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Is your faith tribalistic?

For thousands of years, we humans have been training ourselves towards tribalism.

Tribalism can be understood as categorising humans into groups with a particular focus on the 'us' group contrasted against 'them': dividing the world into ingroups and outgroups. There are two sides to the tribalism coin:

  1. Ingroup cooperation, and

  2. Intergroup competition.

There are many benefits to tribalism. One might argue that the device you're reading this on exists because multiple individuals perceived of themselves as a group (perhaps the 'Apple corporation' group) and they co-operated together to achieve common goals to innovate and develop and create new technology. And, they did so in the context of competition against other groups which may have been spurring each other on.

A few thousand years ago, tribalistic thinking kept humans alive daily. An individual, isolated human was relatively vulnerable to predator attacks; but a group of co-ordinating humans would be much more capable at defending themselves.

At a genetic level, scientists are discovering that so much of our proclivity towards tribalism is evident within our genes and hormones. A notable example is the oxytocin hormone - known informally as: 'The Love Hormone'. Oxytocin can increase positive bonding attitudes toward individuals with similar characteristics, who then become classified as "in-group" members, whereas individuals who are dissimilar become classified as "out-group" members. This hormone impacts our emotions: It makes us more trusting and empathetic towards people who we perceive to be like us in some way. It bonds us towards those in our group, while making one feel like those in the outgroup are enemies, competition and/or "other". Heightened levels of oxytocin have been observed in breastfeeding mothers, in dating couples, and in moments of sexual intercourse.

With heightened oxytocin, people show relatively more emotion towards their country's flag and their sense of national zeal. When oxytocin is administered, individuals alter their subjective preferences in order to align with in-group ideals over out-group ideals - stimulating ingroup conformity (ie, herd-mentality). How crazy is that!?! More oxytocin in your body literally changes what you like and dislike so that you more naturally feel at 'home' within one group of people, and feel more uncomfortable with another group of people.

I say this all for us to see that, for better and worse: Tribalism is deep in our bones. It's our genetic default.

The divide between "us" and "them" is arbitrary: we can be divided by race, language, accent, sex, height, hair colour, dress sense, favourite football team, political leaning, or our views on Brexit.

And, of course, these dividing lines can be drawn up using religion.

What does 'tribalism' have to do with my faith?

I love this cheeky cartoon, perhaps because it demonstrates a sort of religious tribalism that I think churches are vulnerable to (particularly independent churches):

Even beyond this sort of thing, I think there are two realities today's followers of Jesus need to accept and lean into:

  1. We all have tribalism hardwired deep into our neurology, genes and hormones.

  2. Many, many, many grievous tribalistic evils have been conducted under the banner of Christ. (Christianity has been the religion that spawned the shameful crusades, shaped the theologies of many slave traders, fostered colonialism and imperialism, and fuelled several genocides.)

We need to take our tribalism very, very seriously. We need to analyse where it is subtlety rearing its head within our theologies, our language, our songs, our liturgies, and, most concerningly, in our hearts.

Not every aspect of tribalism is sinful. However, if tribalism has caused countless injustices, and if tribalism is baked into our bones, we cannot just ignore it. We cannot afford not to think and talk about it; we must carefully and thoughtfully audit and challenge ourselves. If we don't, we'll discover that the 'skeletons in the closet' of our past, lie also in our future. If we don't actively reshape our liturgies and worship and vocabulary away from our tribalistic tendencies, perhaps Christianity's worst moments are still ahead of us.

Tribalism, the pharisees, and Jesus

Tribalism was at the heart of the Pharisees who Jesus criticised harshly. They spent much time carefully crafting walls and boundaries through instructions and rules which aimed at clarifying the "in" group. Jesus would have none of this.

I think Jesus wanted to rebuke the "us" and "them" tribalism, and invited us all to replace it with an awareness of both the original goodness, beauty and value of every human, and also the the sin, darkness and capacity-for-evil in every human. This universal message unites rather than divides. Of course, people are free to reject Jesus' way, to see Jesus as part of "them" and to choose a different "us". But, the way of Jesus is to break down dividing walls, and invite all humanity into the healing and restoration which he so graciously avails.

Thus, I think the Christ message, for Christians today, is to find the theologically and culturally appropriate way of emphasising our shared humanity: that we all share in being a good creation crafted by a good Creator, but that we are all flawed and self-serving and in desperate need of God's love and grace and healing.

This is what Paul was doing in his letter to the Galatians when he said:

"There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus."

He wasn't saying that there is no longer such a thing as Jewish people and Gentile people. But he was inviting the Galatians to a new worldview shaped by the scandalously inclusive gospel. You no longer had to be Jewish to be in the "ingroup".

Implications for the contemporary church

Perhaps you, like me, have sung many worship songs with lines like this:

"For there is no one like our God"

"And great is the Lord in whom we have the victory, He aids us against the enemy"

"God is fighting for us, God is on our side"

Now, let's consider what might be going on deep inside the heart of the worshipper singing these words. Remember, our hormonal system is on the look out for ways to find safety through feeling part of a group, and by viewing that group as superior to other groups.

Could it be, that singing these words above might foster a type of unhealthy tribalism? Could the worshipper, be feeling that they are in the right group, better than those not in this faith group? Could there be, perhaps only at some unconscious level, distorted arrogant thinking about how this group is in the right, and all other groups are in the wrong? Could there be, as one sings these songs, heightened levels of oxytocin running through one's veins making one align more with those in this group than the 'other' person out 'there'? Could this in some way be fuelling competition with people perceived to be in 'other' groups? Could that competition actually be counter the open and inviting love of Jesus? Could these songs, sung and interpreted in a certain way, be fostering divisive tribalism rather than Christlikeness?

I think that answering 'no' to these questions is naive and ignores our biology and our history.

There is another way of singing these same sorts of words. It's a different emphasis that points to a different focus and ultimately to a different worldview. When I sing songs like this, I try and make sure that I'm thinking this sort of thing:

  • Jesus, you are the one through whom all is created. There is no one like You God - there is not one of us human beings that is perfect like you, and able to do what you are able to do.

  • Creator God, I recognise that there are so many different things that clamour for the affection of my heart. So many forms of idolatry which my soul is tempted to worship. But, I remind myself that because you are so perfectly loving and gracious and kind, that you are truly more worthy of my heart's worship, love, and adoration. Your name is above the consumerism, narcissism, and self-service to which I am so susceptible. You are not like the empty pleasures this world offers me. Next to you, nothing else is as admirable or valuable.

  • The 'enemy' of evil is found inside my own soul, yet you, Oh Lord, aid me in battling against the shadows inside me.

  • God of Love, you are above all of us, created humans, and we all need to be changed and transformed by you and your love.

Ok - I accept that's quite verbose and imperfect, but I hope you get the different emphasis that I'm talking about.

In some cases, we might want to actually rethink the vocabulary we're using. We might want to reflect on what sort of world[view] we're helping create when we split the world up into "saved" and "unsaved", or "Christian" and "non-Christian". Did Jesus divide people up into "us" and "them" groups like this? Or did he continually undermine such divisions, and welcome all into a journey of faithful trust in and obedience to God?

I've been wondering whether the call from Jesus invites us all into a new way to be human. To be outrageously inclusive and loving and inviting. To learn to abandon the safety of ingroup tribalism, and to dangerously open our hearts and minds and lives to every human being. What if this 'new way' means our songs and talks and books and liturgies were less about "us" and "them", less about our triumphing because of being in the ingroup, less about defeating others, and more about accepting and celebrating our shared humanity, and together leaning into the darkness present in all our hearts and in our societies and systems. What if we abandoned endlessly delineating between the ingroup and outgroup, trying to measure out 'what it means to be saved'? What if we ruthlessly hunted down the self-serving tribalism in our hearts, aiming to eradicate it from within us? What if we presented this world, which is possibly more polarised and tribal than ever, with something of the inclusive, open, redeeming love, light and life of Jesus?

To end, I want to once again quote from a worship song I recently came across:

Take our hearts of stone

Give us hearts of flesh

Lead us to the end

Of us versus them

Spread wide your table Lord

And gather us in

Tear down the barrier walls

Between us and them


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