The Many Faces of "Tribalism"

Richard H. Bube

Dept. of Materials Science & Engineering
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (March 1992):45-47.

 It is not claimed that the content of this Communication constitutes some unheard-of novelty in thinking about human interactions. Rather it tries to call attention to a characteristic of human interactions that is well known, but is so structured and so ingrained in our cultural attitudes that, although it constitutes a major antithesis to Christian living, still Christians often continue to live as though it did not exist. Not only does it challenge Christian living in every day life, but it challenges the basic Christian conviction that all human beings share in a unity based on the Christian doctrines of Creation and Redemption.
Human society is saturated with conscious and unconscious attitudes that seek to represent the local group to which one belongs ("I and mine") as being superior in all matters, both practical and moral, to any other local group ("you and yours"). This superiority rests primarily on the recognition that others are different from me: "to differ from me is to be inferior to me." Although there may be some debate about the choice of the name for this attitude, I will follow common practice and refer to it as "tribalism." An alternative label that fits some of the cases might also be "ethnocentrism." 

What makes this situation so complex is that in each case there is a right and proper understanding of loyalty to one's own group that takes precedence, in at least some ways, over loyalty to another group. There is, however, also an improper exaltation of one's own group at the expense of any other group, which constitutes what we here call tribalism. Such attitudes of tribalism form a complex hierarchy that dominates much, if not all, of life. They can be viewed as an extended manifestation of original sin and as a dominant cultural antithesis to Christianity. It
is all the more inappropriate, therefore, when we as Christians appear to wholeheartedly support some, if not all, aspects of such tribalism. 

In this Communication I give fourteen examples of human living with these two types of attitude clearly defined. 

1.  Self. Each human being is born with an instinct for self-survival that is a proper aspect of our biological structure, and with the need for self-esteem that is a proper aspect of our personal identity. The Christian position takes for granted that it is right for us to love ourselves, and this self-love is taken in the second
Great Commandment as the example for our love for others. The worth of the individual is confirmed by the great expression of God's love for us. 

Tribalism, however, is not content with this expression of the worth of self, but seeks to establish my worth at the expense of the worth of all other selves. The individual acquires significance in his or her own eyes primarily because others are deprived of their rightful significance. The attitude is that "I am worth something because I am better than others." 

2.  Family. Families are precious units of society and we are perhaps in danger today of not fully realizing and implementing the important role that the nuclear family plays in the raising of children and the support of one another. It is right and proper that members of a nuclear family should, at least usually, see their
primary responsibility directed toward the welfare and needs of the members of their family. 

Tribalism, however, is quick to appear in the form of rivalry and animosity between families. Other families differ from mine, and therefore they are inferior; they lack the morality and fundamental goodness that characterizes my family. My family is to be exalted; other families are to be denigrated. 

3.  Extended Family. We have to a considerable extent lost the benefits of an extended family, one in which several generations and many relatives live in reasonably close proximity and share the happy as well as the sad times of life together. 

But an extended family can also be the cultural basis for tribalism. Family feuds range from those that are oriented to name-calling and social insults, to those that develop into deep-seated hatred. Every occasion for the development of such extended family feuds is seized upon; no slight, no injury, no insult, real or imagined, is too small to be neglected in building up the superiority of one's own extended family. 

4.  Tribe. In many societies, the extended family is identified with a particular tribe. For the reasons given above, loyalty and participation in the life of a particular tribe with its cultural and social traditions is a proper and enriching experience. 

But some of the worst feuds that exist in the world today occur between members of different tribes, in societies where loyalties have not extended appreciably beyond the level of tribe. Members of other tribes are hated both because of their differences and because of real or imagined injuries caused in the past. These injuries can never be forgotten. The honor of one's own tribe- the superior, righteous, honorable tribe- must at all costs be maintained and affronts to it must be avenged. Since the characteristics of my tribe are the standard for beauty,
dignity, value and worth, any other tribe (all other tribes) with different characteristics can only be denounced as ugly and worthless. 

Indeed, this may be a more general condition than we are usually willing to admit. A tragic resurgence of tribalism is occurring as the restraining checks of totalitarian government break down. We need only look at Lebanon, the Middle East, South Africa, the Soviet Union, or many places in Asia and around the world. 

5.  Race. Again it is right and proper to trace one's "roots" as these may include racial, cultural and traditional backgrounds. But unfortunately racial characteristics are one of the most prevalent and tragic sources of often violent tribalism. Perhaps one practical reason for this is that one's race can usually be determined immediately simply by visual contact, and because skin color and facial characteristics form such an obvious source of difference between people. If one member of another race engages in undesirable behavior, it is easy to
automatically assign the guilt for that behavior to every member of that racial group.
6.  Religion. Different peoples in the world may well have legitimate and historically describable reasons for seeing God differently. As Christians we believe that insight into the nature of God and His purposes are revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ, whose life and death are furthermore an historical outworking of that
purpose. In general it would appear that there is a place for people with a common religious commitment and heritage to relate together to help support and transmit that heritage.

But the all too frequent outgrowth of the separation of people into different religions (and "no religion" is one of these) is that each group tends to regard its own view as conveying intrinsic superiority to those who hold it over all others. Religious tribalism can, as we know, lead to some of the most violent conflicts between peoples, each determined to uphold their own religion at the expense of all others (or at least to use that as a rallying call). 

7.  Church. What is right and proper about religions in general, as well as what the temptations of tribalism are, apply to individual Christian churches as well. The existence of separate Christian churches is a consequence of a whole stream of historical and cultural factors, which have nothing to do in many cases with the
profession of the Christian position. 

In view of the central Christian position on the unity of all believers in Christ, however, it is impossible to defend the rampant tribalism that characterizes so much of Christian history. One's own church is upheld as the only true Church, and members of all other Christian churches are viewed with an attitude of suspicion suitable for apostates or heretics, but not for brothers and sisters in Christ. Historically, the use of force or violence against them has often been justified as necessary to lead them to see the error of their ways. 

8.  Neighborhood, City, or State. Love of one's own politically or geographically defined regions, as well as of the people and places related to them, is a natural and healthy response. But absolutization of that love so that all other people and places must be regarded as inferior is another form of tribalism in action. In the United States, in particular, neighborhoods, cities and states do not demand high degrees of allegiance, bound together as they are at the national level. But the situation can change rather drastically if a particular neighborhood, city or
state is identified with some other human activities, as described in the next sections, that give the context of tribalism specific significance. 

9.  Ethnic Background. It is right and good for people to remember the customs and culture of the people from whom they are descended, and it is healthy to share these ethnic delights cross-culturally so that people preserve their own ethnic specialities, while enjoying those of other ethnic backgrounds. 

But since ethnic background includes preferences in clothes, social mores, language, food, art, and music, it is a great temptation to regard one's own ethnic preferences as the ideal, against which all other ethnic preferences should be measured and found wanting. All too often the desire to preserve the purity of one's own roots leads to the assignment of inferior status to the roots of others. 

10.  Nation. Patriotism, i.e., love for one's own country, is both good and desirable. As long as the members of a nation believe that theirs is "the best nation on earth," no harm results if they are thankful and determined to work hard to preserve the quality of life there while being also mindful to the needs and
aspirations of other people in the world.  But the indiscriminate effort to advance the cause of one's own nation, "right or wrong," is the kind of supreme claim of nationalistic tribalism that clashes head on with the Christian view of all human beings as created in the image of God. When a people believe that because their nation is the best on earth, all other nations are inferior and less righteous, and when they believe that therefore any actions taken toward the rest of the world to preserve and expand the culture, the standard of living, or the political goals of that nation are totally justified as a sacred duty, tribalism in its most terrible forms is experienced.
When national tribalism becomes coupled with racist tribalism and ethnic tribalism, we find that violence, war, and the destruction of human values is the inevitable consequence. 

11. Sports. Participation in sports can be a very positive and healthy activity, and the enjoyment of sports by the spectator can be equally enjoyable relaxing. Various qualities of character can be learned by doing one's best in a sports situation. Competition by itself can be a stimulant for improvement in performance. 

But as a matter of fact, the practice of sports is one of the types of human activity that often evokes the spirit of tribalism, especially professional sports or sports for financial gain. How else can one explain the intense intercity rivalries that spring up and persist after a particular World Series or Superbowl competition between them? And how else can one explain the frequent boiling over of team-spirit among the sports fans and violence between those who are supporting opposing teams? One can tell whether sports is leading to tribalism or not by observing the relationship between the participants, and by seeing whether the winner is viewed as intrinsically superior and the loser as intrinsically inferior. One can judge the degree of tribalism in sports by how much a participant will be
willing to do, how much of his ethical convictions he will be willing to overlook, and how totally devoted he is to winning. 

As it is introduced to young people, built up in public relations, sold by coaches, and experienced by many people today, sports is a means of exalting oneself vicariously over others. "We are No. 1," is the omnipresent cry at a
championship game. At its worst, sports can prepare the way for the acceptance of tribalism in other aspects of life. 

12.  Pursuit of "Excellence. The universal pursuit of excellence (often known as "success) can be interpreted in two quite different ways. One sees "excellence" as being better than anyone else; it is the precursor
to tribalism in interpersonal relationships. The other interpretation sees "excellence" as indicating the highest quality when judged by an appropriate standard; it is the Christian guideline rightly applied to all aspects of a person's life using the standard given by God. 

13.  Education. Competition between students, faculty, departments, and universities is often coupled with the desire to "be No. 1," thus introducing into the educational area the mentality of the sports contest. When this is the driving force for increased excellence as defined above in all aspects of education, such competition has a positive result. But when the competition assumes the characteristics of tribalism, then again the consequences are negative. 

14. Business. Competition is the strength of American business, but it can also be the cause of forsaking a Christian lifestyle. When any activity is viewed exclusively as "us vs. them," "the good guys vs. the bad guys," it is all too easy to encounter the economic form of nationalism: "my company right or wrong," which leads to business tribalism. The psychological approach of many company managements does not differ appreciably from that of many sport coaches. 

When we work constantly in a spirit of competition to advance and promote "our company," and play constantly in a spirit of competition to advance and promote "our team," is there any wonder that these two mutually reinforce one another, and we become ready prey for a variety of other forms of tribalism in the rest of our lives? Is there any wonder that when we constantly use terms of warfare to describe business and sports activities- "fighting for the home team," "battling for the lead," "make a killing"- it is easy for us to slip out of the mode of considering these expressions as harmless metaphors into real warfare mentality toward other people, the prime requisite of which is to regard them as inferior, more evil than we are, and deserving of destruction? 


In the attitude of tribalism we regard ourselves as being superior to those who differ from us. They look different from us, they speak differently from us, their roots do not come from the same place that our roots come from, they are not in our family, part of our tribe, a member of our race, a citizen of our nation, a member of our team, a part of our company, or a student or faculty at our university. They are different and therefore they are inferior to us- physically, mentally, and morally. 

We have tried to show how universal this spirit of tribalism is, how it appears at every level of human society in a different but related guise, how it permeates our daily work as well as our daily play. We need to watch ourselves as we face the various issues in life and become aware of how often tribalism exerts it claims upon us. 

May we see tribalism as the great antithesis of the Christian commitment and discriminate carefully between loyalties that are proper and self-exaltation at the expense of others. May we recognize its forms as they impact our lives, and call upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit to enable us not to become entangled.