The Trouble with Tribalism

"Tribalism" describes our tendency to believe our team, or school of thought, is obviously the right one. Further, we believe everyone on our team is upright, has the truth on his side, and should be supported no matter what. This competitive mindset might have some benefit but there are also some serious pitfalls to avoid.

Tribalism crops up in all kinds of places. It is most obvious among political junkies, but is also  common elsewhere. In almost every area of life there are at least two schools of thought that form opposing "tribes." The recent World Cup of Soccer brought out those who were glad to see their sport have its day, while the blogosphere was full of those declaring soccer was everything from boring to an affront to God!

I see it in theology as the Calvinists and Arminians square off, just as the Dispensationalists and Covenantalists put on the gloves. We have tribes for environmental care, and others that think recycling is stupid. And dare I speak about the tribes of health vs. junk food? or the whole field of diets and kinds of medicine? Who hasn't had to tolerate an overly enthusiastic family member who just discovered the life-saving benefits of wheat grass? 

Tribalism brings out our natural American competitiveness, and too often it runs amok, leaving us marginalized, boorish, and ultimately stuck in an intellectual silo if we're not careful. Here are some things to think about:

1. Tribalism brings out our pride: The first great pitfall in competition is always pride. Allegiance to a team, a political party, a theological position, or some other "tribe" can quickly make us stubborn, staunchly competitive, and doggedly determined that we are right in every case. This kind of pride isn't pretty, isn't healthy, and isn't holy. But even worse, tribal pride can bring about the rest of the pitfalls.

2. Tribalism turns everything into an "us vs. them" battle:  As I watch the news I am constantly amazed how every issue can be spun to the advantage of the waring tribes. Incredibly, no tribe ever admits a mistake, while, apparently, all their opposing tribe does is commit blunder after blunder. This makes competition a priority and completely obliterates any type of collaboration. 

Further, watch what happens if one member of the tribe starts acting "un-tribelike." What would happen if a Republican started lobbying for higher taxes, or a Democrat stood against same-sex marriage? The "us vs. them" police would tear them apart for cavorting with the enemy. The power of tribalism can ruin a career.

2. Tribalism blinds our discernment: We can become so loyal to our tribe we fail to see our own mistakes and moral decay. Calvinists can become so staunchly defensive of our views that we fail to deal honestly with the significant challenges our theology brings. In the political realm, it is almost unheard of for us to recognize the unethical behavior and biased opinions of those in our own party. Too often loyalty blinds our minds to the reality before us. All we can see is how wrong the other tribe is.

3. Tribalism prevents us from the full range of new ideas: Tribalism rests on the foundation that all the best ideas will come from our team. We have the only true views, the only correct philosophy, the only right method. This kind of intellectual hubris will prevent us from ever accepting an idea that may originate elsewhere, to our detriment.

It ought to be "the guy with the best idea wins", regardless of tribe. In Biblical Studies, we ought to be open to the possibility that someone with whom we usually disagree can also produce a good idea, a relevant interpretation, or a scholarly opinion worth considering. The same should be true in other areas. But too often tribalism causes us to ignore other profitable streams of information and insight.

5. Tribalism makes winning more important than everything else: Perhaps the worst consequence of tribalism is its unabashed allegiance to pragmatism. "Win at all cost" is what tribalism is all about ultimately. Win the election, period. Capture the White House, no matter what. Prove the point, annihilate those in opposition, and gain as many followers as possible.

It is here all the other pitfalls coalesce to create a juggernaut unconcerned with either collateral damage or the fact the original mission has now been downsized to winning the contest. Any idea of helping people, of collaboration for the betterment of others, of honest reflection on the morality of what we're doing must be jettisoned if it will impede our march to victory.

So, what to do? First, don't hear me saying that all tribes are right, or that there is no absolute truth. It is clear when opposing parties clash they can't both be right. But, it doesn't mean someone who is wrong can never be right. It also doesn't mean those of us who are right are already perfectly right, with no need for further refinement. 

Second, we simply must realize how powerfully the tribal pull is, and carefully guard ourselves against its ability to make us more interested in winning the election, or argument than we are in bringing glory to God. As Christ-followers, we are to do all things in the name of our Lord Jesus, and that includes our politics, our theological battles, and every other area where we are passionate. Ultimately, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is this: Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and he has asked us to partner with him in this great rescue mission.

Our demeanor, our character, and our love must lead the way in any area of our passion. We must strive to be patient when wronged and gentle when correcting. We must be people who listen, and reflect, pushing everything - even our own tribal mantras - through the biblical grid. And we must see extending the kingdom power, love, and truth of Christ as the only goal worth our time. The only tribe that matters is Christ's, and there is room for many more on his team.