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The Cure for Tribalism

Good morning, I trust this week of thanksgiving has been a blessing. My daughter and son-in-law and our three grandchildren came from Dallas to be with us. The children quickly adopted our two dogs. Charlotte, our youngest at 3, thought our bassador (Lab-Bassett hound mix – looks like a Lab but with Bassett hound legs which I refer to as my sawed-off lab) was just the right size and she couldn’t hug him enough. Matthew, the middle grandchild discovered that our 12year old lab will retrieve balls until she can no longer stand up and adopted her. Our oldest grandchild Caroline kept an eye out for all of them. We had a wonderful week including a Thanksgiving morning hike and a wonderful meal shared with friends.

Recently over 300 theologians met in Boston for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. They released the Boston Declaration: A Call to Repent and Believe the Gospel. This declaration condemns the abuse of the Christian faith by conservatives and the resulting crisis of faith associated today with white American Evangelicalism. 300 theologians agreeing on anything, itself a miracle, demonstrates the urgency with which they view the crisis. The Declaration calls for “Christians to follow the Jesus Way bearing prophetic witness to Christ by fighting racism, sexism, poverty and all forms of oppression.” The Jesus way is the way of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and “refusing to allow Christianity to be co-opted by people who support abuse of women, the closing of the nation to the immigrant in need and the normalizing of lie after lie after lie.”

Reverend Dr. Reggie Williams, professor of Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary, stated: “These are sinister times, but they are not new. As a black person, educated in Evangelical Christian Institutions, I am familiar with a Christianity that has a history of ignoring my being, and providing theological justification with my non-being. What is new in my lifetime is to have such an over embrace of this. How can people say it is Christianity to ‘proclaim good news to the rich’ or push the differently embodied person to the margins? Now is the time to follow Jesus the poor Jewish prophet whose teaching of the Kingdom was the inspiration for the Boston Declaration.”

Susan Thistlethwaite, President emerita and Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, noted that “when we have torch carrying right wing radicals marching around in Charlottesville, Virginia, yelling ‘blood and soil!’ and ‘Jews will not replace us!’ it is time to confront this kind of Nazism with the historical courage of those who confronted the Nazis in the 1930s in Germany.” She added, “We are not here merely to denounce, however. The most important thing we can do as Christian theologians is to announce the good news of the Gospel. The good news is the radical inclusivity of God, for God so loved the world. Not just some in the world who are white, or rich, or male, or heterosexual. God loves the whole world of animals and plants and the entire ecosystem that is a victim of this same rapaciousness and nearly mindless drive for political domination. The good news….is an invitation to turn away from greed and turn toward love of neighbor.”

A term that has appeared frequently this week to describe the willingness to defend or vote for individuals accused inappropriate sexual behavior is Tribalism – putting one’s tribe ahead of principles, morals or values. We are familiar with the native American Tribes who predated the arrival of Europeans. The gangs of New York in the early 1800s were primarily ethnic gangs of Irish, Italians, and other Europeans who put protecting one’s tribe ahead of all else. In Texas, France, Spain, Mexico and eventually immigrants from the US and Europe all governed Texas prior to its joining the union. But again, communities were built around the dominant “tribe” and language of the area.

We have tribes built around political parties and/or ideologies….in Texas, prior to Lyndon Johnson signing civil rights legislation into law in the early 1960s, staunch Democrats would refer to themselves as “yellow dog” Democrats, meaning they would vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for Republicans. They associated Republicans with carpet baggers who flooded into the south 100 years before to get rich off what was left following the destruction of the Civil War. By the 1980s, many of these yellow dog Democrats had changed tribes and had become Republicans. Motorcycle gangs like the Hell’s Angels and Bandidos were tribes. Street gangs are forms of tribes. What is your tribe these days? Liberal, Conservative, Independent, Green, Libertarian? President Obama said we are not red states or blue states, but we are the United States. Now, however, tax policies are changing. Our ability in CO to deduct state and local taxes from our federal income taxes may go away along with the charitable deduction. That means more taxes, especially for blue states with high state and local taxes like NJ, NY and California and a return to tribalism. What about our faith and religion tribes? The temptation today is to isolate ourselves into our respective tribes which exacerbates behavior that alienates and divides us. So, is there a path forward which can lead us beyond our tribes?

Our Gospel reading today is Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus has been preparing his followers for his approaching confrontation with the rulers of his day, both Jewish and Roman. As we have discussed previously, he uses the parable of the 10 bridesmaids to encourage being prepared for the coming day of the Lord, even if it is delayed. He uses the parable of the talents to address investing our resources and gifts in ways that grow the collective impacts of the resources entrusted to us. And in today’s reading he speaks to the idea of judgement, separating the sheep from the goats, based on how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger or immigrant, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. This week we took the grandkids to see and experience Sunflower Farm near Prospect. I have a new appreciation for sheep and goats and especially unblemished lambs that are white as snow.

We are uncomfortable with the idea of judgement because we fully embrace the love and grace of God for ourselves and others. Yet I want us to not be afraid of the idea. Judgement means we hold one another accountable for our actions. The actions Jesus affirms are those that care for the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. The ones which receive condemnation, goat status, are those that ignore the needs of others. Jesus, in this parable, tells us that what really counts is how we see and treat others, perhaps even those of different tribes. In doing so, he shows us the way to cure tribalism.

Part of our discomfort with judgement is we know that we are fully capable of being both sheep and goats, sometimes in the same day! So, what is the standard we need to reach to qualify for the kingdom? In baseball, one becomes a Hall of Fame player if he gets a hit 33% of the time. In the NFL, it is much different. A quarterback needs to complete 65-75% of his passes and throw twice as many touchdowns as interceptions to qualify as a Hall of Fame quarterback. How do we get it right? The righteous are the ones who care, who welcome the stranger. Jesus as a Jewish prophet, knew well the teaching of his faith regarding showing hospitality to the stranger or alien in the land. In fact, OT law requires that immigrants, aliens be treated as citizens in the land. Wow, how welcoming of strangers, aliens, immigrants are we in our country or even Boulder for that matter?

Our congregation does very well at seeing and ministering to poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, caring for the sick and the bereaved, providing clothes, food, water, and support for needs in our community and beyond. This week our members were in Guatemala building ovens for the poor that will not become health hazards as are the ones being replaced. We hear clearly the call of Jesus to see and respond to others’ needs. We see Jesus in the lives of those to whom we minister. However, do we see Jesus in those who use different labels for the tribes to which they belong?

Do we see Jesus in those who appear to have no needs to which we are drawn to minister? Can the wealthy be impoverished in spirit? Can those with whom we differ and have no apparent needs, be people in whom we can see Jesus? Richard Burton, who came from rough and poor beginnings, described once how he was driven by the lure or self-perceived need to add another zero to his income. Maybe those who are so determined to take from the support of the poor to give to the rich are imprisoned by an ideological tribe. Can we see in them a Jesus for whom we need to care? If we will give it a chance, seeing Jesus in others will cure our tribalism.

These are challenging questions and because we are capable of being both sheep and goats, lets embrace God’s grace which is sufficient for all the challenges of tribalism. The passage from Ezekiel describes God as one who cares for his people as a shepherd cares for his sheep. In John’s gospel, Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd, that his sheep hear his voice and follow him, that he lays down his life for us and that the divine parent who has given us to Jesus is greater than all and no one can take us away from or beyond the reach of the love of God. For this we give thanks, for ourselves and for those who are “other” to us.

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