Does Christianity promote tribalism?

On August 30, 2012, in General, by Neil Williams

One notable problem plaguing our species is tribalism. Raiding and war for resources and territory has gone on for tens of thousands of years and possibly longer. Furthermore, in documented history, religion has played an active role in conflict. Even today, Christianity often promotes an insider-outsider mentality. All too often, we find churches, denominations, and seminaries that perpetrate an exclusive and insular mindset.

But aren’t there good examples of exclusive relationships? Yes, of course. Marriages, parent-child relationships, close friends—all by their nature are exclusive. The Dunbar number suggests that the number of social relationships we can sustain is around 150 (never mind what Facebook may tell us!). In choosing some friends, we exclude others.

What I am concerned about is something different—an exclusive mentality that leads to indignation, shunning, meanness, oppression, violence, and even murder.

Again, Christianity’s record is sullied. Common examples include the Crusades, Inquisition, and witch-hunts. But there are many others. For example, Philip Jenkins in “Jesus Wars” mentions an even greater bloodshed that occurred between Christians in the 5th and 6th centuries as they fought over doctrinal differences. Even today, many of us know pastors and professors who were fired because they came to accept modern science, or happened to disagree with some archaic point of doctrine formulated 400 years ago, or decided that women could become pastors.

The reasons for exclusion can be almost anything: a person or group’s class, race, sex, physical features, theology, religion, clothes, interests, morals, political views, sexual orientation, education, lifestyle, car, or way of talking. We can exclude someone in order to control their behavior—until they shape up, tidy up, or wake up. We can exclude others because we fear intimacy. We can exclude and shame people when we think they are making us look bad. We can continue to exclude a person who is already an outsider, so that we remain with the “in-crowd.” We can exclude other communities to further our “community,” which provides us access to money, power over others, status, identity, and other resources.

In fact, if we are looking for a reason to exclude, to separate us from the “herd,” there is always one available. Often they are the smallest and insignificant difference. Freud spoke about the “narcissism of the small difference.” The smallest of differences are often the basis for hostility and forming exclusive clubs.

The great irony, however, of exclusive clubs is that they are based on pretense. The only way people can do this is through pretense—a form of self-deception. Pretend that men are superior to women, Serbs to Croats, Whites to Blacks, rich to poor, CEOs to workers, Americans to Iranians, Calvinists to . . . everyone else.

There is probably some spiritual law that the more exclusive the group, the more pretense is needed to establish and maintain the group, and thus the more self-righteous and immoral it becomes.

Can the gospel speak to tribalism? Not only are there are substantial resources in the gospel story to challenge pretense, there is also an inbuilt critique of insider/outsider mentality seen in the life of Jesus. If there was one thing that riled up people, it was Jesus’s relationship with outsiders. It is difficult to read and interact with the accounts of Jesus without noticing his relational integrity with and love for outsiders—for people on the fringes of society, for people whom society shunned and excluded. We can find a similar example in Paul as he used the gospel story to break down the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile. This is one of the topics I’ll be covering in this book project. We are looking for more supporters so please consider joining us in this ongoing conversation. The opportunity to support and join the project will be available until Friday evening, Aug 31.



7 Responses to Does Christianity promote tribalism?

  1. [...] Neil Williams continues his posts on the gospel and relational transformation by asking Does Christianity promote tribalism?Note Williams doesn’t ask whether Jesus or the New Testament promote tribalism. They [...]

  2. Tim Beckham says:

    Neil, I must have missed something. What is the benefit of joining? What does one miss if one doesn’t join? Is it a closed group after this evening? Is there a description of the project somewhere on the site?

  3. [...] at 92 Smart people saying smart thingsSeptember 4, 2012 By Fred Clark Leave a CommentNeil Williams: “Does Christianity promote tribalism?”What I am concerned about is something different — an exclusive mentality that leads to [...]

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