The tribal wars have only just begun.

Worldly Winds (6)

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 21.25

The most difficult book in the Bible
During a recent pastoral examination by the denomination in which I serve, the candidate was asked which book of the Bible he found to be the most difficult, and why. After a bit of hesitation, he explained that Hebrews was to him the most difficult book of the Bible, because he felt that every time he read it, it was as if he had never read it before, so profound and varied were its teachings.

Ask me that question, and I won’t hesitate at all: Judges. Why? Because it is so sad and discouraging to see how quickly a people, abundantly blessed of God, can slip into disunity, idolatry, and tribalism. The final chapters of Judges show us a people who live nasty, brutal lives, and who gang up on an offending tribe and nearly destroy it. Only the grace of God, piquing the consciences of His people, made it possible for the tribe of Benjamin to have any continued existence whatsoever.

I read this book, I admit, hurriedly, because I want to get through it and on to the story of Ruth, where we are reassured of the transforming power of God’s grace, both for that day and our own.

Judges begins with the people of Israel looking for a tribe to lead them into battle to complete the conquest of Canaan. It ends with the people of Israel looking for a tribe to punish with near destruction. It’s like Lord of the Flies on a national scale; and it’s probably appropriate that the nearly-destroyed tribe of Benjamin would supply the first king of Israel, and that he would lead all the tribes of Israel into near-destruction.

The tribalism we see in the book of Judges offers a distant mirror on our own day, when postmodern thinking has led to the tribalization of American society in a dog-eat-dog competition for power.

Postmodernism defined
It's difficult to give a cogent definition for postmodernism. It is what it says, a way of trying get through life without relying on the protocols of modern thinking – reason, science, technology – or society at large. Postmodernism represents a confluence of several philosophical notions. It is anti-rational in that it counsels us not to yield to the idea that science is the last word in everything. It is self-authenticating, and thus provides a safe harbor for the personal “mattering” that relativism promotes. And it is highly individualistic, drawing from existentialist and pragmatic thinking to encourage us to do our own thing, go our own way, make our own mark in life.

All of which combine to demonstrate that postmodernism is not really a viable worldview. Primarily, postmodernism is a kind of frustrated rant against the brutality, oppression, and political scheming of our humanist, secular, and materialist age. As an alternative to modernism, postmodernism is a failure, which is why we have now entered a period of post-postmodernism, and it’s not clear what new worldly winds of doctrine will blow next.

For now, however, postmodernism lingers in an adapted form, which we might call tribalism. Because postmodernists could not live with the idea that every individual should be allowed to do whatever seemed right in his own eyes, they encouraged the view that truth is communal, and that each of us needs to find that group or community, or tribe of like-minded postmodernists where our views are welcomed, affirmed, strengthened, and extended through the acquisition and exercise of power in various forms.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of postmodernism and tribalism. Someone to affirm our views. Ways to express ourselves that have the support of a community. Tribal actions that affirm the validity of our group-think and allow us to achieve a measure of public presence. The ability to join in common causes with other tribes, especially to aim for tribal takeovers and, when possible, the elimination of competing tribes.

There is some truth here, but postmodernism and tribalism are not so much high ground to claim as they are slippery slopes to power politics.

Problems with postmodern tribalism
The Christian movement has in many ways been a precursor of the tribalism of our postmodern moment. Prior to the Great Schism of the 11th century, when the Bishop of Rome and the Metropolitan (Bishop) of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other, the Church was essentially one Body with one common creed and mission. Yes, there were offshoots and sub-groups within that framework, but not so markedly or with such mutual hostility as began to be in evidence following the Great Schism.

Then, in the 16th century, when Protestant expressions of the faith began to appear, the body of Christ fragmented further, as new tribes arose to stake out their corner on the truth. Since then, more than 35,000 different denominations have emerged, and almost none of these has anything to do with any others. The unity of the Body of Christ for which Jesus prayed (Jn. 17.21), and which Paul said we must work hard to maintain (Eph. 4.3), is virtually non-existent.

And nobody seems to care.

This tribalization of the faith continues in our day, even within fragments of the Body of Christ that would seem to have almost everything in common – such as evangelicalism, or Pentecostalism, or even Roman Catholicism. We have accepted this tribal framework as normal, and we almost never make any attempt to find a common core of truth, set our differences aside, and get on with being the Body of Christ together, community by community. The tribal nature of our condition is evident in the various ways we turn to political power to bolster the place of our tribe. It’s no wonder the world doesn’t believe us when we say that Jesus has been sent from the Father for the salvation of the world.

We find this tribalizing instinct even within local churches, where cliques – “teams”, “ministries”, and so forth – with competing interests stake their claim on the church’s budget and facilities; critics recruit followers to support their views against the pastor; and where it never occurs to any church leader or member to try to do something together with the other like-minded churches in the community. We all have our truth, and it seems right to us; so we just soldier on within our tribe. We’ve lost sight of the beauty of Christian unity (Ps. 133) and of its importance as a witness to the living Christ (Acts 6.1-6; Jn. 17.17).

The wind of postmodern tribalism has become a growing tempest in our day. Christians need to recognize this trend for what it is – a force for destruction rather than edification – and find new ways of trimming their sails into the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.

For reflection
1. In a sense, tribalism is an acceleration of postmodernism, rather than its replacement. Explain.

2. Postmodern tribes vie for power, primarily through the agency of government. Is this the kind of power Christians should seek? Explain.
3. In a local church, what can we do to keep the ill wind of postmodern tribalism from filling the sails of our soul?

Next steps – Preparation: What are some of the primary “tribes” vying for power in our society today? How should the Church seek to relate to these?

T. M. Moore

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore