One of the funnier things that happened to me on my sabbatical happened at the Vatican. I decided to wear a Louisville Cardinals T-shirt that day, because it seemed appropriate to wear a shirt that said Cardinals when going to the Vatican. We were walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, which is such a beautiful and overwhelming place, and I was taking pictures of everything. As I walked near the altar a guy was standing there, and he looked at me and said, humph. My wife made me leave all my UK stuff at home. Even traveling halfway around the world it is impossible to escape the UofL/UK rivalry!
This morning, my message is The Worldwide Tribe of God. I want to talk about something called tribalism. Tribalism is loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group.
Our Scripture text for today has an unfortunate demonstration of tribalism. Listen to what Mark’s gospel tells of how the disciples demonstrated tribalism –
38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me,
40 for whoever is not against us is for us.
41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
Humans are naturally tribal in nature, and we love to gather in our tribes, generally to the exclusion of those in other tribes, so that we can talk about the people in those other tribes. There is, obviously, a great deal of tribalism in the world of sports and sports fandom – there are the UK, and UofL tribes, both of which are well represented here. And please, don’t let anyone be in the Duke tribe. But it also includes other tribes – are you a Bengals fan or a Steelers fan (the Steelers are my tribe!)? You’re not a Cowboys fan, I would hope. What’s your music tribe – country, classical, bluegrass, contemporary Christian, hip-hop, rap, or classic rock? What’s your political tribe? Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Libertarian? What’s your regional tribe? Are you a northerner, southerner, from the east coast, the west coast, or New England? To what ethnic tribe do you belong? White, black, Hispanic, or Asian? Where do you fall among the religious tribes? Believer or unbeliever? Affiliated or unaffiliated? Which religion? Christian? Well, which sub-tribe? Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox? Christian? What worship style tribe, contemporary, traditional, or blended? What denomination? Presbyterian? Presbyterian USA, Cumberland, or one of the other kinds? Methodist? Freewill or United Methodist? Baptist? Southern, American, Cooperative or one of the 200+ other varieties? Christian Church? Which tribe in that group – Independent Christian Church, Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ?
We find tribalism everywhere, from the more innocuous debates about our favorite sports teams to the very dangerous actions of groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda, who will kill others simply because the others are of another group, or tribe. There are people in this world who desire to do harm to us simply because we are of a different tribe.
Tribalism is one of the most powerful forces in the world, and it’s also one of the least noticed. Tribalism is rarely noticed by its practitioners. This was certainly the case exhibited in this week’s Scripture text. The disciples approached Jesus, probably somewhat perturbed, to complain that someone was driving out demons in his name. The disciples told the person to stop because he was not one of us (typical tribal language – not one of us). I imagine the disciples assumed they were acting correctly in trying to stop the other person. They were, most likely, acting on a belief that they needed to protect their own work and ministry, and certainly that of Jesus. They were probably surprised, and a bit hurt, that Jesus told them not to stop the man.
One of the mistakes that religious people sometimes make – and the disciples made this mistake in their handling of the situation described by Mark – is seeing themselves as the gatekeepers to God. It is easy to fall prey to the idea that we are the ones who control access to God, or at least to serve as the ones who can sit in judgment of who can have access to God.
At times, we even baptize our beliefs and our attitudes as being God’s. If we hold to a particular political opinion, it must certainly be God’s as well. Our opinion of other people must surely represent God’s opinion of those people. We pitch our tent and then draw it in to include some and exclude others, rather than expanding it to fit the vision of God. The scandal of the gospel, as demonstrated by Jesus, is that God doesn’t draw lines and set boundaries as humanity is so prone to do. So the question for us is, what boundaries do we need to reshape, to defy, in order to be the people God has called us to be?
We create artificial borders by the creation of all the various tribes, and one thing that happens with all those tribes and borders is we allow ourselves to believe that if it's across a border, it’s not our problem. It’s in another country, or state, or county, or neighborhood so it’s not my concern. That’s not an issue for my tribe, so I’m released from any concern. Do you think God recognizes those boundaries?
Jesus, however, was constantly demolishing any illusions of our desire to be gatekeepers to all things spiritual. Jesus obliterated the social stigmas and unspoken rules and regulations about associations that divided people into tribes. Jesus was constantly under attack by the scribes, Pharisees, and other religious hierarchy because he stepped across the tribal boundaries that had been so carefully erected. He was not afraid to associate with the “sinners” of the day. He was not afraid to be seen talking with a Samaritan woman, when such behavior would have been considered a terrible breach of social protocol. He told the story of the Good Samaritan, which tells of the tribal attitudes preventing characters in the story from offering assistance to an injured man because he was of a different tribe. Imagine, the very idea that it is impermissible to help another human being who was beaten and left for dead along the road, because you are taught that if they are not a member of your tribe you shouldn’t help that person, even if they are on the side of the road bleeding to death.
People often want to tell us who is acceptable for our association. We should walk together whether or not we agree on everything. We should walk together whether or not we read the Bible in the same way, whether or not we worship the same way, whether or not we believe the same way, whether or not someone believes, because every person is a child of God and every person is a member of God’s tribe!
Where did the idea come from that we must agree about everything and that everyone must be just like us? There is such a strange orthodoxy in our society these days that decrees we must all be the same and that orthodoxy seeks to impose a sameness and conformity on everyone and if you veer from that it in any way you are subject to public ridicule and shaming.
Where did it come from that we must agree on everything? There is a false narrative that says we must all gather in our little tribes, with our like-minded folks, and reject all others. There is a stratifying taking place in our world, in our nation, and even in our churches that is very disturbing. Some churches will give you a list of what you must believe and to which you must adhere. Our church does not do that. We do not impose any kind of sameness – theological, political or otherwise – upon anyone who attends here. You do not have to agree with me, and I don’t have to agree with you. You may not agree with or like some of the things I say or write. That's okay. I don’t care if you agree with me or not. You know what? Sometimes I don't agree with what you might say, or write, or think. But so what? You will never hear me tell you what to think or to believe; you will hear me say what I think and what I believe. I do not spoon-feed people into belief, because if your faith rests upon another person, it is a faith that will not withstand the arena of human interaction. If it is a faith dependent upon Jesus and is entered to in your own freewill, nothing will harm or limit that faith. Nothing.
Too many followers of Jesus see it as a point of pride who they exclude, rather than who they include. Not everyone can walk with us, unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong; it may mean we’re doing what’s right. If we draw a thousand people because of who we are, great; if we lose a thousand people because of who we are, that’s just the way it goes. What’s sad is that people believe the false claim that you should only associate with those who think like you, act like you, and believe like you. Some will say to come out of a church if they don’t reflect your beliefs on every topic. My goodness, if that were the standard there wouldn’t be anyone left!
One of the things Tanya and I noticed while traveling in Europe was that the English and the French don’t like each other very much, and there are some historical reasons for this. But it also seems rather absurd, as much of the roots of their enmity comes from long ago, and it’s now centuries later and they still struggle! We visited the Tower of London one day, where we had a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide. But he obviously didn’t like the French. At every opportunity, he criticized the French. Even when he asked what countries we were from, when some visitors from France raised their hands he said, arrgh, the French!
I’ll be honest and admit that I was somewhat uneasy about traveling to Paris. In our country, we too can be hard on the French. Remember some years ago when something happened (I don’t even remember now) and people were saying we should stop referring to French fries, and call them freedom fries instead? Wasn’t that ridiculous? Many people say the French are rude and unkind, but Tanya and I found them to be friendly, kind, and helpful, in all of our interactions. We loved our time in Paris, and loved our interactions with the French people.
If we could find a way to escape our tribal mentality and our tribal attitudes, imagine how different the world could be.
Remember this – God breathes the breath of life into everyone. Everyone. Not just those of our liking or choosing. The scandal of the gospel is that God doesn’t draw lines or set boundaries or create tribes as humanity is so prone to do. Every person is a part of The Worldwide Tribe of God!