Year of the tribe

As factions rise, one loyalty is greater

Dec 18, 2017 by

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Among the trends of 2017, tribalism stands out. All around us, people define themselves by separating one group from another. Republican or Democrat, black or white, Christian or Muslim. The distinctions aren’t new, but the divisions are deeper. Tribes defined by party, race, religion, ethnicity and geography tell us who’s on our side and who’s beneath contempt.

Tribes inspire unconditional loyalty. A tribe defends its own at all costs, excusing the sins within its camp and magnifying those of others. Tribal pride fuels prejudice. It blinds us to what is good in those who are different from us.

Christian faith stands against the narrow tribalism that divides people into warring factions. It establishes a greater tribe that rises above lesser identities. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). All who trust in Christ belong to the tribe of God, where “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). Identity markers that once defined “us” and “them” no longer apply.

Events of the past year challenge Mennonites to overcome our tribalism. In most cases, the realignment and restructuring of denominations and conferences in 2017 continued a trend of defining Mennonite tribes more narrowly. (A notable exception is the move toward merging Mennonite Church USA’s Franconia and Eastern District conferences.) Lancaster Conference’s departure from MC USA at the end of this year represents a major loss for the vision of unity that emerged in the 1980s within the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church. Perhaps an independent Lancaster and a smaller MC USA can preserve remnants of that vision by maintaining a close relationship.

While MC USA has grown more tribal one step at a time, Mennonite Church Canada has moved decisively to reinvent itself as a coalition of regional tribes. Transferring power from the national office to the provinces, it becomes a test case for a decentralized church.

As religious institutions lose the prominence and esteem they once held, the more distant, national entities are the first to lose support. What comes next? Will the Canadian regions succeed as prime movers of ministry and shapers of identity? Or will they lack the resources and unity to make a national impact?

In a time when Christians are rethinking the role of denominations, these questions apply to MC USA as well. Conferences are asserting their freedom of action. Congregations are realigning according to theology rather than geography. Can an inclusive vision stay alive, or will the future bring more fragmentation?

People are tribal, and there’s no denying it. Fortunately, there’s a positive version of religious tribalism: the one that says it doesn’t matter if you’re Jew or Greek, slave or free, because we’re one in Christ. Once we recognize that, the world looks different. We learn of the suffering of Mennonites in the Democratic Republic of Congo and say: These are our people. And then our tribal problems matter a whole lot less.

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