Religion and Tribes

I’ve had four thoughts about religion and tribes, a.k.a. religion and politics, swimming around in my head over the past couple of days.

Actually, one of them has been a deep, on-going thought. It started with an observation that North American politics and the North American church scene are both increasingly polarized, despite what I saw ten years ago as a growing desire for a mixed middle.

It does not take too long reflecting on those mirror images of politics and church life to realize that, generally speaking, they are one and the same. America’s two big tribes are conservative and liberal, and core commitments to tribes that take those labels determine our loyalties.

Let’s not kid ourselves, North American Christians: these tribal markers are more important to us than Jesus.

This vague notion found some theoretical grounding the other day when I was listening to LeRon Shults on Homebrewed Christianity. The interview is challenging in a potentially troubling sort of way, but the one piece I want to slice off is this: religion activates the in-group vs. out-group, stick-with-my-own-so-that-I’ll-survive part of our brain. In other words, it is both inherently tribal, and its activation can reinforce tribalism even around issues that are not obviously or directly religious.

It is easiest for me to see this when I look at people with whom I do not identify, of course. Yesterday a friend gave me the link to this video. I am pretty sure it is the most blasphemous thing I have ever seen.

Why would I post blasphemy on my own website? Because I don’t think we know it when we see it. I think that we would only have our ears pricked by blasphemy if someone were denouncing God.

But the most seductive blasphemy comes in professions of love. It comes when we confidently assert that God is like us in ways that are not like God.

It is, perhaps, easier to see when one of “them” assigns messianic status to “their” hero. But the coalition between God and causes is not something that only “they” do. All humans, differentiating with the added power of religion, have that tribal instinct enacted to preserve our group by destroying theirs.

I was reading some of Miroslav Volf’s ruminations on religion and politics in Against the Tide. He assessed the landscape like this:

They talk about politics — how to get their people elected to local, state, and federal governments so as to advance their religious, moral, and political causes. They pour all their energy into political battles, with none left for Jesus. If you were to point this out to them, they’d vehemently disagree by telling you that they wage political wars for Jesus and in his name. But Jesus is no longer at the center of their attention. The struggle for power has taken its place.

How does religion become so co-opted? How does power replace the way of the cross? We allow the sounding of religious fidelity to muster us with our tribe, and the dissonance between the content of our religious story and the battle to which we are called fades in the light of the unconscious conviction that we are right because we are with our people.

One of the most daring claims that Jesus makes for himself in the Gospels is that his mission is to make a people one. One of the most daring claims that Paul makes, the one that created the most conflict in the early church, was that the work of Jesus makes one unified people.

We cannot stand unity because we have been programmed to pursue survival. And survival means sticking with our own.

Maybe this is the reason why we can only be Christians if we take up the cross. It is only when we let go of trying to survive that we can see the other and not attempt to preserve our own lives at the cost of his.

If we could be one with those who are not like us, that would be the true sign that God is with us.

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4 thoughts on “Religion and Tribes

  1. After I disageed with you about predestination I wanted to unsubscribe to your posting. I decided not to because I feel God wants me to listen to all my friends in Christ since all God’s people have something to say. Thanks for this post on unity. We Christians need to listen to each other and work for unity.

    1. So glad you stuck around, Martha. I was being a little bit cheeky with that post. And, I apologize for not responding to your comment there. I do think that the Bible says a lot about election and predestination while never mentioning free will, but as you mentioned in your comment there are passages that can be easily read as indicating that we have (or had) free will. Early Jews actually used terminology that often indicated a both/and. The Qumran community had two names for themselves: the elect and the volunteers!

  2. Dr. Kirk (sorry, old habits and all that),

    I enjoyed this post. This is something I’ve been wrestling with for some time–especially in terms of the way we tell the Christian story (my primary focus is Christian movies but I think it can be extended). The irony is, I think, that if we focus on making sure the Christian story “survives” then we’re actually killing that very story because at its core it opposes the idea of an in-group that would do anything it needs to survive. In trying to keep it alive we affectively kill it. This was primarily what I talked about in recent talk I gave for Ken Fong’s “Narrative Communication in a Visual Age” class:

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