When tribalism increases, so do wars.
What’s tribalism? Its over-the-top loyalty to a favorite group, coupled with strong rejection of those different from the tribe.
When leaders convince citizens their country is No. 1, above all others, tribalism spins out-of-control. Magnetic leaders draw compliant listeners. They sound like politicians straight-talking President Truman detested who “always sound sincere, even if you have to fake it.” Tribal leaders hype a glorious past, which they try to retrieve, even if other countries’ rights are curtailed.
On Nov. 6, 2012, re-elected President Barack Obama spoke at McCormick Place in Chicago. He closed his message against tribalism, striking a chord he used at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
“I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests,” he declared. “We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”
A marker salutes my father’s army service in World War II. It stands sentinel near his gravestone where Old Glory waves at Memorial Day. Patriots visit cemeteries, then, and decorate graves of the heroic dead with flowers.
Dad joined the Allies to fight against the Third Reich’s tribalism. Hitler heralded Aryan supremacy. He subjugated those whose lineage wasn’t cut from Teutonic stock.
The Allies prevailed against tribalism in World War II’s Pacific theater. Gen. Douglas MacArthur denounced it. “Men (humankind) since the beginning of time have sought peace, but military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be the way of the crucible of war,” he declared.
MacArthur used florid prose to tell why tribalism acts like diseases that can be controlled but not eradicated. Now, “we have our last chance,” he declared. “If we do not now devise some greater and more equitable solution, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature and all material and cultural developments of the past 2,000 years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.”
TRIBALISM IS TOXIC
Tribalism poisons humanity because of the “we first, and then everybody else” toxic attitude. In his book “What We Talk About When We Talk about God,” former mega-church preacher Rob Bell tackles this serious problem. Our culture, writes Bell, is “self-centered and our-tribe-above-all-others consciousness is at the root of untold war, conflict, racism, ethnic cleansing, environmental destruction and suffering in the world. ”
He warns about the rise of slick, confident preachers who give black-and-white answers to difficult questions. These tribal chieftains are proud of their humility. They arouse devotion, raise money and stamp God’s approval on their agendas.
Who doesn’t want to be part of the right crowd? Who dares turn their backs on a select few God allegedly favors?
Portions of the Bible tell stories about one tribe killing off other tribes who get in their way. For instance, the Amalekites were the Hebrews’ ancient enemies. The Hebrews nursed grudges against this tribe because the Amalekites harassed Jewish trekkers in the wilderness march out of Egypt.
Co-opting God to approve of doom warfare, the Israelites annihilated the Amalekites. King Saul heard God direct him, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (I Samuel 15:3).
On Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert exposes tribalism’s mass appeal, using parody. He portrays a right-wing braggart who bullies viewers into accepting his warped views that sound deceptively decent. Join the “Colbert Nation,” he commands. Using verbal puffery laced with wit, Colbert undercuts tribalism’s allure. He unleashes a frontal assault against “we first and then everyone else” demagoguery.
On Memorial Day, we salute stout-hearted patriots who battled tribalism. We capture Lawrence Olivier’s spirit who, in the early days of World War II, made a movie of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” “Those happy few” who fought for England expectedly won against the French at Agincourt. This movie based on the Bard’s play steeled British souls who held out against the Third Reich’s bombing blitz in 1940.
Ratchet down the power tribalism enjoys today. On Memorial Day, visit valiant fighters’ graves whose heroism has often kept tribalism in check.
Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling aimed at making God’s history come alive.