Getting past tribalism

In the years since independence, a strong relationship had developed between church and state in Africa. Many African churches had gained African leadership long before that was the case in the political arena of their countries. That development had two important consequences. First, the church had become a learning place for democracy, at a time when there were no other places to express political opinions. So the church became, to a certain level, the cradle of the new, postcolonial Africa. That gave the church an important role in public life in Africa – almost at the same time as it lost that role in Europe.

Second, when the newly independent countries were looking for well-educated leadership that was up to the new political responsibilities, it was clear where they could find them: in the mission and church schools and universities. Many of the new political leaders had even studied, at least for a time, at theological seminaries for pastors and priests. When they discovered that their vocation lay elsewhere – namely, in the political field – the friendship with their former classmates and future religious leaders did not come to an end; they continued to share a common understanding of life in Africa. When these new leaders were later given the responsibility to develop a new society in their countries, it was obvious that they sought counsel from their friends, many of whom were now bishops and church presidents in offices not far from their own.

-G. Jan van Butselaar, The Role of Churches in the Peace Process in Africa: The Case of Mozambique Compared

The author goes on to discuss how by the 1990s, it was very apparent that most Africa postcolonial states had turned into complete disasters. Dictators and oppressors abounded and though the church remained strong and members numerous, the leaders often did not have the nerve to challenged it openly. Still, when things collapsed and the people demanded democracy, the Church was there in a position to facilitate a lot of the mediation – something that would be unheard of (and forbidden) in the secular West today.

This still makes me think again that perhaps blood and shared history/culture is often thicker than fresh faith. When push comes to shove, people will fall back not on their hard beliefs, but on their ethnic background. So we get warring Muslim tribes in Iraq regardless of who runs the state and African Christians refusing to openly call out their old friends who are now corrupt government officials. This is also why democrats in the southern United States can sometimes still win elections by appealing to the shared culture, place, and heritage of their constituents, even when they share little with regards to desired policy.

The Body of Christ must transcend tribalism. Christ comes to unite all people in all nations. Though Israel is chosen, the salvation of the outsiders is foreshadowed from very early on. What is the book of Acts but a case study in the dissolution of walls of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality, and (to some degree, gender)? Christ’s body is not divided. A corollary of that is that it does not participate in divisiveness. Are you setting neighbor against neighbor? Congratulations. You now know your work is NOT animated by the spirit of God.

On Ethiopian news sites that I sometimes follow, the comment threads are often filled with expatriates complaining about how the leaders (both in the government and the Orthodox church) only ever hire or appoint people from their own ethnic group or region. (“That ministry only ever hires people from Tigray. It’s not fair!”) This sort of nepotism casts a wider net than we are typically used to experiencing in the U.S., but elsewhere in the world it is often the norm. The smart and competent people are repeatedly passed over in favor of the comfortable option. That might mean increased loyalty and comradery in the short term, but at the expense of many other things over time.

Modernism tried to deal with the evils of nepotism by dehumanizing people. If they can be broken down into their elements and raw skills, then tribalism won’t get in the way, right? But blind robotic hiring committees have proven to usually be even worse. So what is the solution? I say it is to cultivate love for each other. That means ecumenicism. That means “getting along” is very high up on the priority list – over many other things. That means taking a risk and appointing the guy from the wrong side of the theological or cultural tracks. I believe the community-building powers of doing such a thing are worth the hassle it takes to get along with the outsider.