Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christian Tribalism: does God call us to stand up for the truth?

There seems to be a great deal of emphasis in Christian circles involving "standing up for the truth": affirming an unpopular but Biblical position regarding some issue that conflicts with contemporary Western mores. The latest flap is about Phil Robertson of the Duck Dynasty TV show, his interview with the magazine GQ, and network A&E's banning of Phil from the show. Conservative Christians are up in arms about censorship and free speech and most of all Standing Up for Biblical Truth.

What I see in all of this is a mindset I'd call Christian Tribalism.

Christian Tribalism is merely the religious version of a mindset shared by most people throughout history. It's basic form is encapsulated in the phrase, "Us vs. Them."  The basic idea is that We are at war, or at least in competition, with Them. We, of course, are the Good Guys, and They are the Bad Guys. Our job is to fight, or defend, or take a stand, for the Good Guys and for the principles that we believe in. We're looking to defeat the other guy, whether the weapons of our warfare are swords or guns or pens or tweets.

Let's go back to the current cause célèbre. In the GQ interview, at least the way it's printed, Phil is asked, What, in your mind, is sinful? Now I already realize that interviews like this are heavily edited. Even the typography—italics, not quotation marks—suggests that perhaps the quoted section immediately following that question may not be a direct answer to that direct question. Probably the reporter, Drew Magary, selected the juiciest parts of a much longer conversation. That's actually what I assume to be the case. So I have no idea what the original context of Phil's remarks actually was.

But all we have to go on is the article as it was printed. That's what people are arguing about, regardless of whether they've actually read the original—and it's clear that many people taking sides clearly haven't. So in the article as printed, Phil is asked the question What, in your mind, is sinful? And the quoted answer begins with, "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there."

It's not my place to judge Phil. Like I said, I have no idea what the original context of the quote was. But if I were asked what I considered to be sinful, the last thing I would do is to start with a sin that doesn't actually tempt me and which I don't really understand.

That's tribal language. That's Us vs. Them. Sin is what those other people do. Not only don't I do things like that; I don't even understand the attraction. Obviously those other people need to repent. Not me.

What if, in response to the question, What, in your mind, is sinful? we answered, "Start with my own pride and just morph out from there"? Wouldn't that defuse the situation? Wouldn't it put the whole discussion in a new light? Wouldn't it give us a better chance to persuade the other person?

But usually in these situations, we're not trying to persuade anyone of anything. The intended audience is not the person who disagrees with us. It's rather the person who already agrees, the person who will Like our Facebook posts and leave rah rahs in the comments. We're playing to the base, preaching to the choir. We're looking for affirmation from those who already agree. It's our tribe against the other tribes.

Because the issue is not really what Phil Robertson said to Drew Magary. It's the representation of Jesus that every one of us gives every single time a controversial issue comes up. It's whether we attempt to defeat the other person, or whether we attempt to persuade them. It's whether we stand up for our rights to say what we believe, or be "all things to all people so that by all possible means" we "might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22).

Christian tribalism wants to defeat the other guy. Paul wanted to persuade him. Christian tribalism wants to stand up for our rights. Paul wrote, "Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?" (1 Cor. 6:7). Christian tribalism says to defeat our enemies, if not by force, then by debate and politics. Jesus said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27). And as soon as there aren't pagans to fight, Christian tribalism degenerates into an internecine tribalism of Calvinist vs. Arminian, Egalitarian vs. Complementarian, Evangelical vs. Emerging, Cessationist vs. Charismatic. 

Despite the bravado, our tribalism betrays fear. We're afraid that if we don't push back against the false values of secular society, we'll look weak. If we don't assert our rights, they'll continue to be whittled away. If we don't stand up for truth, error will win. But we're missing the point. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. The weapons of our warfare are not fleshly. And most importantly, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" We have the best backup imaginable. We don't have to lash out like those who are weak. We can rely on the One who gives us strength. He doesn't need us to defend him.

It's not the weak, but the strong, who can remain calm in the midst of an assault. It's not the weak, but the strong, who can transcend the other guy attacking our values, our traditions, our faith, and seek to persuade instead of fighting back. It's not the weak, but the strong, who can carry the cross and suffer the shame for the joy that is set before us. It's not the weak, but the strong, who can show love instead of hate, kindness instead of bitterness, mercy instead of vengeance.

Someone should stop the childish war of words. Shouldn't it be us?


  1. Well spoken my friend, well spoken indeed. -Dave P

  2. While not necessarily disagreeing, can you show me the enemies of the Christians who are different? Who is the "us" in the last word of your entry? Who is the implied "them"?

    1. The enemies of the Christians may not be different. That's not the point. The point is that we should be.

      In the final sentence, "us" would be "us Christians," and may be appropriated by any readers who consider themselves Christians. Those who name the name of Christ have a responsibility to be as like him as possible. The implied "them" would be whomever we feel is attacking our values or with whom we find ourselves in conflict.

      Good questions. Thanks!