Going Tribal (2)

by Berry Friesen (October 4, 2016)

I want to write more about “Going Tribal” in coming weeks because embracing a tribal identity may be one of the keys to surviving humanely within the empire.

But I also feel misgivings.  “Tribalism” is almost a synonym for conflict-ridden, us-versus-them thinking.  We obviously don’t want or need more of that.  How can one reap the humane benefits of a tribal identity without also becoming more insular and defensive?

My exploration of this tension is taking me to some interesting people and conversations.  I mentioned Greg Boyd and Tribalnet in a previous post.  Since then my circle of reading has widened to include Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option; the network of Christian communities connected to Ched Myers and a vision of radical discipleship; and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the New Monasticism.

These are distinct networks with important differences.  Boyd stands within the evangelical tradition, Dreher within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Myers within Anabaptism and Wilson-Hartgrove within the multi-faceted Protestant stream.

But each, it seems to me, would join Dreher’s way of describing the people who find these movements attractive:  “Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”

To repeat, what these tribally-oriented networks have in common is a negative (“cease to identify . . .  with the maintenance of the American empire”) and a positive (“keen to construct local forms of . . . Christian resistance”).

My co-author, John K. Stoner, is currently leading an adult education class in his congregation entitled "Communities of Resistance and Hope."  It’s a conversation about what’s involved in distancing oneself emotionally and spiritually from the empire and committing instead to what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

This past Sunday, I helped lead the class as it talked about the presidential campaign and election. People do have their favorites and it wasn’t an easy conversation, especially not in a class setting where uncomfortable questions hung in the air.  Does the importance we attach to the election reflect the strength of our identification with the empire?  If we yearn for political engagement that is more holistic and authentic than lesser-evil voting, what would be our structure for that—my congregation?

Earlier this year, Richard Beck, a psychology professor who blogs at Experimental Theology, posted about the Benedict Option, its strengths and its dangers.  He highlighted the characteristics of progressive Christians that suggest a particular need for the Benedict Option (or something like it).

Statism:  The belief that the state is the sole and final arbiter of social and moral affairs and thus reducing Christian social action to taking control of the state.

Individualism:  A fierce commitment to radical autonomy and independence making it impossible for us to form communities that participate in God's ongoing story of covenantal promise and fidelity.

Functional atheism: Pervasive doubt and agnosticism, along with an inability to articulate anything particularly or distinctively Christian in prophetic contrast to the prevailing liberal and humanistic consensus.

Scarcity, Exhaustion and the Never Enough Problem: The competitive meritocracy of capitalism fills our lives with neurotic status anxiety--what Brené Brown calls ‘the shame-based fear of being ordinary’--which drives us to emotional and physical exhaustion as we work and perform for self-esteem, success and significance.”

But it’s not only progressive Christians who need the help.  Beck acknowledges as much:  “Late modern capitalism is killing us. That's why Christians, conservative and progressive, need the Ben Op.”

I recommend all six of Beck’s essays about the Benedict Option, as well as Dreher’s response to Beck.  Also the online conversations between Dreher and Wilson-Hartgrove, which can be found here and here.  Add the writings of Boyd and Myers and we have much to help us as we ponder the implications of going tribal.