In June of this year, as Britain approached its referendum on whether to leave the European Union, Jo Cox, a Labour Party Member of Parliament, was brutally murdered on the streets of Birstall, West Yorkshire. As her assailant murdered her, he shouted, "Put Britain first."
Like the demon whom Jesus confronted in Gadarenes (Mark 5:9), this man's name could be "Legion," as the demon said to Jesus, "for we are many." It seems ever more apparent that the common demonic zeitgeist of our time is a tribal spirit which threatens to split the human family into ever smaller units, to drive wedges between us in the name of nations, politics and religions, to erect impregnable walls so that the "we" on one side need never be sullied by the "them" on the other.
There is nothing more "common" than the spirit that claims that our tribe is unique, that our little group is special, especially blessed by God, exceptional, Number One. There is nothing more "common," more vulgar, more primitive, few things more dangerous, and nothing less true.
Tribalism appears in the disguise of pride; but, in fact, it reflects a profound lack of confidence and a deep insecurity, sometimes something close to self-loathing. Rarely (maybe never) does one find a genuinely secure, healthy, confident person or group of people possessed by this demonic force. Persons afflicted by such a spirit, though claiming to be guided by enlightened self-interest, tend to act instead on an instinctive fear of others. What we might describe as the "other-ness" of the "other" is the thing that threatens them most. So they attribute to the other the worst characteristics and tendencies imaginable. It does not matter one whit whether the tribalist is British or French, Ugandan or Argentine, Chinese or Libyan. The spirit that tribalism manifests is the same small-minded, insecure, ignorance and fear wherever it emerges, whether it is a mentally unstable British man shouting "put Britain first," or a cravenly opportunistic American politician claiming that it is America that deserves that position.
Religion doesn't seem to make much of a dint in the tribal spirit. If anything, religion is most often co-opted by it.
Whether we are exploring a history of the inability of Christian faith to thwart the imperialism pursued by most Western nations throughout the modern period, or the impotence of Christianity to curb the nationalistic chauvinism of Germany prior to the First World War, or the inability of Buddhism and other faiths to influence their followers to resist the rise of Japanese militarism prior to the Second World War, the thing that stands out is that religious faith seems powerless in the face of tribalism. Religion seems most often to make a secondary claim, at best, on the loyalty of those obsessed by the tribe's primacy. And in those times when religion appears to make a primary claim, that claim may be no less violent and destructive when it is linked to tribalism.
The Christian preacher who stands in her pulpit pointing out that Jesus calls us to love not only the members of our own tribe, but strangers too, those unlike us, those who do not share our ways or even love us (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32), is likely to taste the rejection of the tribe for herself. Yet, there are few things more true than that Christianity's genius, inherited from its founder, is its global universality. "God so loved the world," the fourth gospel tells us (John 3:16), not "God so loved my tribe."
The story of Christianity is the story of good news that will not respect the walls erected by human hands, but opens the eyes of people to the fact that every partition we erect is called into question by the neighborhood of Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:14). The Spirit of Christ runs counter to the spirit of the tribe, calling us to let go of the fears and self-hatred that separate us and to find in Christ the humanity that revels in God's love for everyone God created.
But, of course, if you are still reading this essay, you probably already agree. And if you don't agree, you stopped reading long ago.
How do we help the tribalist learn the love of God that overcomes self-loathing and casts out fear and that replaces the primitive distrust of the outsider with a confident eagerness to know the other? How do we act in society to limit the damage the tribal impulse can do while also seeking to recover the humanity of those who are possessed by this demonic force?
The place we all have to start is with ourselves: first, to recognize the impulse toward tribalism that lurks in every heart, our own hearts included, and, then, to allow the light of the love of God to penetrate those hidden places. This is not easy. It may require some painful soul-searching. The spirit of tribalism takes many seemingly wholesome and religiously-sanctioned forms. But of this we can be sure, whenever we feel the compulsion to insist that "we are first" and our interests matter more than the needs and concerns of others, we are on our way to the back of the line. "The first," according to Jesus of Nazareth, "shall be last" (Matthew 20:16).