Friday, October 5, 2007

Is Tribalism the Next Major Challenge Facing American Evangelicalism?

I had an interesting conversation with some guys in a mens' Bible study this past week that made me think about tribalism in America (and the world). About a year ago, I moved from Dallas, Texas to Gig Harbor, Washington. In the Bible study, I was talking about the differences between the people in Dallas and the people in the Northwest, and the issue of racism came up. People in the northwest don't understand racism and honestly can't comprehend why someone would be prejudiced against someone of another race. During the discussion, we started getting a little holier-than-thou toward racists, and that started to make me upset.

The question that I wanted to ask these guys (but didn't) was, "Why do you think people in the south are racist and we aren't? Is it because they are stupid and we are better than them? Or do you think that there is some kind of sociological phenomenon down there that people in the northwest can't understand or appreciate?" Inevitably if you confront a southerner about racist behavior, they will respond, "It's a southern thing. You wouldn't understand." Why is that?

I think that racism is evil. I believe that it is still a huge problem both in our country and in our churches. However, I don't think it is the problem. I think it is a subset of a bigger problem, and that is tribalism. By tribalism, I mean our tendency to group ourselves with other people who are like us, and to demonize other people who are not like us. I think tribalism is alive and well in just about every sector of America.

In the rural south, tribalism tends to show up as racism. By default, people tend to hang out with other people of their own race, so the races tend to develop particular cultures. Thus one race has one culture, another race has a different culture, and the two races dislike each other. It's tribalism in the form of racism.

In the Pacific Northwest, tribalism does not take the form of racism (as often). When it comes to harmony between people of differing races, the east coast and west coast are night and day. It's amazing. However, just because racism isn't as prevalent doesn't mean that tribalism is absent. Instead of grouping by races, people in the northwest group themselves by other things--education, political affiliation, or socioeconomic class.

Most people have tribalistic tendencies. If you look at your friends, I guarantee that you will see that they are just like you. They may be of varying races, religions, or nationalities, but they probably all talk, think, and act just like you. After all, that's why you're friends. How many homeless friends do you have? If you are in your 20s, how many friends do you have who are in their 60s? How many friends do you have who don't speak English?

While I think that racism is alive and well, I think the problem runs deeper than that. I think that tribalism is going to be the major challenge facing the church in the years to come. In our postmodern culture, we are doing away with the absolutes and focusing instead on the local. We are abandoning metanarratives for tribal truth. But I think there is a danger in this, because metanarratives bring unity. When you abandon the metanarratives, it becomes easier to fall prey to tribalism, to make us/them distinctions, and to demonize the opposition.

How can the church overcome tribalism? I think there are two steps. First, we need to find a unifying metanarrative. Instead of abandoning all metanarratives for local, tribal truth, I think we need to focus on what unites the church--the creeds. The old maxim "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; and in all things, charity" is more important now than ever.

Second, we need to be intentional about reaching out to people who are different than us. This means spending time with people of different races, religions, nationalities, and socio-economic classes. We need to learn their stories so that we can appreciate our similarities and differences. Understanding others helps us understand ourselves.

"Father, I thank you for the Gospel of unity. I thank you that you do not show favoritism toward one race or one culture. I thank you for the example that Christ left behind--that He was open and accepting toward people who were different than him. Father, I confess that I haven't always been like that. I gravitate toward people who look and act like me. That kind of behavior is inconsistent with the message that I say I believe. I pray that you would open my eyes when I act like this. I pray that I would learn to be more tolerant of people who are different than me. I pray that I would learn to treat others as people, not just as one of "them." I confess that it is only by the power of Your Holy Spirit that I can live as You intended. Amen."

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