The Christian Mandate to Subvert Tribalism
Image: Malte Mueller / Getty Images

The awful hangover from last year’s contentious US presidential election seems to have transitioned into something of a chronic migraine. Interparty animosity is higher than it’s been in a quarter century; nearly 9 in 10 of those in both the Republican and Democratic parties have at least one of three negative emotions—frustration, fear, or anger—toward those in the opposing party. Even Christians who worship in congregations with some political diversity are not immune. According to 2016 data from Pew Research Center, Christians across all major denominations and on both sides of the political spectrum are as negatively minded toward the rival party as those with no religious affiliation.

Of course, Christians experience division along many lines other than partisan politics. But while legitimate differences in perspectives and convictions are to be expected among God’s people, division can harden into enmity, and enmity into blatant tribalism. Tribalism in turn chokes out nuance by creating rigid dichotomies. Our tribe is loyal; theirs is seditious. We are complex; they are simple-minded. Our camp is orthodox; theirs is heretical. We are good; they are evil.

Lest I get overly theoretical, ideological conflict has manifested itself under my own roof in the past two years. Much of this has existed between my live-in mother-in-law and myself, but it’s also affected my marriage. When I retreated into online forums with more likeminded people after the election, I fell more deeply into a trap of contemptuous tribalism and perpetual agitation. The relationships in my innermost circle suffered. In the interest of prioritizing the people whom God had given me to love, I made some radical changes. I left all my online affinity groups and deleted over 250 cause-driven connections, redirecting my energy toward being present to people in my real life, even when it was hard. Through the discipline of active listening and presence, I rediscovered the healing and transformative power of nuance. Called by Jesus to be peacemakers—meek, righteous, merciful, and pure in heart (Matt. 5:5–9)—pursuing nuance is both a sacred journey and obedience to Christ.

A Loving Pursuit of Accurate Understanding

For Christians who believe in the existence of unchanging, objective truth, a call for nuance may feel a bit like an invitation to travel down the slippery slope of post-modern relativism. But properly conceived, nuance is the loving pursuit of accurate understanding, accompanied by an awareness that “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9) and that “we see only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). Such a pursuit demands levels of patience, humility, discernment, and self-control that black-and-white approaches to people and issues do not.

For more than seven years, I worked as a physician assistant in the department of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at one of the country’s most highly regarded cancer hospitals. I observed and assisted surgeons as they removed life-threatening tumors from people’s chests. Every operation involved the painstaking process of identifying and preserving connective tissue, arteries, veins, nerves, and organs. In young and relatively healthy patients whose chests had never been irradiated or operated on, the anatomy tended to be well-demarcated. But in patients who had previously undergone surgery or received radiation to the chest, the boundaries of their tissues and organs tended to be obscured by adhesions and scar tissue.

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The Christian Mandate to Subvert Tribalism