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My Tribe/Your Tribe

December 4, 2015

People are inherently tribal.  There is always at least one group we belong to, identify with, support and care about.  Tribes can be ethnic, like the way I identify as an Irish-American.  Tribes can be nationalistic, like American exceptionalism.  They can be racial.  They can be political.  They certainly can be religious, like the way I identify as an evangelical.  There are all sorts of tribes and we can belong to more than one.  Some often go hand-in-hand, like being in the evangelical tribe and the Republican tribe.  Even sports fans tend to have tribes; witness the plethora of “rivalries” in all high school, college and pro sports.

One common factor in tribalism is that we tend to view members of our tribe with favor and members of other tribes with suspicion.  We want to believe the best about our side and the worst about “them.”  When someone on our side seems to have done something horrible we are slow to judge; we look for explanations or even excuses.  We use soft language.  When facts build up to the point where it is clear that the person is wrong, even evil, we basically say that (a) he was never truly in our tribe and (b) it is not the tribe’s fault, he is just a disturbed individual.

Conversely, when someone in an enemy tribe does something wrong our belief in both his guilt and the fact that the tribe itself is partly to blame seems clear to us from the first sign of trouble.  To us it is “obvious” that we are right about our accusations and we get frustrated if others don’t jump right in to agree and, even more, angry when the opposing tribe uses the same a&b argument we used on our own problematic member.

This has never been clearer than in the two recent mass killings in our country.  First a man attacks a Planned Parenthood clinic and kills several.   He apparently gives several rants against PP and the pro-choice tribe.  The pro-life tribe is quick to use the a&b defense; the pro-choice crowd finds him guilty within minutes and lays the blame on the pro-life camp.

Then a few days later two Muslims kill even more in California.  Muslims across the country denounce the attack.  Even the killer’s own brother-in-law does so.  In other words, the a&b defense springs forward.  The opposing tribes rush to make accusations coloring all who they perceive as the enemy tribe as evil, or at the least, criminally complicit.  They get furious at attempts to use the a&b defense.

The odd thing about this is that many of the very same people who thought that the a&b defense was right and normal in one case hastily, and with no apparent sense of irony, switched sides on the other.  MSNBC was quick to lay blame for the PP attack at the feet of all pro-lifers while Fox News was quick to defend.  Then Fox was ready to lay blame on the CA attack at the feet of Islam itself while MSNBC said all the facts are not yet in and, in any event, Islam itself is not at fault.  Only tribalism can create foolish situations like that.

What is missing in a tribal mentality is any sense of self-examination; a sense that maybe I need to consider whether my side might have flaws.  We are too busy defending our tribe and accusing the other.  An amazing number of controversial social issues come from tribalism.  So what should we do about this?

I think it starts by admitting that I am tribal; that I am biased toward my group and against “them.”  This allows us to see that our knee-jerk first reaction might need re-thinking.  This is hard, particularly when the situation seems (to us) to confirm our bias.

Secondly, when my tribe is the issue, I need to ask myself hard questions.  For example, in the PP shooting, no serious pro-lifer wants to kill people.  But is it possible using terms like “abortion is murder” or even calling pro-choice people “baby killers” feeds into a climate where someone might decide to take matters into his own hands?  In the same way, do Muslims need to seriously consider why many who share their faith radicalize?  Is it possible that there is something in the teaching that needs to be examined, even expressed differently?

Third, when the other tribe seems to be at fault do we season our commentary with grace?  In both of the recent incidents the reactions of the accusatory side bordered on a gleeful “I told you so!”  Even if it turns out to be true, as it is heading in both these cases, we should take no pleasure in being right.  In fact, a smug sense of “I was right all along” coupled with anger that others don’t see it that way is the surest sign that I may be biased.

All of us have a longing to belong.  Being in a tribe with shared values is both enjoyable and needed.  But we need to accept that tribalism has natural blind spots.  Forgive me for being tribal but I’d like to think that we evangelicals should try to be the best tribe in the world at showing grace to other tribes.

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From → Christianity

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