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.
After a bit of a break, and as we approach mid-summer, I’m glad to be releasing a new episode. I had the pleasure of sitting down and speaking with Jonathan Chaplin about his life and work. Jonathan is Associate Fellow at Theos think tank, a member of the Divinity Faculty at the University of Cambridge and was previously the first director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he held for 10 years.
In this wide-ranging conversation, we spoke about Jonathan’s experience of the breadth of Christian reflection on politics and ethics, his interest in Christian Democracy and why it never took of in the UK, how the government’s response to the pandemic has demonstrated the strengths and limits of centralised state activity and, finally, the vital need for the churches to actively form Christians for public life.
Thursday past marked the Feast of the Ascension. At the Ascension, Christians celebrate the taking up of Christ to heaven as the Exalted One. The Ascension must be one of the most neglected and least understood doctrines in the Christian tradition, particularly in the West. Is this partly down to the fact that it is usually celebrated during the Week (on a Thursday) rather than having a Sunday devoted to it? Might its neglect also be partly the result of the relative neglect of Hebrews in Christian teaching and preaching? In this post, I provide a brief biblical sketch of the Ascension (adapted from Bird’s EvTh). The significance of the Ascension for other Christian doctrines and the whole of Christian life shines through.
We’re now at the end of series 1 of Politics at the Cross+Roads. The goal of this series has been to hold conversations with British-based, public Christians from across the political and theological spectrum. I’ve sought to learn about how each of my guest’s political convictions intersect with their faith. In the course of the series, I’ve spoken with seven guests: Giles Fraser, Mary Harrington, Nigel Biggar, Jonathan Aitken, Tim Farron, Hannah Rich and Matt Wilson.
In this final, solo-episode, I reflect a bit more personally on what I have learned from these conversations. I’ll be discussing my renewed appreciation for the liberal tradition; how Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses ones of the pressing questions of our age—the preservation of unity amidst diversity; and why liberal conservatism, particularly where it is undergirded by Christian faith, creates the best conditions for unity within diversity and for cultivating virtue.
On cultural conservatism see Peter Franklin’s article: https://unherd.com/thepost/the-difference-between-social-and-cultural-conservatism/ and Matt Singh’s piece: https://unherd.com/thepost/the-difference-between-social-and-cultural-conservatism/
The conflation of liberalism with progressivism is widespread, particularly in the US. To take just one example, Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind uses the terms interchangeably.
On what unites Christians, see Paul’s proto-creed in 1 Corinthians 15: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+corinthians+15&version=NIV and on the Apostles’ Creed see https://lexhampress.com/product/147146/the-apostles-creed-a-guide-to-the-ancient-catechism
In episode 7, the penultimate episode of this series, I was pleased to speak with Matt Wilson. Hailing from Manchester, Matt is Managing Director of Goodlabs, a management consultancy helping organisations to enhance their social impact. Matt is also a Labour and Cooperative councillor based in North Shields in the North-west of England.
In our conversation, we discussed the overlap and tension between Matt’s political convictions and the pentecostal tradition he grew up in, the scriptural roots of common philanthropy or collective giving and the importance of considering the structural nature of injustices in society.
You can access a podcast version of this episode here.
For episode 6, I had the honour of sitting down to speak with Hannah Rich. Hannah is Vice-Chair of Christians on the Left, the organisation that supports, resources and networks Christians involved on the left of politics in the UK. Hannah is also Senior Researcher at London-based religion and society think-tank, Theos. Hannah has researched and written on a range of issues, but most centrally on social and economic inequality.
In our conversation, we discussed what Christians have to say on the problem of and potential solutions to economic inequality, the effects of the pandemic on the church and its social action…and the immense value and challenge of staying united when we disagree with others, whether in the Church or in a political party. I hope that you enjoy the conversation.
For a shorter version of this conversation in podcast form, see the iTunes episode guide here.
But we’re now almost a year on from the announcement of the first lockdown in the UK. And it was a year ago to the day that I started this diary. I therefore thought it a good moment to reflect personally on where I find myself.
To that end, I want to write about how lockdown has taught me the value of liberty, “rightly ordered”. My launching pad for doing so has been a series of conversations with friends and guests on the Politics at the Cross+Roads podcast (the issue has cropped up in a number of places, but one place to start is this solo episode). I partly started the video series to figure out a few things about myself, a bit like trying to map out my own corner of the sky against a set of constellation points. It’s therefore not surprising to me that convictions have taken shape, with some becoming stronger and others falling away. Even still, I have been surprised at how strong some of those convictions have become. And one of these has concerned the value of liberty.
For episode 5, I had the pleasure of sitting down to speak with Tim Farron, MP. Tim is the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale in Cumbria and was leader of the Liberal Democrats between 2015 and 2017. He is the author of A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal published by SPCK in 2019.
Tim spoke to me about the need for greater humility among liberals across the Western world, about the Christian roots of liberalism and the Liberal party in the UK and about the need to disagree well. My conversation with Tim was slightly shorter than some of the others and this is due to the fact that I caught Tim on the night the budget was released. My thanks to Tim for generously offering his time on a very busy evening.
A podcast version of this conversation is available here.
For the fourth episode of Politics at the Cross+Roads, I sat down to speak with Jonathan Aitken. Jonathan was Conservative MP and cabinet member before he was dramatically sentenced to 7 months at Belmarsh prison for perjury in 1999. Following his conversion to Christianity, Jonathan trained for ministry in the Church of England and now serves as non-stipendiary priest at St Matthew’s Westminster in London, and as prison chaplain at Pentonville Prison. We had a delightful conversation about prison rehabilitation, the power of forgiveness in a culture that is losing the will to forgive (at least collectively, if not on the individual level), about his Anglo-Catholic evangelical faith and about the need for Christians to be small-p political in their involvement in public life. You can find this interview and others on iTunes in both short and long format here.