Friday, February 25, 2011

Can People of Faith Rise Above Tribalism? (Reflections on the occasion of the remembrance of 9/11)

In a post on the site “Not the Religious Type,” the author refers to a recent NY Times editorial by Stanley Fish.  In his editorial, Fish points out the double standard used to discuss violent acts by or against members of a religious community, and concludes the following:

“The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon.”

What is going on here, I think, is something which we humans easily and naturally slip into, a kind of “tribalism” whereby we assume the best of those who are part of our people, and read their actions in light of our own best values (and with a generous dose of excusing and explaining away bad behavior), but assume the worst of those who are part of a different group, especially during times of conflict and tension between the communities.

(In terms of a model developed by Bennett – his “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” – which explains how people progress in their experience of cultural difference, this would fall into the second phase, “Defense,” in which people have a negative experience of difference, and tend to generalize and polarize and talk in “us”/“them” terms, where the “us” is generalized positively and the “them” is generalized negatively.)

The ability to assume the best of our people and the worst of others is rooted, I think, in lack of self-awareness in the first instance (glossing over how bad “we” are and can be) and ignorance of the others in the second instance. When we don’t know people from the “different” group, it is easy to assume the worst of them.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus would encourage us to be bigger than our tribal allegiances. (As a human being, I would hope that any religious faith would encourage those who follow it, in this same direction.) In illustration of his most important teaching, that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, he told a parable of a despised Samaritan (who his Jewish listeners would have nothing to do with, and through whose territory they would not even pass) helping a wounded Jew who was abandoned by the road side. And Jesus not only passed through Samaria, he stopped and conversed with a Samaritan woman, someone who would have been looked at by Jewish men as a non-person. By his teachings and by his example, Jesus showed us that God’s perspective on humanity is different than the tribalism we so easily embrace.

My question is, can we – not just Christians, but people of any faith – rise above our tribalism (which is worse when wrapped up with religion – which happens with people of all religions) and learn to relate to other human beings who are not members of our “tribe,” as if they were people also created in the image of God? And can we defuse the generalizing and polarizing, and work toward a more accurate understanding of those of other groups, that can only come as we enter into relationship with those others?

The question, it seems, is whether our faith can be a force for peace, or whether it will be a force in the opposite direction.

1 comment:

AmelMag said...

Not to bring everything back to women studies, but there seems to be a tradition in the west that describes the Self (usually male, white, etc.) as a transcendental, universal, disembodied being, capable of attaining the "view-from-nowhere." This Self sees the world as it is (disconnected from any cultural blinders) and acts only and always as an individual being with absolute agency. Then there is the Other (usually female, non-white, and marginalized) who is only and always embodied, and limited by the distortions of their particularity. That way we can say, "they" do that because they are women, muslims, blacks, different, etc., whereas "we" do it for no other reason than because we choose to do it. There are no other contributing factors, because if there were, then our entire perspective would be open to distortion.

Of course, neither of these perspectives are true. The reality is much more complex, much more mixed. We are all embodied beings, all cuturally determined to some extent or another, all rooted within our own particularities of experience. But again, we are all beings who are constantly making choices about the extent to which we will accept, challenge, overturn the ideas and lifestyles that have formed us. We are all embodied beings seeking agency -- ever and always a composite of the individual and the community, and never reducible to one or the other.