While Western society exalts the individual and his or her empowerment in many respects, individuals almost invariably continue to seek to identify themselves with “their people,” whoever “their people” may be. “Their people” is their tribe, one of the most basic elements of human society throughout time.
For most of human history tribes were rooted in family connections: a collection of related individuals banded together to find food, protect the group from attacks from other tribes, or perhaps attacking other tribes themselves. Successful tribes expanded in numbers and territory; very large tribes, or a federation of tribes, developed the first city-states and nation-states, as exemplified in Genesis 10:1-32. Many people to this day think of “their people” in terms of a tribe or clan based on family connections.
While tribalism may have fostered community among a group of people and facilitated growth and flourishing among its members, it has also driven hatred, hostility, and aggression against others who are not part of the same tribe. Throughout human history people have been driven to hate and kill other people just like themselves because the others were not of the same tribe, ethnic group, or nation-state. Those people in other tribes were denounced as subhuman, animalistic, or evil in order to justify such terrible behavior.
The United States of America has attempted to transcend ethnic tribalism through an open and malleable culture: the great “melting pot” of the world. To a large degree the project has succeeded: while most people retain some pride in their families and ethnic backgrounds, most privilege their identities as Americans and their shared American culture over their particular tribal background. And yet, paradoxically, Americans have still sorted themselves into various tribes based on religious views, political ideology, race, geographical locations, and even in terms of sports or collegiate loyalties. Sometimes people come together for a shared nationalistic purpose; many other times it proves far easier to fan the flame of tribal loyalties and resentment.
Tribalism proves the default position for people on earth, no matter any pretensions to the contrary. People may attempt to prove their individuality, yet they tend to do so in certain categorical or tribal ways, since they also want to fit into a given group or tribe. People then justify those in their preferred tribe no matter what; likewise, they find fault with those in other tribes as well, regardless of what may actually be true or just.
The Kingdom of God in Christ is unique inasmuch as it calls upon all of its citizens to transcend tribalism by privileging their relationship with God and each other over any tribal loyalty. People of all nations and tribes are invited to participate in the Kingdom (Revelation 7:9). We do well to note how the earliest conflicts in the church centered on tribal loyalties: Greek-speaking Jewish widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food, and later on many Jewish Christians could not countenance the idea of Gentiles being welcomed into the Kingdom of God without submitting to the Law of Moses (Acts 6:1, 15:1). In both situations the Apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, rejected such tribalism within the community of the people of God, making sure all widows received their daily distribution by selecting Greek speaking men to serve, and affirming how God has welcomed the nations without needing to submit to the customs of Moses (Acts 6:2-7, 15:2-9). Paul later provided theological anchoring of the premise: on the cross Jesus killed the hostility between Jews and Gentiles by taking away the laws of ordinances which divided them (Ephesians 2:11-18). In Christ God has welcomed the nations into His people (Ephesians 3:1-10). And so, by extension, all tribal markers which might divide people in the world prove of lesser significance than the faith in Christ which provides salvation for all (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Christians are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21); all other loyalties must prove secondary.
Christians do not eliminate all previous forms of identity when they become part of the Kingdom: Paul still remained Jewish, and even appealed to his tribal loyalty as a Pharisee when it served his rhetorical purposes (Acts 23:6); Paul still spoke of his fellow Christians in ministry as either part of the circumcision or not of the circumcision, i.e. Gentiles (Colossians 4:11). Likewise, in a very real way, Christians do become their own tribe: their primary loyalty is toward each other, they privilege their identity as Christians over other identity markers, and they are to become as one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Galatians 6:10, Philippians 3:20).
Yet the “tribe” of Christians is to be something entirely different from all other tribes in the world. Tribes work diligently to draw strong boundaries, the “in-group” and the “out-group”; Christians strive to invite and encourage everyone to become Christians themselves according to the will of God (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Timothy 2:4). Tribes are at best suspicious and at worst hostile toward anyone outside of their tribe; Christians are to love their neighbor as themselves, and love their enemies, and do good to them (Luke 6:27-36, 10:25-37). You cannot be skeptical of or fear the person you love and assist! Tribes will do whatever it takes to build themselves up and tear down their opponents; Christians must live according to the truth of what God has made known in Christ and live and act justly and righteously (Galatians 5:17-24). Tribes puff themselves up in arrogance; Christians humble themselves, seek the best interest of others, and glorify God (Philippians 2:1-11).
Tribalism is part of the ways of the world, providing some community benefits but corrupted by sin and the powers over this present darkness toward factionalism, division, and alienation among peoples. Tribalism can only truly be transcended through God in Christ; only in the church can God’s purposes be manifest to the principalities and powers, people from every language, tribe, and nation, joined together by a shared faith in Christ, glorifying God in their words and deeds. Unfortunately Christians far too often bring their tribal factions and loyalties into the body of Christ, contrary to God’s purposes and giving the nations a reason to blaspheme. All Christians must examine themselves to make sure they are privileging their loyalties to Jesus in His Kingdom over any worldly loyalties, and do not allow the faith in Christ to be torn down because of petty worldly factionalism and divisions. May we all serve God in Christ and share in His transcendent Kingdom!
Ethan R. Longhenry