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Tribalism

March 12, 2012
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Tribalism comes naturally to humans. We all find it easy to divide the world up into people like us (people who look like us, or vote like us, or live where we do, or espouse the same ideals, or like the same things as us) and the others. Racism is one of the more obvious forms of this tribal behavior, where those who look different are dehumanized and oppressed, but there are plenty of other forms. Politics tends towards tribalism as well – there are good guys and bad guys, us and them.

There’s plenty to dislike about this sort of tribalism from a Christian perspective. Christ’s all-consuming love cares little for the boundaries we draw, and even the tribal Old Testament works Ruth the Moabitess, Rahab the Canaanite, and Naaman the Aramean around the “No Gentiles Allowed” signs that guard the borders. The dramatic expansion of the covenant in the New Testament rolls over a strong Jewish objection – Paul draws the ire of the Jewish crowds in Antioch not by claiming that Jesus is the Messiah but by including the Gentiles in God’s promises (Acts 13). The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) deals largely with this topic – must the Gentiles becomes Jews first, or can they become Christians without that intermediate step? Paul continues to address this issue throughout much of his ministry and it is likely that circumcision is such a special topic of scorn for him precisely because it is the irremovable ethnic (tribal) marker of Judaism.

Of course, Christian inclusion goes well beyond that. Jesus’ actions towards women, including those of unsavory backgrounds (Luke 7:36-50), are surprising for their inclusiveness. The complaint that Jesus ate with “tax collectors and sinners” was a complaint about inclusion. Jesus’ response (“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”) is an affirmation of that inclusive offer.

This is at the heart of Christianity: Christians are definitely a people apart in some ways, but we are also a people who leave the doors open. My suspicion is that when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden,” these are not isolated thoughts strung together by temporal proximity, but (at least partly) a statement about the city on Mount Zion which seemed more interested in being a light unto itself than in shining its light into the pagan darkness. Of course, most of this is rather straightforward and expected. Christians are always in the business of welcoming people in the doors, sometimes more shoving them than inviting them in. Moreover, most of us have figured out that there are plenty of unimportant things to leave unchanged when we do so. We no longer send missionaries into other parts of the world with the command to make disciples of Jesus who dress like us, speak our language, and use our favored set of instruments to play music in worship.

However, one of the deepest poisons of tribalism is to change how we regard the means by which we accomplish goals. Again, politics gives us plenty of examples. When an opponent digs up dirt on a favored candidate and spreads it around it’s a smear campaign. When a favored candidate does the same to the opposition it’s just warning everyone about how bad those others are. This is part of the essence of tribalism. Anything done to better our position is good, anything done to better their position is evil. If we feed the poor it is because we are good. If they feed the poor it is because they are cynically buying friends. If we shoot them they deserved it. If they shoot us it’s because they are the sort of horrible people for whom violence is a first resort.

Christianity absolutely cannot buy into this. Of course, as Christians we frequently do. We are constantly in the business of picking up the weapons of Satan and trying to use them to further God’s agenda. Such things are impossible. The weapons of the evil one only do evil. As long as we regard good and evil as equivalent to “aids us/hurts them” and “hurts us/aids them” we are not really speaking of good and evil at all but of tribal victories.

This is one reason that Christians must maintain a sense of Christian identity. After speaking so strongly against tribalism let me now speak in its favor for a minute: as Christians we must remember that we are different. Not that we are different, better, and therefore entitled to stomp on the downtrodden but that we are different in that this is not how we do things. To become Christian is not to add on a small spiritual side to our existing framework but to embrace an entirely new sort of being, to be, in the words of Jesus, “In the world but not of the world.”

The same problems that the prophets and apostles railed against are still ours. We still give the rich man the place of honor (James 2:1-4), announce our charity to gain acclaim (Matthew 6:2), and divide ourselves after different leaders (1 Corinthians 3:4). Moreover, we often ally ourselves with other entities and absorb their tribalism or react in tribal ways to other religions. All of this is tribal, dividing the world between sets of people, making value judgments about the worth of each group, and often proposing some sort of zero-sum game in which the groups must compete with one another.

I don’t have any clear-cut solution to this issue of tribalism. However, I believe that a solution must involve the ability to recognize tribal thinking and to recognize that it is wrong. Jesus holds up a perfect standard of goodness. If, in response, we hold up a self-directed standard of goodness, where things are good or bad based on how they benefit or fail to benefit us, then we are failing. If we take Jesus’ inclusive offer of healing and salvation and counter it with a standard whereby good things happening to or done by people who aren’t us become evil then we are actually against Jesus. All of this seems straightforward. However, this sort of thinking is a deep part of how humans operate. I seriously doubt that it will be rooted out so easily.

Not only must we recognize and reject us-versus-them but we must replace it with something better, closer to the heart of Jesus. I believe that the narrative that needs to replace the good guys and bad guys thinking is one in which humanity is afflicted and the bad guys are in need of healing to save them from their evil. The story of the Bible is one in which God comes and does a great saving work for His enemies. Our own stories should have a similar tone.

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