Tribalism’s Insidious Threat

woman covering face with right hand in front of large tribal head statue

Photo by Pixabay

While reading through my news feed the other day, I came across a comment to a post that was shared on someone’s Facebook wall that said this:

I will NEVER vote for a Muslim.  Those crazy people are born with a knife to kill.”

Those words resonated a religious/political tribalism to me.

In this country, Christians seem to fall prey to tribalism when reason is nullified by a tribal (us against them) way of thinking –  often contradicting the teachings of Christ.

I see it all the time on news feeds – people sharing one-sided, polarizing posts that say to the reader: “If you don’t believe my way, you’re …“, or “If you don’t believe as I doyou must be against …“, and so on…and so on.

We have all seen them.

You can fill in the blank, but know that while a post might gin-up one tribe, it alienates another.  There are many evangelical Christians in this country who have allowed themselves to become pawns in a political chess match, and prey for idealogues trying to promote their own self-interests.

A prolific example of religious/political tribalism happens to be in the person of Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham.  Leading the charge to swing California back to “red” in the name of “we’re tired of being stepped on” evangelicalism, Graham steps over the line by saying “Progressive?  That’s just another word for godless“.

Wait a minute!  I lean more progressive on many issues than conservative.  Does that mean I’m godless?

Way to gin up the tribe Mr. Graham!  But in doing so, you just disparaged a Christian brother.

As men like Graham rail against those in authority over the State of California, they and their evangelical followers,  hypocritically disregard the scriptural defense they’ve put forward on behalf of a morally bereft president – found in Romans 13:1, it says in part, “…for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

One final note to Mr. Graham on the gains you’re tribe is seeking to make:  “You cannot legislate the heart“.

A Christian must therefore ask if this is what Christ has called us to.

Did not Christ die once for all?

What grants any one tribal group superiority of thought or privilege over the other?

Nationalism verses Christendom.

Is it more important being a disciple of Christ – reaching out to the disenfranchised in love and understanding, or staying in our own little tribes (which are increasingly conflating Christianity with politics), throwing spears and arrows at those who do not agree with our tribe’s political ideology?

Tribalism never prospers, for when it does, everyone will respect it as a true nationalism, and no one will dare call it tribalism.” – Ernest Gellner

Tribalism is like an insidious disease, that can creep up on Christians in subtle ways that go unrecognized until the damage has been done.

To repeat a quote by Mahatma Gandhi that I shared in a previous post:

An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.”

In today’s social media environment, Gandhi’s words seem to have been a prophetic warning.

A falsehood doesn’t become truth simply by being propagated through the multiplied sharing of a post on Facebook or Twitter.

Let me add my own note of warning here:

Christianity and politics are bad bedfellows. When Christians conflate the two, our fulfillment of the Great Commission is placed in jeopardy.

How can you go into all the world to do what Jesus told his disciples to do, if you’re xenophobic?

And how can you teach others in the world to observe all that Christ commanded – he who was humble in spirit – when you place yourself above them?

We should be able to balance our sense of patriotism, with a sense of humility that says to the world: “But by the grace of God”.

Scripture is often cherry-picked by hybrid evangelical/political tribes to support a political ideology – one that often marginalizes the poor and other disenfranchised groups that Christ cared deeply about.  Worse yet, one who professes to be a Christian can find themselves alienated from these groups in their zeal to conform to the politics of the tribe.

Do you know anyone like this?

It’s a sad commentary on our faith, when some Christians, while walking in lock-step with their religious/political tribe, are willing to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others in their own back yard and around the world – including Palestinian evangelical Christians.

Rather than compassion, they offer indifference – often vilifying those whom they should be compassionate toward.

Pope Francis has it right when he says, “Let us work together to find concrete solutions to help the poor, refugees, victims of modern forms of slavery, in order to promote peace.

The operative word in his quote happens to be “us”.   Not just our ethno-political religious tribe, but all of us together – as the body of Christ.

Isn’t that where the heart of every Christian should be?

Why then do some allow hyper-partisan views on immigration, welfare, sovereignty, and the like, to cloud their Christ vision?

When Christianity is combined with political dogma, it can create a bitter, unholy brew that poisons our witness to the world.

Whatever temporal gains one might think they’re making with this type of alliance, the eternal losses can be far greater.


Shane Claiborne, a prominent Christian activist, calls those who represent this kind of Christianity, “toxic Christians”.

Claiborne heads a group of evangelicals known as “Red Letter Christians”.   “Red Letter” used in the name of the group, refers to the passages in the Gospels where Jesus himself was speaking.  He characterizes his group as, “a movement of folks who are committed to living as if Jesus meant the things he said.

Tribalism by its very nature is toxic.

It is toxic to discourse.

It is toxic to understanding.

It is toxic to the servanthood Christ himself emulated, and has called us to as his followers.

But most of all,

it is toxic to those who drink from its cup.