Just what is tribalism? Blog Contributor Jerome Daley wades into this emotionally charged topic with grace and humility. He has some thought-provoking insights to share as we continue to navigate a world ravaged by distrust and a nation divided by polarized politics. Take a deep breath and allow yourself to be open to what might be a challenging examination of your very self.
By Jerome Daley, Blog Contributor
I am a recovering Judger.
Judging others is a professional hazard for being human. We come by it honestly. Sometimes it’s hardwired into our personalities. (Any high-J people on the Myers-Briggs out there, like me?) Sometimes criticizing people or the government was woven into our family of origin. Sometimes we absorb a critical spirit from the religious environment we encounter in life. Yikes! Sad, but often true.
At a more fundamental level, we grow up as kids learning to understand who we are by learning from our parents and contemporaries who we are not. “We are Protestants; we are not Catholics. Our descendants come from Ireland, not Italy…or Africa. We buy domestic cars, not imports. We are Republicans, not Democrats. We go to private school, not public school.”
The lists are as varied as we are, but one thing is for certain: There was a list! Spoken or unspoken, our identities as young people were largely forged on the anvil of distinction and separation.
Dualism is what many spiritual writers these days call it: the need to be for something and against the opposite. The need to know our tribe, to over-identify with it, and then to put the shields up against all competing tribes. It’s normal, it’s human, and it’s the antithesis of the way Jesus engaged the world.
Crossing Well-Worn Divides
Jesus was a rabbi, but then hung out with the other tribe—the “tax collectors and sinners.” He let the adulteress—those people!—off scot-free. He was criticized by the Pharisees for not obeying the rules of the religious tribe (fasting, ceremonial hand-washing, etc.) and being corrupted instead by “gluttons and drunkards.”
When it came to identity, Jesus just seemed to have a hard time figuring out who his people were…and then keeping his distance from the rest. He regularly crossed the well-worn divides of ethnicity, socioeconomics, religion, and political power. We could even say that Jesus’ lack of tribal sensitivity is what got him killed.
Two thousand years later, I find myself having a heck of a time shaking off those dualistic instincts in my desire to be like Jesus. Just how easy is it for me to cross those hard lines and engage curiously, genuinely, and lovingly with LGBTQ folks? How easy is it for me to embrace the homeless or the fundamentalist or the pierced-and-tatted? That’s more of a stretch for me, but I’m working on it.
To be fair, Jesus knew how to draw a line in the sand, but it was rarely about purity codes and mostly about hard-heartedness. His criticisms seemed reserved for those in religious and political positions whose power depended on the very tribalism that threatened the kingdom community he proclaimed.
The Truth Shows Us The Way
All that is actually a preamble to my real topic: politics. (Deep breath.) And here’s my question, As followers of Christ, how can we stop over-identifying with one political tribe and start engaging in humble, curious, gentle conversation with those who see it differently than we do? Isn’t that the world we really yearn to live in—a less-angry, less-divided, more-compassionate community?
Think about this for just a moment… Most of the issues that form the deepest divides in our country are split roughly down the middle.
This means that about 165 million Americans take the opposite view to your strongest convictions on economic, social, and international concerns.
What do we do with that reality? Do we assume they are all idiots, or worse, fiends trying to destroy all that’s good and dear in the world? Or might we wonder what virtues and values lead them to take that posture…and if perhaps we might have missed some of the nuances of the conversation?
Please hear me on this: I am not advocating for relativism or championing lack of conviction. Again, Jesus wasn’t threatened by difference because he knew who he was…and so must we. But who, then, are you? Who am I? Am I the aggregate of all my opinions…or am I the incarnation of love? And maybe the bigger question is, How do I love those who I believe are dead wrong?
Honestly, I suck at it…but more than anything, I want to learn. And I believe that Jesus can show us the way.
"He who is Truth can show us how to embody truth as we extend ourselves in love."—Jerome Daley
Move Towards One Another—In Love
Many of us as Christians have been trained to be afraid of those different from us. Afraid of moral ambiguity. Afraid of slippery theological slopes. Honestly, Jesus didn’t seem to be afraid of any of that, wading into the very center of cultural turbulence. He wasn’t afraid…because he knew who he was, and he knew that only love could cross all tribal divisions and bring the healing we so desperately need: reconciliation with ourselves, with one another, and with God.
So here’s a practice round. For the next few months leading up to the election and inauguration, let’s practice listening, asking, and offering our perspectives with grace and humility, knowing that at the end of the day, our salvation will not come from Washington and that there is ultimately only one tribe called humanity.
The Kingdom of God comes to heal and unite us, not tear us apart from one another. Maybe you can help me, and maybe I can help you. This is who we’re meant to be.
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