Monday, July 30, 2012

Selling Out to the Tribal Moral Community

Mainline Christianity has taken a noticeable turn. It seems it is becoming more and more culturally progressive. Actually, this has been going on for quite a while.  And it's not all bad. It's not all good either. But for better and for worse, it really is happening.

Defining the TMC
While I am relatively new to the way Tribal Moral Communities are being discussed in academic circles, the concept of these communities has been easily discerned by even the most casual observer over the last 40 years. These are communities that identify around certain, assumed and sacred values. Other values outside the circle of sacredness are free to be questioned, analyzed and challenged. But not so with sacred values.

The Religious Connection
Religion has always had these. Socio-political cultures have them too, as do the worlds of academia and science. And as our culture has grown more secular, and the political, academic and scientific fields have begun to clearly identify themselves as Tribal Moral Communities, Christianity felt its influence waning.  So it decided to attach itself to what may have seemed to be more influential TMCs.  These were of course, the philosophical and political Left, or the philosophical and political Right.

Attaching themselves to these partners has come at a price. Each of these Christian groups must now adopt the sacred values of the political, philosophical partners they have chosen, or risk being excommunicated from that Tribal Moral Community. The danger is that your own sacred values may have to be sacrificed in order to defend and protect the sacred values of the community to which one is now attached.  This is in fact, what happened.

Where One Group Goes Wrong
We see this played out every day in the blogosphere and on social networking sites. The Christian Left, for all of its talk about pluralistic, free thinking, pro academic, tolerant inclusiveness allows no dissent, challenge or even open conversation on their particular view with respect to topics such as abortion, same sex marriage, capital punishment, gun control, prayer in public schools, immigration policy, or health care reform to name a few.

The result is that these Christians, rather than standing with Jesus on these issues stand with the left-wing of the Democratic party. These are the sacred values. There is no dialogue about or compromise on the sacred values of the tribe. Critiques are heresy.

Anther Group Goes Wrong Too
By contrast, Christians who hold to high view of the Bible, but have attached themselves to very conservative Republicans, who believe in freedom and liberty and that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, allow no dissent on their particular view with respect to welfare, affirmative action, immigration policy, definition of marriage, abortion, tax policy, gun control or health care reform to name a few.  

The result is that these Christians, rather than standing with Jesus on these issues stand with the right-wing of the Republican party. These are the sacred values. There is no dialogue about or compromise on the sacred values of the tribe. Critiques are heresy.

A Shared Shame
And so, a culture that should have grown to be one marked by economic justice, racial healing and gender equality, the protection of innocent life and a commitment to some standard of personal morality remains in peril because we only see the other as the enemy, and not as one like us, created in the image of God, who we are called to love. And these are the Christians - the ones who have surrendered to one Tribal Moral Community or another - that have dominated most religious conversations over the past decades.  The sacred value of biblical justice for the least of these, and standards of personal holiness are surrendered to the idols of our new TMC's.

How This is Changing the Church
But here is why I think the mainline church as a whole is turning to the TMC of the left. We live in a culture where the young adults coming of age have mostly grown up outside the church, and because they are in a more secular environment, their view as a whole, of the mainline church is quite negative. I am generalizing, of course. But they see it almost exclusively as a tribe that supports
intolerance, racism and callous disregard for those in need, or as a body that cannot get along with itself and is desperately trying to preserve the institution while real world concerns are ignored in every way except through the pronouncement of one set of sacred values or another (defined politically rather than biblically), about which we allow no dissent, yet constantly argue over internally.

So many believers, especially young adults who have grown up in the church, are embarrassed by their tribe. I would say in many cases, appropriately so. But they then have two choices to make if they want to remain a follower of Jesus in the mainline church. Do I stay in a church that has such a negative vibe attached to it in culture and fight to rescue it from its captivity to right wing politics, or do I embrace a more progressive Christianity that receives little to no criticism from the secular world for its indiscriminate, uncritical embrace of liberal politics? Young adults are choosing the latter. They want to pick what they see as the winning tribe whose values are more supported, and less marginalized by modern, secular culture. No shock there.  It should be noted, however, that most of them are just leaving.

Where is the Love?
This is where the definitions of love come in. Liberal Christians who have attached themselves to the Tribal Moral Community of the left, now see love as that which supports a liberal, political view of humanity. If at some point this understanding of love intersects with the biblical model, that is nicely convenient and will certainly be highlighted. Where it does not, the Bible will be often disregarded, and at other times creatively re-interpreted.  The result is that love looks a lot like narcissism.

Conservative Christians who have attached themselves to the Tribal Moral Community of the right, now see love as that which supports a conservative, political view of humanity. If at some point this understanding of love intersects with the biblical model, that is nicely convenient and will be also be highlighted. Where it does not it will be often creatively re-interpreted, and at other times disregarded. The result if that love looks a lot like narcissism. 

In both case, love is corrupted and used as a tool to achieve misplaced or misguided values that bear only a vague resemblance to the way of Jesus and the love of God. This is why the terms "love" and "hate" are being used as clubs with which we beat one another over the head (in Jesus' name) in public discourse.

But since these are the only two alternatives that almost anyone sees (we seem to have trouble with nuance), the more accepted evil appears to a modern generation as the way of the progressives since a progressive, secular culture has less against them, and being either unwilling or unable to tell the difference, many of them call this accepted evil, "good," and allow it to define their understanding of love.

Love is no longer about self-sacrifice. Love is about preserving the sacred values of the Tribal Moral Community. It's about winning. It's about making sure the other guys lose. It's about getting our way.

As long as this is the case, young people, old people and all kinds of people in between will continue to leave our churches and ignore us completely from that day on.

An Aside (Seduced by Materialism)
And this aside which is a topic for another day; both liberals and conservatives are after the same thing, really. They are in hot pursuit of a materialistic American dream. They go about it very differently. One side wants to work primarily through the private sector and the other with far more government control and direction, but the dream is the same - a world where all of our materialistic, consumer-driven desires are met and fulfilled.

Taken Captive By a Lesser God
Now, back to the effect of our surrender to these TMCs. Of course these radically misshape one's view of God. God is no longer the one revealed in Scripture and in the life of Jesus. Too much of what is found there is uncomfortable and inconvenient and presents too many challenges to our Tribal Moral Communities' sacred values. So each community fashions for itself a lesser god, created in that community's own image, and calls it God. This makes a corrupted definition of love far more palatable.

Now there is nothing wrong with identifying as a Republican or a Democrat or Libertarian or being more conservative or liberal. But we too often forget that we go into those communities, not as members of them, but as ambassadors for another. We serve a greater Kingdom and a greater set of values than any fake, wannabe, pretend little, Mini-Me kind of kingdom (TMC) can offer.

A little personal confession here. I am a conservative.  No apologies.  You may have guessed that. But my reason for writing this is my growing disgust with two things. One is my own tribe's almost complete capitulation to right wing politics. The other is the tragic abandonment of an ethic framed by an historic understanding of the whole counsel of God (the Bible) on the part of many of those who share my disgust, and their near complete capitulation to left wing politics and its sacred values.

But what may be more tragic still is the inability of either tribe to see how their own theological view, view of Scripture, view of God, view of love, has been distorted so bally by the competitive, self-serving, sacred values of very political, and philosophically secular, Tribal Moral Communities.

How do you know if you have been taken captive?  If your view of Scripture pretty well lines up with every political view held by either the Right Wing of the Republican Party, or the Left Wing of the Democratic Party, congratulations, you are very likely a TMC member in good standing.

The Fallout of Our Idolatry
Honestly, most young adults outside of our mainline TMCs smell this lack of authenticity a mile away.  Evidence of this is seen in a Relevant Magazine article about how Americans' confidence in religious institutions of any political stripe is at an all-time low.  In truth, it does not matter which way we turn in the mainline church - left or right. As long as we remain captive to our Tribal Moral Communities, our prophetic voice is lost. And the Good News that Jesus came to bring, that the Kingdom of God has come, will be lost as well.  And as I said above, whether we embrace a left-leaning vision or a right-leaning vision, no one will care.

In my own denomination, we give a lot of rhetorical praise to "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love."  But frankly our TMC's are standing in the way of us genuinely living out any of these virtues.  Humility and the idea that we might be wrong never occurs to those defending the sacred values of the Tribal Moral Community.

A Closing Prayer
For those who think I retreat into sanctimony here, my apologies. But the only comforting thought that comes to mind about now is this:

His oath, his covenant, his blood
supports me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
he then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.

May we who follow Christ be defined not by Tribal Moral Communities designed by culture. May we find the grace to re-examine where we have abandoned true love, authentic love, biblical love, Christ-like love. May we once again embrace a love that is at once accepting, challenging, transforming, redeeming and defined by a TMC-free understanding of the Scriptures, even the parts that make us uncomfortable and make us want to do some creative re-interpreting. And may the Kingdom of God so break into this world through us that the pretend little kingdoms - the Tribal Moral Communities - surrender their pale sacred values to the One who by grace exchanges them for riches beyond measure.

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