People, from the beginning of time, have formed themselves into groups or tribes for their mutual survival. There is strength in numbers and circling the wagons gives us a better chance to fight our enemies. But somewhere along the way tribalism becomes an insular existence that stunts our growth when we cannot see beyond our own tribe, or are afraid to leave our wagon train. That is why international travel, reading and a civil exchange of ideas with folks different from ourselves is healthy thing.
Tribalism is a factor in race, culture, politics and religion. Tribalism is at work today driving ethnic groups from their homes, creating stereotypes in religion and politics, and causing knee jerk reactions that lead us to skip the step of rational inquiry.
In Luke 9:51-59 there is a short story in which Jesus deals with the tribalism within his own group. The Samaritans refuse Jesus and his disciples passage through their town. The reaction of James and John is to call down fire on these hated Samaritans. Jesus rebukes them and says let’s just move on. On the whole, the Christian scriptures are about moving beyond tribalism. The drive of God’s spirit is to be more and more inclusive.
The Hebrew scriptures are also a move towards inclusion. Notable among these is the story of the Hebrew prophet Jonah who is sent to proclaim God’s love and forgiveness to the Jewish enemy, the Assyrians. It seems as much as we would like to build walls to keep others out, God keeps drawing a larger circle to take more people in.
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Tribalism feeds off itself. It creates fear of those who are different from ourselves. The ultimate tribe are those who try and create a master race and exterminate everyone else who doesn’t look, think and feel as they do. I am not a pet owner, but I understand that animals that are pure bred are not as healthy — in the long run — as are those who are cross bred. For human beings, incest is an unhealthy path mentally and physically. Churches, towns, and all sorts of groups are healthier when there is diversity in their midst.
That is not to say that groups should not have their values and principles. That is not to say those values and principles should not distinguish one group from another. That is not to say that at times to defend these values, a group may have to take a stand. But it is to say that when we wall each other off and there is no communication between churches or cultures, then tribalism creates people who throw stones from glass houses.
Eons ago, a cave dweller decided to leave his cave and explore what lay beyond. Centuries ago, sailors got into ships and decided to explore what lay beyond the horizon. Decades ago, a man named Martin Luther King said… “We cannot long survive spiritually separated in a world that is geographically together. In the final analysis… the agony of (any man) diminishes me, and his salvation enlarges me,” (The Strength to Love, pp. 38).
The Rev. Fred Nijem is pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Warner Robins.