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

***

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. 

***

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 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 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 text. 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, 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 his 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. 

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 “body of Christ”, the church, in his first letter to the Corinthian churches. The body is made up of many parts, each serving the other and yet 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. 

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 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, John Calvin writes, are “idol factories”, restlessly fashioning 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 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 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?

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 (in my case, 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 obligations 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. “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 second, 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 on the way”. To be in a tribe is to be challenged for my own good. 

To be sure, though, this doesn’t always happen. In fact, as we’ll see, tribes are renowned for their groupthink. 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. 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, 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.  

***

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 can sometimes go into overdrive in such a way that we emphasise commonality, or heterogeneity without difference.

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

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.

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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. 

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