During the course of thousands of years of history, human beings have divided up themselves into tribes. Tribalism can be literal, as with the Incas when Pizzaro and his fellow Spaniards conquered them in the 16th century, or when white settlers in the 19th century moved west and encountered various tribes of American Indians such as the the Arapaho and Lakota tribes in Wyoming and Montana. Too much blood was shed.
As we use the term “tribalism” in our current political discussion, we refer to the color of one’s skin or a person’s political party, or one’s religion. The Democrats and Republicans have certainly become tribes in the eyes of us political independents. Both parties put tribe above the general good too many times with such issues as gun control, health care and fiscal responsibility.
One theory of a tribalism that I think makes sense is that a tribe is held together by shared goals and ideals. But the energy to keep the tribe together is a shared hatred for outsiders. Here I am indebted to Freud, who experienced this himself as a Jew living in Vienna.
Recently, we saw a mass murderer in El Paso slaughter innocent people because they were Hispanic. This man, whom I will not name, was a white nationalist who spouted Trump’s “talking points” about what he calls “foreign invaders.” Recently in Ohio, James Reardon, only 20, threatened to shoot up a Youngstown Jewish community center. Reardon attended the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Virginia and spoke of wanting “a homeland for white people.”
Tribalism based on skin color and religion is also creating havoc in other countries. Millions of Muslims born in India could be declared noncitizens under a program supported by the country’s Hindu nationalist government.
Tribalism is even exploited by our football universities to fire up rivalries where the emotions border on hatred. Of course, the schools hope to use tribalism to fill their coffers to support the gigantic salaries of college administrators and, of course, the football coaches. When I work out at the YMCA, I can look around and see which tribes each person belongs to, and sometimes I show that myself.
Anti-semitism is on the rise in our country and in the rest of the world. The hatred for Middle East refugees who are seeking safety in countries such as Italy and Germany is fueling the politics of those countries. Many more examples could be cited of our tribalism and the evil it unleashes in our world.
How do we as a society overcome tribalism?
Can religion be of help? The root meaning of the word “religion” means to bind together, but too often religion divides us. Then religion itself becomes just one more example of tribalism. Islam and Christianity are deeply divided into tribes. I doubt religion can do much to overcome tribalism.
I think we need a broader perspective than that currently offered by religion or our two major political parties or our schools, all of which thrive on tribalism.
Somehow we need to drain the hatred from the group dynamic I have been discussing, while at the same time maintaining the best of our ideals. We need to emphasize what unites us, our common humanity, and use critical thinking – sadly in short supply – to understand our hatreds, resentments and prejudices. Then we need to denounce those evil dynamics in our own souls and be free of them. But more than critical thinking is required.
Religion at its best emphasizes love and compassion and sympathy. Those forces for good were at the heart of Jesus’ teachings. The last thing he wanted to do was to start a new religion that would be rival to his own religion, Judaism.
No single religion has a corner on the truth. Love for the God who transcends all religions – and understanding and then receiving God’s love for all of us regardless of religion or race – can liberate us of our religious tribalism.
And if in our politics if we could emphasize the common good rather than what is good for any single political party, we might actually get some laws passed. Trump is dividing us on the basis of political party and skin color more than any president since Andrew Johnson. History will remember this!
No doubt my emphasis on our shared humanity based on love, and my plea for the common good rather than any single political ideology, will fall on deaf ears in our tribal society. And no doubt my own realization of how sports and their tribalism are largely a money ploy used by schools to receive more and more money will be shared by few.
The ideals of the summer of love in 1967 are buried in history, and what now fuels our society are our hatreds, resentments, racism and fears of “the other.” At the bottom of all that is our tribalism. Give up your tribes and you will be richer, both spiritually and in your wallet when your tribes no longer pick your pocket.