When Life Gets Tribal

            This past week, as so often happens in life, my devotional readings dove-tailed with the events going on in the world.  

            For the past several years, particularly in recent weeks, we have engaged in tribal language: our rights, our vaccine, our House, our voice, justice for us and on and on. 

Curiously, we is never about all of us.  Our is never inclusiveYours is always less important  than mine

The consequence? 

Destructive tribalism.

 We all want to belong somewhere, and sadly, we’ll often do whatever it takes to identify with whomever seems to offer us power, prestige, and security. 

Tribalism: group identity morphed into living life as a form of mortal combat. Defined as such, tribalism isn’t living life at all, but rather is a death spiral into mutual destruction.  

And tribal language?  

  • We have the right to share or withhold vaccines from other countries if they are our perceived ‘enemies.’ 
  • We  have the right to choose whether to wear a mask or not – after all, we have lives to live, don’t we? Don’t bother me with your rights and your life!  Don’t guilt trip me by bringing up the essential workers exhausted from trying to keep us all alive – not my problem – party on!
  • We have the right, according to Charles Barkley as spokesman for NBA players this past week, to jump to the front of the vaccine line because we pay so much in taxes. It’s not my problem if you don’t have financial entitlement.
  • We have the right to choose whether to accept the election results regardless of the vote count. The vote only counts if we win.
  • We have the right to destroy our government and the buildings that symbolize a political system we choose to reject unless we’re the dominant party.  

            And then came my Monday morning devotions: Richard Rohr’s A Spring Within Us. The title for the day’s reading? Your life is not about you. I was so intrigued by those words that, I cheated and looked at the next day’s title: You are about life

The devotions were only tangentially related to our current crises, but the titles were spot on regarding how we currently choose to define life. 

+ + +

We as a people – indeed, we as the world – have become so tribal about our lives. 

If you don’t look like me, live like me, speak with my accent or in my language, if you don’t value what I value, if you don’t worship like I do….essentially, if you aren’t just like me, I will destroy you.  Why? Because life is all about ME, MY preferences, MY need to excel and dominate – any other way is a threat to life as I feel life should be! 

+ + +

The thing is, in reality we are all connected within the created order; indeed all creation groans under the weight of our fight against connectedness with God and each other (Romans 8:18-21).  

Our lives, our decisions, our behaviors impact the lives not only our own lives, but the lives of others; oftentimes, the impact of life choices comes full circle.

I find it ironic that those who ‘want to live their lives’ don’t seem able to connect the dots – if they would just live life for all and not just themselves, and wear the masks, this whole crisis could have passed long ago.

Don’t agree?  

Simple example:  unmasked party-ers ‘living life’ become super spreaders. Those infected end up in hospitals; spreaders themselves become sick and often die expressing regret for their ‘all about me’ life choices. The lives of all impacted by the choices of a few. 

What about the need to belong?

 An example: during the insurrection at the Capitol last week, a man was interviewed as to why he was there.  The man’s voice choked with desperation as he answered. His choice lost the election. The courts failed to side with his preference. He felt unheard, unseen, without a tribe – until he found a group compatible with his rights – a tribe bent on destruction of anyone who stood in their way – without consideration of the consequences.

Tribal mentality seems to be grounded in death dealing fear of both lack of autonomony and the need to belong.  

And what if my chosen tribe is wrong?  Now there’s a boatload of fear!  If MY way isn’t the only way, what does that mean for ME?  

  • I have invested so much time and energy – so much of MY life – in making sure that my way is the only way, how dare you tell me there might be another way….
  • Opposing positions threaten my identity, my purpose, my very life…..so I must lash out and destroy!

 Is this the life God intends?  Not if we seriously look to scripture which says that the God life is for all, not just a single group/tribe.

Sure, God chose a specific tribe as the chosen people, but not for self-entitlement, rather the Israelites were chosen to be a conduit of blessing to the world (Genesis 12:3b); a blessing which would be defined by God’s commandments to love. (Matthew 22:36-40)

Sadly the divinely chosen conduit of blessing became distorted into tribalism over the centuries – even fractured within itself; holy intervention was necessary.  

God’s blessing would now flow through God’s own Son Who came into the world to save all the world (John 1:12-13, 16; John 3:16-17).   Yet, STILL we withhold blessing from others – and sadly we now often do so all in the name of Jesus because we often forget that Jesus is not our personal tribal leader. And so here we are.

Yet there is hope.

+ + +

 Just yesterday, on the news of all places, I heard about a 10 year old girl, Emma from Butte, Montana.  Emma saw the news clip of the officer being crushed by the angry tribe at the Capitol and wrote him a letter of encouragement.

Emma gets it. Can we? 

Can we let go of the me life  – the tribal life – the life that leads to death – and embrace completely the Christ life and live lives that bless the world in His name and become one?

It won’t be easy, in fact Christ calls such a life lived grounded in unconditional love and mutual concern, forgiveness and for the good of all – the way of the cross. But we know that the way of the cross led to new life – new beginnings – for all creation not just a few. 

Do we get it? A lot is on the line. Do we even want to try? Just asking. 

And to God be the glory! AMEN.

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

2 thoughts on “When Life Gets Tribal

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