Healing Tribalism

(The following is the opening essay for my recent lectionary page Proper 11B.)

Tribalism. The new darling word for what ails our culture-in-crisis. Yet while our current fascination with tribalism may be new, the reality of tribalism is anything but. In fact, it may be said to be as old as sin itself. It has become increasingly clear to me that the church’s recent teachings on salvation have acted to hide a more biblical account of God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ.

Case in point: my personal history with today’s Second Reading, Ephesians 2. Growing up Lutheran, we preferred the first half of Ephesians 2, especially verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Salvation by grace through faith; it doesn’t get any more clear. The part in verse 10 gets a bit knotty with its mention of being created for good works as our way of life. Some brands of Lutheran seem allergic to “good works” because one might be tempted to see them as the way to salvation. My brand of Lutheranism taught that you just had to be careful that the good works are the result of salvation by grace, not the pre-requisite.

What we Lutherans never seemed to get to, however, was the “therefore” in verse 11 and the ensuing verses that shows us the details of what salvation looks like. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a proclamation about the healing of that age-old sin of tribalism. Yes, tribalism! When St. Paul characterizes salvation by grace itself as God in Jesus Christ creating one new humanity out of two, isn’t that the healing of tribalism? All the ways in which the human family divides itself into tribes is now being healed through the blood of Jesus Christ, who on the cross let himself be considered as one from an enemy tribe, the outsider, the criminal. And God raises him up as the promise of healing our tribalism. One new humanity out of two.

The need for a New Reformation could not be more clear here. The Reformation not only got stuck on verse 8, but it proved its missing the point of salvation in verses 11ff. by practicing another deadly form of tribalism, namely, Protestant vs. Catholic — and the many splintering versions of Protestantism that followed.

In addition to working with Ephesians 2 in the 2018 sermon (extemporized; no text), I brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil of Genesis 2-3 as the symbol of our fall into tribalism. The common reading of the fall into sin that I was taught in Reformation theology sees only the disobedience of eating of the forbidden fruit as sinful. The knowledge of Good and Evil was presumed to be a good thing; the disobedience was presumed sinful. But this reading plays into the serpent’s injecting envy into the mix, persuading Eve that God is holding out on them with knowledge. A reading of this passage in terms of Contemplative Spirituality recognizes it as the beginning of dualistic thinking, the judging of everything as Us vs. Them — tribalism! Here, for example, is Richard Rohr in The Naked Now:

I call contemplation the tree of life, as compared to the other tree “in the center of the garden” of Eden, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9), because these two serve as ideal metaphors for the two minds. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents “either-or” dualism, which we are strictly warned against, and even told not to eat. The tree of life promises access to eternal things (3:22), grows “crops twelve times a year,” and sprouts “leaves that are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It accesses the deep ground of God and of the self. The contemplative, nondual mind is a tree of continual and constant fruitfulness for the soul and for the world. (105)

And in The Divine Dance Rohr makes the role of love clear. No true knowledge can be gained without love:

You cannot know things if you don’t first of all grant them a foundational respect, if you don’t love them before you grab them with your mind. This is surely what Genesis warns us against from the beginning, in archetypal Eden: you’ll eat voraciously from that forbidden tree of knowledge before you know how to respect and honor what you are eating, which creates very entitled and proud people. All of life becomes a commodity for our consumption. (102)

Oughourlian - The Genesis of DesireAlso fresh for me in 2018 was presenting on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the perspective of Mimetic Theory. I had given a PowerPoint presentation at the 2018 COV&R Conference in Denver (July 11-14) titled, “‘Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’ and Tree of the Crucified Messiah: Symbols of Original Untruth and Its Healing.” Perhaps the Girardian who developed this symbol the most as the biblical symbol of untruth is Jean-Michel Oughourlian, in chapter 2 of his book The Genesis of Desire, a very close reading of Genesis 2-4. James Warren, in his incisive summary of Oughourlian’s reading of Genesis 3, gives a portrait of human history that is uncomfortably familiar in this age of Trump and populist authoritarianism, an apt description of tribalism:

Human history thus becomes the kaleidoscopic reflection of a thousand variations of this kind of ‘knowledge of good and evil,’ with human activity characterized by wars and interpersonal hostilities based upon each side’s claimed possession of the ‘good,’ along with a labeling of the other side as evil. Utopian schemes, dictatorships, and even democracies will distinguish their own brands of good and evil, and seek to create the good society by eliminating evil-doers who threaten to pervert the structure. All over the planet human beings will gather themselves into associations large and small, defined by their perception of ‘good’ and characterized by attempts, both crass and subtle, to exclude the evil other. All of this will be experienced as what we call ‘morality,’ which is a function of the fall into rivalrous desire. (Compassion or Apocalypse?, 47)

But the deepest theological analysis of this symbol takes me back 26 years to the first Girardian book I read, Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s Sacred Violence, weaving Mimetic Theory in with St. Paul’s theological analysis in Romans.

Only after the serpent had persuaded her by this deception to imitate God’s acquisitive desire for the fruit did it become desirable to her; she learned rivalry from mimesis’s misrepresentation of the divine desire as envious. The moment of mimetic acquisitiveness has been reached and the train of events leading to the Sacred set in motion. Thus desire transforms God from creator, to whom one should be related in gratitude, into rival, to whom one is related by envy, and it does so by manipulating the prohibition (Rom 7:11). This is the act of sin as envy (phthonos). (93)

And so the envy and rivalry interact with the “knowledge of good and evil” in a way that leads to sacred violence, where even God gets caught up in the scapegoat mechanism:

This is the background of Paul’s statement that sin used the Law to deceive and kill Adam (Rom 7:11). According to the story they gained the knowledge of good and evil. According to our theory this “knowledge of good and evil” is acquisitive and conflictual mimesis with the divine. Before the transgression they knew only good — namely, that the creator is beneficent and generous, and free of envy. After the transgression they had imputed both evil and good to the creator in making God a rival. Thus faith as trust in the divine goodwill was at an end. Now the Law produced not faith but anxiety and rivalry with God and one another.” (96-97)

What does the Law ultimately produce? “For the law brings wrath. . .” (Rom. 4:15). Notice carefully, that Paul does not say “wrath of God.” He simply says wrath because he is trying to help us see that the reality of wrath is a human problem, not a divine one: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). I take this to mean a crucial contrast. Our wrath worked out against each other in tribalistic sacred violence is contrasted with the revelation of God’s righteous judgment of mercy, forgiveness, and love. (For more, see my essay on the “wrath of God” in Romans.)

How do we stem the current tide of a rising populist tribalism and its accompanying human wrath worked out against others? Will God’s righteousness truly be revealed in contrast to another ‘day’ of human wrath? The answer to both questions is forbearance. God’s righteousness, says St. Paul, is forbearance, a forbearance we can learn in obedience to Jesus the Messiah. The verse right before the cited contrast in Rom. 2:5 says so: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). And a chapter later Paul tells us the meaning of the Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross as a revelation of God’s righteousness: “God did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed. . .” (Rom. 3:25).

I give the last word to Richard Rohr in this beautiful portrait of how forbearance can meet tribalism:

Jesus forbears our brokenness so that we can do the same — for ourselves and, finally, for one another. He knows, as only the mind of God can, that what we refer to as evil is really goodness tortured by its own hunger and thirst, goodness that has not been able to experience being received and given back. “Evil” is what happens when human beings become tortured with this desire for goodness that they cannot experience. And then we do the kind of horrible things we see on our televisions and social media streams: killing each other, humiliating each other, hurting each other in abuses of power and privilege, showing a complete inability to even recognize the imago Dei in other beings or in ourselves.

True seeing extends your sight even further: the people you want to hate, the people who carry out the worst atrocities, are not evil at their core — they’re simply tortured human beings. They still carry the divine image. Hitler and Stalin carried the divine image. Hussein and Bin Laden carried the divine image! I am not inclined to admit this, but it’s the only conclusion that full seeing leads me toward. The forbearance of God toward me allows me to see the divine dance in all other broken vessels.

If I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that seeing in this way robs me of a certain privilege I’ve allowed myself my whole life: I have always eaten generously from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The categories are clear in my mind, which makes judging come naturally. Kindness and forbearance? Much less so.

As I’ve entered this dance more and more, God has taken away from me the power to choose who are the good folks and who are bad ones; I no longer have the freedom to choose who I show respect to, which races I feel more comfortable around, and what religions — or religious subgroups — I don’t like.

“Those secular liberals!”Rohr - The Divine Dance

“Those fundamentalists!”

“Those Republican [or Democrat] idiots!”

But I’ve been dining my way through an alternative. Invited to a conscientious dietary shift, I eat instead from the Tree of Life, offered from the center of the archetypal Garden for all who enter the flow with bleeding and forbearing hearts. What a difference it makes: in this glorious, undifferentiated, freely-offered life, there is no longer a “they,” there.

It’s all “we.” (The Divine Dance, 176-78)

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One Response to Healing Tribalism

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