The Christian Mandate to Subvert Tribalism

Our call to pursue nuance, a love-infused, subversive force.
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.

In one particularly hair-raising operation, the patient had received radiation and undergone a prior operation in the chest. His lung looked like it was encased in dense silkworm webbing. It seemed to bleed or leak air with even the gentlest maneuvers. Harnessing his years of cumulative experience and self-control, my boss worked through the tedious obstacles. After seven hours, he managed to get the tumor out of the patient’s lung with clean margins and without a life-changing incident. A surgeon of less skill and tenacity would have abandoned the procedure.

In the realm of human interactions, it’s no different. The extent to which we apply extraordinary patience and nuance should match the extent to which the divine anatomy of one another’s souls has been distorted by sin or scarred by old wounds.

The Light of History

Surgeons don’t develop their unique set of skills easily or passively. They devote at least a full decade to formal schooling and practical, hands-on training before establishing an independent practice. Likewise, we don’t become adept at discussing difficult subjects with nuance, especially with or about people who are different from us, without a certain degree of will and tenacity. But how does a person receive such training?

While it’s tempting to assume that mastering nuance centers on acquiring knowledge, the Scriptures tell us otherwise. “Where there is knowledge, it will pass away,” but “love never fails,” writes Paul (1 Cor. 13:8). Because this quest is anchored in love, our capacity and skill for nuance is primarily forged in the fires of the relational suffering we endure as we attempt to live out Jesus’ commands to “love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12), and “forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). It is a tall order in a broken world where people continually sin against us and us against them.

Few things have provided me with more complex, lifelong challenges to love and forgive than my relationship with my parents. They left Taiwan and came to the US in their late 20s, braving the daunting task of learning a new language and culture. They pulled all-nighters together to help my dad finish his dissertation, scrapped and saved every penny they could, and paid for me to go to college. But life under their roof was also volatile and frequently punctuated by moments of extraordinary anger and anxiety.

Consequently, as an adult, I’ve spent hours in counseling and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. My journey toward healing, loving, and forgiving has been characterized by seasons of breakthrough and growth interspersed with seasons of depression, anger, and withdrawal. For decades, I was so focused on the harm my parents had caused that I failed to nurse more than a shallow curiosity about the events that had shaped them. In the throes of a PTSD relapse last year, however, my counselor encouraged me to pray Philippians 1:9—“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.”

Show me what knowledge and insight I’m missing, Lord, I begged.

Soon after that, I learned that as young children, my parents had survived the US military air raids on Taiwan in 1944, which killed 3,000 people and left another 10,000 homeless. A bomb destroyed my great-grandfather’s home and narrowly missed killing my mother. Prior to that, my grandparents had lived through 50 years of Japanese occupation, which involved state-sponsored cultural erasure and ethnic apartheid. Nearly 10,000 Taiwanese natives died in various uprisings during those five decades.

My parents came of age in the aftermath of Japanese occupation and World War II—a period characterized by chaotic regime change, tedious rebuilding, poverty, and government corruption that embittered the population. Just three years after the American airstrikes, the fledgling Chinese Nationalist Party–run government deployed forces to repress an anti-government uprising, which resulted in one of the worst mass murders in world history. More than 30,000 civilians were killed.

Uncovering this history helped me see my parents in a new light. It formed a new context for understanding their limitations and brokenness. It created empathy, which led to a much deeper love and forgiveness. My view of my parents was no longer wholly determined by my negative experiences with them. I recognized that they had survived unspeakable horrors, yet somehow managed to build good things out of the shattered pieces of their existence.

An unexpected outcome of forgiveness was liberation from my previously unshakable identity as a wronged person. This liberation trickled down into other areas of my life, where I had fallen into the trap of assessing certain people too simplistically and categorically. Repenting of judgment and contempt toward my parents resulted in my repenting of those same sins in my posture toward others—some who had done me serious harm and others who simply saw the world differently than I did.

New Possibilities

This turnaround led me to seek a deeper connection with my mother-in-law, Nancy. While we worship the same God and read the same Bible, Nancy and I disagree significantly on a number of political and social issues. Even before the messy election, these differences sometimes created tense dynamics between us, and we lacked the ability to talk through things constructively. Our conflict had a predictable pattern: We would exchange a few oppositional statements, she would abruptly end the conversation and walk away, and I’d stew in frustration, feeling unloved and abandoned.

Recently we tried something new. We sat down not to argue our sides on any issues but to explore and attempt to diagnose what the roadblocks to communication were. I asked Nancy questions like, “When I bring up X, what feelings does it evoke?” She admitted her feelings of defensiveness when I argued different points of view and explained that for most of her life she had surrounded herself with like-minded people and consequently had little direct experience debating people with different opinions. Being challenged by me on beliefs or opinions that she took for granted provoked deep discomfort, which she didn’t know how to manage except to shut down or dig her heels in more deeply. “What would help you stay in a conversation that got hard?” I asked her. For the next hour, we jointly identified barriers to constructive and connection-building conversation.

Our very different ways of managing conflict and emotions reflect vastly different backgrounds. She was raised to avoid interpersonal conflict whenever possible and to regard the expression of negative emotions as taboo. I grew up in an environment filled with unregulated thoughts and emotions. She is a member of the silent generation, which values order and conformity; but I am a member of Generation X, which is far more culturally and ethnically diverse because of a surge in immigration in the mid to late 1960s and because it was the first generation to grow up following the dissolution of American apartheid.

Over the course of the conversation, my mother-in-law and I admitted our tendency to recognize other people’s tribalism but less often our own. Consequently, we realized that we accuse our ideological opponents of dehumanizing vitriol while feeling perfectly justified in dehumanizing and abusing them. We also acknowledged our tendency to equate people with their ideas. This reductionism prevents us from learning the human stories behind the ideas—and when we don’t apply effort to learning those stories, we fail to become instruments of healing, justice, and reconciliation.

A Surgical Tool

In Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, Emmanuel Katongole writes, “If Christian identity has any chance of subverting or at least resisting the tribal loyalties of our time, Christians will have to recognize the ways in which politics shapes not only our view of the world and ourselves, but also the tribal patterns that we so often overlook.”

In a society saturated with hateful and increasingly violent tribalism, nuance is a love-infused, subversive force. A surgical tool that cuts away the scarred portions of our identities, it liberates us from the false narratives that the world and the Devil insist on feeding us. As a countercultural value, it is the careful discernment that honors our collective human interdependence and prevents us from making death-dealing incisions between ourselves and others. Only with nuance can we enter the grand story about God’s radical and redemptive love for every single human being made in his image.

Judy Wu Dominick is an Atlanta-based writer and musician focused on helping believers in Christ engage more thoughtfully, lovingly, and effectively across racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and religious lines as a means of fulfilling the public dimensions of the Christian faith. She blogs at lifereconsidered.com. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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The Christian Mandate to Subvert Tribalism