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Tribe. That’s the word my husband has been using a lot lately as we discuss the world. We are all divided into our own ethnic, socio-economic, political, and religious tribes. Others use the word silo, but I think this refers more to the limited interaction individuals have with others outside of their social media “tribe.” Truth be told, in our global world, different tribes bump up against each other constantly in the marketplace, voting booth, school, and even home.
Tribes are, for a lack of a better word, “tribal.” Tribes tend to be fiercely protective of their identity, celebrating themselves as the best. If you aren’t following, think white parents shouting at black children during school integration in the 1960s. Think, junior high bullies in the lunchroom enforcing a code of cool and uncool. This is tribal behavior.
Jesus was anti-tribal. He included everyone the cool kids make sure don’t sit at their lunch table: Samaritans, divorced women, tax collectors, lepers, migrants, the poor, and more. Jesus’ central message-- love your neighbor-- is a direct challenge to the tribalism of his particular time and place.
American politics are incredibly tribal these days, leaving our country divided in ways that leave us afraid. But this isn’t particularly new. Our democracy is rooted in a two-party tribal system. Sadly, American Christianity is more tribal than American politics. Drive down the main street of any American town. There will be multiple churches, often of different ethnicities, that rarely interact with each other, even in small towns. They follow Jesus of Nazareth who commands us to love our neighbors, but when can we love our neighbors, if we never meet them?
American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe their brand of Christianity is the only way. I have been accused of not being Christian (most often ironically by evangelical women), which is in itself a little funny, since I have spent my life serving the Gospel as an ordained Christian minister. What they are really trying to say is that I am not the right kind of Christian. Tribal.
My favorite secret pastime is throwing stones. My internal dialogue goes something like this: Those folks are tribal, accusing me of not following Jesus just because I am an ordained woman. They clearly haven’t read the parts in the Bible where Jesus includes women in his ministry. Why do they think they are so Christian? Hmmm…. Sounds perhaps like I'm being just as tribal. Or…I proudly wear a t-shirt that reads, “God loves the people you hate.” Maybe I should remember that t-shirt is speaking directly to me since I have a long, secret list of people I hate. Again, tribal.
This fall I have decided to resist this Christian tribalism in a concrete way. I am the pastor of two progressive Christian churches that work tirelessly to include everyone who walks through their doors. In one church an adult with developmental disabilities yells joyfully during service; her cries are met with smiles and later conversations during coffee hour. At another church, we are so concerned a member who uses a wheelchair feels included, nothing happens anywhere that is inaccessible. Both communities make a concerted effort to welcome LGBTQ+ folks and non-christians (yes, don’t tell anyone but both communities are filled with agnostics and people of other religious traditions and even married same gendered couples! Say it isn’t so! Once again, I’m being tribal.)
Yet I wonder: would an evangelical, spouting born-again theology, walking into either church, be welcomed? I’m honestly not sure. In the progressive Christian church Evangelicals are akin to Samaritans in Jesus’ ancient Jewish tradition.
There are lots of things that the Evangelical church has gotten wrong and many more things they have professed that have hurt others, such as the exclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and female pastors. I believe it is wrong that the Evangelical church weaponizes the Bible and does not recognize other religious traditions as being equally important paths to living meaningful lives connected to the divine.
There are things that the Evangelical church does really well! Have you ever been to an evangelical youth group or prayer gathering? There are lots of things we can learn from these fellow Christian’s without engaging in tribal culture wars.
That is where I am. A pastor on the verge of preaching about what we can learn from the Evangelical Church. Currently my list includes church attendance, evangelism, giving, prayer, conviction, and assurance. I am sure more topics will emerge. I am also certain by the end of the fall I will be exhausted by my inter-religious foray and return to my tribal silo. But I also hope maybe, just maybe, more bridges will be built, some of us will be less afraid of the Evangelical Church, and we will learn a little more about what is at the very heart of Jesus’ gospel.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.