Review
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Cutting America to the bone

Civil War warns against worshipping civic and political violence.

Chris Wadibia is a Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford. His research interests include political Pentecostalism, global Christianity, and faith-based investment in global development. 

An explosion occurs at the Lincoln Memorail
Civil War's finale in Washington DC.
A24.

The president of the United States is dead. The film Civil War culminates with soldiers of the Western Forces (a fictional secessionist group composed of California and Texas) posing for pictures with a presidential corpse just minutes after executing him. It’s a chilling climax, with optics reminiscent of American soldiers capturing deposed president of Iraq Saddam Hussein in 2003. The film ends with a warning. No democratic country, no matter the perceived strength of its institutions, is immune from tyranny, civil violence, and the bloody process of state failure. Collapse follows when states lose the capacity to provide solutions to the linchpin challenges negatively affecting their citizens. 

A strength of Civil War is the way it articulates a universal political message without defiling itself with the toxic hyper-partisanship asphyxiating real-world American society.  

It features a number of loyalist and secessionist geopolitical groups each motivated by a distinctive combination of social, economic, and political interests and goals. These groups include the Western Forces, Florida Alliance, New People’s Army, and Loyalist States.  

The film’s storyline prioritises a violently unfolding near future civil war in a United States whose president bucked constitutional tradition by remaining in office for a third term. The president, whose character is modelled after Donald Trump, is the villain of the film, despite being supported by over half of the 50 American states. The Western Forces function as the film's hero group. Unlike the mercilessly murderous and viciously xenophobic soldiers affiliated with the Loyalist States, the soldiers of the Western Forces treat an eclectic team of journalists and war photographers (the film’s main protagonists) with kindness and respect, allowing them to accompany them during the final stages of their assault on the White House and entrance into the belly of the beast, the Oval Office. 

The film includes shocking scenes that would make the most patriotic Americans shudder. Shortly after it begins, a suicide bomber associated with the Loyalist States, proudly carrying a large American flag, sprints into the centre of a group of vulnerable people, pleading with agents charged with guarding a water tanker, and detonates a bomb. Dozens of people including children are killed, many of whom were non-White Americans. This scene's power is that it bring home the threats Americans associate with foreign lands. Suddenly the menaces Americans instinctively link with states like Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, and Venezuela exist in cities like Charlottesville, New York, and Washington DC. America is no longer safe, and the threats have come from within instead of from abroad.  

The message of Christ applies to theocracies and secular states alike. Every state, regardless of its attitudes toward religion, has an interest in its people living together peacefully.

As an American watching this film from a cozy cinema in Oxford, I thought about how the violence, polarisation, and civic rage depicted in the film already exists in many forms in the country I love from a distance. Shootings, many of them mass in nature, happen every day in an America whose citizens are comfortable with violence but afraid of each other. The United States suffers from an embarrassingly high association with mass shootings, far more than whichever county manages to claim an ignominious second place. Whilst it is unlikely tanks and attack helicopters will surround the White House anytime soon, the casual spirit of violence that has overtaken American society already fosters a level of violence far above the threshold any twenty first century democratic state should tolerate.  

I watched this film as a proud American and as a committed Christian, a faith I share with many of my fellow American citizens. My Bible, and theirs, does say we are citizens of heaven” destined to enjoy an eternal posterity in a New Creation marked by perfect peace and prosperity. However, until Christ returns, and God remakes the cosmos, Christians do have a vital role to play in their everyday civic communities. Whilst Civil War offers a grim view of America’s immediate political future, that message of Christ contains the content needed to cure the gravest challenges bedevilling the United States. I remain optimistic. 

Not all Americans identify as Christians or even with organised religion; nevertheless, twentieth century history confirms that states that altogether ignore God will soon wither into an ecosystemic abyss of state-sponsored moral relativism that endorses the use of violence for an increasing, arbitrary range of unsuitable, injudicious, and illegitimate purposes. The message of Christ applies to theocracies and secular states alike. Every state, regardless of its attitudes toward religion, has an interest in its people living together peacefully. Humans need a moral system to provide them (as well as their societies at large) with at least a perceived sense of moral structure. Christ’s message articulates a concept of civic love that challenges the existing worship of civic and political violence. Christ argues that violence in moments of disagreement or dismay is never the appropriate option; the mark of genuine Christian devotion is revealed in the avoidance of violent action even when the use of violence would not categorically be condemned by observers. 

Civil War explains how multiple, competing Americas exist. These Americas have different cultures, economic capacities, and sociopolitical ideologies. It teaches that America’s main problem is Americans only love other Americans like them. A number of enclaves exist across American society. Cut off from each other, the development of these enclaves has led to the emergence of micro-Americas so distinctive from each other that some of them no longer view formal geopolitical ties with other micro-Americas as in their best interest.  

The same enclavisation portrayed in Civil War exists in the nonfictional, real-life America. However, unlike in the America depicted in the film, the real-life America still has time to solve its sociopolitical troubles and stop the American state from collapsing. I recommend Civil War to anyone interested in being entertained and warned by what a dystopian, worst-case-scenario of near-future American political activity might actually look like. 

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.