Pitching a Tent: Practical Resources for Navigating A Tribal Age (Introducing the Series)

By faith Abraham dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob” – The Epistle to the Hebrews 11:9

This post introduces a four-part series on Christianity and tribalism.

Confessions of a Tribalist 

I want to start this blog post with a confession. In recent weeks, I have to admit that I have been left reeling as our news cycle in the UK has moved from one major societal upheaval after another. 

I remember the distinct sense of national unity that followed the news of lockdown. Culture wars seemed for a brief moment to pause as we took stock of an enemy that, at least at face value, cared little about differences. In its face, we were all human beings. 

As we all know, that sense of unity didn’t last long. (And, to be fair, some of that unquestioned “unity” needed to be challenged, as I wrote about here). 

There was Cummings-gate, the Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests. As many remarked, the world seemed to be on fire in June 2020. 

In all of this, what struck me the most was not the time and effort I was spending in forming opinions on the big topics of the day. Rather, it was that these events came to be invested with rich meaning. As I read and had conversations with others, the positions I took, and didn’t take, came to define me. Whereas I thought I was informing myself on complex and hot-button issues, what was actually happening was that I was being formed by them—or more accurately, I was being formed by the positions I took on those issues. 

And I’ve been wondering why that is…

At one level, I’m sure that part of it is down to being confined to home with (seemingly) little to do. Boredom, in other words. But I think there’s a deeper explanation for the profound and formational impact that these stances were having on me, than sheer ennui. 

Meaning, Belonging and Tribal Identity

I do think there’s something deeper going on, something to do with identity, with who we are as human beings. More broadly, the last 6-7 years or so has revealed a deep crisis of identity in the West. With the issue of Brexit, for instance, we were forced to ask deep questions about who we are as individuals and as a society, and questions about where we find meaning. 

We came face to face with the basic fact that we find meaning and belonging in group identity—what some refer to as the tribe. Now, the word tribe has serious baggage for many of us. Much of this is down to the many obvious examples where groups have behaved badly—which is another way of saying “tribally”. By tribalism or acting tribally, I refer to occasions where we might offer unconditional, uncritical and at times unthinking, support to individuals or programmes whilst rejecting (any dialogue with) those who might think differently to us. 

And yet…if we take the tribe to simply mean a group larger than ourselves, then in this particular sense, the human person is inescapably tribal. I use the word tribe in this very particular way. Tribes are groups organised around place, cause or creed.

I distinguish the tribe from “tribalism” or tribalistic behaviour. Tribalism is, to be sure, a perennial part of the human experience. But as we will see, recent data shows that tribalism in the UK has recently taken on some distinct characteristics. These include:

1) The Tribe as Cult: Frequently, tribes exist as online, virtual communities which engage in name calling or in which dissent from the party line can result in expulsion and harassment. Perhaps more anecdotally, what this suggests is a greater willingness than ever for late-moderns to put all the eggs of meaning and identity in the basket of the tribe. Some might dispute whether the cultic and religious nature of tribal identity is distinctive to our age, but I hope to show in later posts that it is, and that it has something to do with the loss of common narratives provided, most obviously, by the nation-state and faith.

2) Affective Polarisation: KCL’s Divided Britain report from just after the 2016 EU referendum helpfully identifies one of the main characteristics of division as “affective polarisation”—the increasingly intense dislike of the “opposing side” even where substantive agreement exists on particular issues.

3) Common Enemy Identity Politics: this characteristic sees a tribe use group identity not to bring people together (as with “common humanity” identity politics in which we might say, “we are all British”). Rather, with common enemy identity politics, the tribe uses its tribal identity to pull people apart along certain identity markers. As Jonathan Haidt writes, in this mode “[p]eople see everything as a zero-sum game and you’re fighting for slices of a fixed pie”.

On each of these points, the situation seems to be getting more and more pronounced by the day. 

Staying Above the Fray: The Purpose of this Series

Why is this? And how should we respond? 

In taking an issue-centred approach to tribalism, commentators frequently have failed to address these questions. Discussing issues has its place, of course, and allows one to form an opinion and stay informed. I have read a number of very good arguments on the Remain and Leave side in the Brexit debate or responses to the national governments’ approaches to the pandemic, or to the issue of race in the West. But what I have seen less of, is an attempt to move beyond the issues themselves, to hover above the fray of discussion and consider some of the deeper questions, questions to do with how we form these identities (increasingly in online communities), why we invest so much—too much—meaning in the tribes we join and how we might model a healthy group identity.

Consider this mini-series, then, as an attempt to stay above the fray and probe some of these deeper questions to do with tribalism. The big question I want to address is both a meta-level one as well as one that is deeply practical. It can be put simply as follows: how can the late modern individual, and particularly the Christian, navigate the tribalism of the current moment? At one level, this a higher-level question. It has less to do with particular issues—Brexit, say—or drawing on information to take a particular stance. Rather, it has more to do with our attitudes, habits and postures—how we form our identities and are, as often as not, formed by the groups around us. At another level, it is a highly practical question. To ask how we can navigate tribes is to ask: How do I treat the person at work or in my church or religious community (or, dare I say it, my friend group!) who disagrees with me? When it comes to habits and practices, do I turn to Twitter, or some other online community (or tribe), first thing in the morning or as I drift off to sleep at night? What am I doing as I engage in these patterns of behaviour and what are they doing to me? These imminently practical, even quotidian, questions force you and I to re-consider how we treat others and to examine the practices we adopt as we live and operate in groups bigger than ourselves. How can the “I” live in healthy relation to the “we”? This is where the rubber hits the road.

Pitching a Tent: The Argument of this Series

In this spirit, I will be posting a series of 4 thought-pieces on tribalism over the next couple of weeks. My goal is to offer a set of resources from the Christian tradition which I believe might help us—whether you are Christian or not—to understand tribes and tribalism more deeply and provide constructive ways forward for thinking through the pitfalls and opportunities that belonging to a tribe presents. 

A bit about my own approach. I come to this question as a Christian and as a historian of early Christianity. Therefore, I am deeply interested in reading the Christian scriptures and letting them read our own cultural moment. I am convinced that the Christian tradition, understood and applied wisely, offers rich resources for understanding and navigating our tribal age. What follows, then, will involve the close reading of early Christian texts and engaging with the insights of Christian thinkers, past and present. I also draw heavily on the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has probably done more than anyone else in the Anglophone world to understand and diagnose the tribalism of contemporary Western societies. 

My aim is broadly twofold: 

1. I wish 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 a kind of salvation in something bigger than ourselves and erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from ourselves. 

I also want to offer something constructive to the conversation.

My main contribution, I think, is to suggest that the controlling metaphor for thinking about tribalism should be that of pitching a tent. One of the ways I have begun to think about the tribe is as a tent—or perhaps as individual members of a tribe with their own individual tents, living side by side. A tent is not a permanent home but the dwelling of a sojourner who makes his home here while awaiting her final destination. To pitch one’s tent in a tribe, then, means to both inhabit the tribe while also anchoring one’s identity, hopes and desires Somewhere Other (or, more accurately, in Someone Other) than the tribe. The epigraph, taken from chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews captures this perfectly: “By faith Abraham dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents”. 

In part 3 of this series, I will provide a close reading of this text. But for now, what should be noted is that like Abraham, the tent-pitcher grounds her tent pegs firmly within the tribe. It is not that tent-pitchers are uncommitted to the group or cause (though the shape of that commitment, as we will see, will look different). No, they remain deeply committed to the issue or cause around which the group organises itself. At the same time, though, tent-pitchers recognises that the tribe is not their final destination—their hearts are anchored and rooted in God. The eggs of meaning are not all placed in the basket of the tribe. 

From this position of radical security, the tent-pitcher is free to adopt a posture of cautious commitment towards the tribes and groups he finds himself in. The logic of the posture of “pitching a tent” is found in its call to sit lightly, though firmly, to our convictions. We earnestly commit ourselves to the ideals and people with whom we share a common cause, while holding loosely to them, and not basing our identity or pinning our hopes and dreams upon them. From this place of security—with our identity’s firmly rooted in Another—we can meet the differences around us with a greater sense of perspective. We approach the tribe not as a group that will fulfil all of our hopes and dreams. That attitude, I will suggest, soon sees us trading the tent for a fortress. 

Another way to bring this metaphor home is to ask ourselves a question. I spoke above about a crisis of identity in the West. By crisis, I am not primarily referring to a disastrous situation but to the other sense of the word—a crisis as a decision-point or crossroads. This sense of the word evokes the image of a fork in the road at which we must decide on our direction of travel. When we apply this insight to how we navigate the tribalism around and within us, two options are put before us: we can either choose to pitch our tents in a tribe, or build a fortress around our tribal allegiances. The tent-pitcher is grounded in the marriage of loving conviction and firm compassion precisely because her identity is not her own but has been inhabited by Christ. By contrast, the fortress-builder, in seeking salvation in the tribe, soon begins to police its borders, shore up what Grant Mackasill calls “symbolic or social capital”, shun those who think differently and and cast out those who do not conform. So, then, when it comes to tribes, are we those who pitch a tent or build a fortress? 

Before I go on, I should clarify what I am not saying. I am not arguing that we should care less about the issues that matter to us. My point, rather, is precisely about how we care about these issues and the positions we come to. Our caring is, or at the very least should be, qualitatively different.

Of course, Christians have not always lived up to this vision and it would be dishonest to deny this fact. At times, the tribalism of followers of Christ has had an incredibly damaging impact on those around them. Acknowledging this fact isn’t an exercise in self-hate, but is to be honest and humble about our failings so that we can move forward. On other occasions, though, Christians have held to their convictions not only at great personal cost but also in a way that has brought significant and positive change to those around them (I think here of the work of Desmond Tutu in fostering a ministry of reconciliation in war-torn, apartheid South Africa). I believe that we can honestly face the ugly episodes in our past—warts and all—whilst still pursuing the beautiful vision found in the Christian tradition. It is a vision which, as the author of Revelation writes, culminates with people from every nation, language and yes, tribe—here, referring to ethnic groupings but which might even extend to the political, social and cultural tribes I am addressing in this series—find their true home in God and are reconciled, one to another.

***

This post serves to introduce the series by providing you with a brief taster of the four pieces that will follow. Each post clusters around a single point, with each hopefully unfolding the central argument and building on the next. Together, they map on to what some would see as the dramatic framework of the Christian scriptures, moving from creation and fall to redemption and new creation.

1. Homo Tribus: To Be Human is to Belong to Tribes

At heart, man yearns to belong. 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 a particular community or communities that give us meaning and draw us into something bigger than ourselves. The question, then, is not whether or not we belong to a tribe. We simply do. In this very particular sense, the human person is an inescapably tribal creature. In this post, I look at how, in fractured and isolated Western societies we can look to rehabilitate tribes as places of meaning and common cause.

2. Things Fall Apart: Examining Tribalism with St Paul of Tarsus and Jonathan Haidt 

And yet, things have fallen apart. In the West, we have given ourselves over to a party-spiritedness that is fracturing families, friendships and communities. We are increasingly relating to one another in deeply unhealthy and destructive ways. The patient is critical, and the diagnosis does not look promising. Symptoms include “cancelling” those with whom we disagree, patterns of group-think, ad hominem arguments that focus on labels rather than ideas (and to the extent that we focus on the person, it is the person as a highly dehumanised label). Our tribal impulses have spun out of control, causing us to live in an increasingly fractured state of existence. Factionalism, though, is nothing new. I engage with one early Christian text—Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches—which helps to insightfully highlight some of the contours and causes of tribalism. I bring this together with the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to sketch a profile of tribalism that lays the groundwork for moving forward with constructive solutions. 

3. Pitching a Tent or Building a Fortress?: How the Christian Tradition Re-Shapes the Goals and Methods of The Tribe 

There is hope. I want to suggest that the concept of tribes can be redeemed. But to do so, we must profoundly re-think precisely how we approach our tribal allegiances. I suggest that we might want to consider the scriptural image of “pitching a tent”. At heart, to pitch one’s tent in the world means that one’s hopes and desires are ultimately anchored—we might say that they find a permanent abode—in God. From this position of radical security, one is free to adopt a posture of cautious commitment towards the tribes and groups one finds oneself in. The logic of this posture is found in its call to sit lightly, though firmly, to our convictions. We earnestly commit ourselves to the ideals and people with whom we share a common cause, while holding loosely to them, and not basing our identity or pinning our hopes and dreams upon them. From this place of security—with our identity’s are firmly rooted in Another—we can meet the differences around us with a greater sense of perspective. The result of this posture is that the goal of our tribal activities is transformed—we no longer focus purely on winning, but rather on persuading and growing through exchange. The methods we employ, as a result, are no longer coercive or manipulative, but focus on seeking what is good, beautiful and true.

4. Moral Resources for an Ethical Problem: Habits, Postures and Attitudes for Tent-Pitchers 

Our tribalism is at root a moral problem for which we need moral solutions. The problem of tribalism is not a cognitive one—”why do others think differently than I do?” Diversity of opinion is simply a given. Rather the problem is, at root, a moral one: “how do I treat those who think differently to me”. That is, the antidote to tribalism does not simply revolve around the exchange of ideas or opinions. Rather, it must more fundamentally take stock of the human person and the relational context of belonging. For too long, the human person has either been removed from the equation or become the subject of intense attack. In fact, these are two sides of the same coin since the (often faceless) avatars of social media might lead us to more tempted to engage in personal attack. This is a moral problem and therefore we need moral solutions. I complete this series with a number of practical suggestions that focus on ethical resources—habits, postures and attitudes—that might help us begin to navigate what is, at heart, a moral problem. 

Image Credit: https://www.artranked.com/topic/Tent#&gid=1&pid=7

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