Tribes – by Joe Cassidy (Principal, St. Chad’s College, Durham)
Why was Paul so upset that members of the church at Corinth were identifying themselves over and against one another in terms of who had baptised whom? Why, in John’s Gospel, do we read that unity is essential if the world is to know that Jesus was sent by the Father? And, in keeping with the justice theme of this series of Christmas reflections, what does a vision of Christian unity say about how we pursue justice?
Though there are many ways to frame the problem, I wonder whether one potential ‘opposite’ of unity is an excessive form of tribalism (not that tribal or shared identity is itself always bad). Tribal societies arguably emerged as practical ways of banding together as a shared form of survival – no bad thing. At its worst, though, tribalism can express itself in extreme forms of ethnocentrism, where the value of others is so denigrated that the ‘other’ is demonised and where ethno-cleansing (or other forms of ‘cleansing’) can become almost routine.
Tribalism builds on our having a claim (via kinship or shared interest) on local, familiar ‘others’; but Christian tribalism (if we can call it that) could start with something different: for there is an ‘Other’ who has a prior claim on me and on us all. Christian tribalism could be different from other tribalisms, for our shared identity should not come primarily from us. Rather, it depends on our realisation that God’s love, something we cannot earn or possess, graciously shifts the vortex of any self-referent tribalism away from ourselves. Indeed, one way of reading disputes in the early Church is to see a budding movement away from being a small tribal Jewish sub-sect, to realising that this movement is precisely not about us, certainly not about who baptised whom, and perhaps not even about who believes this or that potentially divisive ‘theological idea’.
The realisation that identity (and so unity) is a gift, a gift modelled on God’s ultimately trustworthy love, shifts the goalposts. We are defined by the claims made on us – both by the Other and also by every ‘other’, who are all loved by the same God; and living the truth of that claim impels us to love both our neighbour and our so-called enemies, for God ‘makes his sun to rise on the evil and good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust’ (Mt 5.45). Indeed it is love of our enemies, which is to say love of other tribes, that apparently ought to distinguish us. Christian unity is not for ‘our sake’, not for our tribe’s sake, but for the sake of others, whom we are to love audaciously and sacrificially. In these days, such love is expressed principally by yearning and striving for justice for others.
If we Christians can do that together, if internecine tribal instincts are trumped by effective concern for others, even for the most vilified, then we will be witnessing to the power of God’s love to provide a vision beyond intra- and extra-tribal differences, a vision beyond hatred, beyond ethnocentrism, beyond the tensions that lead to violence and war. Such was the vision of the Kingdom, where God’s love defined and subordinated all other relations, where our freedom to love others was to be the hallmark of our having received the Spirit, of our having dreamt the dream. But if we can’t do that even amongst ourselves, if we eschew unity, then we descend to idolatry, preferring the darkness, and trumpeting to the world that what divides us is fundamentally more important than what unites us, more important even than God.
Joe Cassidy is Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham
This excellent article by the Principal of St. Chad’s College, Durham, on the effect of tribalism on the need for unity in the Church, comes at a time in our Anglican history when certain conservative factions within the Communion of Provincial Churches – as well as those within the individual Churches – on issues of biblical hermeneutics and different understandings of gender and sexuality, are pressing for separation from the more liberal Christian ethos of inclusion of all people – regardless of gender or sexual-orientation.
There have always been differences of emphasis on how one should read the teaching of Christ in the scriptures; but suddenly, within the Churches of the Anglican Communion, it seems that matters of argumentation against the ordination of women and homosexual people have prompted have become prioritised – to the point where various parts of the Church have declared war on other parts that have opened up the ministry of the Church to include women and gays. This has been taken so seriously as to have given rise to schism – with certain conservative African Churches sending missionaries into the more liberal provinces of the Church (e.g: the USA, Canada, and England) under the guise of ‘rescuing’ them local Anglicans from what has been thought to be heresy or even apostacy.
Joe Cassidy’s thesis here is that unity in the Body of Christ is much more important than our tribal doctrinal differences – a most important principle to be taken care of in the present climate of Church tendencies towards structured schismatic severance.
Surprisingly (for me) I rejoiced to find the following article posted by ‘virtueonline’ (which web-site is not normally focussed on the quest for Anglican Unity) on the North American scene, which echoes Fr. Joe Cassidy’s sentiments. Here is the link:-
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand