Homo Tribus: To Be Human is to Belong to Tribes

This is part 1 in a series of 4 blogposts entitled Pitching a Tent: Practical Resources for Navigating A Tribal Age

You can read the introductory post here.

“As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them”—Genesis 42:7

“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people”—Exodus 2:11

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My aim in this series on Christianity and tribalism is twofold:

  1. to rehabilitate the concept of the tribe as a site of meaning and belonging which each of us inhabits

even as 

2. I move against tribalism—the inclinations, practices and habits we adopt through which we seek salvation in something bigger than ourselves and erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from ourselves. 

This first post unfolds the first of these two goals—the rehabilitation of the tribe in our collective imaginations. 

We Cannot and Should Not Get Rid of Tribes 

My main point is that we cannot get rid of tribes and, even if we could, we shouldn’t. Let me explain each of these points. 

We cannot get rid of tribes. This is down to two factors: 

  1. we are inescapably meaning-making creatures and we seek to make meaning through groups larger than ourselves 
  2. we experience life first and foremost through a particular tribe. The tribe is the gateway to communal life.

Before we discuss the pitfalls of group association, we must acknowledge that we long to belong. Before we contend that we each possess a capacity to find meaning in all the wrong places, we must acknowledge that we are meaning-seeking creatures. Our capacity for tribal life is an opportunity to relate to others in groups and causes bigger than ourselves. 

At a fundamental level, we each belong to tribes, indeed are prewired for community and tribal life. Even those who eschew all tribal labels belong to a tribe—only in this case, it is a tribe of the tribeless. The question, then, is not “do I belong to a tribe?”, but “which tribes do I belong to?” 

But lying beneath this rather obvious and banal assertion is a deeper insight—we belong first and foremost to particular tribes. We experience the universality of human experience in the particularity of a tribe—whether that be our biological or adopted family, to take the most obvious example, or a particular slice of a religious faith (“Low Church Presbyterians”, “Hasidic Jews”), cultural group (“Chelsea fans”) or place-based community (“the Market Ward of Cambridge”). The tribe is the gateway to communal life.

We should not get rid of tribes—Even if we cannot get rid of tribes, should we not try to do so, or at the very least try to avoid them? Tribes get a bad name, and much of this is to do with tribal behaviour. Yet in this post, I wish to draw attention to at least three positive aspects of the tribe. When engaged with in a healthy manner, tribes 

  1. help us to transcend our individualism, loneliness and obsession with certain types of freedom 
  2. correct our false beliefs and challenge our faulty attitudes and practices through external intervention 
  3.  and help us to develop empathy across tribal divisions by opening us to the views of those within our tribe who might share a common cause but who approach it differently. 

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Why am I beginning with a post on the positive aspects of group allegiance? Who am I aiming this post at? I have started with this positive account because I notice that there is a growing reticence towards group allegiance, a shrugging off of tribes and tribalism. Much of this stems from the view that tribes are inherently divisive and thus bad. Tribes get a bad name. Thus, there is a growing number of those who would call themselves “tribeless”. This growing band of people includes the wandering questioners as well as those who legitimately think that they are politically or culturally homeless, with no party or group affirming their values or convictions in any meaningful way. I identify with some of this and am sympathetic to it. Yet even those who would reject tribes belong to a tribe of the tribeless. When we seemingly rejecting tribes altogether, we merely coalesce into new tribes of our own. To coin a phrase, “tribes you will always have with you”. It’s time to think about why this might be and what benefits might accrue from belonging to groups bigger than our individual selves, even as we remain vigilant of their pitfalls.  

If this post offers a slightly rosier account of the tribe, it is not—I hope—because I am self-deceived or naïve to the serious pitfalls of tribalism (the subject of the next instalment). But before we get to that tale of woe, we must acknowledge and discuss the validity of our desires to seek meaning in groups organised according to cause, place or faith. That we often misplace these desires (invest them in the wrong places), or, particularly for Christians, over-invest them in the group at the expense of our ultimate allegiance to God, does not discredit the whole enterprise of tribal belonging. 

To put this another way, before we get into a discussion of how we look for meaning in all the wrong places, we must acknowledge that we seek to create meaning, to attach ourselves to stories, people, places and things. 

Why do we do this? What significance might this basic fact have for how we think about our group associations? And what benefits emerge from group association? These are the questions I address in what follows. 

Created for Community: Group Association in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures

At heart, the human person yearns to belong, yearns to find a home. And that meaning-making or home-searching takes place, in large part, within groups. The heart seeks to make a home in a larger group that organises and mobilises itself around a common cause—whether political, social, cultural or religious. Each one of us affiliates with particular communities that give us meaning and draw us into something bigger than ourselves. We cannot avoid tribes, then, because we cannot avoid the search for home, the yearning to belong. 

We can, of course, describe this in evolutionary terms. The cultural psychology Jonathan Haidt in his chapter “Why Are We So Groupish?”, argues that while “individuals compete with individuals and that competition rewards selfishness”, at the same time, “groups compete with groups, and that competition favours groups composed of team players—those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group, even if they could do better by slacking, cheating or leaving the group” (The Righteous Mind, 222). Tribes are not selfish but groupish. “We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves” (255). 

But there is also a deeper philosophical and theological account for this tribal meaning-making—one that I think is largely compatible with the findings of evolutionary psychology, even if it is ultimately asking and addressing different questions. 

To begin with, the inescapability of groups as sites of meaning-making is a major theme in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The book of Genesis, for instance, speaks of the need for Adam (“man”) to have a “partner” (ezer) equal to him in power. There is a deeply relational quality to the Judaeo-Christian understanding of anthropology which stems, in turn, from the relational quality of God himself. Contrast this with the early ancient Near-Eastern accounts like the Babylonian Enuma-Elish creation myth against which the authors of Genesis composed their own text (side note: I think that Genesis is its own kind of aetiology or myth about why things are the way they are—the existence of a Good Creator upon whom all things depend for existence, the fundamental dignity of the human. It’s not, I don’t think, an account of how things are the way they are). In the Enuma-Elish myth, the capricious gods create humans for food and sustenance and to act as their slaves. When composing Genesis, later picked up and read by Christians, the authors depict God in relationship to the human beings he creates “in his own image”. God creates human beings to relate to him, to benefit the earth and to serve one another in perfect mutuality. 

Other texts from the scriptures emphasise our search for meaning in larger groups. In that great rags-to-riches story that is the tale of Joseph, the young boy is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, rises to become head of the house of Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh in whose service he is wrongfully imprisoned before, in a final twist in the tale, becoming ruler of Egypt, second in command to the Pharaoh himself. In fact, there is a final twist still, when Joseph, who remains incognito of course, many years later comes face to face with the brothers who had, years before, considered him dead to them. In one of the most moving episodes in ancient Near Eastern literature, the one who had all of Egypt at his feet recognises his brothers and remembers who he is—Jacob’s son, and brother to the offspring of Israel. Unable to contain himself, Joseph eventually breaks down in front of his brothers and they are reconciled to one another. 

Then there’s the story of Moses. Given up by his Jewish mother because of a Pharaonic pogrom, Moses is fortuitously found by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in her home as an Egyptian. Yet the Moses story is, in part, one of finding one’s roots. In the text quoted in the epigraph, the young Moses comes across an Egyptian beating an Israelite, “one of his people”. Witnessing the affliction of his countryman, Moses remembers who he is and in a fit of rage slays the Egyptian. Like Joseph, he remembers his identity, which is as an individual who is part of a larger group. The specific action Moses takes is condemnable (and tellingly, Moses forgets that what matters is that God has remembered his people’s affliction). But the point still stands—Moses, for all of the riches of his Egyptian life, identifies himself with his people. 

Fast-forwarding a bit, we also find examples of meaning-making in groups in the New Testament as well. St Paul, for example, employs the metaphor of the “body” to describe the church, the “body of Christ”, in his first letter to the Corinthian churches. The body is made up of many parts, each serving the other and so forming a unity that works together for the common good. Paul’s description of the “body”—of diversity in unity—has echoed down the corridors of time and influenced more than a handful of political philosophies. It speaks powerfully to the church as a community that finds a home together and creates culture and meaning as a diverse and unified group. 

Looking to our own day, one particular form of popular culture is seeped in this story of finding ourselves in larger groups—“the road movie”. As philosopher Jamie Smith writes, “road movies are always buddy movies”. Think of Little Miss Sunshine, the Blues Brothers, Mad Max and, one of my own favourites, Dumb and Dumber. “We hit the road to find ourselves but hardly ever do it alone”.

Even acts of tribalism—those moments when the tribe behaves badly—betray this deep search for meaning in groups. Catholic novelist Bruce Marshall captures this quest for meaning at the individual level when, in provocative fashion, he has a priest in one of his novels say: “A man knocking on the door of a brothel is knocking for God”. So it is with each of us in the groups that we find ourselves in. That we seek to find meaning in the wrong places shouldn’t mask the fact that we are looking for meaning. The condemnable act of knocking on the door of the brothel is, in part, a cry for help, a longing to belong. In a recent episode of the Sacred podcast, Mary Harrington translates this wonderfully into the register of online tribal activity: “Behind all of the fighting [online] there’s a yearning for recognition, a yearning for connection, a yearning to be understood”. 

What this also shows is that tribalism—making the tribe our ultimate source of meaning, our ultimate home, or, analogously, “knocking at the brothel door”—is the privation or perversion of something that is good. In the same way, our tribal in-fighting betrays a desperation and yearning for meaning and community. Please note that I am not wanting to downplay the damaging effects of this fighting, nor am I wanting to excuse the one who “knocks at the brothel door”. That would be to justify immoral and harmful acts. I simply want us to acknowledge this deep-seated yearning for meaning. Our hearts, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin contended, are “idol factories”, which is to say that we restlessly fashion meaning out of the created order. Ultimately, as I will argue in part 3 of this series, this search for home can only be resolved by securing ourselves in the identity of Another. As Augustine wrote long ago, “our hearts are restless til’ they find their rest in you”.

The Priority of the Particular: Tribes are the Gateway to the Universal 

We cannot get rid of tribes because we are meaning-seeking creatures and this meaning-making happens in groups. But another reason why we cannot get rid of tribes is because we simply belong to them as a matter of course. From the get-go, we are born into groups that we do not choose. Particularity is in our DNA. 

The Hebrew Bible has much to say on this theme, which philosophers and theologians describe with terms like “election” and “covenant”. Out of all the peoples of the earth, God chooses Israel to be his particular and peculiar people. The authors and editors of the Pentateuch are quick to attribute this not to the goodness of the people of Israel, lest they think God chooses them for their own intrinsic worth. “After the Lord has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness…it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is…giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.”   

And nor was Israel’s election for its own benefit, as if Israel was to be fattened for its own good. The covenant between God and Israel was a covenant for the nations of the world. Texts like Isaiah 2 have the nations of the globe streaming to the mountain of the Lord—in a shocking twist, the God of Jacob becomes the God of all the earth. God’s election of Israel is precisely for the nations—the people of Israel are blessed to be a blessing. There is a priority to the particular. But strikingly, the particular is then the gateway to the universal. 

Upon closer examination, the particularity of peoples, tribes and families pervades the Hebrew Bible. The Levites are selected out of the 12 tribes to be a “particular priesthood”. In 1 Kings, Elijah and Elisha form a mini tribe of prophets. In prophetic literature, the prophets direct their prophecies at particular peoples. The editors of Isaiah have the prophet prophesy against a litany of particular places—Edom, Ariel, Judah, Tyre, the Desert by the Sea, Egypt, Damascus, and Moab, and the list goes on… 

A striking example of particularism appears in the only book of love poetry in the Hebrew Bible—the Song of Solomon. In one important section, the bride of Solomon describes her particular love for the groom, a particularity highlighted by her choice name for her love—“my beloved”. The author then has the Daughters of Jerusalem press the bride for details for what makes her groom so special, so particular: 

What is your beloved more than another beloved,

   O fairest among women?

What is your beloved more than another beloved,

   that you thus adjure us?

In response, the bride gushes forth loving praise for her groom’s appearance which she prefaces with the words, “my beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousands”. The particularity of the bride’s love for her groom takes on new significance when we recall that this poem was read as an allegory for Israel’s exclusive love for her God. 

When we stop to think about it, much of this particularity maps on to our own existence. We begin life in particular families (whether biological or adopted). For the most part, there is a givenness to this, in that we do not choose those who raise and care for us. 

Similarly, we come to love a cause through a particular group. For lovers of football, our passion for the beautiful game comes through watching a particular national or local team that we love more than any other team (in my case, the club team is Chelsea). We come to love music through the bands our loved ones share with us or those we discover and come to share with others. There is a priority to the particular.

Particularity also applies to that “religious community of belonging” or tribe we find ourselves in. This tribe mediates a particular experience of a larger phenomenon, in this case, religious faith. To take Christianity as an example, one is first introduced to the family of faith in a particular way and experiences the faith in that particular tribe—whether that be “Anglo-Catholic”, “Reformed” or “African Pentecostal”. I may well build on that foundation as life goes on or, hopefully upon careful reflection, choose to de-emphasise or reject certain untrue or skewed aspects of that foundation. But what I cannot do is deny that my foundation for knowing and experiencing the larger group of Christians happens through the particular denominational tribe.

In all of this, my experience of life is mediated through the particular tribes I am a part of. Whether it is the groups that I choose—the cause I elect to participate in—or the ones that I do not and cannot choose—my family, my nation and so on—the particular is the gateway to the universal.  

Three Benefits of Tribes: Why We Should Not Get Rid of Tribes  

Even if, as I have been arguing, we cannot get rid of tribes, many of us will feel that we should take steps to getting rid of them, or at the very least to avoiding them. After all, people in tribes can behave badly and do great harm. It is hard to knock this argument given that we have all been on the receiving end of tribalistic behaviour. I have huge sympathy with this sentiment, for reasons I will explore in the next post. But for all this, I think it would be foolish to ignore that groups also contain massive benefits that would simply not be present among siloed individuals. These advantages include, but go beyond, the pragmatic argument that we are “better together”. There are at least three benefits to group association, or tribal life, that we ignore at our peril:

  1. Tribes help us to transcend our loneliness, individualism and narrow versions of freedom by teaching us duty

By their very nature, tribes challenge the all-pervasive individualism of contemporary Western life. They are stark reminders that “no man is an island”. To be sure, larger groups can paradoxically make us feel more lonely than ever. (“This city’s got so many people, but it’s got no soul”, Gerry Rafferty crooned long ago). But when true communion happens with others—when we know and are known—we meet a lasting cure to our loneliness and social isolation. In his On the Road with Saint Augustine, a wonderfully moving travel memoir-cum-introduction-to-Christian-life, James KA Smith writes powerfully of modern man’s search for authenticity. In our quests to find ourselves, we have unquestioningly inherited the assumption that others are barriers to my own self-discovery. In response, you and I barricade ourselves off from other people. And yet the Christian life, Smith goes on to write, is one of finding ourselves in communion. Like those road movies Smith makes reference to, my search for myself happens in community. In Smith’s words: “Our individualism remains oddly communal. ‘I’m off to find myself’, we exclaim. ‘Wanna come?’” 

More than this, our tribal affiliations can challenge the fruits of this all-pervading individualism. As I have written elsewhere recently, this rampant individualism has led us late moderns to overwhelmingly conceive of freedom as “freedom to” and “freedom from”, rather than “freedom for”. In direct contrast to our usual self-obsessed modus operandi, groups organised around place, cause or faith can involve varying degrees of obligation that mutually bind us to one another and teach us the freedom that comes through service and duty to others. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts this better than I ever could when he distinguishes between covenantal and contractual relationships. Contractual relationships are those where the self is in the driving seat, where an association between two individuals exists for a specific period of time, for a particular task and is self-contained, not bleeding into other areas of life. Relationship in the covenantal register (like a marriage, for instance) looks radically different. As Sacks explains, in covenantal relationships, “two ‘I’s’ come together to form a ‘We’, each respecting the independence and integrity of the other but nonetheless we pledge ourselves to one another in a bond of loyalty and love to do together what neither of us could do alone”. Viewed in this way, tribes are places where we can transcend our individual selves and learn a different type of freedom which is very much at a premium in the late modern West—the freedom of self-giving.

2. Tribes have the potential to correct our false beliefs and challenge our faulty attitudes and practices through external intervention 

To state the obvious, being part of a larger group can also expose us to the experiences and wisdom of other individuals. While a simple fact, this has profound and positive effects for each one of us, our identity and our sense of direction in life. In the healthy tribe, we can air our thoughts and feelings knowing that we will be heard. But we also know that where relationships of trust exist within a larger group, we can expect to be lovingly challenged in our beliefs. We experience life “through a mirror dimly”, and this is no less true when it comes to our own knowledge of our own selves. We are mysteries to one another, but to no one more so than our own selves. The trusted other sees me in a way that I can never see myself and can call out the good in me and challenge me when I err.

There’s a terrific scene in Good Will Hunting that exemplifies this point. Boyhood friends Chuckie and Will, the maths genius and protagonist of the film, are finishing off a construction job and discussing what they’ll be doing in 20 years. When Will declares that he hopes he’ll be doing the same thing he’s doing now, his friend Chuckie takes him to task for his failure to recognise his own talents for mathematics. “Everyday I come by your house and pick you up”, Chuckie confesses. “You know what the best part of my day is? For about ten seconds, when I pull up to the curb and when I get to your door, because I think maybe I’ll get there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there”. As Jamie Smith explains, “the true friend is the other who hopes you’ll answer the call, who’s willing to challenge you and upset you in order to get you to look at yourself….who prods and prompts you to change course and chase it—and promises to join you on the way”. To be in a tribe is to be gently challenged for my own good and to lovingly challenge for the other’s good. 

To be sure, though, this doesn’t always happen. In fact, as we’ll see, tribes are renowned for their groupthink. We are oftentimes not so much challenged but completely affirmed in our thinking. We can become rigid in our ways. But when it is working well, my larger tribe can help challenge my assumptions about those who think differently than I do, or about some other aspect of reality, by “painting a substantive picture of the good”. In this way, my relationship to other members of the tribe can function like “iron sharpening iron”. 

3. Inner-tribal debate can function as a gateway to inter-tribal conversations. 

Last but not least, tribes have the potential to help us develop empathy by opening us up to the views of those who might share a common cause but who approach it differently than we might. The development of empathy within the tribe can then flow out to relationships with those in other tribes, including rival ones. In the group, there is often sufficient shared ground for disagreement to be modelled and sufficient trust for differences of opinion to be aired. Again, this doesn’t always happen and within a tribe, and difference of opinion can give way to homogeneity of thought. But if tribes are organised around trust rather than similarity of opinion, then profitable debate can take place, even among those with shared assumptions. Inner-tribal debate can then form the practice-ground for training our muscles of character and debate so that when we speak with those who think differently to ourselves, we are primed to act respectfully, rather than defensively. The tribe exists, then, as a ready-made venue for growing in and developing empathy that can then be applied across tribes. This is, of course, notoriously difficult and requires maturity, patience and time. But positive inner tribal interactions can foster and train the attitudes and inclinations that allow for fruitful cross-tribal conversations.  

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Tribes offer a profound set of opportunities for growth, then. But there are also serious pitfalls. This is, in fact, to understate the problem. We must face up our own attitudes and inclinations that cause us to turn tribes into fortresses. To return to Marshall’s image, the man going to the brothel yearns for community, yes, but he still errs greatly in knocking at the brothel door. 

A realistic anthropology suggests that our group belongings can turn sour—no longer functioning as centripetal forces that bring us towards a common identity but centrifugally in a way that exclusively emphasises difference without commonality. Alternatively, the centripetal forces that bring us together towards a common goal can sometimes go into overdrive in such a way that we emphasise commonality, or homogeneity without difference.

It is to diagnosing our tribalism—its key attributes and causes—that I turn next…

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