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Friday, June 13, 2014

Everybody Else Does Tribalism

I really didn't want to write another blogpost on tribalism but when I saw a reformed blogpost defending it, I felt that a response was required. D. G. Hart wrote such a defense on a blog he shares with John R. Muether called Old Life (click here for info about the blog and D. G. Hart). The post itself is called Didn't God Want The Israelites To Be Tribal? His post was a response to an article written by Jonathan Merritt on the Neo Calvinists in which he accuses them of being isolationists and tribalistic amongst other things (click here for the article). Here, Hart both defends the tribalism practiced by the Neo Calvinists as well as attacks Merritt for making the accusations. This blogpost will be based on both Hart's blogpost as well as the comments that accompany his post.

Hart deals with Merritt's challenge to Neo Calvinists for separating themselves from worldly influences. Merritt had complained that Neo Calvinist birds of a feather flock together when it comes getting input. They read Calvinist blogs and books while attending Calvinist conferences and churches. In contrast to this intellectual monastic approach to the world, Merritt suggests that Neo Calvinists would do better to imitate his move from Atlanta to New York City and leave their spiritual ghetto to live in a heterogeneous environment. 

Hart sharply criticizes Merritt on both points. First, Hart uses the Israelites as an example of how God's people were to separate themselves from the nations around them. But then recognizing how the New Testament changed things, Hart goes on to say that that same spirit of separateness was followed by the New Testament Church. Thus, according to Hart, though Merritt might be able to handle the interaction with nonChristians, ministers need to think of all who are in the flock including those whose faith might be compromised by mutual exchanges with nonChristians.

But Hart misses some points here. First, the physical separation practiced by the Israelites in the Old Testament was explicitly commanded by and carried out within a specific redemptive-historical context that does not apply today. In addition, Hart is simply wrong in how he thinks Christians are called to separate themselves from the world. We only need to refer to the Great Commission and the Paul's distinction on which immoral people Christians should shun (click here). In both cases we are called to go out into the world and be with the heterogeneous population that makes up the world.

But perhaps the biggest problem with Hart's criticisms of Merritt here is Paul's life. In Book of Acts, Paul goes to a Greek temple to preach the Gospel (click here). His sermon reflects a significant exposure to Greek thought. And though we could say this supports Hart's view that some Christians could handle pagan Paul was a leader, realize that we are all called to fulfill the Great Commission, not just our leaders. With the relevancy of Christianity dropping in our Post-Modern world, interaction with the world seems necessary for all Christians. 

With regard to tribalism, we should first pay attention to a proper definition of the word. The working definition of tribalism used by this blog is that tribalism occurs when loyalty to a group trumps commitment to principles and morals. The end effect of tribalism is that of adopting a gang mentality that says right and wrong depends on who does what to whom. Here self-restraint flies out the window as avarice, ambition, and/or fear frees one from the fetters of moral self-control. I use this definition because the actual definition of tribalism revolves around the high degree of loyalty one has to one's group (click here).

Now we should note that the news of theologians losing self-restraint does not stir the same fear in people as when political or military leaders do, but it does maintain the precedent set by those with wealth and power and it disqualifies one from challenging the tribalism of others. Here we get to the core of Hart's objections to Merritt's accusations against the Neo Calvinists. How Hart responds to Merritt here is to say in effect, so what! According to Hart, not only does everybody employ tribalism, it is the lifeblood of every group. And not only that, Hart states that God sanctions it seeing that the Israelites employed it during Old Testament times.

Therefore, according to Hart, those who accuse others of tribalism are being both trivial and hypocritical. But is Hart correct in saying that everybody employs tribalism? And is he correct in saying that since it is such a part of the human experience, it is wrong to criticize tribalism in others? The answer to both questions must be no.

Yes, we all belong to groups. But tribalism is more than just belonging to a group. It involves maintaining a degree of loyalty that is so high that supporting the group takes precedence over other commitments such as to principles, morals, and we could include God. Thus, remaining silent regarding the sins of one's own group shows tribalism. But such silence also shows complicity. This is what German citizens who were forced to tour Hitler's extermination camps by Allied forces during WW II discovered. When our own group is wrong or sins, then there are times when we have a choice of showing whether we are ashamed of Christ and His words as stated in Luke 9:26.

Any loyalty to a group which competes with our principles, morals, and commitment to God should appear to be unbiblical to the casual observer let alone the committed Christian. But something else must be said about Hart's reaction to Merritt's article. That something else deals with the authoritarianism that is thriving in today's world. This authoritarianism is making George Orwell's book, 1984 (click here for quotes) prophetic. We could easily define authoritarianism as occurring when truth is determined by the credentials of the source of some content rather than the facts and logic of the content itself. So when people are encouraged to flock to a certain group of speakers and writers because of their credentials, we have the beginning of authoritarianism.

But a disturbing part of authoritarianism can possibly occur when those same people are discouraged from listening to or reading those outside the group because only the strong can listen to or read outsiders without becoming corrupted. It is disturbing because such isolates people from the rest of society. And those who tend isolate people whom they rule over all too often do so because they are involved in running abusive relationships or cults. The isolation from outside sources facilitates the loss of accountability for the leaders and helplessness for the rest.

Of course, there is a milder negative result to the isolation Hart supports and this has been mentioned before. That milder result is that those who have so isolated themselves lose the ability to relate to those outside their group. Thus, their message to their peers becomes irrelevant.

I don't think Hart fits in the category of being a Neo Calvinist. And if I am right about that, we still should not be surprised to see him defend self-isolation and tribalism of Neo Calvinists. Why? Because Hart's own groups favor self-isolation and tribalism.  Tragically, it has become part of the Conservative Christian culture in America. Thus to admit Merritt is right about the Neo Calvinists, Hart would have to admit that his own groups are wrong too.

For all of our handwringing about the growing secularism in our nation, perhaps we need to pay more attention to our own faults. People like Jonathan Merritt, however imperfectly, are trying to point out some of those faults. Our faults just might be one of the reasons why the world is passing us by.

But before finishing, there is something we need to add to the context of Hart's analysis of Merritt here. If we are going to be Biblical, we will admit to having more relationships involving one party exercising authority over another than those not following the Bible. If we are going to interact with the world, we need to be careful not to be corrupted by what the Apostle John called "lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." In addition, we are called to come out from the ungodly as Israel did from Egypt. But our calling says that we are to come out from them by being different. So anyone who is going to fully address these subjects from a Biblical perspective has a delicate balancing act to perform. So perhaps one can say that Merritt erred some on laxness in terms of balancing the issues. But it is without a doubt that Hart erred on the other side of laxness so that not only does the Conservative Christian faith more closely resembles a cult by what he defended in the Neo Calvinists, it becomes less and less relevant to those living in the world. In addition, when we declare that we have nothing to learn from those outside our group, we show that we need to hear Martin Luther King's analysis of the West regarding its participation in the Vietnam War (click here for the source):


The western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. 




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