The rise of “tribalism” has become a concern that has far-reaching implications for many societies around the globe. It has taken many different forms, from the rise of ultra-right nationalists in some Western democracies, like the “Make America Great Again” movement in the US to the Brexit forces in the UK. There have been different analyses of how the polarisation of politics has given rise to the extremists at either end of the spectrum. A pendulum effect that seems to have gained momentum and finds very little hope for resolution.
Closer to home, we know that such tribalism can take many forms in our own society. From the racial riots of the 60s, the religious tensions that we have been sensitised to ever since 9/11 and even the language barriers of past generations. After all we have for years recited the pledge that we will remain as “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.” And we have as a nation been very careful to make sure that we don’t allow these traditional divisions to cause strife and social unrest in our tiny nation-state of Singapore.
However, a study commissioned by OnePeople.sg and Channel News Asia last year pointed out that there are new fault-lines appearing around the increasing class divisions in Singapore. It seems like the new tribes forming are between the “haves” and “have-nots.” And this is not just in Singapore. Amy Chua, a Yale University law professor (and of “tiger mom” fame), points out in her book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, that it is this same divide in economic classes that has caused the current “tribal” landscape in the American political scene, as well as that in many other countries around the world.
This problem of “tribal” conflict is not new. It is as old as Cain and Abel and we certainly see it in our gospel reading for this week. The encounter between the disciples and a group of Samaritans is coloured by the overtones of such tribalism (Luke 9:51-56). Jesus who had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” was rejected by Samaritan village when he sought hospitality there (Luke 9:53). In return, the disciples James and John (who were aptly nicknamed “the sons of thunder”) offered to call down a fiery judgement to destroy the village. Jesus of course rebuked them, but I think the incident highlights the realities of the “us” vs “them” mentality that plagues us across the centuries and around the world.
In the cultural wars that we seem to be caught up in, we find ourselves like the disciples, tempted to “call down fire” or those who are not “us.” The people of different persuasion, who seem to be out to destroy the moral safety and security of society as we know it. How can we as Christians follow a different way? What will allow us to not vilify “them” while we defend our territory and stand up for what we believe to be right and true?
The theologian Miroslav Volf believes that the core of much of this conflict lies in our concept of identity. He says, “It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference.” (Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation, p.20) The human tendency is for us to exclude those we consider as other, the ones we label as “them.” In the best case, we may just ignore, or turn a blind-eye towards them. However at our worst, the exclusion can be violent, and as we have seen throughout history, even to the point of genocide. Which is really what the disciples were actually proposing, while couching it in spiritual language (recalling Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal at Mt Carmel).
However the answer to this for us as Christians is the new identity we have in Jesus, the one who “died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). He embraced us while we were still enemies of God and drew us into himself and made us new creations. If we recognise ourselves as sinners saved by grace, we now begin to see that there is no longer any “them.” Because we so often see “them” as sinners. As perpetrators against us. Instead we are all equally sinners in need of grace.
Paul tells us, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:10-11) And in turn, we now have been given “the ministry of reconciliation… [thus] entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). And so we are now his ambassadors to call a broken world to be reconciled to Him!