Tribalism in church and politics

tribesRecent news stories in the UK have brought to our attention the issue of tribalism in politics. By ‘tribalism’ I am referring to the age old tendency for one group to define itself by its hostility and differentiation from another group. Defining a ‘them’ does wonders for creating a sense of solidarity among the members of the ‘in’ crowd. In the current UK political example we are seeing a revival of anti-Israeli, even anti-semitic, sentiments among the hard-left sections of the Labour party. That it should have raised its head now is of no surprise as these hard left groups have been welcomed back into the party since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I do not propose to do a political or historical analysis of this situation, but merely to point out that there will always be groups in politics who attract members because they all share identical hatreds for the same people.

The majority of my readers will not belong to extreme political groups where defining, naming and vilifying another group is the raison d’etre of existence. But all of us will have at some point been on a march or taken part in a demonstration where we are expressing hostility to a group or another government. I can remember taking part in a demonstration outside the Spanish embassy in London at the end of the 60s. I cannot remember what the cause was but it was memorable for me as I had a chance encounter with Bishop Trevor Huddleston, the well-known anti-apartheid campaigner. I also tasted some political activity as a supporter of Amnesty International, a cause which I support to this day. The exposure to any kind of political activity will have the result that we will recognise something of the pull that tribal politics, being against something, will have for people, especially the young. When you protest about something you despise or deplore, you have a strong sense of self-definition. You become one of the ‘good’ people who loathes fascism, tyranny or whatever is the evil movement of the moment.

Political activism is of course not just taking place within political parties. One can be politically active in any organisation and this of course includes churches. In some sense this blog is a political act. It is a small protest in the face of an institution which finds it difficult to recognise that power abuse is a problem. Protest in the old fashioned meaning of the word does not suggest that there Is necessarily an evil ‘other’. The protest is about trying to get an institution to face up to a largely ignored problem. As long there are victims of the abuse of power within the church, then someone should be thinking about the issue. When an institution appears to be blind to what is going on within its borders, then protest is a legitimate and necessary course of action.

To say that this blog is speaking out against power abuse in the church in a general sense is not of course the complete truth. As my readers will know, there is a strand of Christian practice which I identify as having a particular problem with handling power successfully. By no means is it the only one but the strand, which for shorthand I describe as conservative Charismatic, seems often to place the spiritual and emotional needs of its people in second place to the amassing of power, financial and emotional for the gratification of its leaders. Thus I spend time analysing the power dynamics of these kinds of church using both theoretical and actual examples. Reports, like the Langlois report into the affairs of Peniel church in Brentwood, allow the theoretical side of the blog to be tested against the harsh reality of what takes place ‘in the pews’ on some occasions.

The writing of such analyses about the behaviour of other people is not without its dangers. As with any politician seeking to name the evils of opponents, it is all too easy to create a ‘them’ in my imagination. I hope that I am aware of this danger and it is here that my readers have an important part to play. It is for them to spot signs if I am ever in danger of lapsing into caricature and demonising others in through an attack of intellectual laziness. If I want to interpret what I see going on among many of the political thinkers that are being scrutinised by the media at present, I identify a strong attack of mental sloth. Thinking through a fresh political stance (or theological one for that matter) takes effort. It is easier to sloganise than to think through a new position for the present. The rewards of also having a band of ‘comrades’ to join you in proclaiming these old hackneyed slogans is not without its rewards..

Being ‘political’ whether in politics or the church requires constant vigilance. The vigilance being required is never to lapse into cheap jibes, exaggeration and caricature of those one does not agree with. There are some apparent rewards that come with joining with others in belittling one’s opponents. To be joined with others in ‘hating’ an out-group gives one a sense of importance and power. These feelings are however fairly superficial and short lived. A boost to self-esteem that comes as the result of being part of a large ‘successful’ group will be normally be followed by a descent back into the ordinary experience of being alone. The importance one feels from being part of a tribe that makes its name by being against others is seen to be an empty sterile place in the long-term.

Recent comments by Justin Welby about his discovery that his mother’s husband was not in fact his biological father are helpful in this context. On learning that he was not genetically a Welby, he remarked that he obtained his identity from his God-given identity in Jesus Christ. Whatever we understand to be the meaning of these words, we have a witness to a Christian reality that puts our tribalisms, based on blood or nationhood, firmly in their place.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “Tribalism in church and politics

  1. Anyone who seeks power as a means to further a career, for example, and does not consider their prime duty to their flock has a problem. But is there a big difference between that and the Anglo-Catholic prince of the church who has precious few pastoral skills, and bullies his staff, and has an ambition to build a new church centre? I’ve come across a couple or three examples of what I call “blue plaque ministry” projects in my time. Mostly they do stop short of actually calling it the “John Smith Centre”, but that’s what’s going on.

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