Why I am a Christian: Tribalism

In the first post on pathos, I talked about the existential fear of ending up on the wrong side of an eternal power. Another aspect of Christianity’s appeal is its inherent tribalism. (This post is in a series.)

Now wait, isn’t Christianity a universal experience? Isn’t it available to all? Doesn’t Jesus say, “Make disciples of all nations…”?

And yes, Christianity is universalist in that sense. Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews, said so:

Romans 3:29-30 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, (30) since God is one–who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

On the other hand, Jesus said things like this:

Matthew 23:8-10 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. (9) And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. (10) Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.

Jesus’ call to priority in the lives of his followers is rather tribal.

The fact of the matter is that we all look up to leaders and even great leaders typically see themselves as carrying on a legacy, renewing a tradition, or filling the gap left by another. In the case of Christianity, there are lesser leaders: Peter, Paul, Moses, Augustine, Aquinas, Wesley, local pastors, parents, etc. But at the end of it all, the question every person has to ask is something like this, “Who is my leader, to whom do I give allegiance?” The first answer to most people is, “myself.” This is well and good everybody has a duty to seek the wellbeing of their soul. The other answers are probably good too. I’m loyal to my family, my boss, my nation, the traditions that made it, my school, favorite team, my church, and so-on. And again, these things can be good, but only some of them are steady and some can go sour and some can go evil. Moses himself said, “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil… (Exodus 23:2)” Tribal loyalties have limits.

For the Christian, the conversation goes further:

John 6:66-69 After this [some difficult to accept teaching] many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (67) So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” (68) Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, (69) and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

For the Christian, the answer of final allegiance boils down to this question: Do I live my life based on the example and teachings of Jesus?

When people have your back it’s a good feeling. Knowing, for instance, that my cousins or roommates had my back at times in life when things got ugly was comforting well beyond the time the situation was resolved.

Similarly, when the man out front is excellent and does all things well, one feels proud and excited to be a part. I remember seeing my karate instructor, at the time 41, best a much younger Brazilian jiu-jistu instructor in several practice matches to help the younger man get ready for a tournament (in which the young man placed first). Knowing that my karate instructor could easily defeat a younger expert filled me with pride.

Similarly, knowing that Jesus is simply the best and highest revelation of God, or rather seeing him as the most compelling tribal leader among the many is encouraging. This, coupled with the fact that he tells Christians to “love one another even as I [Jesus] have loved you,” means that in the church one has a community with a tribal leader of universal relevance and a concern for the group that helps you know that your needs won’t be trivialized.

So, I’m a Christian because I see Jesus as my teacher and my leader in this way and I see his people as my people. I am a Christian, Jesus is the best leader, and the church is the best tribe.

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