Facing Toxic Tribalism

Sunday, September 9, 2018
Mark 7:24-37
The Gospel reading today is not the easiest one to deal with.
Jesus has gone, with his disciples, into Gentile territory.  But he was not there to focus on the people of the place.  Still, he needed to rest, and so he went into a house, hoping for some quiet time.  We don’t know whose house it was.
But even here his reputation went ahead of him.
Even here, in Gentile territory, people had heard of his teaching ....  and his healing.  The Gentiles were, we know, anyone who was not Jewish.
And Jews did not much associate themselves with the Gentiles.  
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,  but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin – that is, she was not a Roman gentile, but she was from the Syrian province of the Roman Empire. 
She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Jesus said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
Now, this is one of the verses in the Gospels that is the hardest for us to deal with.  Why would Jesus say such a thing?   In Matthew’s gospel, the words are softened, making it clear that the gentiles would have their day in terms of the Good News of Christ, but Mark does not.
And how is it that he implies that she is like a dog?  Just because she is a Gentile.  
Some commentators have suggested that Jesus was saying this with a smile, encouraging her to come back with her retort.
Others suggest that Mark’s vision of Jesus was pretty straight-up, and we need to understand that Jesus is, as we state, “fully human and fully divine”.  That’s an important concept, because, in part, it is what makes it so that we can believe that Jesus understands our pains, our sorrows, our tribulations: because he was fully human.
So, in this moment - was he showing a human side that did not look, in our eyes, to be very nice?  Perhaps so.
But no matter what we do with Jesus’ words, we have to move to the words of the Syrophoenician Gentile woman:
But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."  
Now the word for ‘dog’, in both cases, in Greek, could well refer to a household pet, a small dog - not some wild mongrel wandering the streets.  In a sense - part of the household.
But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."  
This woman – it was her daughter that was not well, remember.  She may not have been so forward had it been herself.  But it was her daughter.
And it is clear that Jesus shakes the cobwebs from his mind, looks at her and declares:  "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter."  And it was so.
He does not say, as we often hear “your faith has made her well.”  But it is clear that he recognizes both the insight and the faith in the words of the woman.
And the wall between Jew and Gentile tumbles.
I think it important to look at the wall that fell on that day.
Because these days there are far too many walls being built.
I don’t mean physical walls to separate spaces.  I mean the walls of what can be called tribalism.  
This word ‘tribalism’ has become much more common in discussions in the last couple of years.  Tribalism is basically when people identify themselves as a member of a group.
That is not, in itself, a problem.  We may identify ourselves as members of this congregation, or of the yacht club, or the Nova volunteers or the Library volunteers or a golf club.  Some might even identify themselves as members of a political party.  Many here would identify themselves as anglophones.  So far, so good.
That’s not a problem.
The problem with tribalism is when walls start to go up.  When people of one group think or feel that their group is better than another.  It would be a problem if we began to think or feel that our congregation was better than some other congregation..... it is not a problem to think or fell that our congregation is the one we want to be a part of.
In Jesus’ time there were walls that went up between the different ethno-cultural groups and the different religious groups.  “We are better than them, and we will not mix with them.”
Today we still find the extreme tribalism when we run into those who identify themselves, for example, as white: and then make it clear by words or actions that they think that their ‘group’ is better than others, or even, as some will say, ‘chosen by God’.  That is extreme and toxic tribalism.
That is the wall that has to keep on falling.
One of the features of tribalism is that truth and logic become irrelavent, and one says whatever to protect one’s tribe.   We’ve seen that even in the Church, sadly, where acts of abuse have been covered up to protect the ‘tribe’ at the expense of truth and at the expense of individuals.
We also see rising tribalism in politics.  Sure, the U.S. is a charicature of that these days.  The divide between Republican and Democrat seems to have little to do with logical approaches to issues.  And within the Republican party there is so often a cloying loyalty among candidates to the President that does not bear the scrutiny of logic and truth: This is toxic tribalism.
Why do I bring it up here?  The point is nothing to do with the U.S. – it is only to help us see our own situation.  We are approaching elections here in Québec.  I have not been watching and listening and analysing that closely.  But I have heard enough to know this:
That some candidates are appealing to tribalism to get elected.  In some cases, it is parties that continue to be concerned about what clothing one wears to work, that someone might figure out that you have a faith – don’t wear a hijab, don’t wear a cross, don’t wear a kippa.  Because we’re afraid of you.  Because our tribal identity is unsure of itself, and so you’re not allowed to have your tribal identity at all.
And there I have named another element in toxic tribalism: fear of the other.  That fear is growing in North America, where it become clear that in more and more places that whites will not longer be the majority.  
That toxic element exists here as well, that element of fear.  And it is not only of the ‘other’ who looks different - that exists in Québec society - but it is also at play in our linguistic relations.  
Finally, an element in tribalism - related to the lack of logic, or debating on facts - is the use of insult, attacking the opponent’s person, rather than attacking ideas and issues.
Watch for these things.  Watch for them all the time, watch for them in election time.  Watch for the fear.  Watch for the loss of logic and truth.  Watch for the tribalism that suppresses truth and justice in the interest of the avoiding any risk to the tribe.  Watch for the attack on individuals with insult and insinuation.
These things are toxic.
But the Syrophoenician Gentile overcame tribalism, and Jesus also broke down tribal wall - Jew, Gentile, Roman, Samaritan.
So how do we overcome tribalism?
Well, the first thing she did was confront it!
The second is to declare our membership in “supergroups”.  If tribalism threatens to put barriers between church denominations, then let us declare our supergroup:  we are Christians.  
If tribalism put barriers between men and women and children of different religions, then let us proclaim our supergroup: we are people of faith.
If tribalism puts barriers between anglophones and francophones and allophones in this province, let us proclaim our supergroup as Québecers, as Québecois, as Québecoise, and without distinction by which language we use to express it.
If tribalism threatens to put divides between White and Black and Oriental and Arab and anything else, let us celebrate our supergroup as Canadians.
And if tribalism threatens to put divides between Canadians and Americans or people of any other countries - we go to our final supergroup: humanity.
Confront tribalism.
Celebrate our membership in supergroups.
And finally - some other ways to avoid toxic tribalism - from an article by Zaid Dahhaj, who declares himself to be a philosopher.
Be an individual.  Don’t let tribalism tell you how to think, because that distorts justice and truth and logic.
Question your own assumptions - deeply examine your thinking
And the next goes with that: Entertain contradictory ideas.  Don’t just live in the echo chamber of people who think and speak (and look) just like you.
Reading and research - encountering new ideas, new perspectives
Travel - but not just to see the sights, but to encounter real people
And Zaid ends with one final way to avoid toxic tribalism: be kind.  Being kind opens our humanity to our neighbour’s humanity. 
The woman confronted the tribalism.
Jesus responded with kindness.
We, like they, can make a difference, participating in making our world whole.