2. Hardened Hearts and Dividing Walls of Hostility: Examining the Roots of Tribalism with St Paul of Tarsus

This post is part two in a series on Christianity and tribalism. I explore what the Christian scriptures and the Christian tradition might have to contribute to the conversation around tribes and tribalism. The first post, which provides a rosier account of tribal life (or group belonging), can be read here. The introduction to the series can be read here


A Scot is rescued after many years on a desert island. 

As he stands on the deck of the rescue vessel, the captain says to him, “I thought you were stranded alone. Why do I see three huts on the beach?”

“Well,” replies the castaway, “that one there is my house and that one there is where I go to church.”

“And the third one?” asks the skipper.

“Oh, that’s the church I don’t go to.”


All My Friends (Must) Think Like Me

I remember the day well, because it happened to be my birthday. In my Facebook messages, I read a message that instantly made my heart sink. I glanced over the message countless times, rubbing my eyes in disbelief: “I can’t be a friend with someone who holds to the view that you do”. I kept thinking that there must have been a mistake. I had been asked by this individual about my views on a particular topic—the precise details of the topic need not detain us here—and I did my best to articulate my view on the matter, respectfully and clearly. Now, weeks later, here I was reading the news that this person, who I had counted a friend, would no longer consider me a friend because of our difference of opinion. 

I tell this story not to gain some kind of sympathy or to bathe in a well of self-pity. Such stories, are, sadly, rather common and I suspect they are becoming increasingly so. And I would be lying if I said that I have never been the one dishing out this kind of treatment. Rather, I share this tale because it offers an insight into the subject of this blog series on tribalism. 

For some reading my experience above, the very presence of disagreement shows that tribalism was present. That is, the disagreement was the problem that must be overcome. For others, the disagreement is so keenly felt that this kind of cancellation is completely normal and natural—there are some views that are simply beyond the pale and which no acquaintance of yours should hold to. The purity of the tribe must be maintained.

For me, the problem was not the existence of disagreement. The problem was that lurking in the subconscious of this individual’s thinking was the unquestioned assumption that to be friends we had to agree. 

What Tribalism Isn’t 

Another way of saying this, is that in our contemporary discourse, we have, somewhere along the way, bought into the idea that the mere presence of disagreement, the mere whiff of a difference of opinion, must amount to some kind of divisive tribalism. To disagree is to be tribal. 

All of this raises the fundamental question: what is tribalism? 

Well, let’s start by saying what tribalism is not. As we will see, the mere presence of disagreement does not amount to tribalism. The Christian scriptures back this point up. In his account of the Acts of the Apostles, the evangelist Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas parted ways after a sharp disagreement over the involvement of John Mark in their work. Is this a case of early Christian tribalism? 

Again, only if we buy into the confused notion that to disagree is to be tribal. And I don’t think that this is definition of tribalism holds water. More fundamentally, it misunderstands the nature of good or healthy disagreement. The sharpness of Paul and Barnabas’s disagreement cannot be denied (though we have no details as to what made the disagreement so sharp). What we do know is that their parting of the ways did not prevent a future moment of reconciliation as co-workers. Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, we read that Paul and Barnabas later worked together and so conceivably had made up. And the same seems to apply to Paul and John Mark. The disagreement in this case did not entail the complete rupturing of the relationship, or a kind of proto-excommunication by Paul of Barnabas. Rather, the disagreement instead seems to have left open the possibility of future reconciliation and relationship. 

Some would go even further and equate tribalism with belonging to a group (usually the one they disagree with). Yet this misunderstands the fundamental nature of the tribe precisely by overlooking the good that comes from group belonging. As I argued in my first post, the presence of different groups in society organised around place, faith or cause, is not inherently divisive. Though it can be, it need not be so. In simple terms, I have been suggesting that the tribe as a “noun” has much to offer us—a place to belong and organised around a common cause. The tribe as a noun isn’t going anywhere. Tribalism as an adjective, as we shall see, has a more chequered present and past. 

Thesis: Tribalism is Fundamentally a Moral Disposition and a Relational Category

In what follows, I want to suggest that we should not define tribalism primarily in intellectual terms, as the presence of cognitive or argumentative disagreement. Here, it is worth acknowledging that the presence of disagreement, or the lack of common ground and a shared set of basic assumptions can hinder healthy group-belonging. Difference of opinion might be part of tribalism, but it’s not the central ingredient.

In fact, I will argue that we have come to view tribalism in overly cerebral terms, precisely by equating it with disagreement. Instead, I want to suggest that tribalism is first and foremost a relational category and a moral disposition. That is, tribalism is to do with how we treat others, particularly those with whom we disagree. Tribalism has to do with how I deal with disagreement, rather than the mere fact of disagreement itself. Tribalism gets at how I assign worth, value or status to those who think and live differently to me. It therefore concerns and targets the will and the heart just as much, if not more than, the head.

We might think of tribalism as the misaligned inclinations, practices and habits that we hold to in our meaningful relationships. I say misaligned, because when we behave in a tribal or factional manner, we place all of our sense of meaning and identity in the tribe. We seek salvation through the tribe, when the tribe was never meant to save us in the first place. Because the tribe was never designed to be where we found ultimate meaning or salvation, when we act out our desire for salvation through the tribe, this warps our relationship with the tribe and those outside it. We spin out of control by seeking ever increasing levels of affirmation from our tribe and, in turn, we grow hardened to those who are not part of the in-group. Finally, we erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from us. It is easy to see, I think, that each of the actions I have just described has much more to do with affections or loves, dispositions and postures than it does with opinions and ideas. This is because tribalism is first and foremost about how we treat others. It has to do with morality.

If tribalism is moral and relational, then it can be identified by two relational or moral diagnostics: hardened hearts and hostile minds.

Simply put, tribes as groups of belonging are here to stay, and there is much to celebrate in this respect. Tribalism, the hostile attitudes that harden our hearts to others, demands more careful consideration. 

The Purpose of this Piece: Offering Ancient Wisdom on Tribalism 

That’s the argument of this post. How will I go about making my case? Well, a piece on tribalism could easily amount to an encyclopaedic discussion of a laundry-list of contemporary terms used to describe the darker side of our common life. Many of these have come racing into our vocabulary in the last few years at a bewildering rate of knots, a point which Andrew Wilson has noted in a superb recent blogpost that engages with intersectional theory. These are phrases like cancel-culture, censorship, gate-keeping, virtue-signalling, herd mentality, culturally conditioned tolerance, echo chambers, fragility and identity politics (of both the common humanity and common enemy varieties). There are, of course, slightly older termini technici that orbit our thinking on tribalism, including groupthink, confirmation bias and social hypocrisy, for instance. 

Rather than address these terms in an exhaustive (and frankly exhausting) fashion, I want to offer something slightly more interesting in this post. In what follows, I want to contribute to the discussion by considering what my own religious tradition has to say about the attitudes, habits and practices of tribalism. I offer a theological examination of some of the terms associated with tribalism through the lens of texts selected from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. After all, tribalism has a long pedigree. And scriptural texts offer ancient wisdom in diagnosing it and describing its main contours. 

Before I discuss the fresh insights on tribalism that emerge from these scriptural texts, though, I want to consider a preliminary set of questions. These questions have to do with the state of tribalism today. Some claim that we are living in an age of unprecedented tribalism. Others, that we are living in a time of unprecedented peace. Which of these is true? A large part of moving forward with solutions—the subject of the next post—means honestly admitting where we are and how we got there. Only then, can we make a proper diagnosis and only then, can we recommend an appropriate set of treatments.

The Hardening of Hearts: Where We Are and How We Got There  

I think that what we are witnessing in the West at present is a collective hardening of hearts. Like the fictional Scot who is asked about his desert island dwellings, we have become defined by what and who we are opposed to. “That building over there? That’s the church where I don’t worship”. 

Social psychologists use the term affective polarisation to describe this increasingly intense dislike of the “opposing side”. Again, this isn’t just disagreement. It’s hostility. And it is, crucially, affective. It has to do with our affections, our pre-cognitive instincts towards others. Affective polarisation basically means that I can’t be your friend, I cannot be in your company (and increasingly I cannot marry you) if you hold to that view, belong to that political party, or associate with that cause. 

Affective polarisation has been growing in the English-speaking world, as KCL’s Divided Britain report makes clear.

Affective polarisation along party lines has also been growing in the US over the last 50 years or so. But this hostility has intensified particularly in the last 6 years, as the by-now classic Pew Research graphic vividly illustrates:

What’s led to this polarisation in recent years? There are three things which, I think, have contributed to this state of hardening on both sides of the Atlantic: 

1. The Absence of Common Unifying Narratives 

One reason for this hardening is the lack of a single overarching narrative or myth that unifies those living in the West. Yes, there is some kind of vague Christian heritage that makes up the air that we breathe, as Tom Holland has majestically illustrated in his book Dominion. But there is a sense of loss at the lack of a national and religious ethos, a set of common stories that different people might gather around. 

Tribes both alleviate and exacerbate this problem. At one level, groups of belonging organised around cause and place do bring people together. Yet at the same time, we seem to be moving towards a point where various groups of belonging define themselves in opposition to one another because they cannot, or will not, find a common goal that might transcend their differences. The result is an every-dizzying array of groups split over an increasingly bewildering number of issues. This fragmentation is most evident with tribes organised by cause and identity. To quote Mary Harrington, “no matter how many identities you try and represent, there will always be still finer sub-categories clamouring for representation. The only way truly to represent everyone in the world through movies would be to make everyone in the world their own movie”. 

2. Our Use of Social Media and the Smartphone

In his disturbing and readable (and disturbingly readable!) Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz makes the rather puzzling point that social media has the effect of drawing us out of our tribes. Facebook, he argues, breeds ideological diversity. Where else but online can we encounter those unlike ourselves?

At face value, there is some plausibility to this—the virtual world has a seemingly infinity of perspectives such that I can “rub shoulders” with those of differing views than my own. And yet, digging deeper, Stephens-Davidowitz is, it seems to me, surprisingly naïve of big tech’s exploitation of human psychology.By harnessing their algorithmic logic, the social media giants exploit three of our pre-cognitive functions: our desire to be distracted, to be liked and be agreed with. For many of us, these predilections float under the radar. And, perversely, these dispositions and opinions are continually reinforced by constant bombardment by messages that we naturally agree with. Social media exposes us not to a variety of views but to those that reinforce our own predispositions and biases. As the docufilm The Social Dilemma chillingly illustrates, this isn’t a bug but a feature of Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and the myriad of other platforms out there. Algorithms concocted from our choices (clicks and searches) reinforce patterns of thinking. Machine learning, by picking up on our preferences and penchants, drives us deeper into a state of disembodied dysphoria. We fall deeper into the groove of the tram-lines that we have built with the help of Silicon Valley. 

Given such a virtual state of affairs, rare is the individual who is truly able to form an online community of heterodox thinkers. To use the language of Reddit, we each belong to r// The Group That Thinks Similarly To Me.  And over time, our views, and our hearts, harden. 

3. The Church’s Relationship to Power and Politics

The Church bears part of the blame for this state of affairs. A distinct lack of biblical literacy means that we either uncritically hitch our wagons to particular causes or political parties; or, if we do criticise politics and policies, we mimic the categories that are already out there and simply parrot the existing party positions. Mike Bird has recently taken to task Christians in the US who have rushed to misjudging and mislabelling any and every pursuit of justice as Marxist and wedded to Critical Theory. He rightly identifies a hardening of hearts which takes the form of defining loyalty to the group exclusively in terms of opposing the other side in every way possible.

There is a time and a place for opposition and saying no. But the rather obvious flip side of defining oneself purely in opposition to others is that there is little constructive that one offers the world. And, with notable exceptions, this negativity and defensiveness does seem to be creeping into Western Christian cultural engagement. There is often a lack of freshness and vitality to Christian cultural witness

Looking deeper, part of the reason for this is that Christian thinkers in the late modern present have cut themselves off from the root of tradition and the wellspring of the scriptures. We are like a man who lacks a mirror in which to see himself. 

But what would it mean to see ourselves as we are, as tribal creatures? What if we were to consider tribalism from the perspective of those who have come before us, who have faced factionalism and diagnosed it for what is, and diagnosed us, for what we are? We turn now to consider the roots of tribalism from the perspective of two texts attributed to St Paul. In what follows, I will flesh out the relational dynamic of tribalism through these passages.

1 Corinthians 1:10-15—Tribalism as the Act of Categorising the Worth of Others 

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians offers a fascinating glimpse into a community struggling to find common ground. Paul addresses the church as household, instantly drawing attention to the relational quality of the Christian family. Despite the Corinthian Christians’ propensity to divide themselves into factions, Paul reminds them that they bear a common identity, as the one household or family of God. Near the beginning of the letter, he addresses the divided community with the following words: 

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.

On first reading, it might seem that Paul is calling for complete agreement among the community of Christ-followers in Corinth. The three quickfire appeals to agreement rather than division in verse 10 suggest that the community is in the grip of a series of doctrinal disputes. Paul wants the adherents to “be of the same mind and same purpose” so “that all of you agree” (lit. that all of you might say the same thing). 

So is Paul in fact saying that tribalism equates to intellectual disagreement? 

Well, yes and no. And more no than yes. Paul does want there to be agreement within the Christian community about the essentials, which I take to be the core story of the Christian faith laid out in chapter 15 of the letter. Agreeing on these first principles will create a harmony within the community. And yet this passage seems to be less about homogeneity of thinking as a cure for doctrinal divisions and more about the creation of opposing factions, the nursing of hostility towards those groups and the ill treatment of those who come to be considered enemies. In other words, Paul is more concerned about the breakdown of relationships that have flowed from these disagreements. Grant Macaskill unpacks this passage wonderfully in his book Living in Union with Christ:

“When he castigates those who have formed such factions by asking, ‘Is Christ divided? (1:13), he is challenging not simply factions that are opposed because of the doctrinal differences of their teachers—I’m not sure that there was such stark disunity of that kind—but rather the problem that these factions are the basis for relativizing the worth of those who belong to them. They are like frat houses on a college campus: the disunity isn’t necessarily a matter of conflict between them (though there is some reference to this in the text) but a matter of which are deemed the coolest. Conversely, the expression of true unity is not necessarily about the absence of conflict but about the proper evaluation of those whom we have dismissed as ‘lesser’”. 

Macaskill is suggesting that Paul does not simply address doctrinal agreement, except where it is to do with the essentials, which he delineates later in his letter. Rather, his chief concern is to do with the treatment of those who might belong to different tribes. In particular, he takes the Christians in Corinth to task for bringing the cultural assumptions and practices of their former life into the church. Particularly important here was the creation of a spiritual aristocracy based around two aspects:

  • an association with the one who baptized. Here, the Corinthians were practising a form of ancient identity politics, whereby they created factions coalesced around the personality of individual leaders. One group organises itself around Paul, another around Peter (Cephas), another around Apollos. The baptised form three rival factions who each consider their spiritual leader to be a spiritual superstar. Crucially, those who are baptised derive worth and status from this spiritual superstar and assign less worth to those who are not baptised or who belong to rival, inferior groups. Returning to a point made at the outset, there is more than a hint here of seeking salvation in one’s group. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The Corinthians quickly move from being part of different groups (which is fine and natural in itself), to creating factions that rival one another, to finally seeking salvation in those groups. Paul is suggesting that the church community (and by extension any tribe or community of belonging) is not what ultimately saves you. That’s God’s job.
  • the acquisition and display of knowledge (sophia) and rhetorical skill: later in this chapter, Paul states that these factions further degenerated into tribalism by developing a pecking order that was ordered according to the “wisdom of the word” of particular leaders. 

Were there disagreements of opinion among these various groups? It seems that there were. Yet Paul seems much more interested in the relational quality or the relational breakdown that has arisen from different categories of worth being assigned to rival groups. As Mackasill puts it, “the disunity isn’t necessarily a matter of [ideological or doctrinal ] conflict between them (though there is some reference to this in the text) but a matter of which are deemed the coolest”.

And this brings me back to my central point. We all too easily define tribalism in cognitive terms—as doctrinal or ideological disagreement. In actual fact, the more pressing issue, I think, is one of affections and morality. Given that difference of opinion is almost a given, how do I relate to the person who might think differently to me? How do I treat the brother or sister who might hold to a different opinion on a non-essential issue, or who might even disagree with me on what is and isn’t essential?

Yes, tribalism does concern cognitive or doctrinal disagreement. Intellectual disagreement is usually in the mixture of causes of relational breakdown. And Paul has a great deal to say to correct the views of the Corinthian adherents. We might add that the quality of a relationship can be diminished by disunity on certain essentials. A meeting of minds can aid a meeting of hearts.  

And yet, this is only a part of the picture. For tribalism has just as much to do with our preconceptions about the worth and status we attribute to others and ourselves, than it does with disagreement. Again, tribalism concerns how we deal with disagreement, rather than the mere fact of disagreement itself. In fact, it seems to me that the heart disposition would seem to take precedence over the cognitive disagreement. If we wilfully commit to loving the person we disagree with, then what we have is a difference of opinion. Such disagreement can be painful of course and, depending on the importance of the issue at hand, the rift can undoubtedly be a source of grief and lament. But because the desire for love and relationship is not made conditional upon agreement, the disagreement need not mean the end of the relationship. 

St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians suggests that we should separate doctrinal alignment from our ethical treatment of others. We absolutely should seek common ground on essentials, in church and society. But we should also expect some disagreement and difference of opinion. Seen from this view, tribalism is less about the views we hold (and perhaps even the vehemence and passion with which we hold them) and more to do with how we esteem others, the worth that we would attribute to our neighbours and our willingness to associate and be associated with them. In short, tribalism is fundamentally a moral activity. 

Ephesians 2:11-22: Tribalism as Creating Badges of Identity and Erecting Dividing Walls of Hostility 

In his Corinthian correspondence, Paul treats inter-community strife between Gentiles. But what does Paul have to say about the social relationships between Jewish and Gentile (or non-Jewish) Christ-followers? Anyone looking to the scriptures for inspiration on the subject of tribalism has, in Paul’s discussion of Jewish and Gentile relations, a rich mine of material for reflection. One classic text in which Paul elaborates on reconciliation between Jews (“the circumcision”) and Gentiles (“the uncircumcision”) is Ephesians 2:11-22, which is worth quoting in full:

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, 15putting aside the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one bodythrough the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

While Paul spends more time treating the solution to Jewish-Gentile hostility in this passage, he also offers clear hints at the plight of tribalism. Now, Paul is treating a very particular issue here and so we must be careful to attend to the literary and cultural context of this passage before drawing out any contemporary points of application.

It’s crucial to grasp that Paul is addressing a very specific question: namely, who belongs to the covenant people of God? His answer is that there is now one humanity, one household where there used to be two factions. That’s the solution. Working back from this statement, what can we learn from Paul about the plight of tribalism? 

When Paul treats Jewish-Gentile relations, he addresses the question of how one becomes a part of this community (how one is saved, we might say) but also the question of how one belongs to this community (that is, after one becomes a member, how one then relates to and treats the other members of the community). The source of division between Jew and Gentile, Paul suggests, is the use of group markers or badges to exclude others, to assign categories of worth and, yes, to suggest who is saved and who is not. Central to this is the rite of circumcision, the ritual performed to this day whereby a Jewish male has his foreskin removed 8 days after birth. Note that this important rite is now actually made into a personal identity marker—as a Jew, one belongs to “the circumcision” (this is the literal translation of Paul’s words), and as a non-Jew, one belongs to “the foreskin” (again, a literal translation). This is first century common-enemy identity politics in action, where one’s individual worth derives from anatomical surgery (or lack thereof). Luke in his compendium Acts of the Apostles, makes similar reference to “the party of the circumcision” in the Jerusalem community, showing how an important and treasured cultural practice has become an identity marker. 

Now, Paul is not saying that these group markers cease to exist, or should cease to exist. They do and should exist, and I think it is important and realistic to acknowledge this. Paul continues to be a Jewish follower of Jesus with all that this entails. And Gentile followers of Jesus similarly have their own cultural customs. Rather, these group markers or distinctives should no longer be used as badges to assign worth, status and, perhaps most importantly of all, salvation. From this last statement, we can see how some in the early church were relating these identity markers to both becoming  part of and belonging to the people of God. Let’s take each of these in turn.

First, these important cultural distinctives have been made the basis for becoming part of the community. Paul earlier makes the point that Jew and Gentile alike are in need of salvation (2:3). The plight is a common one—being dead in our sins, driven exclusively by selfish and self-destructive desires. And the solution is also a common one—one is saved through trusting in Jesus the Messiah (Ephesians 2:4-9). Though it is unsaid, we can infer that some were using these identity markers to state how one became a part of the community of Christ. When Paul relativises the importance of circumcision by denying that it is a rite of salvation, presumably this is because some have made it the condition for membership of the community of Christ. Note Paul’s comment in verse 11: “those who call themselves ‘circumcision’ (which is done by human hands)”. Yes, circumcision is a meaningful rite for Jewish followers of Jesus as a culturally distinctive marker. As an important human ritual, circumcision by human hands points to a deeper spiritual reality which fulfils the covenantal rite of physical circumcision. This is the reality of the circumcision of the heart, a strange phrase which has its roots in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26; cf. Rom 2:29) and which refers to having a heart that God by his Spirit restores and renews so that it is obedient to him. 

However, one is not saved through circumcision. Paul elsewhere notes the beauty of the Jewish inheritance, which includes the law, the covenants and indeed circumcision. However, he also wishes to impress on Jewish readers that they avoid the error of thinking that they need not turn their hearts to God, and place their trust in his Messiah, but instead rely on the privileges of that inheritance (Romans 9-11). (By the way, Paul also discusses the equal and opposite error for Gentile Christians, which is that the gospel is for Gentiles only so that Israel is replaced and abandoned forever). But the crucial point is this: while of great worth, circumcision is not what saves you. The plight is a common one. And salvation and liberation from that plight, is the same for both Jew and Gentile. 

Tribalism in the Christian community therefore looks like constructing badges from one’s own cultural distinctives and making these the condition for entry and for salvation. In large part, tribalism is the attempt to create badges of identity and then find salvation in these cultural markers. It is, in other words, to find salvation in one’s group identity. 

Second, these important cultural distinctives are then made the basis for belonging to the people of God. You might be thinking, how is this different to what I have said above? Remember: becoming part of the people of God relates to how one enters the community (“how one gets saved”). Belonging refers to the next step in the journey—how one relates to those in that community (and vice-versa). Paul implies that Jew and Gentile use these same cultural distinctives to create a spiritual caste system that divides the community of Christ-followers, once Jew and Gentile are in the same community. There are, Paul says, two disunited communities at enmity with one another, divided by a “wall of enmity”. What is the nature and function of this wall of hostility? One answer is to say that the question of belonging in this passage largely relates to the issue of access to God. To ask who belongs to the household or people of God is to ask who has access to God (see v.18). Paul twice makes references to two groups who consider themselves to have differently levels of access—one, the Jews, who are near and the other, Gentiles, who are far (vv. 13, 17). In context, Paul is probably referring to the fact that the Jewish people had some access to God—albeit limited—while the Gentiles had none. This wall has now disappeared as all have the same access to Christ. The wall dividing these two communities might, in part, represent an attitude of superiority, of spiritual pride that leads one group to continue to claim direct access to God (in prayer, in worship, in confession of sins) or to adopt an attitude of contempt for the strange customs of that other group within the fellowship. These attitudes might have led to concrete acts of hindering the rival group from participation in the community or relegating them to “second class citizens” within the fellowship.

This is a similar attitude of hostility that led some in the community to declare who was saved and who was not. The difference now, is that the group declared “unsaved”, as it were, is claiming to be within the fellowship of those who consider themselves saved.

Elsewhere in Paul’s body of work, we receive further glimpses of how some in the Christian community make cultural distinctives the basis for becoming part of the community. This takes the form of gatekeeping and compulsion. In his letter to the Galatians, for instance, Paul takes Peter to task for maintaining that Gentile followers of Christ should either adopt Jewish purity rules or else keep to separate tables from Jews at meal times. Paul also makes reference to some from Jerusalem forcing Titus, a Gentile Greek, to be circumcised. 

In many ways, this intra-community strife is a more insidious form of hostility than the first, since it affects relationships within a community, between those who claim the same faith, baptism and Lord, and who share the same table. Tribalism again clearly emerges as a failure to treat well—consider, relate to, speak well about—others who might think or live differently. 


What these two texts demonstrate, I think, is this: we need to get our heads around the fact that tribalism is less to do with the head, and much more to do with the heart. I have sought to maintain that tribalism concerns both aspects—intellectual disagreement and moral treatment of others. I have placed more emphasis on the latter because I consider the attitudes and dispositions we carry towards others to be both prior and primary. These attitudes and dispositions are the heart cause, so to speak, of a tribal or factional spirit.

The Problem with “Educating Yourself”: Responding to an Objection  

At this point, you might object—are you denying that addressing or seeking to resolve differences of opinion can reduce, or even eliminate tribalism? In other words, isn’t tribalism really just a matter of conflicting opinions? This gets us back to the relationship between tribalism and both cognition and affection. And it is brought into sharp relief when we consider the commonly used mantra, “educate yourself”. This maxim is often invoked in contemporary discussions around various thorny social issues that divide people today. The basic idea is that I can make you agree with me by changing your mind. On this view, tribalism is simply a matter of having the wrong opinions and sticking to these opinions doggedly. The antidote is therefore getting the right opinions. Putting aside the perceivably patronising tone in which this mantra is used, does it actually work?

At one level, yes. Taken at face value and in good faith, such mantras as “educate yourself” speak to the importance of reason and rationality in dialogue across difference. Education, receiving knowledge, debating different sides and reasoning through an issue are all key to coming to a considered position on a topic. In such cases, knowledge can be empowering.

While education is part of the solution, the “educate yourself” maxim also contains within it, several deeply problematic assumptions. I wish to consider three of these, as a way of concluding this piece. Uncovering these assumptions will hopefully highlight once again, how we have tethered ourselves to an overly cognitive definition of tribalism, and how we will be better served by recovering the relational and affective qualities of factional enmity.

Problematic assumption #1: potentially bound up with the anxiety that the person with whom I disagree needs to change their mind, is the erroneous assumption or demand that to have some form of relationship or conversation we must be in total agreement (and conversely, that disagreement is tantamount to tribalism). We’ve come full circle on this point, returning to the anecdote with which I begin this essay. Immaturity demands “agreement is the condition for relationship” and thereby equates disagreement with tribalism (when it’s usually just a difference of opinion). Maturity asks, “can we agree to disagree and still maintain a relationship? We might agree. We might not. Regardless, what is much more important is that I still want to know you and relate to you”. Such an attitude of openness, where genuinely maintained, can allow for the conversation to remain open rather than closed and also for the possibility of persuasion to take place. By contrast, the “educate yourself” mantra runs the risk of manipulation and power-plays from the party that considers themselves to hold all of the answers.

Problematic assumption #2: the second problem with the narrative of “changing minds to change hearts”, is that it naively assumes that argumentation and disagreement occur solely at the cognitive level. It assumes that as long as our ideas or beliefs line up, we’ll agree. Just so long as what’s going on in our heads aligns, all will be well. (I have a sneaking suspicion that this might have something to do with certain assumptions about salvation by faith alone, but that’s for another blog post). Now, don’t get me wrong, reason is a key part of arriving at an opinion and coming to agreement with someone else. And yet, we all know that someone else, whether close to us or not, can interpret the same body of evidence in very different ways than we do. Why is this? Part of it is down to the pre-cognitive, intuition-based, affective and embodied aspects that drive us to the conclusions we come to. We don’t simply rely on reason in arriving at a conclusion. This explains why, in the diagnostic context within health, the intuition and experience of a human doctor can lead him to offer a life-saving treatment where AI and big data, for all of its information gathering prowess, falls short. Simply put, there are other forms of knowing at play (intuition, memory, belief) in argument and decision-making which are not irrational but non-rational, in the sense that they do not rely, in the first instance on deliberate, rational thought.

In addition to the different modes of knowing that exist, there also vastly different moral intuitions that operate “under the radar” and which we rationalise and narrativise after the fact. In his moral foundations theory, Jonathan Haidt uncovers the different moral taste-buds that drive human decision making. In deciding whether a certain act is moral or not, most progressives often favour the care/harm principle, while conservatives tend to activate a broader set of taste buds, including the sanctity/degradation foundation. Haidt suggests that rather than naively assuming from the outset that someone “just doesn’t get it”, meaning they don’t have the right set of facts in front of them, we are better served by acknowledging these pre-cognitive aspects of knowing. Our conversations usually up being more honest and fruitful.

They also end up being more personal, as well. After all, conversations take place between people and, in a debate setting, it is people who make arguments. An openness to learning from the experience of others is precisely a good posture to adopt because it creates the conditions for relationship and for growth by learning about the lives and experiences of others who live differently from me (though I hasten to add that this need not entail a total acceptance of those experiences or the truth claims deriving from them, as an inevitability). By contrast, the “let me educate you” rhetoric depersonalises human interactions.

Problematic assumption #3: finally, “educating others” not only fails to acknowledge how we argue and come to conclusions. It also reduces human persons to data-filtering machines by wrongly making knowledge and assent to cognitive data the goal of human interactions. Not only is this assumption dehumanising, because it assigns human worth to the function of information gathering (more on this, within the context of the working world, in David Goodhart’s brilliant new book, Head, Hand, Heart). It also, perhaps more sinisterly, and less obviously, avoids the more difficult task of formation. It’s relatively easy to inform oneself and others; much more painstakingly difficult (and patience-testing!) to form one’s own heart and the hearts of others by habit, reflection and discipline. This distinction between formation and information explains why one can be perfectly well educated about a cause—having all the right opinions and even coming to agreement with another party or individual—and still have one’s heart set on fairly destructive ways of relating to others. All of which is to say, again, that tribalism is just as much an act of the will and the heart as one of the mind or head. 


This piece has considered the darkert side of tribal belonging. I’ve drawn on the ancient wisdom of St Paul to help diagnose what tribalism is and isn’t, where we are and how we’ve ended up there. I have argued that tribalism is best thought of not as an intellectual activity—the presence of disagreement over ideas or opinions, however vehement or passionate—but rather as a moral disposition and relational category. It has to do with how we (wrongly) treat, consider, think or speak about those with whom we disagree.

In the next post, I move on to consider how we might begin to put things together again, and what the Christian scriptures and Christian tradition has to say about how we might approach tribal belonging in a more healthy manner. 

Please leave a comment below. How would you define tribalism? What do you think are the causes of tribalism? And do you agree that tribalism is more about ethics (how we treat others with different opinions, lifestyles etc) than about cognition (having differences of opinion)?

Photo Credit: Alessandro Bellone, Unsplash

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