Monday, June 04, 2007

In Defense of Tribalism

From the desk of Sir Jason ...

"Our country: in her interactions with other nations
may she always be in the right, but our country right
or wrong"
- Stephen Decatur

"People are different, they like to be different, they
have a right to be different"
- Agent Ben-Canaan,
"Exodus"


The first quote is sometimes misquoted. Decatur was not saying he would commit himself to agreeing with everything his country did (in fact he said the opposite). What he said was that he would love his country whether it was right or wrong. Loving one's country only when it is right is not love, it is judgment (and given the complication of international affairs, a rather arrogant judgment). Love may prefer merit - it cannot require it. Or rather it cannot require merit to the degree of rejecting the beloved on learning of imperfection.

The second quote (from a rather overrated movie) said something else. It pointed out that we cannot dismiss parochial loyalties out of hand, for they are part of what makes us human.

One instance I read of in a public school provides us with a negative example. Now of course it is easy to find single instances and one cannot say more than a few public schools are like that (though I am often of the opinion that in a divided society they really constitute an "establishment of religion", and in any
case give diminishing returns). In this example, a textbook was examining the tune, "God bless America." It brought up the question of "What would a Swede or a Kenyan think of asking God to bless America, over and above other nations". The answer to this is so easy it gives a sadistic pleasure like that of killing an insect.

One, the Swede and the Kenyan wouldn't care unless they were "trained" in college to be unnecessarily resentful - and they as like as not were praying the same thing for their country (or village in the Kenyan's case). Two: the song does not say, "over and and above other nations". Furthermore the writer was an amiable person who would be happy for other nations to be blessed. And while it is a reasonable inference from the circumstance of the time and the writer's ethnic background, that he desired America to be blessed over and above Germany not even that was mentioned. Three: asking for your country to be blessed is morally no different then asking for your mother to be blessed. And four: preaching what can be interpreted as subversive propaganda in a state sponsored school is rather eccentric.

This feeling is usually called "nationalism" or "patriotism". I prefer to call it tribalism. Not only is it more humble, it awakens an atavistic sort of feeling - it reminds us that we still share things with savages.

The evils of tribalism are well known. Blood-feud, war, genocide, etc. But the evils of fire are also well known. Yet fire has a good side; for it warms and nourishes. Likewise tribalism can make people braver, more generous and more caring than they would be without it.

A classic example of the perversion of tribalism is the Third Reich. What is seldom mentioned is that a great many of those who opposed it were motivated by the same thing. In those days very few fought for "the four freedoms", or "the United Nations." Rather just as Germans fought for Germany, Japanese fought for Japan. And Russians fought for Holy Mother Russia, English fought for The Regiment, Americans fought for America, Poles for Poland, Finns for Finland, Yishuvim for Israel-to-be, Ghurkas for Honor and Tradition, Frenchmen for La Glorie. And Italians didn't fight at all (OK, a little humor here-actually they did better than legend says). And all fought for their comrades. In other words while most may have assumed or hoped that what they fought for was right, that is not what they fought for. They fought for human things like comradeship,honor, and - tribalism. Being tribal is human and we should not be ashamed to be human.

"In God there is no Jew or Greek"?. Even so. But are we God? Is a tree more beautiful because it's roots have withered? Yet that is what those are contending who condemn our tribal instincts. They are trying to make humans into angels to disconnect us from those things that are between the purely animal, and the spiritual, those things that make us uniquely human. However those that try to make themselves angels to often end up making themselves devils instead. For only a saint has enough room in his heart to "love mankind". For most people who aspire to this the result is at best a cold benevolence, at worst a temptation to injustice to individual members of mankind. We are commanded to love our Neighbor. But how can we love our neighbor in that sense, if we cannot love our neighbor next door?

It has not pleased God to reveal himself as the cold distant God imagined by Greek philosophers. In the Song of Solomon, and the Wedding at Cana He sanctified the love of woman. In inspiring the psalmist to write, "Oh how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity", He sanctified friendship. In calling Himself "Father" He blessed family loyalty. In calling Himself King he blessed feudal loyalty. He even blessed esprit-de-corps when he called himself, "The Lord of Hosts."

Likewise He blessed tribal loyalty when He revealed Himself through a small tribe of miserable refugees and commanded them to have their yearly feasts in which they made merry to celebrate, "The deeds of the Lord to his people Israel."

God has warned of the misuse or exaggeration of these impulses. But he also said that they are all blessed in their proper place. The impulse among some Christians to condemn "nationalism" is not Christian, it is Gnostic: it assumes what is "spiritual" is good and what is "material" is bad. Yet the devil is a spirit. And Jesus was a man as well as God.

The Jewish exiles were commanded to pray for the peace of the city they dwelt in. And so should we. For though the tree's roots may seem dirty and grubby, the tree cannot blossom without them.

Sir Jason

7 comments:

  1. Likewise tribalism can make people braver, more generous and more caring than they would be without it.
    _________________________________

    During the Winter War the Finnish army went round the border villiages and burned down and booby trapped everything that might shelter a Russian.
    There was one Old Finnish peasant woman who on seeing the soldiers arrive, carefully cleaned her little hut. Then she lit fire herself and said, "This is my gift to Finland."
    Tribalism in those days was often diabolical. But in many cases, like this one, tribalism could be sublime.

    Sir Jason

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  2. The examples of tribalism I gave usually focused on loyalty to the nation(that is the "megatribe"). But it can also be to a school("dear old XYZ"), a region("West Virginia, Mountain Mama"), a villiage or city("Anatevka, Anatevka"), a millitary unit, "I am a Ghurka, I do not cry out"), an athletic team("root,root,root for the home team..."),or any other human community. Moreover someone can have several loyalties at once which can reinforce or conflict with each other depending on the situation. And often what someone believes to be personal conviction is at least partly tribal loyalty.

    Sir Jason

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  3. Moreover someone can have several loyalties at once which can reinforce or conflict with each other depending on the situation. And often what someone believes to be personal conviction is at least partly tribal loyalty.

    A conflict we now see being played out in the spirits of American Christians? Is the American tribal instinct stronger than our identifications in Christ? And do they really conflict, or are we in our weakness simply not able to reconcile the seeming conflicts?

    Sir C, just wondering

    ReplyDelete
  4. A conflict we now see being played out in the spirits of American Christians? Is the American tribal instinct stronger than our identifications in Christ? And do they really conflict, or are we in our weakness simply not able to reconcile the seeming conflicts?

    Sir C, just wondering
    -----------------------------

    All of the above.

    There is no conflict until it is clear that one is tempted to choose something above Christ. There are differing emotional reactions, but that is not always the same. And American Christians have seldom had such a choice required of them.
    As for our feelings, as I said they both reinforce and conflict depending on the situation. Also because of our human weakness as was pointed out-it is the normal state of anyones desires to pull now one way, now the other, now in several directions.

    Sir Jason

    ReplyDelete
  5. All of the above.

    There is no conflict until it is clear that one is tempted to choose something above Christ. There are differing emotional reactions, but that is not always the same. And American Christians have seldom had such a choice required of them.
    As for our feelings, as I said they both reinforce and conflict depending on the situation. Also because of our human weakness as was pointed out-it is the normal state of anyones desires to pull now one way, now the other, now in several directions.
    _____________________________

    There will always be conflicted desires, loyalties, and loves. The true question is what one would choose if they become incompatible. And how to prevent their becoming incompatible.

    Sir Jason

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous said...

    The second quote (from a rather overrated movie) said something else. It pointed out that we cannot dismiss parochial loyalties out of hand, for they are part of what makes us human.
    __________________________________

    Exodus WAS overrated. The writers were obviously so afraid of the audiences ignorance that they force-fed environment knowledge in a clumsy manner-by endless talk about ideology. While I get the impression that a Zionist would express devotion more openly then many of his counterparts it was done gracelessly. The endless spouting of ideology sounded more "garrittrooperish*" then martial. After all some Zionist agents would have found other things then politics to talk of when alone with a sensitive, naive, young blond...

    *Garritrooper: US military slang for soldier whose deeds are in inverse proportion to his speech

    Sir Jason

    Mon Jun 04, 06:54:00 PM EST
    __________________________________

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  7. Good comments Jason. We do need to love and support our country. One of the best ways is to constantly support her in prayer, especially our leaders, whether we support their views or not.

    First of all, then, I urge that entreaties {and} prayers, petitions {and} thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 1Ti 2:1-3

    Sir John, proud to be an American

    ReplyDelete