From our earliest history, we’ve organized ourselves into tribes. We still do – ask any UK fan! Tribalism is the lens through which we view the world. Sometimes, it stands us in good stead, as when the New Orleans tribe pulled together after Katrina to rebuild their city. Other times, it leads to the Iraq war and the rise of ISIS. Our commitment to tribalism is the phantom behind all our ism's – sexism, racism, classism, and even the biggie – nationalism. We are loyal to our tribe, first and foremost.
It seems to be present in our very DNA. I was at the Chapel of St. Arbuck’s this week and saw a lovely young mother with her four! children, two boys aged 11 and 9, and two girls aged 7 and 18 months. Mom was cuddling the baby in her arms when the 7 year old approached and leaned against mom. The baby extended a foot, placed it on her sister and pushed her away. It’s bred in the bone with us, church. It’s bred in the bone.
- John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
And it always has been a part of us.
- And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”
It is the belief that we can contain God, the arrogant assumption that God cannot pour out His blessings on the other tribe, that leads to so much grief in our world. The baby girl I spoke of fears that mom's love is limited, and wishes to own all of it. Greed and fear. Fear and greed. You and I know that mom's love is not limited by time or space, but we still have trouble imagining that God's love for His children is even greater. “God loves me better!” we shout, and we extend our little foot to push our brothers and sisters away. What nonsense!
The Presbytery of Transylvania posted a story this week about the family of Shadi and Hanadi Antakli, their 9-year-old son Hasan and 4-year-old daughter Tuqa. They arrived August 20th in their new home in Louisville, after fleeing the violence in Aleppo, Syria. The father told the reporter:
“We're comfortable here,” said Shadi. “We do have a future, but in the back of our minds, are still our family and friends that are back in whether it's Turkey or Jordan that are unable to come here and so while we're comfortable and can see our future for ourselves, we can't see the same for our family.”1
How can I rejoice if my family and friends, my tribe! are in jeopardy? I watched the news reports showing Hungarian police firing tear gas at families with children. I saw a little girl tentatively touching the razor wire, the families trudging down the railroad tracks for 20 miles, 40 miles, only to be herded into detainment camps and I ask how we have allowed ourselves to permit this? Walter Wink observed:
“The world is, to a degree at least, the way we imagine it. When we think it to be godless and soulless, it becomes for us precisely that. And we ourselves are then made over into the image of godless and soulless selves. If we want to be made over into the image of God—to become what God created us to be—then we need to purge our souls of materialism and of other worldviews that block us from realizing the life God so eagerly wants us to have.
The world is the way we imagine it. Imagining the world to really be divided into tribes creates a tribal world for us to live in. If we pray for the peace of those refugees from the awful violence in the middle east, but see them as not of our tribe and so do nothing to alleviate their suffering, extending instead a little foot to push them away, do we reflect the image of God? Hear these words from James.
- If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?2
Or, perhaps, these from the letter we call 1 John:
- If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?3
The only good that I can imagine coming from the television coverage of the plight of the Syrian refugees is that by watching the news from Hungary we can see what a wall on our borders would look like. We can see our tribalism outlined in razor wire under the innocent finger of a child. We can smell the malady of our tribalism in the clouds of tear gas, experience the fear of children at the raised batons. If we want to be made over in the image of God – to become what God created us to be – then we need to purge our souls of those things that are bred in the bone so closely that they have actually come to seem to us to be righteous.
This is where the work of transformation begins – the turning from our own certainties of righteousness, our commitment to our tribe, to follow the Christ. We must keep ever before us the knowledge that Jesus did not die at the hands of muggers, rapists, or thugs, still less at the hands of illegal immigrants. He fell into the well-scrubbed hands of deeply religious people, society’s most respected members, who viewed him as a danger to their tribe.
The poison fed to us from our commitment to tribalism leads us to substitute a false ethic for the life-affirming teachings of Christ. Tribalism teaches a simple arithmetic –my country, right or wrong. That which is like my tribe is good and to be protected. That which is not like my tribe is evil and must be destroyed. The Way of Jesus teaches that there is only one tribe – the tribe of the children of God – and only one call – to be faithful to the teachings of that tribe.
In 1903 a poem entitled The New Colossus, written twenty years earlier by American poet Emma Lazarus, was cast in bronze and installed in the lower level of the pedestal of the Statute of Liberty. It reads:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Were I to propose that we sponsor, or help to sponsor, a family fleeing from Syria, would we do it? Our Peace and Global Witness Offering will be taken October 4. Think well on the children. Think well on the families.
31 John 3:17