Tribalism: A Most Subtle Evil

The other day, I was in a professional development seminar where one of the exercises split the audience into two groups, each taking a side on an issue. Most of us could see that the issues were hardly as simple to divide as it was presented, but we had to make a choice. Once we chose, I watched as the two groups almost immediately became competitive, splitting into “our side” versus “their side”.

I didn’t necessarily mind that things became competitive (ironically, this being part of the issue being debated). What I did mind was that some people immediately became interested only in their side, their point of view, their answer. Some stopped valuing what the other people said. They quickly became defensive. They heard, but they stopped listening; other voices didn’t matter or were met only with a counter-argument. Bizarrely, they stopped being receptive even to a perspective that 75 seconds earlier, they would have shared, just not as strongly as the side they had just chosen.

This whole circumstance got me thinking quite a bit about what anthropologists call tribalism. Human beings are innately tribal. We have a group of people that we belong to, and we generally cooperate within that group and compete with those outside of it. Jesus acknowledged this when he said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt. 5:46, ESV) Jesus knew that we naturally love those in our “tribe”. That doesn’t take the Holy Spirit.

My fear is that we look at the cooperation we do with those in our tribe, the fact that we actively love them, and we say that’s good enough. “We’re good. We love other people.” True, but that you’re loving of people in your own circles has nothing to do with the Spirit and everything to do with the natural, broken world.

It seems to me that this completely natural tribal instinct has enormous power to cripple us as Christians. It can fool us into thinking that we’re of the Spirit when we’re nothing of the sort. It so subtly allows us to tell ourselves we’re good, and we leave it at that, not recognizing that our goodness is not enough. We act defensive, are unwilling to listen, treat people uncaringly, even belligerently, and then turn around and be nice and good to people who are like us and feel that we are okay when, in reality, we’ve done nothing different than the “tax collectors” and “sinners”. Our instincts fool us into loving only some people and thinking it is enough. We’re free to go on not loving everyone else.

At the end of that exercise, I bucked the system, walked to the middle of both groups, and argued that I needed both sides. Someone muttered something derogatory, and I instantly shot back a rebuttal. Afterward, I realized I had become defensive. I had sort of created my own tribe, and my natural instincts took over. Everyone else was suddenly “the other side”. It was so easy to do. It’s love that’s hard…

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