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Tribalism and following Christ

In his January blog, the Rev. John Boley takes a look at Jesus’ new understanding of “family.

Clergy Assistant to the Bishop

I am convinced that one of the primary missions of Jesus was to break down the tribalism of the world. This is an article of faith in my faith journey and one of the important ways that I know that Jesus was/is the Way, the Truth and the Life. 

Some of the hard sayings of the New Testament relate to Jesus’ understanding of “family.” For instance, in Matthew 10 and Luke 12, Jesus states that to follow him means that father will be against son and mother against daughter, etc. And with respect to his own family, he clearly indicates some kind of break, so that family is now defined as being beyond the biological family – to anyone doing his will. He offers a new understanding of “family.” 

But Jesus had a broader and bigger intent. There are episodes in which Jesus offers a faith and a world view that is beyond the exclusivism of his traditional Jewish context. One that comes to mind is the event in Jesus’ home synagogue where he claims grace for Gentile people, and then almost gets thrown off the cliff by his home folk.   

Taking all of Jesus’ sayings and attitudes together, Jesus is offering a new understanding of family and a new understanding of the authority of the family. In a nutshell, Jesus is suggesting that no longer can the patriarch or the matriarch of the family have the final authority. Ultimately, Jesus, and his life, teaching, death, resurrection, is the final authority. 

When we use the term “family” in a discussion like this, we need to replace it in our minds with the word “tribe.” The family in Jesus time was not much like our American nuclear families. They were part of tribal units within larger tribal units. For instance, “Jesus was of the house and lineage of David.”  

Most of the world throughout history has lived in tribal units that provided authority, security, sustenance, community, continuity and culture. Unfortunately, tribalism throughout history has almost always led to violence, sometimes massive violence. As the nation-state has evolved, it has taken over many of the roles of the tribe, but with much the same penchant toward violence. 

But the anti-tribal standard that Jesus has offered still stands. And with this changed standard, the tribalism of the world, with its necessary violence, can break down. A Hatfield can say “no” to killing a McCoy. And an American can say “no” to killing an Iraqi. Because Jesus is the authority, not the tribe. 

Many people suggest that humanity has not made any advancements over history – that human nature and sin mean that there is no progression. I disagree. Due to the evolution of faith, and constant migrations of people, tribal violence has diminished. While there is still plenty of violence in this world, there has been advancement in the diminishment of the tribalism on a broader scale. Especially in western democracies, old line ethnic/tribal feuds have significantly declined. 

Dr. King taught us that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. This arc and bending includes the reduction of tribal and national instincts that bring hatred and violence. But of course, there is a long way to go. 

In our recent politics, there is a significant regression. Tribalism is being pursued, advanced, heralded and championed. It is disgraceful and disgusting, and represents many steps backward for the advancement of humankind. 

The trajectory of our politics with respect to tribal understandings is contrary to the trajectory of breaking down tribalism that was part of the heart of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.  We regress at our own individual and collective risk. I intend to follow Jesus. 

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