Being True in an Age of Tribalism – an address to the Spring Synod

7 April 2019

If the Christian Gospel is anything it is the overcoming of the divisions that mar society, be they social or religious elitism, race or gender.

  • Jesus and the sinners
  • Jesus and the marginalised and losers in society
  • Jesus and those of a different religion altogether.

Paul picks this up in Galatians when he recognises the consequences of the Jesus event:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Paul was quite clear: no longer shall you divide one another into groups that are acceptable or unacceptable in your eyes, for in the sight of God all, all, are equal.

Yet for 2000 years much of the Church has not only turned a blind eye to such divisions, but has actually fostered and even imposed them. For centuries rival groups within the Church battled to determine who was right and who was wrong. Thousands went to the stake over the wording of a prayer. And each side was adamant they were right, drawing on scripture as their evidence.

Once religion had lost much of its influence, post-Enlightenment, nation states were formed across Europe. The scene was therefore set for the biggest conflagrations in human history as patriotism became nationalism. Some would argue that the First World War didn’t really end on 11th November 1918 but 71 years later on 9th November 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down. The reunification of Germany got underway and with it the hope of a Europe free from the old rivalries and hostility. For a while the old tribes and enmities seemed to become less important. They had been slowly replaced by the tribalism of sport, in particular football for example, where once it was a healthy and humorous rivalry. But this became less so for many: United or City, Red or Blue, Rangers or Celtic, you are either in or out, one of us or one of them.

And in more recent years the arrival of people from elsewhere has caused a tribalism across society in this country that is far from healthy. This is also reflected in the churches. The ecumenical dreams of the mid-twentieth century, following the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, gave rise to a belief that we could be one. Once we began to realise that no individual denomination had a monopoly on Jesus it became plain to see that we should work more closely together. By the same extension, if the individual denomination does not have a monopoly on Jesus then in even more recent times we ought to have become aware of the possibility that no individual religion has a monopoly on God. However, instead of seeing this as an exciting venture many have viewed it as a huge threat. An increasing number have fallen for the temptation to treat the one who is different as too strange to befriend, be that in our county, our country, our Church or religion.

The end result of this is that each community has turned in on itself. Tribalism has appeared in all sorts of places often seeking to recreate an imaginary glorious past or a future that can never be. This has led to a greater possibility of even deeper factionalism and irrevocable breakdown within each community. Just as we have far left and far right in politics, so we have fundamentalism and progressive views in religions, irrespective of the particular faith itself.

Now, if no individual denomination has a monopoly on Jesus and no individual religion has a monopoly on God, no faith community has a monopoly on Holy Scripture. It is the Divine’s right to speak to us in whatever way is appropriate, and that voice has never been restricted by time and place. Even though the human listener through wilful malevolence or naïvete has not always been unable to hear with clarity.

So even the sacred text that is common to us can be drawn upon in oh so many varied ways. This has ever been thus of course; which over the centuries has caused debate, discussion and even dissension. As I mentioned earlier, such differences of opinion have even led to martyrdom for thousands of righteous believers.

Let me be absolutely clear. When we come to important debates and consultations following conference this year, whether it be on marriage and relationships or indeed any other issues of great importance, no side has a monopoly on scripture. No side has a monopoly on truth. No side has a monopoly on what is right and what is wrong. Personally, I have yet to discover any group that is so closely and marvellously aligned to the will of God that there is no room for doubt.

Think of the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. The outcome was that the early movement would exercise its mission in different ways. Those Jews who came to believe in Jesus would continue to be Jews, circumcising their male offspring, keeping the festivals and honouring food rituals. Those who were not Jews, who came to believe in Jesus, would not have to take on the Jewish traditions. And so the Church was manifest in many different forms and practice to the present day. That doesn’t make any of it less authentic or holy. Scripture, interpretation and experience, would form the basis of each approach: the ongoing Jerusalem Church and the expanding Roman Church.

Sadly, all too often scripture has been used as an excuse for prejudice and not a resource for reconciliation. The lifting of proof texts without taking seriously the context and the core message does no service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But I fear that this will again be tragically so in the coming months. In a sense, this is only to be expected, the Church has often reflected the movements present within a given society. What is happening today is that many in the Church are merely reflecting the tribalism of our contemporary world. Groups have been formed that are unable to hear what others are saying and anyone within the group who dares to dissent is somehow the worst of all: a traitor or a heretic.

Reason and truth, honesty and humility, grace and openness, courtesy and compassion are diminished virtues today. The consequences are highly dangerous, not only to society and the world itself but to the unity and mission of the Church.

Let me conclude with an incident that I find deeply moving. (taken from Christian Salenson, Christian de Chergé A Theology of Hope, Cistercian Publications 2012)

In 1960 de Chergé, a French soldier, was serving in the admin corps during the Algerian War of Independence. It was there that he met Mohammed, a family man, a simple person and a devout Muslim. A deep friendship struck up between the French Christian and the Algerian Muslim. During a military skirmish, Mohammed intervened to spare his friend’s life, insisting on de Chergé’s attachment to Algeria and the Muslim people. De Chergé went unharmed but the next day, Mohammed, father of ten children, was found beside his own well, murdered. Several years later de Cherge wrote:

“In the blood of this friend, I came to know that my call to follow Christ would have to be lived out, sooner or later, in the very country in which I received the token of the greatest love of all.”

De Chergé went on to become an ordained priest and returned to Algeria as a Cistercian monk to pray, as he said: ‘amongst those who pray’ ie his Muslim neighbours. Understandably Mohammed’s sacrifice was one of the greatest influences on de Chergé’s life and ministry. Whenever he celebrated the Eucharist de Chergé recalled not only the life and death of Christ but Mohammed who had also given of his life for him. De Chergé wrote:

“Every Eucharist makes (Mohammed) infinitely present to me in the reality of the Body of Glory where the gift of his life took on its full dimension ‘for me and for the many’”.

On Maundy Thursday 1995 de Chergé gave a homily, in it he said:

“He loved me to the end, to the end of me, to the end of him…..

He loved me in his way, which is not mine.

He loved me graciously, gratuitously….. I might perhaps have liked it to be more discreet, less solemn.

He loved me as I do not know how to love: this simplicity, this self-forgetting, this humble service, without self-gratification, without any self-regard.

He loved me with the benevolent but inextricable authority of a father and also with the indulgent and somewhat nervous tenderness of a mother.”


To whom was de Chergé referring? Jesus or Mohammed?

We shall never know because shortly afterwards Christian de Chergé, prior of the monastery Tibhirine, Algeria, was assassinated alongside 6 of his fellow monks.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

So, if in the weeks and months ahead you are tempted to divide the Body into ‘us’ and ‘them’ between those who are ‘acceptable’ and those who are not, you are doing more than dividing the Body, you are disfiguring it and diminishing the effectiveness of the ministry and mission of Christ in whom God was reconciling the whole universe to himself.

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