A Tribal Identity?

From the start of humanity, we have found ways to separate ourselves from God and one another. From Adam and Eve rejecting God, to Cain murdering his brother Abel, we have had a rocky start to sticking together in spite of our differences. The honest reporting of the murky and often hostile human condition is displayed throughout the Biblical narrative. War, betrayal, murder, treachery, adultery, factionalism, and all the rest are depicted, with all the misfortune that follows in their wake, time and time again.

Today’s news often features the same human qualities as revealed in the Biblical narrative. And whenever you read this article, the headlines may have changed, but the fundamental dynamics of tribalism and division will certainly be the same. Whether it is Nazism or the Islamic State, both our history and contemporary challenges reveal the enduring realities of a polarized world.

These geopolitical divisions are amplified and intensified versions of our social divisions. The deeper we look, the sooner we trace the origin of these problems to the human heart.

I was talking with someone the other day who shared that he views himself as a ‘human being’ first and foremost. All of his other labels – race, religion, occupation – are a distant second. Sometimes this is understood as ignoring (or pretending to ignore) the significance of these life-shaping features to our society and disparate experiences. But we can intentionally acknowledge that while our sex, or race, or age, for instance, generates different and unequal opportunities in many situations, and forthrightly state that these are serious problems in need of reform, they are still not our primary identity.

As I reflected on our conversation, I think we were taking Genesis 1:27 seriously, “So God created man in his own image.”

Who has the authority to define who we are? God. And God starts by defining us as made in His image. This must be primary, ultimate, and authoritative for our own self-understanding. By elevating this definition above all others, we gain a renewed perspective that all human beings are of equal value and worthy of the same dignity.

Further, we know from the initial moment of creation that God loves diversity. Throughout the creation account, the world teems with diversity: “God created…according to their kinds.” And humanity is made, God says, “after our likeness.” It is fitting that a Trinitarian God would delight in both diversity and unity.

When we lose this framework for celebrating our shared dignity as God’s image bearers, made in a constellation of stunningly beautiful diversity, the tribal identity is only a step away. When our secondary qualities are ignored or minimized, we miss out on the beauty of God’s glorious diversity in creation. Worse, oppression goes unchecked and reform is stalled. Yet, when we make these secondary labels our primary identity, this can generate tribal divisions that, at best, can only change who is in power.

But when our identity as image bearers of God is held as primary, we gain an enduring, transcendent basis both to build a better society for all and to celebrate the unique identity of each individual and group.

Contrast the Christian perspective with the Hindu doctrine of karma: lower caste people deserve their sufferings because of bad deeds done in a former life. To challenge the caste system is to oppose the cosmic order.

Or compare it to a strict evolutionary ethics: the strong will inevitably defeat the weak; so to lift up the genetically poor is to hinder human evolution.

Similarly, American politics seems to continually stimulate the rise of new tribal identities. Each contender for the Presidential election is the chieftain of their tribe, and the resulting, internecine war between each tribal grouping is fierce and relentless. The electoral victors impose their will on all the rest; politics as much as governance is an increasingly partisan affair.

We are also witnessing constant fights between religious tribes. Even naming names runs the risk of sparking a fight, but we can all point to influential leaders who are building movements defined, in part, by opposition to another group of people. This problem is often clear to outside observers, who are puzzled and dismayed that God’s name (or His absence) is being invoked to justify discrimination and hostility.

In all of these factionalisms, the secondary has been made primary, and the basis for unity has been elided in the fight for individual and group supremacy.

A historic motto for the United States is ‘e pluribus unum,’ or ‘out of many, one.’ Today, this seems to be more of a distant memory than a shared experience. But it is based on a powerful truth about the human race: we all bear God’s image. Whatever our differences, they are secondary to what unites us.

To bring this together: today there are many ‘tribes’ contending for their version of a better world. Yet too often, each of these groups has narrowed its vision to a better world for their tribe.

But because our religious, political, and cause-drive passions are often responses to real problems, and stand for noble solutions, they need to aim for a higher goal. Unless we move beyond merely tribal warfare, we will only change the identity of the winners and the losers. But we will not end up with a society that is equal and just.

In contrast to the power struggles of various groups, the Christian story introduces a compelling alternative: Christ arrives as a helpless, poor baby among an oppressed people group. For the first time since the Fall, the human race properly bore the image of God.

With dignity and love, truth and courage, Jesus confronted all the privileged with a life and a message that was simultaneously from above and below. He was from above as the revelation of God. He came from below as one who refused to defend himself, choosing to love even his enemies to the point of death. In doing so, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15).

The revolution of Jesus, as a baby and as the crucified one, has brought a new awareness of human rights. Women, children, the disabled, the poor, the prisoner, and the oppressed of every kind have had a new realization of honor as the image bearers of God. In turn, a growing awareness of this fundamental truth has led to social revolutions that continue to this day.

As we continue to seek a better world, may we do so with an identity that is not tribal, but may we stand for justice as image bearers of God. This fundamental truth is one of the greatest inspirations for the cause of justice and reform. But because it is such a fundamental truth, it must simultaneously contextualize the breadth of our aims and the universality of our goals. May we be freed from mere tribalism, and our warring against one another, into a solidarity with all who bear God’s great image, and seeing our differences as a cause for celebration rather than division.