Postmodern Tribalism [Where to from Here?]

The zeitgeist of our current age eschews any kind of classicism or racism or elitism. In many ways, this is a good thing. Even 35 years ago a wise author noted that even the president of the United States carries his own baggage.* We are as self-reliant as we are radically individualistic. The 21st century world, at least in the West, has also become pluralistic to the point of postmodern tribalism. To cite an example of this, consider the new working definition of fame that has carefully crept into our now-digital consciousness: it’s someone who has a “following.” Maybe it’s Instagram or Twitter followers and the accompanying re-tweets and likes. Maybe it’s hits on YouTube. However fame is measured, it has certainly changed from its older definition once familiar to a culture in which Walter Cronkite was the primary teller of “facts.” Now, fame is distributed in smaller doses but to greater numbers of people. 

Alongside this monumental change in our perception of fame comes the distinct recasting of how success is perceived. Success has been redefined and reshaped in light of the new meaning of fame. Because of our communication platforms, everything is accessible all the time. And this has forced us out of the realm of absolutes and deeply into the realm of the relative: postmodern tribalism.

What I mean by the postmodern tribalism is that society is trending toward a thundering change in human existence: all ethics are essentially relative to our tribe. If our tribe happens to support freedom in gun ownership, we put that particular bumper sticker on our SUV and vote accordingly. If it’s concern for LGBT rights, we find our support and identity there. If it’s violent fundamentalist religious practice, there are organizations that are ready to radicalize and to equip toward acts of violence conditioned by particularized beliefs. If it’s Pokémon or Call of Duty that is so greatly adored, there is a supportive community to be found, whether locally or online. In our city there is a group of moms who only use baby carriers; no strollers allowed. It seems they’re feeling united.

For the record, I’m a big fan of carrying babies; it seems to really help them see the world.

Anyway, as I consider the various tribes that interact in my corner of the world, West Michigan in the Midwestern United States, I observe how we interact with tribes in other cities, not to mention tribes around the world. What or who could possibly unite such diverse tribes as the ones we see around us?

Our society cannot agree on a working definition of marriage, even if it’s worked into our law codes. We cannot determine who deserves health care and how to effectively establish economic justice. Each tribe, progressive or conservative, homo or hetero, guns or no-guns, seems to possess answers for everything.

Though I may have concerns regarding all these examples, these associations are not the places where I find my primary identity. For me, the tribe with which I most closely associate is the tribe of Jesus followers. We are Christians: Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Quakers, each of us nuance slightly differently our understanding of God’s work. And what is his work? It’s sending Jesus, the Son of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to redeem humanity. But we’re all one big tribe, held together by the union that we all share in Jesus the Christ.** We’re all called out of darkness and into the light of Christ.***

For members of the Christian tribe, our help is in the name of the Lord, both immediately and ultimately. And this message goes out to all who do not yet associate in any way with the Jesus of Scripture. Members of the Christian tribe insist that God invites all people to know him through Jesus, and, in so doing, to be transformed. Members of the Christian tribe insist that we have all strayed from God’s goals from us and, to use the appropriate word, we have sinned. Members of the Christian tribe insist that God has sought to forgive us from our sin through the ministry of Jesus, and that being forgiven leads us to greater acts of forgiveness.****

In an age when nearly every tribe’s message can be so overwhelmingly different, this is a message to which I will cling. For me, it’s in many ways an interior journey, but the interior journey is made concrete in relationships and in the way I treat the poor and in how I use money and in my family’s priorities: in all these areas, we’re going to follow Jesus.

*Cornelius Plantinga, A Place to Stand, 1979.

**Bible, New Testament, Eph. 3:14-19

***Bible, New Testament, 1 John 2

****For an example, click here.

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