[To honour confidentiality, I have refrained from mentioning many details in the following story. My vagueness at times is intentional. However, I don’t believe this takes away from the impact of the story.]
I’m at a conference. I love conferences. There’s always so much coffee to drink and so many people to meet. As an extrovert this suits me perfectly. This particular conference was for ministers, so being a minister myself, I’ve always found it a great source of encouragement and solidarity, being with people who I could relate to on so many levels.
During the conference we were told about an evening session on the second night in which we could share stories, the good, the bad and the ugly, of our ministries. I had been asked to share, as at the time the church in which I ministered was going through a very difficult period and they believed that my experience may be helpful for those gathered. At the very least it would be a chance for me to be prayed for.
So, there I am, stood in front of all these other ministers, anxious and if I’m honest, fearful. I shared about our church’s struggle, but as part of that I had to share how I had changed my mind on a certain controversial theological topic. I shared with tears in my eyes, laid bare and completely vulnerable. The only thing I remember from sharing was the reactions on people’s faces. Some, those who generally agreed with my theological position, were doing all they could to show they supported me and were with me. The faces I remember most though were the ones that dropped: unable to look at me. I felt their disappointment. I felt their rejection.
Two people offered to come and pray for me. Neither of whom mentioned me in their prayers. They prayed for the church and that they would be guided into what could only be articulated as their understanding of theological orthodoxy. Not once did they pray for me. They didn’t pray for the person they had been laughing with earlier. The hurting human standing next to them.
After that meeting a few people ignored me and didn’t want to or didn’t know how to talk to me. I was no longer a part of their club. The changing of my mind had excluded me from their tribe. I had crossed an invisible boundary that I didn’t know existed. Only an hour before that we were friends, now I represented the allusive enemy, the opposing viewpoint.
That night I rang my now wife; my then girlfriend, who was and is quite simply my rock. She is an endless supply of support and strength. We start talking about our days and I tell her about the evening session and what I shared. Within seconds I was in floods of tears. I felt so rejected and excluded. It felt as though many of my relationships were fragile, based entirely on what I read and ultimately, what I believed.
I feel it’s important to note, before moving on, that my tears were a drop in the ocean of tears cried by those who know constant rejection from the places in which they should find sanctuary, welcome and love: the church. This blog has been written with these people in mind. The excluded, the marginalised, the ones that don’t fit in because they think differently or act differently. It is with their faces, their stories and their tears, firmly secured in my heart, that I write this blog.
So, let’s talk about tribal boundaries.
For the sake of clarity, let me explain what I mean by this. By tribe, I mean the people you agree with, find solidarity and community being around. In the Christian world this could be your denomination (Methodist, Anglican, Baptist…), your Spirituality (Charismatic, Liturgical, Contemplative…), your broader theological tradition (Evangelical, Conservative, Liberal, or somewhere in between…) and your narrower theological convictions (Creationist, Evolutionist, Affirming, Traditionalist, Complementarian, Egalitarian…). We could mention hundreds more, and we could probably argue for ever over the lists I’ve just made, although this would distract from the point I’m trying to articulate. A tribe is a group of people you find solace with, who think like you, act like you and see the world in a similar way to you. These tribes have boundaries that mean you’re either in or out. Most tribes, it would be fair to say, would be a mix of the above categories.
In a funny way Rob Bell captures what I mean well, when he describes the tribes of the Ancient Near East.
‘In the ancient Near East, your tribe was your family, your bloodline, your home, your identity – your tribe was everything. And everyone belonged to a tribe.
You worked for your tribe, as did everyone else in the tribe. You accumulated possessions, fought battles, made alliances, all in the name of tribal preservation. And if you did something unacceptable, something shameful, it reflected poorly on your tribe.
Tribes existed for their own well-being and preservation. (You see the humour in that last sentence, right? Like anything has changed in thousands of years.)’
I think it’s fantastic that Rob Bell acknowledges at the end of the quote that nothing has changed, ‘in thousands of years.’ Tribalism has and always will be a very human thing.
At this point I must nuance my very negative portrayal of tribalism. Tribes are natural and not necessarily bad at all. We are drawn to people like us. People who share our beliefs, our values and our world view. This is what, in my opinion, leads to the beautiful diversity of our faith. It’s impossible to say Christians believe a, b and c, because the breadth of beliefs in denominations is huge, let alone across broader traditions, such as Evangelical and Liberal. Or geographically: East and West. We are a diverse bunch of misfits, who find solace in the company of those like us.
The problem for me with tribes is that more often than not they exclude the other, as I have shown in my experience at the minister’s conference. Also, equally as problematic, they have a tendency to make God small, as we’ll go on to explore now.
Ultimately, tribal boundaries dictate what God is like and how God is to be experienced. Often this leads tribes claiming a certain ownership over God, making God small. Richard Rohr put this far better than me in his book, ‘The Universal Christ’:
The Christ is always way too much for us, larger than any one era, culture, empire or religion. Its radical inclusivity is a threat to any power structure and any form of arrogant thinking. Jesus by himself has usually been limited by the evolution of human consciousness in these first two thousand years, and held captive by culture, by nationalism, and by Christianity’s own cultural captivity to a white, bourgeois, and Eurocentric worldview… [Jesus] came in mid-tone skin, from the underclass, a male body with a female soul, from an often-hated religion, and living on the very cusp between East and West. No one owns him, and no one ever will.’
You may not agree with everything Rohr says and that’s fine, but I hope you’d agree with his last sentence in regard to Jesus, ‘no one owns him, and no one ever will.’
Jesus never fitted into categories or stayed within the boundaries of tribes. In fact, he had a habit of blowing tribal boundaries to smithereens. Let me throw out some examples:
- The Pharisees got regularly rebuked by Jesus for their strict tribal boundaries; the hundreds of extra laws they placed around God’s law.
- Jesus was the Messiah, but not as any understood the title Messiah. No understanding of the Messiah could contain him. There were aspects of the title he owned, but much he didn’t. This is why, particularly in Mark’s gospel he comes down so harshly on those that try too early to define who he is (see Mark 1:40-45 for an example of this). This is regularly referred to in biblical criticism as the Messianic Secret. Jesus wants to redefine this highly politicised title in all that he’s doing and therefore, needed time to do this.
- Jesus constantly ignored the tribal boundaries around appropriate company. The famous criticism thrown at Jesus being, ‘why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (Mark 2:16). This isn’t the behaviour of a Rabbi. This isn’t the behaviour of a religious Jewish man. In first century, Palestine, the company you had at your meal table was hugely important. Your guests reflected on you and your values. So, in order to maintain good standing in the local community, you made sure you ate with the socially acceptable. The ones who were like you: part of your tribe.
- Jesus refused to hate and treat people as second-class citizens. Again, challenging cultural norms of the time and placing himself firmly outside the tribal boundaries of appropriate behaviour. He spent time with Samaritans (the enemies of the Jewish people), treated women as equals and welcomed gentiles (non-Jews). All of which was deemed unacceptable.
There are hundreds more examples I could give. The point is this, no tribe could adequately describe him, and no tribal boundaries could contain him. ‘No one owns him, and no one ever will.’
If all of this has been a little confusing, let me spell out in one sentence what I’m trying to say: strict tribal boundaries nurture exclusion and make God small. I would love to say that my experience at the minister’s conference is an anomaly. I would love to say that the rejection I felt was rare and unprecedented in Christian circles. However, the very fact you’ve got this far into my blog means you probably know all too well, that it isn’t.
Here’s where I’m at…
I am done with tribal boundaries and the exclusion they foster.
I am done with tribal boundaries and the small god they defend.
I worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God. A God of love, inclusion and God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.
 Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, 35. I must add that Rohr makes a distinction throughout the book between Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the human nature of the Second person of the trinity, is culturally bound, whereas Christ, the divine nature is universal. The ‘Christ mystery’, his oft used phrase, has always existed and is present in all people and things. I do not think you need to agree with him here for his quote to still be valid. I felt, however, that this was important to mention as it does further expound what he says.