If the damaging effects of an overzealous tribalism are to be overcome, we first must have a basis for conceptualizing human equality. What makes every human being more or less the same? It has to be something more than our body. Animals have that, and a distinction between them and us obviously exists. (Unless you are like the somewhat argumentative vegan who once tried to convince me that there was no real difference between chicken nuggets and human nuggets. But that’s the exception, I hope.) Some following seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke argue that humans are born a kind of blank slate with a reasoning mind. Our commonality stands on this capacity...
And soon it crumbles. A cursory study of humanity demonstrates that a host of other beliefs and behaviors appear, as it were, innately. We aren’t blank slates. And while we might all be rational (some more than others), people follow different kinds of rationality as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has noted. Study another culture, and you will inevitably come across attitudes and actions that confound you but which nonetheless follow a certain logic. Even more, some are mentally impaired. Does that then lessen their humanity?
Christian theology teaches instead that our equality is found not in a certain capacity in us but in something bestowed upon us: the image of God. This is not quite to say that we are all God’s children. We’ll get to that. But it is the vital starting point on two accounts.
Firstly, Scripture reveals that God exists as one being in three persons; he is triune. If humanity as a whole bears his image, then humanity as a whole mirrors this unity and diversity. In a sense, we are one being or organism or body, meant to exist in harmony with diverse members. Secondly, in the ancient near eastern world, when a king placed his image in a particular region, that statue represented the king’s reign. Thus, when you show contempt for a person or group of people, two results follow. First, you fail to see how all of us form one organism. It would be as if the eye held a grudge against the mouth and viewed itself as more valuable. Second, you desecrate the One whom the other, as image bearer of God, represents. An attack on the representative of the king is equal to an attack on the king.
A Redeemed Tribe
This doctrine on its own cannot break the us-versus-them dichotomy however. Even the casual observer of Scripture reads in the Old Testament of Israel’s antagonism with the surrounding nations (especially in Exodus, Joshua, and the prophets) and in the New Testament the favored status of the faithful over the unfaithful (e.g., Matthew 7:21-23). Don’t we see this latter distinction turn antagonistic as well? The elder church member who condescendly critiques “all those sinners and unbelievers and heathens out there”? Even within the church, the young often define themselves against their seemingly unalterable elders.
Christianity can actually account for and correct this inconsistency. For we find from Genesis 3 onward that humans are a sinful people who have broken the law of God and rebelled against him, constantly seeking to replace and even supplant him. Though we bear the image of God, that image has been marred, our fellowship with God and with our fellow image bearers broken. We belong to a sick organism.
Paul had to remind his Roman readers that not only the ungodly were sinners but they too were subject to sin. It infects and corrupts the nature of all people (Romans 2-3). Paul even notices in himself that sin and its effects still linger (Romans 7). Are we Christians exempt from this? Of course not. What then is our recourse? We can account for our inconsistency, but how can we correct it?
Short answer: the gospel. Though sinners, though broken, rebellious people, corrupt throughout our whole being, Christ died to cleanse us of our sins and heal us. He bore our sins as he violently died on the cross, justifying us in the sight of God, but rose victoriously over death, granting us new life (Colossians 2:8-15). Participating in this new life with Jesus, this new humanity, this restored body occurs not by our activity. If a hint of redemption rested on my efforts, I and my “tribe” would have some basis to claim prestige over others. But the gospel destroys that. The Holy Spirit’s activity unites me to Christ, expunging any excuse to boast or feel superior (Ephesians 2:1-10).
In that act of union with Christ, we become one with the Son of God, adopted as God’s children and heirs (Romans 8:15-17). Jesus stated that those in his kingdom, all those whose confidence and trust is placed in him, would have new brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers (cf. Mark 10:29-30). This is the same truth that Paul espoused when correcting the division that had infiltrated the church in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 1-6, especially 1:10-31; 2:10-16; 3:1-23; and 4:7). The image of God is restored in us who become united as a new family. If that is the case, then every Christian, regardless of gender, race, looks, or interests belongs to your family, and a real family stands and falls, weeps and laughs (Romans 12:15) together. This is the new social bond that unites.
And every “other” still bears the same image of God as I do and thus exists as a potentially redeemable person invited into this family of God. “We” Christians are sinful yet saved. “We” have absolutely nothing to hold over “them.”
So what is the trump to tribalism? That you are not your own but were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). That though you were dead in your sins and at enmity with God and man, still Christ died for you (Romans 5:8-11). That as the Spirit united you to Christ, you belong to a new body, a healed body (Ephesians 4). And your efforts didn’t bring about that transformation, so that you have no room to boast. You have no basis to make yourself and your tribe superior and others inferior. Instead, you have the commission to preach this good news to Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; Galatians 3:28). While we’re at it, let’s preach to ourselves as well.