When I Look at my Kids – Part 11 (Tribalism, Nationalism and Empire)

One of my son’s childhood friends hated Canada.  I can’t remember him stating valid reasons for this ideology I didn’t join him in his disdain for our Northern neighbor.  It was almost a joke for my son and I to talk about this kid’s distaste for the Canucks.  My son’s friend generally mixed humor with whatever was troubling in his life and not liking the Canadians was just some sort of coping mechanism to the pain in his life and possibly the racism and tribalism that was all around him.

Small town America fosters an interesting form of tribalism.  We are generally pleasant and neighborly except that we can find ourselves in very real battles over things like high school sports and very entrenched in our religious and denominational exclusiveness.  I have seen some of the ugliest behavior between people that live 8 miles from each other and are basically the same in every way.  They look the same, talk the same, eat the same foods and go to churches that probably sing the exact same songs.  Yet, an athletic event or a minor doctrinal debate can turn into a border war of sorts that can go on for decades.

A new level of tribalism happens at the college level.  All three of my children attended college.  With the preparation that goes into sending a child to college, you would think that the final decision is a well calculated decision; however, the decision is very limited by where you live, how much money you have, the information you receive and circumstances.  You would be surprised how many kids end up at a specific school because of one thing their friend told them.  By the way, this friend will probably not be their friend shortly after Freshmen orientation.  It’s just the way college works.

State and institutional level tribalism affects all of us.  Laura graduated from the University of Texas and I lived near enough to the University of Oklahoma that I once rode my bicycle to the stadium.   You would think our opinions of which institution and especially which football team is best would be based on something more scientific or rational than circumstances in our life that led us to pledge loyalty.  Under pressure, I can espouse some excellent qualities of my school, but I didn’t even graduate from there.  I got my first degree from a technical branch of the other large state school in the same state.  Our loyalties are often based on such circumstantial journeys that we have little control over.  Regardless, our loyalties run deep.

Just yesterday, I was counting the number of Nebraskans that passed me on the interstate.  With very little prompting, I can launch into sarcasms about how they are in a hurry to get out of their home state.  Of course, driving itself creates tribalism.  Everyone who drives slower that us can be labeled mentally lacking (the morons) and those that drive faster than us are labeled judgmentally inept (the idiots).   We seem to be in a hurry to generalize about people to try to make some sense out of our world.  But I think there is an important thing to consider.

Brené Brown calls it Common Enemy Intimacy.

Common Enemy Intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging.  If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection.   

Being able to talk about the common things we don’t like makes is easier to connect with people.  We are so opinionated about our beliefs that it helps to have something in common that we don’t like about others – talking about them helps form the new “us.”  Although it is a horrible basis for a friendship, it is probably the most common strategy used by all.  Mission number one is to find something that we communally dislike and focus on that.  The fear of not fitting and not belonging is stronger that our common sense not to behave in this manner.  We do it all the time.

The natural next step is nationalism.  Patriotism is probably not a bad thing in certain contexts.  It is admirable to love our country and be thankful for the sacrifices made by our ancestors.  It can be a natural and beautiful thing.  But often, patriotism leads to nationalism.  Nationalism plays on our need to label and compare so that we feel superior to other peoples.  It promotes a “us versus them” mentality.  If we are not the best, it is probably their fault.  We begin to see them as evil and their people as sub-human in one way or another.  This nationalistic view is not congruent with the ways or teaching of Jesus.  Jesus went out of his way to teach and demonstrate this, especially with Samaritans.  The early Christians taught that we are all a part of the same holy nation—there is no tribe or nation that is superior to another.

To further help us discern the pitfalls of nationalism, I submit the example of Rome.  At the time of Jesus, Rome was at the apex of the nationalistic quest for empire.  They had literally conquered the world.  In terms of might and power and luxury, they literally were the best!  But, in the areas that matter most like morality and spirituality and welfare of mankind, they failed.  They eventually would crumble – there was a meteoric rise and an inevitable fall.   Countries like the United States seem to be headed in similar directions—militarily and economically powerfully, but morally bankrupt.  If we continue our nationalistic pursuits, we will eventually fall prey to our passions.  We don’t have a magic elixir that precludes us from the inevitable.

Jesus began a vey counter-cultural revolution in the first century.  For the first 300 years of the church, the church refused to join with empire.  They were a people without a country.  They were persecuted but they grew stronger.  It was one of the most amazing things ever witnessed in human history.  We saw glimpses of it in the Civil Rights movement and the times we battled for abolition of slavery and women’s rights in the United States.  We saw heroes like Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  These people fought for equality, not superiority.  They were continuing the revolution that Jesus started.

I have never found a rational person that would disagree with the following reasoning.  If Jesus physically were present today, he would not pledge allegiance to any nation.  How could he build walls between his United States and Mexican Children?  He would not join a local church or pledge allegiance to any denomination.  He would not be Protestant or Catholic or Buddhist or Muslim.  He would never rally for violence, retribution or even competition between nations.  What begins as tribalism passes through patriotism and spirals down into nationalism and, eventually, fascism.

It is currently Advent season as I write.  Yesterday I listened to a sermon, by Brian Zahnd, about how human history began in a cave with paintings of animals on the wall.  The second half of human history was inaugurated by Jesus being born in cave with live animals nearby.  According to Jesus life and work, the second half of human history was supposed to be characterized by love and mercy and grace.  The failed experiment of nationalism and empire had been teased out by the Romans to its inevitable conclusion.  It failed and should never be tried again.  We avoid at all costs returning to the failed experiments of the past.

My son and his friend turned out to be fine people.  From the trials of their youth, they emerged as beautiful human beings that embody love and compassion for all people.  They are both strong sports fans, but they seemed to have a reasonable perspective on that level of tribalism—it’s all fun and it’s not real life.  Especially from my son, I have learned a much deeper compassion for all people.  He lives oversees and genuinely can have a great confidence in himself without ever having to hate anyone.  My daughters are the same – they seem to have developed a compassion for those that others want to hate.  I admire them both and the grace of God, I think they are leading me home!

We have all kinds of excuses for behaving the way we do.  But maybe it is time to stop making excuses.  We can strive for excellence personally without dehumanizing those that are inconvenient to love.  We can love our friends and make new friends by loving our enemies.  We can ground our self-worth in our ability to create and build instead of our capacity to destroy.   We can embrace the refugee without fear because we first embraced RefuJesus.

We can love the whole world if we begin to speak like the poets and the prophets and “imagine” something better.  We can do it if we try!



** Please feel free to like, forward or comment on this blog. Part of this is for me to just sort through my beliefs and feelings, but it would mean so much more to have your input. **





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