guess people on the liberal left who came to see themselves as essentially emancipating themselves from Christianity.

    And so the more hostile professing Christians became to liberals, the more liberals came to see themselves as not being Christian and vice versa. And so the trenches deepened, the barbed wire became more and more entangled, the no man’s land became harder and harder to traverse. And that’s basically the situation that the United States is in at the moment. But it seems to me that essentially the culture wars, arguments over theology, where one side isn’t recognizing the fact that actually it’s a theological argument because the fundamentals of antiracism, of gay rights, of Trans rights, of feminism are all rooted in the Christian assumption that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The idea that it’s better to be the victim than the victimizer.

    And Nietzsche, the great atheist enemy of Christianity who attacks the things that … He hates the idea the idea that victimhood should be privileged, he despises that. I mean, he would absolutely recognize it as being Christian. And I talked about how when you’re crucified, you die because you can’t breathe. And I would say that George Floyd absolutely fits into the Christ-shaped gap that this new evolving theology needs. It needs martyrs; it needs people who embody fundamental Christian principles but who aren’t necessarily Christian – indeed actually it’s great if they’re not Christian, because then they can serve as more potent figures to rally the cause. So I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I would … If I were an American evangelical, I would probably focus on what unites rather than what divides.

    Peter Mommsen: It’s interesting to go into this question of powerlessness at the heart of the gospel; identification with the powerless is central to Christianity. There have been movements, as you know better than we, over the course of Christianity that sought to recover that, that sought to get back to that original nonviolent ethic of the first few generations of Christianity. This magazine actually is published by an Anabaptist community for instance, although we publish ecumenical voices; in fact, on our last podcast episode we had on Pater Edmund Waldstein, a well-known Catholic integralist who loves the idea of Christendom and its restoration. There is this strain within Christianity, a centuries-long fight so to speak, between this impulse to nonviolence, towards taking on suffering, a willingness to bear suffering. And then the desire for domination that goes with the universalist claims of Christianity. And I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this whole question of violence and nonviolence within Christianity, and what role does that play in what we’re talking about?

    Tom Holland: Clearly, the tradition of nonviolence is very, very significant. Jesus allows himself to be arrested; he tells Peter to put up his sword. He goes to his death rather than summon angels to defend him. And you can see in, say, in early medieval writings where newly converted Germanic peoples are trying to make sense of this, just how odd it is. So they’ll cast the apostles as a band of warriors with Christ as the warlord. And the radicalism of the fact that this warlord refuses to fight again and again, it’s what obsesses them. They completely recognize how odd this is. But against that, it’s important to recognize that there is also scope, if you want to fight, for doing that. There’s lots of violence … The book of Revelation is an astonishingly violent text. And the fact that it’s an anti-imperial text, I would say the greatest anti-imperial text ever written, the text that underlies the great tradition of anti-imperialism within Western thought, doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly violent. It’s absolutely sauced in the blood of the damned.

    Peter Mommsen: A lot of Frantz Fanon in there, the wretched of the earth rising up.

    Tom Holland: Absolutely. And it’s there in Anabaptism, isn’t it? Because Anabaptists become famously pacifist but Munster, though, is the absolute archetype of what happens when you take millenarianism seriously.

    Peter Mommsen: We quickly disclaimed those Munsterians.

    Tom Holland: Sure, but the scope was there, wasn’t it? And that’s part of what makes Christianity so, I think, culturally, emotionally, spiritually satisfying to human beings. I mean, if you’re looking at it purely from a Darwinian sense, why has it worked? Why has it become the most successful way of explaining what humans are about that’s ever existed? It’s that kind of tension. There’s something for everyone there, but it’s channeled in very, very distinctive ways. So I would say that the relationship of violence and nonviolence within the Christian tradition has always been one that generates sparks, put it that way. But I think there’s another perspective which ties in with what you were saying about Catholic yearning for Christendom as it was, which I think has been highlighted by the recent meeting that’s taken place in Hungary between the Pope and Viktor Orbán.

    Because those two men embody two traditions, again, that are very, very ancient and both deeply Christian. So the pope embodies the universalist strain within Christianity. All human beings are created equal; cultural difference will ultimately be dissolved within Christ. And it’s that message that of course underlies the evangelism that has seen Christianity brought to continents that would have been unimaginable to the first apostles. Against that, Viktor Orbán is equally an embodiment of a Christian tradition that sees Christianity as something that needs to be defended from its enemies. So he’s the leader of a country that was occupied by the Ottomans for many centuries. And therefore has an attitude towards particularly Muslim migrants that is explicitly hostile. He sees Islam as a threat to Christianity, as Christians have seen Islam as a threat most of their existence.

    And so essentially what’s at stake is an argument I suppose about the Good Samaritan. The story the Good Samaritan lays on Christians is to care for those who may not even be Christian. That’s how it’s traditionally been interpreted. But the Viktor Orbán tradition is “Yes, but what if the person that you’ve rescued turns out to be a Viking or turns out to be an Ottoman or a Janissary or whatever? What are you going to do then?” And it’s ridiculous to pretend that the desire to defend Christianity or indeed to spread Christianity at the point of a sword is not a part of Christian history, because it clearly is.

    IV: Tom Holland: Wokeness and The Post-Christian Right

    Susannah Black: One of the things that we’re seeing a lot of in the US, I think possibly somewhat less in the UK, is the emergence of what you might call the post-Christian right. So there was a lot of talk about the Christian right … I did not grow up Christian; I can remember hearing about the Christian right as this very scary thing when I was growing up. We’re now seeing a little bit of what might be called a post-Christian right, which is reaching back, [I think] at least through Nietzsche to some of the earlier –

    Peter Mommsen: Bronze Age.

    Susannah Black: Bronze Age. Yeah. As an actual historian of, among other ages, the Bronze Age, can you talk about … Without Christian assumptions, especially those on the progressive left may not even recognize that they have, what would a non-Christian Western mind look like?

    Tom Holland: Well, I think the key thing here is Nietzsche. And Nietzsche’s great insight is that most of the movements within Western history that had sought to extirpate Christian were themselves incredibly Christian. So the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution … The Russian Revolution hadn’t happened when Nietzsche died but communism [had]. That if you’re saying, again to reiterate, “the first will be last” and that those who are oppressed have value by virtue of being oppressed, which is fundamental to the French Revolution, and to the communist tradition; if you’re saying that idols should be overthrown and superstition should be banished, because by doing that, you will bring people into the light, so people who walk in darkness will be brought into light, then again, it’s just another reincarnation of Christian assumptions. And so the Enlightenment as well is just another turning of that great Christian wheel. You’re not escaping from Christian assumptions.

    And so both the Enlightenment and the socialist and the communist traditions within the West are just further iterations of Christianity, and that’s Nietzsche’s great insight. Because he, emotionally and intellectually and spiritually, identifies with the world that preceded Christianity. He identifies with the warrior values of Greece and of Rome, and he mourns their loss. He regrets the fact that the blond beast has been tamed and tonsured and locked up in a monastery. That’s the Gibbonian stereotype. He wants to see God properly dead.

    Because in the famous parable that he tells … And it’s interesting even Nietzsche can’t escape it because he’s telling a parable as Christ did – the corpse of God is so massive that it continues to cast shadows on the cave. But he says that the time will come where the corpse of God will go and a new age will be born. And this new age will be drenched in blood and spectacles of great terror and wonder.

    And of course, that is what comes to pass. Because we know, as Nietzsche didn’t, what will follow in the decades that come after his death. And in a sense, fascism is the first attempt to repudiate Christianity, not just institutionally but doctrinally. Because what … Let’s say the two great revolutionary principles that underpin Christianity, and they both have precedents in things that exist before Christianity, but no framework of belief fuses them quite so potently as Christianity. One is absolutely the sense that to be weak, to suffer, dignifies you and imposes an obligation on the strong to care for you. And the other is that all human beings have a fundamental dignity and that there is no Jew or Greek.

    And fascism repudiates these. The very name fascism comes from the Roman fasces, which are the bundles of rods and axes that the bodyguards – of first the consuls and then the emperors – carry over their shoulders. And it fuses that set identification with the ancient, with the pre-Christian world of Greece and Rome, with a very modern sensibility. Mussolini is obsessed with planes and cars and tanks.

    And in the form of Nazism in particular, this attempt to repudiate those core Christian values attains its horrific apotheosis. So obviously, Hitler doesn’t think that the strong owe a duty of care to the weak. He thinks that they have a responsibility to crush the weak. He casts the weak as the equivalent of microbes who have to be eliminated. He’s not doing what he does because he’s evil. He’s doing it because he thinks what he’s doing is right. It’s a new way of seeing the world; it’s a new way of calibrating values. And likewise, he sees it as his responsibility to affirm and protect and enhance the purity of what he sees as his race. So of course he sees Jews and Greeks as being different. And indeed, he sees … The question that haunts him, he sees the Romans and the Greeks as being [inaudible]. And so the question he has to ask is, well, what went wrong? Why did they fall? And the answer is that they get corrupted by the rootless cosmopolitanism of “the Jew Paul” as he calls him.

    And so, if his Reich is going to last for a thousand years, the Nazis have to do what the Romans failed to do, which is to get rid of the Jews. I talked about the history of Christianity being a history of paradoxes. That’s perhaps the most hideous paradox of all, that the Jews are targeted for genocide because Hitler blames them for Christianity. Even as, of course, he’s drawing on the tropes of anti-Semitism that 2,000 years of Christianity have given him. Now, Nazism doesn’t prevail. The thousand-year Reich doesn’t last for 1,000 years. And the Second World War is won by people who do it in the name of Christian civilization. But I think that the effect of this is, in a sense, certainly in Europe in the decades that follow the end of the Second World War, to make institutional Christianity almost unnecessary. Because what it’s done is to create a new myth in which Hitler is the devil and the Nazis are the demons and Auschwitz is hell.

    And in a sense, that replaces the old supernatural structures of heaven and hell, of angels and demons, that had previously existed. And in a sense, they’re more vivid. Everyone’s obsessed by Nazis; everyone’s obsessed by the Second World War. It’s an enduring obsession. And whereas previously people might say, well, what would Jesus do? and do it, now we say, what would Hitler do? and do the opposite. But of course, it remains a deeply Christian way of seeing the world because we cast the Nazis as the essence of the contestants of evil because they offended the core Christian assumptions that have governed the way that the West interprets and understands the world for fifteen hundred years.

    So in a sense, if there are people who are harking back to the Bronze Age, that’s a proper repudiation of Christianity. That’s not a repudiation of Christianity in the way that progressive radicals are doing it. That’s a Nietzschean repudiation. And it’s one that is casting off, that’s scorning, the idea that the history of fascism shows where that leads.

    Susannah Black: It’s interesting to think about Hitler as the Satan figure of our contemporary culture, because there’s not really a corresponding Christ figure, or at least there’s not a single corresponding Christ figure. You don’t say, What would Churchill do? Because especially to a lot of modern progressives, Churchill is not actually someone to look up to. So there’s this free-floating Christ mantle that it seems to me, although Hitler can stay as the devil, there’s a free floating …

    Tom Holland: I think it’s being vested in people who are classed as victims.

    Susannah Black: I’m interested in the way that Dominion’s been received. I’ve seen it called revisionist history. And obviously there’s this … I love the fact that the British publisher tried to cloak it a bit. What’s been the strangest response or what’s been like … I know a ton of Christians who absolutely love the book for incredibly obvious reasons. What’s been the response among non-Christians? Have you felt them to be puzzled?

    Tom Holland: There’s been a fair degree of hostility from some. Because in a sense, I am a kind of apostate I suppose. So I wrote a book called In the Shadow of the Sword which was about the emergence of Islam as an imperial project that emerged from the imperial traditions of late antiquity, so Roman and Sicanian traditions. And to explain it historically essentially required me to question quite a lot about the life of Mohammed and the origins of the Quran that obviously is very, very important to Muslims. I mean, it lies at the heart of what Muslims believe. And I remember giving a talk where a Muslim in the audience said, “Why have you done this? Why are you questioning what we hold sacred? You would never do this to yourself.” And I felt the force of that because actually at that point, I was already questioning what I took to be sacred, which was basically that I was illiberal, that there were such things as human rights, that they were uncomplicated, that I was a product of the Enlightenment, that I owed more to Greece and Rome than I did to dreary old church fathers and monks and all that dreadful crew who’d ruined everything.

    That was the Gibbonian stereotype. I was already doubting that. But that question … I felt the force of it and I thought, well, I’m going to question my values and beliefs and mythology, if you like, in exactly the same way. So really Dominion is the fruit of that. And so I can see why there are liberals who have a particular emotional investment in the idea of the Enlightenment as an emancipation from the Dark Ages, and from barbarism and superstition and all that kind of thing. I mean, I can see why they would resent that. But I have to say that nobody has objected to this in quite the way that [had] before objected to the book on Islam. And I think that probably reflects the fact that for most people, the stakes are less high.

    Susannah Black: Tom, thank you so much for your time.

    Tom Holland: Absolute pleasure. Thank you.

    Contributed By PhilKlay Phil Klay

    Phil Klay, a veteran of the US Marine Corps, published his debut novel, Missionaries, in 2020 (Penguin). His short story collection Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.

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    Contributed By TomHolland Tom Holland

    Tom Holland lives in London and is an award-winning historian, biographer, and broadcaster.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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