Can Christians Be Catalysts for Ending Tribalism?

Recently, I attended a couple of Democratic Party events in Hawaii. Although I am a member of the Democratic Party, I am on its fringe in terms of participation. The events interested me more from a sociological than political perspective.

Political tribalism dominated. For many attendees, the local party functions as an important, perhaps even their primary, community. Few legislators or their staff members attended; none spoke or were key participants. Attendees expressed desires to include shared meals and other social events in the party’s activities. Importantly, participants with whom I spoke sought a Democratic victory in all elections and on all legislative issues. Compromise and bipartisan cooperation were unthinkable. Tribe defined identity, eclipsing concern for good government.

The core membership of the Republican, Socialist, Green, or any other political party in the U.S., and perhaps in other countries, is most likely equally tribal. On reflection, the tribalism I observed in those political events reminded me of the tribalism that prevailed in the military before the full implementation of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act designed to end inter-service rivalry, e.g., Army vs. Navy.

Researchers now report that political tribalism has reached the point where many parents are more upset when a child announces her/his engagement to a person of a different political party that when their child becomes engaged to a person of a different race or religion. Political tribalism is a key symptom of the polarization that causes gridlock in the federal government and in some state government. Compromise has become unthinkable; bipartisanship is a dirty word.

Other forms of tribalism also create fault lines along which societies and cultures fracture and become polarized. Religion is sometimes a prominent form of tribalism, e.g., Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims in much of the Middle Et, but not in Europe; Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic Christians in much of Eastern Europe but not in the U.S.; Buddhist vs. Muslim in Myanmar. Pro-life vs. pro-choice groups sometimes represent tribes in parts of the U.S. Economic disparities sometimes create tribes. Fans of one sports team vs. fans of another team may represent tribes. And so on – the types of tribes and the various identities that they entail are too numerous to delineate.

Tribalism is literally a dead end. The planet faces existential threats from the climate crisis and global heating. While competition and diffuse identities undeniably enrich life, tribal identities must be subordinated to globalization if humanity and life as we know it are to survive. The climate crisis adds fuel to tribal fires, threatening to intensify and spread those fires. The climate crisis has contributed to armed conflict in Syria, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere as “tribes,” sometimes fighting as proxies of other “tribes” fight for their fair share of scarce resources, resources the climate crisis makes increasingly scarce.

Christianity that follows in Jesus’ footsteps insists upon its adherents adopting a global identity and belonging to an inclusive community that welcomes everyone. Illustratively, Christianity is not defined by party membership. Even as it was once an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as the GOP at prayer, so now it is equally an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as Democrats in action. Faithful Christian Churches have room in their pews and warmly welcome people of all political parties and no political party (independents!).

Contrary to Christian groups such as the Mennonites, Hutterites, and others that teach or require their members to withdraw from the world in order to remain faithful to Jesus, God calls the Church to live out its mission in the world. Jesus described Christians as salt and as leaven. Neither salt nor leaven is of any use stored in a container on a shelf; both must be proportionately mixed with other ingredients to be of any value. Additionally, Jesus sent his disciples into the world; he never instructed them to withdraw from the world. Going into the world obeys Jesus’ teachings and follows his example.

Christianity acknowledges that to be human is to have multiple identities. A person is invariably somebody’s child, perhaps someone’s parent, perhaps a spouse, maybe an employee or employer, perhaps a member of a union or organized group, certainly a citizen of some country, and so forth. Christianity hopes to shape and influence all of those identities, but never invalidates or cancels our multiple identities.

Ultimately, Christianity reminds us that our primary identity is as a child of God, an identity share with people of other religions, persons who identify as spiritual but not religious, and even atheists.

Christianity calls its adherents to promote justice – economic, social and political – for all creation. Christianity teaches that we collectively will live or die together. Savor your tribal identity(ies), always remembering that our primary identity as God's child places loyalty to all creation before loyalty to any particular tribe. This is our best hope for our broken, badly damaged world.


George Clifford said…
A reader emailed me this comment:

For a while in the last decade I was active in the local Democratic Party organization. I served as precinct chair, sat on the resolutions committee of the Wake County DP, etc. It did not take me long to figure out that the grassroots are dominated by, shall we say, odd people for whom grassroots is an overwhelming passion. I dropped out.

I’ve noticed that candidates distance themselves from the grassroots. One candidate said sardonically, “I need a platform to run on, not a platform to run [away] from.” And I agree that pragmatism, centrism, or any suggestion that something’s more important than purist ideology will quickly get one ridiculed or at best ignored. I hear it’s the same in the local Republican party.

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