Living Well

Tribes and Tribalism

imagesThe real violence starts in the way we speak about people, make assumptions about them, and decide that they are not like us . . . As long as people keep buying into these words, it will not take much more for them to buy into the action that has to follow.—Henri Nouwen

I have been writing this blog entry, in my mind, for months. In April, I went with a group of spiritual directors to an ancient Native American site in New Mexico – called Puye Cliffs. There, 3 members of the Pueblo tribe, whose ancestors had lived in the cliff dwellings, greeted us. They graciously, generously shared stories of their people-how long they lived there, how they conducted their community life – what they ate, how and where they worshipped, when and why they left.

After the visit, as time went by, I kept thinking about what I experienced of their reverence for the created world, the way they prioritize community life, their family ties. I kept thinking about the history of the violence and destruction that European settlers in America brought to the Native people. Why? Why? Why? My heart struggles to understand.

Oh, I know. Fear and power are primal human experiences. And without reflection, these emotions can and do produce the world’s greatest tragedies.

So I have been thinking about tribes and tribalism a lot since my visit to Puye Cliffs. I have only to turn on the news, read the paper, even look around my neighborhood, to see the negative effects of tribalism (tribal consciousness and loyalty; especially :  exaltation of the tribe above other groups – Merriam Webster). The ancient land tribalism in Gaza that pits Israelis against Palestinians; the ancient religious tribalism that is destroying thousands of people and their cities in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and surrounding countries; the ancient racial tribalism that allowed generations in South Africa to justify horrific human suffering. And close to home, tribalism rears its ugly head through ongoing racial violence, gender inequality, political stalemate, religious exclusivism. My heart struggles to understand.

And then I become aware of the tribes I belong to: family, ethnic origin, religious, geographic, economic, gender, sexual orientation, professional, political. The list goes on. I become aware of the ways I have, through my life, created and experienced boundaries, judgments, limitations, and misunderstandings; exalting my own tribe about other tribes; because of fear, holding ‘the other’ at a distance. And I become aware that the inclination to erect boundaries around my tribes makes my life so small. I have missed so much.

I keep coming back to the 3 Pueblo guides at Puye Cliffs. I don’t know their personal life stories, or anything about the ways that tribalism has limited their lives. But I do know that I came away wanting to know more about them. I came away thinking that my own life was expanded and improved simply by spending a morning with them.

And as I look at my own life and my own experiences through the lens of tribalism, I find that fear is at the heart of the boundaries I create. Fear of misunderstanding; fear of loss; fear of isolation – primal fears. But I also know that if I can muster the courage to be with my fear rather than protect and distance myself from it, I stand a very good chance of growing, expanding, learning, and more deeply appreciating the great magnitude of God’s created world. I stand a chance of loving and being loved more. And I find this is what I want.

There is nothing new or brilliant that I have written here. And what I have written is limited and simplistic, I know. But it is an opportunity for me to make a commitment to see and to live differently – to graciously and generously share my experiences of the tribes I belong to, and develop the openness and freedom to listen to those from other tribes in the same way. I don’t want to live small; to miss so much; to be fearful. I want to love and be loved more.


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