In High School I was taught that politics is the art of compromise. It seems a self-evident aphorism since in a democracy there are usually opposing viewpoints but also a need to find agreement to move forward as a nation. The only way is to compromise. This is self-evident to reasonable minds. But we are witnessing the triumph of emotions running wild (mostly fear and anger) in the present election season, so there is not much talk of compromise or finding a way for us all to live and work together and move forward as a nation. Donald Trump is a salesman who voices some white people’s frustration about demographic and economic changes and gives credence to their anger against those who receive some kind of government help. He has calculated that he can win the Republican nomination by this divisive strategy. He is using the age-old political tactic of inciting one tribe against others. It is good that the anger of people is being heard, but the anger is not being channeled in constructive ways.
Tribalism is often used as a political weapon. Politicians whip up resentment against immigrants and ethnic minorities with false claims and encourage voters to reclaim their “American” identity and heritage and unite against the foreigners who threaten our shores. It is no matter that not long ago most of the ancestors of these white voters were immigrants themselves. Also it is not mentioned that immigration has stabilized and that deportations are on the rise, and that several million undocumented immigrants have been living in this country for many years, doing low-paying jobs others do not want, raising families and contributing to taxes and social security.
Tribalism is a form of dualistic thinking, where the world is divided into “us” and “them” usually along ethnic lines. It is significant that in a world which is getting more connected through the internet and other technologies, a large number of people are restricting themselves to their tribe rather than embracing a larger entity such as nation or continent or an organization for international cooperation or a worldwide faith. Tribe confirms our sameness and we draw comfort from sameness. We feel more protected when birds of a feather flock together. We use technology to restrict our circle of friends to our own kind, and our viewpoints are reinforced by selective reading / viewing of the news.
When Christians hear the message of tribalism, we should re-read our sacred scriptures. Jesus was constantly criticized by leaders who wanted to keep to old tribal values and promoted hatred of outsiders. He did not keep “acceptable” company and his teaching went beyond tribal boundaries. He spoke of the kingdom of God, which was open to all people, and he demonstrated on many occasions his openness to people from other nations as well as those who were left out of his own nation. His most famous parable, the Prodigal Son, is a challenge to the reactionaries in Israel (represented by the older brother) who resent the undeserving who have been treated lavishly by the father. God loves all of you, Jesus tells the people. There is no need to divide into “us and them”. Christians have an alternative vision of community not just “my tribe” but “the beloved community” in Martin Luther King’s expression for the kingdom of God.
People are afraid of those they do not know. The solution is to get to know those different from you and you will be pleasantly surprised. The Church at its best introduces us to people from different tribes. One of the strengths of many denominations, including my own, the American Baptist Churches / USA, is ethnic and cultural diversity. At regional and national meetings I was introduced to people from African American, Asian, Hispanic, and welcoming and affirming churches. Also there are Republicans, Democrats and Independents, evangelicals and liberals, social activists and conservatives, well off and poor. Going on mission work tours opened my eyes and heart to the world from which many immigrants come, where people do very hard work for a couple of dollars a day. Now many local churches have an ethnic and cultural diversity that would have been unknown 20 or 30 years ago. The Church was born out of a gathering of many languages (Pentecost) and a primary purpose of the Church today is to achieve reconciliation of families, social groups and nations.
There are positive reasons to keep our smaller identities alive. Every nation and culture has its own language, history, literature, music, dance, art and scientific achievements of which to be proud. Every effort should be made to keep these traditions alive. The same is true of religious traditions. My experience is that if I dig deep within my own tradition I find commonality with other traditions. In Christianity the deepest commonality is the call to love God and love neighbor as oneself. When asked “who is my neighbor” Jesus replied with a story about a foreigner helping a Jew. In other words it is the foreigner who teaches us how to be a true neighbor and lover of God. We need to hold our love for our own smaller tribal traditions at the same time as loving the larger world. Love is not true which loves our own kind and hates the stranger.
In interfaith discussions I have learned that other faiths are not our enemy. Consumerism, materialism, racism, militarism and greed are the common enemies of all humankind. Let not politicians divide us as a nation, but let us stay true to our calling to be the people of God who love their neighbors as themselves. We even dare to try to love our enemies!