Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).


What’s Wrong with Tribalism Anyway?

When you call someone a tribalist, you’re not paying them a compliment. It’s a put-down. You are an unreasonable, prejudiced and potentially hostile person because nothing matters more to you than the interests of your group. You’ll sacrifice truth, justice, personal freedom or anything else on the altar of tribal loyalty if you have to, because membership of your tribe is what ultimately defines you—whether that tribe is based on family, race, sexuality, social identity, politics or anything else. You want your group to win, and that can only happen if my group loses.

We see it very obviously in the behaviour of political tribes. One party will loudly condemn a member of the other party for some misdemeanour, and demand their immediate beheading. But when a member of their own party does precisely the same thing, well … there were extenuating circumstances, it really wasn’t that bad, move on, there’s nothing to see here.

We see the same approach to guilt and innocence in social tribalism. As a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, I belong to the oppressive tribe that is apparently responsible for most of the world’s ills. When I personally do something wrong, even the smallest thing, I am condemned for it because it is typical of the evil that my group exemplifies. But even if I don’t personally say or do anything wrong (I am thinking of you, Andrew Thorburn), I am still guilty and ostracized, because I am part of the wrong group. I am complicit in the crimes of my tribe over hundreds of years. I am one of the untouchables, purely because of the group I belong to.

And correspondingly, members of other tribes—the historically victimized, marginalized and oppressed—are by default in the right, and deserve mercy and understanding. Even if they personally do something wrong, they can’t be blamed for it given the history of their oppression. And even if nothing bad is actually done to them in any concrete sense, they are still oppressed and victimized because they belong to the victimized tribe and partake of all its disadvantages.

Tribalism is a derogatory term because it’s easy to see how it descends into unfairness, oppression and ugliness. Tribes arbitrarily exercise group power to advantage themselves and hurt others. There’s no impartial right we can appeal to. There’s only the brute fact of whether or not your tribe currently has the power or not.

Then again. Tribes are unavoidable, and part of God’s good creation. What’s a family, except an arbitrary group who are thrown together by blood relation, and who owe a fierce loyalty to each other? And what is a church if not a group to which we owe a profound loyalty, a body whose benefit we seek in all the ways that we exercise our gifts? We are born into families and tribes. God’s people were the twelve tribes of Israel.

Maybe tribalism isn’t all bad, especially when you realise that its common alternative—individualism—also has real problems.

Individualism insists that I should be judged by my own character and actions, not those of my tribe. I’m more than a social identity—I’m a person with individual integrity and responsibility. In fact, individualism makes the perfectly reasonable point that collectives and tribes shouldn’t be allowed to prevent individuals being free to make their own way, to take their own opportunities, to seek the truth on their own terms, and to be responsible to receive both the benefits and consequences of their own choices.

The freedom to be myself, and not to be arbitrarily oppressed by the demands of the group, is a classic Enlightenment idea. It is an obviously attractive idea as well. I am more than my membership of a group. There’s an integrity and reality to Me, as an individual person that needs to be respected. Christians recognize this, of course. We know that each person will be judged for the deeds done in the body—that is, for the actions that their own arms and legs and mouths take. The soul that sins will die for its own sin, not the sins of others (as Ezek 18 discusses at length).

Of course, Christianity also teaches the profound problems with individualism. In many ways, putting the individual Me at the centre of all decisions and priorities is exactly what is wrong with us and the world. It’s almost a definition of sin. And this is the great problem that free-market capitalism has always grappled with—it is a very successful way of organizing a society’s goods and services (far more effective than any other method we have tried), and yet it also always leads to the exploitation and suffering of some. Individualism soon gets ugly as well.

The Australian poet Les Murray captured the dual problems of individualism and tribalism in his wonderful short poem ‘The Poisons of Left and Right” (individualism being the impulse of the Right in politics, and tribalism or collectivism the common feature of the Left).

You are what you’ve got

And: to love, you have to hate.

Two ideas that have killed and maimed

holocausts and myriads.

How do we think about all this as Christians?

We find ourselves sort of caught in the middle (as we also suggested last week). We are both and neither.

Christians look at both tribalism and individualism and say: “Well, you both have a point, but you both go too far. There’s very little you say that couldn’t be improved by dividing by 10. Yes, Tribalists, historical disadvantage towards your group is real, and has an ongoing effect. But it can’t and mustn’t overwhelm the realities and responsibilities of individual action and freedom. And yes, Individualists, personal freedom matters, but it’s not nearly sufficient as an explanation of who we are what we should do. We’re inextricably part of groups and networks that determine so much of who we are and what opportunities and obligations we have. No man is an island, Entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.” (Except that we wouldn’t quote John Donne, because nobody reads poetry any more.)

But saying that we’re in the middle, or that we’re both-and-neither doesn’t really capture it.

It’s yet another situation in which the rejection of God leaves us with a false and unworkable choice. Without God as the one and true point of unity that provides collective identity and purpose, all human tribes descend into godless self-interest. We re-enact the tower of Babel, and suffer the same kind of judgement.

And without God as the creator and judge of each individual person, who calls us out of ourselves to love him and our neighbour, all individualism inevitably descends into some form of ugly self-centredness. We turn in upon ourselves, and find that there’s nothing much there except a lonely and dysfunctional Me.

It’s like a triangle. There is God the creator (at the apex), and then there are the other two points—the place of the individual and the place of the group.

But when the apex of the triangle is removed, we’re left with a doomed choice between two. We gravitate to one dysfunctional side or the other, or hover dissatisfied in the middle. But we don’t have the resources or framework to hold the two together, or to avoid the catastrophes of both.

A right understanding of God and the gospel allows us to embrace the importance of both the individual and the tribe, and avoid the problems of both.

We see this in 1 Corinthians. In its opening chapters it critiques the tribalism that happens when the crucified Christ is not the point of our unity. We drift into personality cults and rivalry and dissension. We exclude people. But if we grasp that the person who truly unites us is the crucified Christ, then all human factionalism dissolves. He is the one we follow (not Paul or Cephas), and following Christ leads us to love and care and lay down our lives for each other, as he did for us. No-one is excluded or ostracized or regarded as dishonourable or unworthy—because we’re all unworthy, and we are united together not by any characteristic we have, or any achievement, or any goal, or anything else. What binds us together comes from outside us, from the Christ who saves all of us, and unites all of us to himself and his Father.

Then later in the 1 Corinthians, in chapters 11-14, Paul critiques the individualism that wants to express my gifts and gain my benefit and receive my prominence but fails to discern the body—the body of Christ. We’re not a bunch of individual noses and elbows and spleens, all seeking our own advantage. We’re part of a unified body whose rationale and unity and nature is found in its head, in Christ. Because love is the highest and greatest of the virtues—the love that Christ exemplified, and to which he calls us—then as an individual I am drawn out of myself and my ambitions and desires, and directed to seek the good of other individuals.

What’s wrong with tribalism is ultimately the same thing that’s wrong with individualism. It’s the rejection of God. Humanity without God is a triangle without an apex; a body without a head—the result of which is a collapse into one form of dysfunction or another. We appoint our own ‘head’ or unifying principle—race, economic class, gender, sexuality, and so on—but it never leads to anything but division, because these different factors don’t explain and unify us. Or else we split off into a competing marketplace of individual body parts, each seeking to exercise its individual freedom, to the ultimate detriment of others.

The gospel sets us free from all this. Jesus comes to us as God, and reintroduces and reconnects us to the external point that makes sense of both our individualism and our collectivism. The cross liberates us for an unselfish individualism, where we take responsibility for our own actions and are focused on loving others. And it also brings us together in a family or tribe in which there is no exclusion; where loyalty is not to the tribe, the blood, or the cause, but to Jesus who eats with sinners and came to save the lost.

In the ceaseless battle between individualism and tribalism—in our culture and in our lives—we will only ever find peace when we repent and acknowledge the victory of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.


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