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On Tribalism

I have been meditating on the story of the man with a withered hand in Mark 3:1-6 in preparation for an upcoming men’s retreat. This passage is a wonderful account of Jesus’ compassion on social outcasts. Jesus is willing to challenge the oppressive religious authorities of his day in order to heal this man and restore him in the eyes of the surrounding community.

But this beautiful story has a dark ending. Verse 6 reads:

The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Since it is common for us to read the Pharisees as the villains in the gospel stories, it is quite easy for us to read over a verse like this without giving it a second thought.

Yet something really significant is happening here. Who are the Herodians? In the New Testament this group is almost always in alliance with the Pharisees. But unlike the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Herodians are not a distinct sect of people. The ancient historian Josephus refers to a group of people who Herod the Great “showed special favor to those of the city’s populace who had been on his side while he was still a commoner” (Ant. 15.2). Elsewhere, Josephus refers to this group as “partisans of Herod” (Ant. 14.447).

Sometimes religious people are willing to make the strangest bedfellows.

Who was this group of Herodians? They were partisans who cozied up real close to Herod. As such, they would’ve had precious little in common with the Pharisees. After all, the Pharisees strongly opposed Hellenism. Their only common bond was their mutual opposition to Jesus. Jesus was a threat to both groups, so they formed a tribe around their shared hatred of the Son of God.

Sometimes religious people are willing to make the strangest bedfellows.

Tribalism is the dark twin brother of healthy community. Rather than being a community based on mutual love and affection, Tribalism is based on mutual hatred or common foe. Tribalism is all about the friend/enemy distinction. The tribal mindset tells us we are at war and the ends always justify the means.

Tribalism thrives on loneliness. Since we live in a world where loneliness has reached epic proportions, tribalism is stronger than ever. Author David Zahl puts it this way:

To counteract our loneliness, we will fashion a family out of whatever resources we have at hand. It is no coincidence, then, that politics (for example) serves a tribal function for more and more people. Because when you share an ideological affiliation, you share not only stories and foundations but antagonisms. And nothing bonds people closer together than a common enemy.

Our culture feeds our tribalism at every turn. The media is happy to convince us that those whom we disagree with are our enemy so long as it generates more clicks (a.k.a. revenue). Sadly, Christians of all stripes are often willing to ally themselves with politicians and cultural leaders who are really no friend to the Church but just so happen to resonate with a deep-seeded mistrust and cynicism about the world.

Both politically and socially, we find the left and the right are drifting further apart. As loneliness and tribalism rise, so too does detachment. The fastest growing political group today is unaffiliated. The fastest growing religious group today is also unaffiliated.

The consequences of tribalism in the church are disastrous. Several older Christians have told me that friendships they’ve had for many years have become strained in recent years because of differences in political and social views that are becoming much stronger.

Young evangelicals tend to be those who are far more committed to matters of family and life than “progressives” are, but far more committed to matters of mercy and social justice than “conservatives” typically are.

The affect this has on young evangelical Christians is crushing. More often than not, we feel there is no one who really represents our worldviews or our concerns. For the most part, young Christians want nothing to do with the partisan politics and culture wars of the past. Young evangelicals (especially those who converted in or after college) tend to be those who are far more committed to matters of family and life than “progressives” are, but far more committed to matters of mercy and social justice than “conservatives” typically are.

Yet when we look at church members and leaders who cater to tribal commitments, we don’t see anyone who represents our deepest commitments. The point of tension for many young evangelicals (including myself) is that we are often regarded as being too conservative for our non-Christian friends, and far too liberal for older church members.

I recently met with a friend of mine who I’ve been meeting with off and on for the last several months. He’s come to church with me before and we’ve had several conversations about what I (and our church) believe. But at one point in our recent meeting he looked at me and said, “You know Ben, I just can’t go to your church. It goes against everything that I was raised to believe.” I was grateful for his honesty, and I was even more grateful that our friendship was strong enough to endure our differences. But the implication of course is that while he might like me, he disagrees too much with what I believe and teach to be a part of my church.

At the same time there isn’t a month that goes by where I don’t have a Christian who is suspicious that I’m becoming liberal or sneaking a liberal agenda into my ministry. The words “feminist”, “Marxist”, and “liberal” have been thrown my way more than once.

Tribalism is destroying friendships as well as the possibility for friendships. It is also causing intergenerational relationships to become more fractured than ever before. While older generations have always tended to view younger generations with suspicion, and younger viewing the older with frustration, there is now a growing animosity between the generations. The phrase “ok, boomer” is quickly gaining traction from young people who are fed up with the decisions the older generations are making which leave negative consequences for future generations.

There may be no area where the tears of tribalism are felt more deeply than in conversations of racial justice and equity. Too often we are willing to approach the conversation through our tribal lens rather than a biblical one. As a result, we show little compassion for those who disagree with us. The pain our tribal reactionism is causing is absolutely disastrous.

I am convinced that in Jesus’ victory over sin and death, he has given us everything we need to defeat tribalism and create a truly human community that is built on love and not hatred.

So what hope is there in an increasingly lonely and tribal world? Are we stuck on a downward descent headed toward increasing isolation and animosity?

We don’t have to be. In fact, I’m more hopeful than ever about tomorrow! Why? Because I am convinced that in Jesus’ victory over sin and death, he has given us everything we need to defeat tribalism and create a truly human community that is built on love and not hatred.

In John 17, Jesus prays for his followers that they will become one just as he and his Father as one. But not only does he pray for us to be one, but he also tells us that he has given us everything we need to be one:

“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one…” (John 17:22).

Praise God! Christian, we have everything we need to defeat tribalism and build one unified people! He has given us his glory – revealing to us the character of God and all heavenly blessings which belonged to him.

We are at war, but not the war tribalists would make us believe. Our enemy is not of this world. We battle against cosmic powers and the spiritual forces of evil, not our neighbor (Ephesians 6:12). The path to peace won’t come by belittling or dehumanizing others, nor by apathy and surrender. Peace will come when our hearts and minds are tuned to fight the right kind of war (Romans 13:12).

We are at war, but not the war tribalists would make us believe.

We have the power to break free from the sins of tribalism and push back the darkness of loneliness. Let us cast off this wicked tribal snare of the devil, which he would use to capture us and do his will (2 Timothy 2:26). May we instead treasure his glory given to us so that we might be one.

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On Tribalism

by Ben Hein time to read: 6 min
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