The images of the horrific war in Ukraine together with the prescribed readings for this second Sunday in LENT have me thinking about tribalism. My first temptation was to ignore the first reading from Genesis. I was not planning to include it in our worship because we have all born witness to far too much bloodshed as our sisters and brothers of Ukraine are relentlessly attacked, killed, and wounded by our sisters and brothers of Russia. This week, I have heard the word unimaginable uttered by pundits and friends alike and each time it is expressed I want to scream, “this bloodshed is all too imaginable! Indeed, this bloodshed is part of the foundational imaginings of our very own tribes. We need not look farther than the Book of Genesis to soak ourselves in our own bloodthirsty imaginings!”
The story which will be read in worship services of most mainline Christian church this very Sunday is a foundational myth about the patriarch of the world’s three powerful religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Our foundational myth from the 15th chapter of the Book of Genesis, goes like this: the word of YAHWEH came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I AM your shield; I will make your reward very great.” Abram said, “But my Sovereign, My God, what good are these blessings to me, so long as Sarai and I will die in disgrace? My only heir is a foreigner who lives in my household, Eliezer of Damascus. Since you have given me no offspring,” Abram continued, “An attendant in my house will be my heir.” Then the word of YAHWEH came to Abram and said, “This person will not be your heir. Your heir will be of your own flesh and blood.” Then God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can! As many as that, you will have for descendants.” Abram believed YAHWEH and God accounted it to Abram as righteousness. YAHWEH the said to Abram, “I AM YAHWEH who brought you from UR of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.” Abram asked, “Sovereign God, how am I to know that I will possess it?” God answered Abram, Bring me a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”Abram brought all of these, cut them in half, and place each half opposite the other—except the birds, which he did not cut up. Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was about to set, a trance fell over Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him. When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch appeared, which passed between the halves of the sacrifices. On that day YAHWEH made this covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates: the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaim, the Aorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18)
Here ends the reading. This is not the Gospel. Not because it is the first reading. But because it is not good news for anyone at all. There’s something about those bloodied, split, rotting carcasses which sealed the deal between God and Abraham that makes me wonder about the nature of the god we have projected into the heavens and ask: “Have we evolved at all?”
This foundational myth portrays the MYSTERY which we call “GOD” as a god who promises to “His” “Chosen People” a deal which reduces this god to little more than a churlish player in humanity’s game of tribal rivalry. I am aware that in the evolution of humanity tribalism has often served us well. I would even go so far as to agree that tribalism continues to serve us well.
New people to meet can be exciting or it can be frightening. Taking comfort with your own people is wonderful. But taking too much pride in your own kind is dangerous. One minute you’re cheering for your team the next minute you’re hurling insults at the other guy and one too many insults and the next thing you know you’re at war. A little tribalism is a good thing, but how much tribalism is too much? Tribalism is a basic human survival instinct. Tribalism is lodged deep within our psyches. It has been from the very beginning of time. Tribalism is part of our primordial selves. Tapping into this basic human instinct can mean the difference between survival and death. Tribal thinking exists on almost every level of human life, from the international to the local, from the congregation to the denomination, from the denomination to the religion. Attack a human on any level and that human will resort to instinctive behaviour. When threatened humans have two basic instincts, fight or flight and the choice between the two often comes down to tribalism. If you have enough people to back you, you’ll probably choose to fight. Not enough people and you’ll probably choose flight.
Humankind has evolved a great deal over the centuries, but we haven’t evolved very far from our basic instincts. You don’t have to scratch a fan too deeply to find the primitive tribal mentality. Tribalism is seen in the way we portray our rivals. Sporting competition is all well and good, but when tribalism is carried to its worst possible conclusion, wars beak out. Tribal feeling is then exacerbated in times of war, and tribal propaganda is used to dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to hate or to kill without any qualms of conscience. We don’t kill human beings in war; our victims are not someone’s child, spouse, or parent. No one kills either, the Huns, the Krauts, the Japs, the Nips, the VC, the insurgents, the fanatics, the fascists, or the terrorists. Of late, we have begun to hear our Russian sisters and brothers described as monsters.
There is within us all a basic, dominant, intrinsic fear of those tribes different from our own, a predisposition to be on guard against them, to reject them, to attack and even to kill them. This tribal tradition arises out of our deep-seated survival mentality, and it feeds something at the heart of our insecure humanity. We are tribal people to our core.
Far more than we will consciously admit, the religions of the world including Christianity rise out of and sustain our tribal thinking.Religions are all too often, very deep expressions of a tribal mentality which worships a tribal god. Our foundational myth, is the story of Abram a wandering Aramaean, who is about to become the father of many nations.
Abram has a vision; a vision in which his god promises to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky if Abram only promises to worship YAHWEH as his only god. To seal the promise YAHWEH enacts an ancient tribal custom, common in Mesopotamia. Centuries ago, in the days of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, custom dictated the appropriate manner in which a bargain was to be sealed. When two parties entered into an agreement, a covenant, they would take a bunch of good-sized animals, slaughter them, sever them into halves, clear a path between the pieces, and require that each partner to the agreement walk between them as a sort of self-curse. Kind of like: “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” By passing through the severed bodies of the animals, each partner says, in effect, “May the same thing happen to me if I do not keep my word.”
The whole thing sounds so very barbaric to our modern ears. But this story is part of the foundation of the narrative which begins the narrative of YAHWEH’s covenant with the self-described “chosen people.” The last two verses of this story are not usually read in church. The crafters of our lectionary leave them out; perhaps because they are so very offensive. But I would argue that we must include them because it is important for us to remember that tribalism permeates our foundation myths.
“When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch appeared, which passed between the halves of the sacrifices. On that day YAHWEH made this covenant with Abram: To your descendants I give this land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates: the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
The Promised Land, the land which this image of the DIVINE promised to the chosen people was not some vacant lot somewhere, waiting for inhabitants to come and enjoy the bounty of milk and honey which flowed there. The Promised Land was inhabited by many tribes; tribes who worshipped other gods. And there have been wars and rumours of wars in the Promised Land from that day to this. The image of YAHWEH painted by this story is not a particularly glorious one if you are anything other than the Chosen People. The Kenizzites the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, Rephiam, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites, rue the day YAHWEH chose the descendants of Abram over them.
This image of a tribal god is offensive to our modern ears. We much prefer the more evolved image of God which Jesus paints in the gospel text for this Sunday. “Jerusalem, O, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her babies under her wings—yet you refuse me! “ (Luke 13:13-35)
This MOTHER-HEN-GOD is a far cry from the YAHWEH of Genesis. Sadly, this MOTHER-HEN-GOD is rarely imagined, let alone embodied by Christianity. Except perhaps when Christians, resort to a kind of “my tribe is better than your tribe” kind of one-upmanship which points to Jesus’ portrayal of the ABBA as a kinder gentler version of Judaism’s violent GOD. Forgetting all the while that Jesus is, was, and ever more shall be Jewish. Not to mention the fact that this Jewish Jesus is hailed by the vast majority of Christians to be the blood sacrifice sent to appease their very own image of the DIVINITY, as a scapegoating, Father willing to send his own beloved son to be murdered. Not to mention the part about this particular tribal image of the DIVINE goes on to insist that every tribe must believe in their version of events, or their very own Father God will toss them into the fires of Hell where they will be burn in torment for all eternity. This all out rejection of the MOTHER-HEN-GOD must be maintained at all costs in order to ensure obedience to the tribal hierarchy, the domination system which so many churches embody.
Don’t. I know that right about now, you are tempted to point to some other tribe of Christians and condemn them. Those ones not us are the churches which cling to primitive theologies while absolving your very own tribe’s theology of any error. The temptation to see only the best in ourselves while condemning the worst in others is in and of itself indicative of a kind of tribal mentality which does not serve humanity well.Tribalism may well have been an asset in the human struggle to survive during our early evolutionary development. But there is a primitive dark side of tribalism which feeds on our fear and stunts our evolution. Unless these destructive aspects of tribalism are transcended, a deeper more compassionate, peaceful, humanity cannot be realized. We cannot transcend what we fail to recognize.
At this moment in our collective history, it is possible to recognize the role of tribalism in the war Russia is inflicting upon the people of Ukraine. Even as Putin insists that Kiev is the birthplace of Russia, he can also insist that Russia acts with impunity because the Ukrainians have deviated from his own Russian tribal narrative which sees Ukraine moving toward western notions of democracy. This threat to Putin’s tribal insistence upon compliance is further acerbated by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s perceived defiance of the Russian Orthodox Church’s claim of authority.
Religious, political, economic, ethnic, cultural, and military expressions of one tribe verses the religious, political, economic, ethnic, cultural, and military expressions of another tribe propel the whole world toward the possibility of the kind of violence which is propagated on the threat of mutual inhalation. As our worst fears escalate our desire for peace, we in the West are quick to recognize an affinity with the religious, political, economic, ethnic, and cultural expressions of the Ukrainian people. So, we quickly mobilize everything we deem to be safe for us to mobilize in order to offer comfort and support to Ukraine, while never once recognizing the ways in which our own tribal instincts have been aroused.
While I’d like to believe that we, you know our tribe, we Westerners, especially we Western Christians, and most especially we progressive christians, we have risen above our tribal instincts. But then I remember the reality of the plight of the woman of Afghanistan which has slipped from our radar, and it causes me to tremble. My trembling increases when I realize my very own failure to express any tangible aid or comfort to the starving millions, who face even more dire consequences as the result of this war.
What is it about those tribes which fails to compel me to weep in the way the fleeing Ukrainians can? I must confess that I am racist. I do not want to be racist. But I can find no other explanation to our current reality than the racism which inevitably flows out of tribalism. And so I tremble. Just like the words of that old American spiritual, which we sing every Good Friday. I tremble, because once again, over and over again, LOVE is crucified by tribalism.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should not be consumed by the plight of our Ukrainian sisters and brothers. We should celebrate the tribalism in us which evokes kinship and compassion. We should do everything in our power to provide aid and comfort to our Ukrainian sisters and brothers.
What I am saying is that we should also do everything in our power to provide aid and comfort to our Afghani, our African, our Syrian, our sisters and brothers in Myanmar, and yes everything we can to provide aid and comfort to our Russian sisters and brothers. I’m not there yet. I still hesitate at the thought of providing aid and comfort to the enemy. I have much to learn about what LOVE for our enemies looks like. But if humanity has any hope at all of becoming all that we are created to be, we must learn that it is not either this tribe or the other tribe.
Escaping our destructive tribal mentalities and the inherent racism which flows from tribalism is not an either-or equation. Being LOVE in the world calls us into a both-and equation as we struggle to LOVE our enemies in ways which benefit this tribe as well as that tribe. Transcending the destructive racism which flows from tribalism cannot begin until we confront the racism which we do not want to see in ourselves.Once recognized we can begin to transform our behaviours and be about the task of being LOVE in the world.
The three world religions which look to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as the founders of our faith, bear a special responsibility to transcend our tribalism; for Judaism, Christianity, and Islamic religions undergird the very tribalisms which rely on the acquiesce of our religious institutions. Our primitive images of the CREATOR continue pose an imminent danger to our planet as tribes and nations parade around the world proclaiming with their lives that our god is bigger than your god. Sadly, our collective images of the MYSTERY we call GOD have failed to represent the CREATOR of all we hold dear in ways which foster peace. Recognition of our failures is the only way we can begin to transcend the destructive aspects of our various tribal practices. Each of us must begin where we are, in our own tribe, embodying what our tribal allegiances proclaim: that the CREATOR of all that is and ever shall be, the MYSTERY we call GOD, according to the revelations we hold dear, is BEAUTY, JUSTICE, and LOVE.
So, if you feel a particular kinship affinity for the people of Ukraine, you must embody the BEAUTY, JUSTICE, and LOVE which has been revealed to you in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus by doing whatever you can to provide aid and comfort to the people of Ukraine. Celebrate the aspects of tribalism which contributes to our evolution as humans, the tribalism which allures us into UNITY. Empathize with the victims of this war and then do something, anything, and everything you can, for we are richly blessed. As our Jewish sisters and brothers believe, teach, and embody, we are blessed to be a blessing.
As you embody LOVE for those who have evoked this strong tribal affinity in you, challenge yourself. Ask yourself, why these and not those. Recognize the destructive aspects of tribalism which motivate you.Challenge yourself to see and then transcend the racism which flows out of our tribalism. I’m learning that the only thing worse than a racist is a person who fails or refuses to see the racism which lives in them. The destructive aspects of tribalism which foster racism in us do not serve humanity. They only serve our fear while creating even more indifference and violence.
We who are privileged to live in safety must challenge ourselves to transcend the racism which motivates both our indifference and our compassion by challenging ourselves to also provide aid and comfort to a tribe we feel no affinity for. We must empathize with the victims of war, all wars, and then we must do something, anything, everything we are able for them, those others, the ones we feel little or no affinity for. For we are richly blessed and as our Islamic sisters and brothers proclaim with their almsgiving, charity is pleasing to the DIVINE, for the DIVINE is charitable. Charity comes from the word which means LOVE.
LOVE is of the DIVINE, so be LOVE, for you are made of the DIVINE. You don’t have to do it all, but you do have to do something. We are called to be LOVE in the world, LOVE to the members of every tribe, every nation, clan, and people. We are blessed to evolve into the embodiment of the MOTHER-HEN-GOD embracing, enfolding, tut tutting, cluck clucking, as we gather together the of the children of the DIVINE to provide aid and comfort to every tribe and nation.
So, you LOVEly chickadees, grow a pair. Wings that is. The HOLY Wings which will embrace every tribe and nation in LOVE. Be that LOVE in the world.
View the full Worship Service for the Second Sunday in Lent below