The New Tribalism


ANOTHER VOICE – Posted 14 July 2016

The natives are fearful, restless, and angry…… An alarming development in the United States, across Europe, and even at the Vatican is the rise of the new tribalism. It is fierce and destructive.
The new tribalism polarizes and compartmentalizes people into friends and adversaries. Much of it is irrational. It rejects dialogue and democratic decision-making. In the USA we see “born again” politicians and evangelical Christians defending and promoting the new tribalism. Much of what they promote is politically suspect and theologically contrary to the life, spirit, and message of Jesus of Nazareth.
In summary, it is: Tribe first. Morals second. Faith forgotten. Reason out the window….
In Dallas the megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, has said he would vote for Donald Trump and “run from” a presidential candidate like Jesus Christ, because he doesn’t feel that someone like Christ is the type of leader the United States needs right now. “You know,” he said recently “I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’” “Heck no!” Jeffress said. “I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.” He went on to say that he really doesn’t care how despicable a person is, just as long as they’re “tough.”
Over at the Vatican the natives are restless as well. Earlier this week, a group of 45 Catholic scholars, clergy, cardinals, and bishops sent an appeal to the College of Cardinals asking that they petition Pope Francis to “repudiate” what they see as “erroneous propositions” contained in his April 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The group of 45 argue that Francis’ document contains “a number of statements that can be understood in a sense that is contrary to Catholic faith and morals.” A key agitator in the anti-Pope Francis tribe is the U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke.
When people feel insecure or find their beliefs challenged they often succumb to dogmatic and close-minded ideologies: a kind of “circle-the-wagons, we’re under attack” tribal unity. Dialogue stops, mutual respect is scoffed at, and polarization gets firmly established. Inhuman values and behavior are applauded in the name of tribal unity. In the end chaos erupts and authoritarian leaders take control – often with religious blessings.
History is full of examples: Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler in Germany. Our contemporary daily news, of course, gives abundant and frightening reports of hard-nosed and vicious tribalism, much of it now linked to the coming presidential election campaign. Sorry to say, I don’t think the situation will improve after this month’s political conventions are behind us. It will be a long hot summer.
Tribalism ignores the dignity and value of a person and sees only stereotypes of distrusted and despised enemy people. A Trump-friendly tribe argues that gays are a threat to family life; that Mexicans are rapists, drug addicts, and criminals; that blacks are stupid and lazy. And….of course that Muslims are terrorists. Too many people believe and want to believe the Fox News stereotypes. It gives them comfort to know not “I” but “they” are the problem.” And of course “they” are changing everything.
Yes we do live in a time of dramatic and extensive socio-cultural change; but change is and always has been a part of human life, especially in the United States where “new and improved” has always been better than “old.” Except perhaps in far-right politics and fundamentalist religion.
Like it or not, the rate of change in coming years will accelerate not diminish. One can argue whether or not human nature changes; but there is no debate about the fact that our understanding of human nature has changed and grown tremendously. New knowledge brings changes in social institutions, ethical values, and moral behavior. Slavery, once blessed even by the churches, cannot be tolerated nor morally justified today. Women we know today are not inferior to men. That is an improvement and a great change from what the “Angelic Doctor” Thomas Aquinas taught, when he said that women by nature are defective and misbegotten males. (Some bishops still believe Aquinas was correct!) And of course, we know today that gays are neither innately disordered nor per se prone to immorality. And we are still discovering a lot of new dimensions to our human sexuality and gender.
New perspectives bring new understandings. They also create alarm for people who would rather live in the past.
Our challenge is to use our brains without forgetting to use our hearts. Every woman, every man, every person deserves respect and positive acknowledgement. Jesus understood that, even if some of his contemporary followers don’t.
I think one of the best scriptural texts about the evils of tribalism is Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable in the Gospel According to Luke (10:25-37). A traveler, probably a Jew, as the story goes, was robbed, stripped of clothing, beaten-up, and left half dead along the side of the road. Along comes a priest. He looks at and ignores the miserable traveler. Then another religious functionary comes along: a Levite. (Levites helped around the temple and had some political responsibilities as well.) He leaves the bleeding traveler along the roadside and moves on. Then a Samaritan comes along.
In Jesus’ day hatred between Jews and Samaritans was fierce and long-standing. “Good” Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans were divided by racial and ethnic barriers. Different tribes. In our own days, we know very well what that means. Just stand up and say “Black Lives Matter.”
In Jesus’ parable the Samaritan is deeply moved when he sees the injured fellow at the side of the road. He bandages his wounds, puts him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn where he will be safe and recover. Since the injured man had been robbed of everything he had, the Samaritan even pays the man’s bill at the inn and pays the innkeeper to take good care of him.
Jesus told the Samaritan parable in response to a Jewish lawyer’s question. Jesus had reminded his audience that “Love your neighbor as yourself” was part of their biblical law (Leviticus 19:18). Many of those listening to Jesus, however thought a “neighbor” meant only a Jew: someone belonging to their own tribe. So a lawyer asked Jesus: “Just who is my neighbor?”

What to do about the new tribalism:
(1) First of all each of us needs to do some serious self-examination. Have I become a member of a closed-group, narrow-minded tribe? Have I become or are my leaders more authoritarian control freaks than genuine leaders?

(2) We need to be and to support prophetic people. Prophetic people speak out. Prophetic people courageously criticize. Prophetic people are positive change-makers. A lot of contemporary political rhetoric is pure nonsense; and a fair amount of extreme religious commentary is ignorant and often cruel. Prophetic people need to say so. The Archbishop of Philadelphia has just issued new regulations for Catholics in his archdiocese. Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, as well as cohabitating unmarried couples, must “refrain from sexual intimacy” if they wish to receive Holy Communion in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The archbishop from the city of brotherly love leaves little room for informed and rational discourse here. And then….. I wonder who is going to check-up to determine whether or not couples have “done it” before going to church.

(3) We do need to be anchored in Scripture and Tradition; but a proper understanding of Scripture and Tradition requires historical critical awareness and insight. A young priest told me recently that Jesus condemned homosexuality. That is an ignorant statement. Jesus said absolutely nothing about being gay or straight or about transgender people. He did say “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus’ exhortation covers a lot of moral behavior.

Yes the tribes are restless. We need to be clear-headed people of faith. We need to really support one another in the days ahead.

Next week some more thoughts about change……

7 thoughts on “The New Tribalism

  1. Always enjoy your column…thank you for continuing to write it.

    Alas, I must object to this one. Not the basic sentiment, with which I agree but the use of the word “tribe” and its derivatives.

    That word was invented by the Romans in order to impose a system of semi-artificial family classifications on the residents of the city of Rome (early in the Republic, if I recall correctly). Later in the imperial period, it was used to represent distinct ethnic communities that were (1) neither Greek- nor Latin-speaking and (2) living outside the boundaries of Roman military control. The association was made with the apprarently less-civilized.

    The word was revived by the British empire in the nineteenth century with the meaning of “distinct ethnic groups” and a much more intensely associated with “lower” levels of “civilization.” (The word “savage” was used frequently and unabashedly in association with it.) Europeans were not “tribal.” They had nations, languages, and cultures (however bloody, unstable, and violent they may have been in, say, 1848 or 1916). “Tribes” were African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, Central Asian, and Native American. The term was decidedly pejorative, unabashedly racist, and categorically white-supremacist.

    Today, the tradition of referring to non-European (also non-Chinese and non-Japanese) ethnic communities persists, particularly with regard to communities that are perceived to live at a lower level of technology or outside the boundaries of the military control of nation-states (for example, the so-called tribes in the zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan).

    In our years of living in Tanzania and Kenya, we were urged (when speaking English) to use the term “ethnic community” and avoid “tribe,” even though it persists in common Kenyan and Tanzanian parlance. (The Swahili equivalent, “kebira,” does not carry pejorative associations and is used equally to describe European ethnic groups.) Why were we encouraged to avoid it? Two reasons. First, what distinguishes one African “tribe” from another is precisely—precisely—the same thing that distinguishes the French tribe from the Italian tribe from the German tribe: language. Everything else (culture) is a result of and follows in the wake of the language distinction. Sometimes, the language has died or its dying but the ethnic distinction persists (think of Irish Gaelic speakers), but it persists because there was at one time a language distinction. Second, the association of “tribe” with “lower” levels of “civilization” and less technological sophistication is pejorative, and the suggestion that advocating for one’s ethnic heritage and language is equivalent to a “lower” level of civilization is likewise demeaning.

    That’s about whether one should non-European ethnic communities “tribal” or not. The reality is that in Africa (etc etc) the word is still used widely when speaking English. For Africans (and many others) ethnic identity and keeping ancient traditions of language, story, and song alive are of critical importance. (It also causes problems for nation-states, however.) Tribe is a matter of pride and of daily life (in the same way that ethnic difference is a matter of daily life for, say, Mexicans or Pakistanis living in Omaha).

    So—when you identify and portray the category of your enemies (those with whom you disagree on theological, ethical, political, or ecclesial matters) as “tribal” you are evoking a history of racial denigration and racist subjugation of “tribal” peoples by “non-tribal” Europeans. (Note that you believe your enemies to be “tribal” and yourself to be “non-tribal”). Since many, many people in the world DO identify closely with tribe, you are denigrating your enemies by comparing them with Africans (and others) to whom you (by the use of the word “tribal”) impute low levels of “civilization.” When you use the word “tribal” as a way to denigrate the enemies you fear and despise, you are saying, in essence, “You people are behaving like Africans.”

    I would urge and beg you to stop using the word “tribe” and “tribal” in this sense. I lived for years among “tribal” people. They have a wide variety of strengths and struggles, varying levels of ability to survive and thrive in a “modern” world, and varying levels of openness toward and conflict with people of other ethnicities—both their neighbors and those farther afield who are migrating to their homeland from foreign places. I can say EXACTLY the same about the population with whom I work here in the US—wealth symphony donors in prosperous Annapolis, MD.

    When denigrating these large categories of people you so fervently despise, and when searching for a suitable brush with which to tar them, please find other language with which to denigrate them, language that has a less racist history and fewer connotations of the racial superiority that I know is contrary to your deepest beliefs. (Perhaps you might also consider what loving these enemies of yours might consist of, but that’s another matter. I have some great stories about collaborating toward common aims with donors who are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from where I am.)

    Footnote: Two Patrick Nugents (at least) subscribe to your newsletter and (I suspect) write occasionally. The one in Cambridge, MD, is my dad, who remains Catholic; I’m the younger one, in Annapolis, MD, formerly Cincinnati, who jumped ship a long time ago but still maintains an interest in Catholic politics.

    To close with a wry remark once made to me by a Jesuit I deeply respect: There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into different kinds of people, and those who don’t. Whoever believes that belongs to the former group.

    With best regards,

    Patrick J. Nugent, Jr.

    Patrick J. Nugent

    1402 Calvert Rd.

    Kent Island

    Chester, MD 21619

    (410) 216-4414

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s