Towards the end of the piece, I highlighted a common tribalistic move in contemporary debates—the injunction to “educate yourself”. On this view, the problem of tribalism is simply the existence of competing ideas. The solution is simply to resolve differences of opinion through catechesis into a closely guarded communis opinio.
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.
“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:
to rehabilitate the concept of the tribe as a site of meaning and belonging which each of us inhabits
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.
“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.