What it is. What we can do about it.
Tribalism seems to be on the rise around the world. This trend affects many facets of our lives, particularly our ethics. How do we live in polarized societies? Authors and commentators around the globe have noted that “Brexit” in Great Britain, political polarization in the United States, delegitimization of Muslims in India, and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe’s political landscape also seem to derive from tribalism.
Thus tribalism is neither confined to primitives, nor to particular regions. Tribalism shows itself as unswerving loyalty to one’s group—usually to the detriment of other persons or groups. Paradoxically, as globalization gives rise to cultural uniformity through technology and social media, underground forces of toxic tribalism engender polarization rather than unity. Escalation in fundamentalism, reflected in political opinions, social rhetoric, and religious discourse, too often results in schisms between right and left, conservatives and liberals. This leads to a breakdown in communication and collaboration—elements essential for societal harmony.
OUR NEED FOR COMMUNITY
All humans have a natural tendency to associate in groups because of our need of being and belonging. Those needs are not evil. It’s a natural human desire to form a community of people with similar goals, needs, and desires. But tribalism turns toxic when it seeks to eliminate those with divergent views, opinions, or identity. It thrives on the notion that the other is the enemy; a situation responsible for anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks in places of worship, causing the deaths of innocent worshippers in America, New Zealand, Israel, and Afghanistan. It has resulted in the killings of politicians whose views diverge from those of their assailants. So prevalent is this condition on social media that some believe ours is the age of tribalism.
Unfortunately, even the Seventh-day Adventist Church, with its high moral ideals and divine mandate, is not immune to this tribal mind-set, as two accounts illustrate.
Not long ago I preached at a church in a country in which recent government elections had resulted in discord and crisis in reaching Adventist homes featuring intercultural marriages. The political impasse fueling cultural tensions between two major tribes affected married couples who shared strong common beliefs and a Christian heritage. Just as telling, a friend of mine relates how, when he asked someone for help in San Antonio during the most recent General Conference session (in 2015), he was refused, based on his African attire. He was told: “You folks voted against the ordination of women into gospel ministry.” Incidentally, my friend was not even a delegate to the session.
A WAY FORWARD
Can tribalism be overcome? Can Adventists live above tribalism?
A starting point is to acknowledge that tribalism is our default human mode. While studies indicate that no one is born racist, tribal, or fundamentalist, through socialization, children learn negative attitudes toward those with different identities by observation. Early in life we are often taught that those who look, talk, and act like us are regarded as persons, while those with different identities are regarded as nonpersons. In later stages of life, society teaches the dehumanization of persons with different identities, assigning them labels such as “dogs,” “cockroaches,” “rats,” or “pests.”
Human history sadly reveals many moments when tribalism was not only condoned, but Christian premises were developed to promote these aberrant ideas. Consider African American slavery in the United States, Hitler’s Nazi ideology in pre-World War II Germany, and apartheid laws in South Africa. Sadly, the Christian church has often been complicit in rationalizing and justifying tribalism.
Christ, however, taught principles diametrically opposed to every notion of tribalism. The central premises of tribalism (i.e., superiority, special identity, and pride) are demolished by His teachings and example.
Central to Christ’s teaching was the kingdom of God, one in which race, birth, privilege, or status did not grant entry. Jesus spoke about a new birth, made possible by the Holy Spirit, as its entry requirement. He also taught that ethnicity did not automatically qualify anyone for the kingdom. Christ preached a gospel of inclusion rather than exclusion; of peace and tolerance rather than war and intolerance, saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9).
More important, Jesus emphatically stated that the world would know the power of the gospel and the citizens of His kingdom by the unity demonstrated through the lives of His disciples. The disciples had diverse backgrounds, personalities, and political affiliations. Matthew had been a despised publican; Simon was a Zealot, political activist, or revolutionary. Despite their political and religious convictions, Christ, through His life and ministry, united these “liberals” and “conservatives,” leading them from polarization to collaboration, mission, and service for the kingdom.
In times when Christians, including Adventists, are drawing lines in the sand, dividing the world into those who are for “us” and those against “us”—at a moment when walls of separation are being erected—Jesus calls us to remember that “he who is not against us is on our side” (Mark 9:40).
The apostle Paul reminded believers that there is no preference for Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, master or serf in His kingdom. Paul understood this personally when Ananias came to baptize him, and addressed this religious terrorist as “Brother Saul” (Acts 9:17).
The book of Acts relates two powerful stories we urgently need to internalize. The Holy Spirit leads respected church leaders Ananias (Acts 9:10-17), Peter, and church leaders in session (Acts 10; 11:1-18) to the realization that there is a place before the cross for everyone. The gospel of Christ turns our natural human instincts and the values of secular society upside down.
Eliminating toxic tribalism from our faith community begins with introspection—searching our hearts to learn how we have espoused or promoted tribalism, and asking for the gift of repentance.
Next, we need to kneel in contrition before the Lord to ask for new hearts and natures to undo the wrongs we have caused, knowingly or in ignorance. We must step out of the walls of our tribal groups to be in Christ.
Third, we must embark on wall-wrecking missions as we practice and preach Christ’s countercultural principles. Let’s invite everyone to tear down their human “tribal” walls for the universal fellowship of Christ. As we surrender our pride, exclusivism, superiority, and tribal identities, we will join that eschatological, wall-less community from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people at the sea of glass to sing God’s praises.
As the world grows darker and more polarized each day, the time is now for the church to demonstrate to the world what Christ’s ecclesia, true community, really looks like— wall-less, without caste, and yet priceless in God’s sight.