What comes to mind when we hear the term, “church?” For some, it is a building of corporate worship. For others, it is a community of servitude. For some, church offers a place of identity and commonality. For others, church provides balance and support. For some, church offers a place to connect and be connected. For others, church offers a time to reflect and reset. For some, church is our place of reference. For others, church is a faith community.
Those of us who attend or have attended church become familiar with various reasons to attend. Hebrews 10:24-25a tells us, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, encouraging one another.” Matthew 18:20 offers, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
There are ongoing debates as to how to engage “church.” While some attend a building regularly, others find church at a bar or at the home of a believer when in the presence of other believers. I personally have found church at work when encouraging or receiving encouragement from other believers. I experience church while having coffee with my husband each morning before work. I find church when visiting a past faith community when old friends walk across the sanctuary during worship to offer a hug and welcome my husband and I- despite the grounds on which we chose to leave the church. I would define each of these people as “my tribe-” no matter the location or circumstance. We hold “truth” in common, and although our paths often look and feel different, the voice that we heed is the same.
Jesus tells us in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.” We can identify Christ in others by their pattern of mannerisms- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Yes, albeit an often-messy expression due to kingdom living being played out through imperfect people, I recognize my “tribe” or “church” in various circumstances and scenarios throughout my day, week, community, and life. Most “church” happens in daily living rather than inside any building- despite the name we use to describe the structure built for the purpose of “church.”
Tribe vs Tribalism
Tribe is defined in various ways by various dictionaries and theories. I define my “tribe” as those who hold to the same standard of faith and expression of that faith. Tribalism defines the act of supporting an identified tribe in whatever they do to express loyalty. Once again, in taking a good thing too far, the path of the Religiously Provoked forks away from that of the Eternally Provoked. The voice of the Holy Spirit becomes eclipsed by the distractions and demands of the tribe.
The history of tribalism stems from the nature of humanity’s reliance for social profit; primarily connection, safety, and survival. It is necessary on a basic level as it is responsible for the continuation of a species against predators and harsh elements. Tribalism, when engaged as a means to an end- rather than the end itself, can and should maintain a healthy and productive foundation that protects and supports a greater cause.
However, when tribalism becomes the focus of the church (maintain- no matter the demise of who or what differs from us), can that community continue to claim faith over religion? How can we truly love our neighbor, immigrant, poor, or garden-variety-sinner when we find ourselves pitted against them for a cause that is no longer Christ, but our own means of survival….no less in a world that we gladly reject in bumper stickers that read N.O.T.W. (Not of This World).
Fear paralyzes our ability to unconditionally love anyone outside of our tribe
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the focus of tribalism exists on primal levels of human necessity. We become triggered to protect our tribe out of various fears and threats. On a normal level, a perceived threat activates the fight-or-flight response system, which subsides once the perceived threat is gone. However, hyper-aware tribalism not only pits us against those who do not look, talk, act, vote, or believe like us- it frames “outsiders” as a constant perceived threat. Rogue tribalism not only changes our perception of a threat, it forces us to exist on an animalistic level hinged on mere survival. Faith becomes eclipsed by the “religious” focus of the tribe. Fear paralyzes our ability to unconditionally love anyone outside of our tribe.
Q: So how does a “church” become hyper-tribalistic?
A: Once a body of believers begins to separate and form an identity that differentiates them from the greater community of faith believers.
On a seemingly innocent level, this looks like a “building mortgage,” “church mission,” “style of services,” “community amenities like daycare, school, and social groups.” It then begins to travel down a slippery slope of qualifiers such as “fundamentals of faith,” “full-emersion baptism,” or “evidence of speaking in tongues.” It eventually reaches social definers like refraining from alcohol, tobacco, tattoos, and exposing our children to public school. Before we know it, our social expectations, political agenda, hopes, challenges, goals, fears……. eventually coalesce. We fight for what is deemed “right”- because it is exactly the same thing all of our tribe is fighting for. We have long since stopped listening to the author of our faith, and have established a sense of control that presents a false sense of security in exchange for belonging, encouragement, and social accolades. Church has become an ideal, a privilege, a place of belonging, a country club, a resource, a place of social and political reckoning, a societal force to be reckoned with, a community safe-haven, a counterfeit replacement for the Holy Spirit.
Not my church
But that’s not us, that’s the other church. Our church supports missionaries. Our church has no mortgage. Our church aligns with the Acts 1 Church. Our church fights for the unborn. Our church hosts a quarterly canned food drive. Our church welcomes newcomers. Our church provides a school so that students are free to pray in the open without fear of being bullied by outsiders. Our church hosts the best craft-fair in the region. Our pastor is global-minded. Our youth group boasts 700 youth.
You should come. We think you’d fit right in. And yes, that was sarcasm.
The danger of hyper-tribalism
The danger of hyper-tribalism mentality at its extreme is disturbing. Need we bring to mind the demise of the Branch Davidians, the loyal delusion of Hiroo Onoda, or the fateful claim of the Titanic’s Captain Edward John Smith stating, “Even God himself couldn’t sink this ship.” Smith boasted such assurance in the matter that Titanic surviver, Lawrence Beesley noted (after crashing into the iceberg), “no one at the time thought the Titanic was going to sink- passengers went on to joke about the need to stop for a fresh coat of paint to cover the iceberg’s scraping on the hull.”
The danger of hyper-tribalism mentality at its extreme on a global scale is catastrophic. We would be remiss to forget the Holocaust and it’s composer, Hitler, who carried the full support of the Protestant church after encouraging it to unite on a national level (similar to the Catholic church) under Ludwig Muller- a popular pastor and Nazi Party member– in exchange for the right to continue practicing their faith while showing their support for Hitler. In order to better align with Nazi ideology, the tribal mentality under Muller, changed from identifying “Jew as a faith”- to “Jew as a nationality”- including ethnic Jews who had converted away from Judaism. Once ousted from the ideal tribe identity, the stage was set for National Protestants to perceive ethnic Jews as a threat that eventually forced ethnic Jews out of church leadership as a way to show unwavering Protestant loyalty to the regime.
Not our church? What happens when we vote for a President based on his/her stance on abortion? Just doing our civic deed to protect the unborn. What about that time James Dobson (founder of Focus on the Family) vouched for the newly professed faith of the President– going on to claim “All I can tell you is that we have only two choices, Hillary or Donald. Hillary scares me to death.” He’s one of us now!
We dismiss behavior we would have never previously tolerated (a history of past and professed adultery, habitual lies, cheating, stealing)- and if those holy commandments aren’t enough- there is the time during his campaign that he bragged about murder, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s, like, incredible.” We justify our unwavering support- “It is God’s plan that he got elected!” “If God didn’t want him to be President, he wouldn’t be President.” “Trump is a modern day Cyrus.” “He is ‘the chosen one’ who was ‘sent by God to do great things,’ -Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Never mind the fact that Cyrus was not voted for in a democracy- and Saul (also a “chosen” king for a time) was such a self-righteous ruler, he was replaced by God. We cannot disown a vote by claiming it was God’s choice- unless we are also agreeing to disavow freewill.- perhaps a topic for a future blog?
“Even God himself wouldn’t sink this ship” mentality
We adopt an enemy based on differences and identify reasons to fear that enemy. “Our shared values are under assault like never before. Extreme left-wing radicals, both inside and outside government, are determined to shred our Constitution and eradicate the beliefs we all cherish. Far-left socialists are trying to tear down the traditions and customs that made America the greatest nation on Earth. But despite the delusions of the radical left, all of us here today know that our rights come from God almighty, and they can never be taken away” – President Donald J. Trump, October 12, 2019. And, the latest remark adding another brick of division to Trump’s partisan “other” wall delivered by none other the president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, Franklin Graham and talk-show host Eric Metaxas, (also a prominent figure of the evangelical movement) who claim those opposing support of Trump as “demonic,” and mimicking “moralistic Pharisaism.” Seems that we have practically adopted the mentality, “Even God himself wouldn’t sink this ship” (aka. religious tribe).
Once we replace the lens of earthly favoritism with an eternal lens, we find our previous treasure trove lies largely on this side of eternity
How did we end up here? For various reasons and justifications. The need for money to cover corporate expenses, power (the tendency to cater to generous contributors), political favor (moral boundaries in society), a desire to make a difference, perceived sense of control, fear of loss, fear of harm, need to belong, a sense of identity, fulfilling a corporate goal, maintaining social leverage, loyalty to a good cause, a desire to vindicate a well-intended vote- no doubt the list is longer. We all share a piece of the guilt to be had. And once we replace the lens of earthly favoritism with an eternal lens, we find our previous treasure trove lies largely on this side of eternity at the expense of undervalued heavenly reward. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mat 6:19-21).
Referencing Hebrews 10:26-31, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Sprit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Q: But, shouldn’t we fight for what is good, opposing what is evil?
A: Perhaps consider and mimic good, yes. Harm or discount those who differ from us to protect common values, no.
I admit, it is hard to tell the difference at the outset. We must first be willing to change the lens from that of the religious community to that of the Holy Spirit. Protect the unborn- yes, but not at the expense of isolating and demonizing the carrier of the unborn. When we begin to love and serve the mother of an unwanted pregnancy as much as the unborn, we are eternally provoked. When we hurt for- rather than marginalize the terrorist, we are looking through the eyes of eternity. When we are no longer threatened by alternative theories to creationism, we begin to experience a God who is bigger than any theory. When we expose and encourage our children to be light to a dark (public school) world- without fear- because we do not serve a God of fear- we are living for The Eternal.
He is bigger than any danger we could perceive or know. If this is not the case, our god is not truly God and rather the fears we magnify by manipulating our circumstances to contain those fears.
Go to church, vote, defend the unborn, but also serve the unwed mother, the immigrant, the local public school, an atheist relative, the liberal widow next door, a Muslim’s right to be an American. Our God not only commands it, He is bigger than any danger we could perceive or know. If this is not the case, our god is not truly God and rather the fears we magnify by manipulating our circumstances to contain those fears. Faith…. or fear? The demise of one signifies the presence of the other.
Rhetorically- What did we expect when Trump vowed to “Make America Great Again?” Had the term “great” been defined “pre-civil rights” as his behavior and words suggest, would we have still voted for him?
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”