The Temptation of Tribalism

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

When I was in the search process for becoming the Episcopal Chaplain at Duke University, and at my final interview, I was asked that dreaded question, “so, what’s your favorite sport?” Not only is this a minefield for me personally, since I am just about the least sport-literate person I know, but in the sporting context of North Carolina college athletics, I did know enough to know that I had to tread carefully with my answer. 

“So, what’s your favorite sport?” All eyes on me, awaiting the crucial answer. 

“Cricket.” I said. “The only sport where it’s in the rules that you have to break for afternoon tea. What’s not to like?”

I have to say that I was rather pleased with my answer – a model of diplomacy, and kind of a bit smart-alecky, too. And they seemed to like it. They roared with laughter. Oh, and I also got the job.

Yet, in my five years at Duke, knowing full well that basketball is a religion there, I did not fully realize the extent to which that tribal identity actually plays out and how, for many weeks in the late wintertime, the acronym, ‘GTHC’ would be traded around campus everywhere, from Facebook to Twitter to banners and to banter. Even some of my fellow campus ministers were evidently not struck by the supreme irony that they were apparently happy to consign their Tar Heel neighbors to the devil and all his angels. GTHC. Go To Hell, Carolina.

Now, at one level, I of course realize that this is harmless banter. Maybe so. But at another, subtler, level, what it actually represents is rather more serious. And if you’re thinking that I sound like a straight-laced prude, just hold off on your judgment for a moment and let me unpack things a bit further.

Because what troubles me is that what that whole thing represents is an innate tendency for us to feel like we always need someone to hate, even if it seems like a harmless totem.

Perhaps one of the reasons I am a little ambivalent about sports is because when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, English football (or as I believe it is known here, soccer) was the context of unbelievably vicious tribal violence. Going to a football match was, in many circumstances at that time, a hugely dangerous occupation. Then, and even now, although things are a lot better, if I were to walk into certain neighborhoods of one of my former home cities, Newcastle, and happen to be wearing a red and white scarf instead of a black and white scarf, I could quite literally end up dead.

It’s a good job that this kind of vicious sectarianism has no place in religion, though. Oh, actually, wait a minute….

Let’s not forget that throughout my entire childhood, just a few hundred miles away from where I was living, a full-scale civil war was being waged in Northern Ireland in which people with one set of ideas about the Christian faith would be perfectly content to mutilate, maim and murder their neighbors because they had a very slightly different set of ideas about the Christian faith.

A sectarian mural, Northern Ireland

A sectarian mural, Northern Ireland

This is why we have to be so careful about tribalism because, far from just being a pragmatic way of sharing cultural and geographical identities, tribalism is causing a lot of suffering in this world at this time, including having brought this country to where it is right now, in the middle of one of the most divided, vindictive and mean-spirited times in its history.

When Jesus, tired and thirsty from trailing around preaching in the hot middle-eastern mid-day stops to rest beside a well in a village called Sychar, and realizing that he has nothing with which to draw water from the well, he asks the person who happens just then to stop there to draw water if he might have a drink from their bucket. In so doing, he cancels out thousands of years of accumulated animosity, and thousands of years of institutionalized misogyny, and indicates a lot about the nature and ambitions of God for the human race. Because this person at the well was not just anyone. This person at the well was a Samaritan woman. 

Why was being a Samaritan such a big deal? Well, if you recall the story of the Good Samaritan, then just the title of that story should give you some sort of clue. To a Jewish tribe, the Samaritan tribe was about as popular as the Yankees are to Mets fans. In a nutshell, they hated them. So the very idea of a ‘good’ Samaritan was almost shocking. An entire group of people had been vilified in a playing out of first century sectarianism every bit as nasty as the Catholic and Protestant divide in Northern Ireland. That’s why Jesus put a Samaritan in his story about the Jewish guy beaten up and left by the road side. Because Jesus knew that as soon as he introduced a Samaritan into the story, everyone would understand the shorthand, and would boo like it was a stage- villain. Samaritans were the caricature Jewish stage-villain. But who were they? 

Samaritans were originally Jews but had intermarried with non-Jews and been ostracized by mainline Judaism and effectively exiled to the point where Samaria, an area sandwiched between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, was where they had been pushed into. They were collectively distrusted and disliked by the Jews. So when Jesus introduced the Samaritan into the story of the Good Samaritan, they must have thought, ‘Oh, yeah. A Samaritan. What’s he going to do. As if we don’t know.’ 

And this is where Jesus’ brilliance as a master of morality-tales kicks in. He uses a familiar context, he uses stereotyped characters, and then he puts in an unexpected twist. He makes the Samaritan the good guy! It’s hard for us to imagine how scandalous this would have been. But when we stop to consider that Samaritans were shunned and excluded and even the subject of liturgies that petitioned God to not grant them salvation, one can see how Jesus’ provocative and wholesale rehabilitation of them would have been almost revolutionary.

And here, in this story, Jesus not only invokes in a story a Jewish bête-noire, the tribe that the Jewish people loved to hate but, more than that, he actually talks to a Samaritan, actually asks to share a drinking vessel, actually treats the Samaritan with dignity and kindness. 

What is also shocking behavior, it appears, is that Jesus, a male Jewish rabbi, was talking to a Samaritan woman. The disciples say as much to Jesus when they get back from the village where they have been shopping for food. We are told that they show up and are just too stunned for words. You can imagine the scene. In fairness, the disciples are by this point used to Jesus acting weird and all, like talking to people he wasn’t supposed to, so I guess that’s why they didn’t say anything, but from John’s account we heard, it was obvious that they were just floored by this.

To our modern understanding, the disciples’ reaction seems odd and very old-fashioned, very reactionary, not the kind of thing we’d do. Perhaps so. But let’s be aware of circumstances, situations where our own world, our own social conventions, dictate or at least strongly suggest who it is and is not acceptable to engage in conversation. I encourage you to think deeply about this when you are able. Because you may find it eye-opening. 

And spend some time, too, thinking about this: that, if you are absolutely honest with yourself, deep down, you have an instinctively uncomplimentary or negative reaction to someone simply because of what they look like, or because they are from what you perceive to be a different tribe. We are all guilty of it, and until we at least acknowledge we do it, and then earnestly try to stop doing it, this country and this world will never heal. 

So, just check your inner and your outer voices that say, ‘well, they are just a bunch of southern rednecks/east coast liberals/Middle Americans/Hillary supporters/Trump supporters/white trash/poor Hispanics/frat boy jocks/bimbo airheads/Armonk moms/religious fundamentalists’ – and a hundred thousand other pejorative tribal designations and do what Jesus did at the well at Sychar – have the courage to reach across the divides and ask for a drink of water from the person who is estranged from you, for whatever reason, because they too are your brother and sister if you believe that God is the Father of us all.

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