TRIBES (2009)

(My “Peace and Justice Files” column from June 2009.)

Whenever I see someone here in the North displaying a Confederate flag – whether it’s on a truck, a front porch, or a belt buckle – I find myself wondering just what, exactly, that flag means to that person, and what message that person intends to convey. Did they have ancestors, perhaps, who fought for the South in what some down there still refer to as “the recent unpleasantness,” and they’re just showing some pride in their heritage? Do they mean to demonstrate a hankerin’ for secession, or just a desire to be left alone? Are they making a nuanced political statement regarding states’ rights, encroaching Federal power, and the Tenth Amendment? Or are they simply letting it be known that their weekend schedule is likely to involve some combination of Toby Keith, Bud Light, and NASCAR?

There are all sorts of tribes – ideologies, heritages, lifestyles – and all sorts of ways to display your allegiance to the tribe (or tribes!) of your choice, from uniforms and flags to tattoos and license plate frames.

In some places, so I am told, displaying the wrong tribal symbols can get you killed – wearing the other gang’s colors, having the wrong kind of name, praying in this manner rather than that, sending your daughter to a school, that kind of thing. Sometimes the consequences are more subtle – a little delay in service, perhaps, or an extra-thorough examination at an airport gate, or maybe a bit of preventive detention.

But if you’re connected to whatever tribe happens to be in power, well then! Life becomes much easier. After all, tribes exist (among other things) to provide mutual protection for their members, and to guard the tribe’s resources against attacks from outsiders. So maybe it’s not all that surprising that folks on President Obama’s economic team like Timothy Geitner and Larry Summers, whom we might well consider members in good standing of the “Wall Street Tribe,” have been acting first and foremost to further the interests of their fellows.

Such tribal thinking has its limitations, however, in an interconnected and interdependent world. More dominant “tribes,” whether on local or global levels, can no longer afford to be quite so callous about the effects of their dominance, or imagine themselves immune either from larger responsibilities or from the consequences of irresponsible actions. I am writing these words just a few hours after President Obama delivered his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, calling on various “tribes” (our own included) to focus more on their connections than on their differences, and to think more about how to make this a better world for everyone. The world can no longer be seen as a “zero-sum” game, where my tribe can only win at the expense of yours – ways must be found for everyone to progress, or we shall all lose ground instead.

Identifying with our various tribes helps us form part of our identities. We don’t have to completely surrender our roots, or our passions, or our beliefs in order to coexist, but we must also remain mindful that, for this short time only, we are each members of the same tribe: the tribe of the living.

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