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Tribes without Tribalism (9/26/21)

Rev. Jessica Palys

So last week, I asked you all to consider the question:

What creates belonging? What makes that possible? When is a time you were aware that you belonged, and what did that feel like? What about a time when you didn’t? When and how have you created belonging for someone else, and when have you failed? I know it’s difficult to define. Is it acceptance? loyalty? being valued? fitting in?

As you thought it over (and I’m still eager to hear from many of you), I wonder how many went back to thoughts about school - high school and middle school, those awkward years dramatized in every teen movie when the main character stands on the precipice of the lunchroom, tray in hand, surveying the room and wondering where is most safe to sit down. Acceptance and safety in vulnerability both seem to be important for belonging in a community.

Or perhaps you thought of some moment, sitting around a dinner table at a birthday celebration or tradition, when you realized you had a ‘chosen family’ that satisfied your needs for family and community. Being cherished and celebrated are important for belonging in a community.

A few weeks ago I attended a MORE Squared Clergy meeting on Zoom as they planned a recruiting event. Listening to this group of trained faith leaders speak the language of building people power to leverage on behalf of equity and fairness in our community, then I felt it and thought, “here. I found my tribe.” Shared values and goals are important for belonging in a community.

But how do we plant and tend and cultivate belonging? From all those high school and middle school memories, we’ve all probably detected the easiest way to create a sense of ‘tribe' - how we found belonging by inclusion or exclusion. Sociologists tell us the tendency of human social behavior is to create a group based on shared rejection of another. We group together in contrast to against another group. We often define yourselves why who you are not. In Seminary, we call it ‘othering’; painting the other person - or more likely, a whole group of people - as the ‘other’, the outsiders, those different and therefore ok to hold at a distance, to doubt, to judge or to scorn.

We also do it in church, preaching it from church pulpits. The easiest way to create a magnetic pull into a church community is to compare your righteous faithfulness against someone else’s lack of right faithfulness. It’s the theology of ‘we alone are true believers; we alone know the secrets of true faith in God. Those other so-called churches, those ‘heathens’, are just not following the right God, or following God right. We alone have the correct faith and are set apart from the world.’ I never knew if a sense of belonging was the goal or just a by-product, but bringing your community closer by criticizing others is a powerful tonic for creating belonging; but this method is ultimately toxic to the ever widening kingdom of God.

In today’s gospel, we hear two disciples reporting to Jesus - tattling, really - that they saw another casting out demons in Jesus’ name. This reading is a continuation from last week, immediately following the passage when the disciples were arguing about who was greater in the Jesus fellowship. Remember, Jesus has rebuked them and told them they will have to surrender the status completely to serve others in love. And then he said, whomever welcomes one in my name welcomes me. And their response is to say ‘well we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and obviously that had to stop.” Still smiting from their rebuke, it sounds to me like they are now offering up this new nugget of information to gain Jesus’ favoritism. “See, Jesus!? We alone are watching out for you…we are part of your group and that person certainly is not.” but Jesus turns that on its head with this fascinating line; Whoever is not against us is for us.

Whoever is not against us is for us. What a way to reverse the metric. In any part of life, the go-to metric, the easiest thing to assume, is: those who are not clearly with me or us are obviously against me and us. But Jesus says it the opposite, in order to cast the net even wider. He change the default. It is not for us to assume others are wrong or don’t belong; we must assume inclusion rather than exclusion, unless we have evidence to the contrary. Those just walking around living their lives; those who are sitting at home caring for families; those who are tiling in field or laboring in the office or cooking in the kitchen, and everyone in between; unless you are actively standing against what we are trying to do in the world, they are all a part of this coming Kingdom of God. This scripture, this whole chapter of Mark, really, surfaces the questions of boundary issues; who is in our community, and how do we define our boundaries? How do we know if someone belongs, or is that even up to us?

It is easy to create belonging by defining who does not belong. A common enemy makes us friends. But that is not true belonging, it is simply tribalism. There are many groups that thrive because they’ve created belonging by setting themselves against others. Gangs and Cults fulfill this function. Too often its present in our religious communities, workplaces or neighborhoods. And todays’ political parties harness this as well, but they didn’t always function that way.

But that’s not the only way to create belonging and community. How do we nurture community and a feeling of belonging without defining it by whom we exclude? How do we embrace our metaphorical ‘tribe’ without resorting or succumbing to tribalism? How do we cultivate a collective identity without defining it by who we aren’t?

We’ve identified some initial parts of belonging; feeling safe and accepted. Knowing you are cherished and celebrated. Working together on shared values and goals.

For me, I believe that first and foremost, a sense of belonging comes from a sense of being known as an individual and within a group identity. We all have a fundamental need to be accepted and cherished, but in order to get there, we need to be seen for who we are. A community is a place of identity, where people have a sense of belonging because they are known deeply, and their gifts, quirks, needs, and intentions are recognized. A group fosters belonging with a shared identity that is part of a greater narrative.

Consider Judaism and Passover. I’m not an expert on Judaism, obviously, but what I see as an outsider is how often the traditions of the Jewish religion bring forth the common Jewish story. Every year, observant Jews gather on Passover to tell the story of their shared history through a Seder Meal. I expect that many of you have had the privilege of participating in one of these ritual meals, which follow a script and have specific food elements that augment the story, such as bitter herbs to signify the bitterness of slavery; a lamb shank representing the sacrificial lambs blood, and unleavened bread to signify the flight. During the ritual of Seder, families read through a book called the Haggadah, and then it is customary for the youngest child to recite questions that explain why this night is different from all other nights?

Each year, Jewish children learn the narrative about the community they belong to, and in them it fosters and identity, shared values, purpose and belonging - without naming any enemies or who is excluded from the story. Telling this story about the origin of their faith and ethnic identity is a glue that keeps the community together.

Stories are a powerful vehicle to share who we are and what we believe, both individually and collectively. I, personally, am a huge fan of personal origin stories - stories that reach back to the origins of our marriages, or our careers, or our parents lives’, or our family migration. We learn so much about each other from hearing these stories. Jean Ayres saw this when she encountered the idea of grandmother stories. To ask someone about their grandmother is to unlock a whole trove of personal history that you would rarely talk about otherwise, and to really share your origins with another. In early November we will host a whole week-long event centering around grandmother stories and you are invited to share your own story with some artifact made by your grandmother.

These days, even researchers are finding that telling stories holds great power in our shared communities - our families, our workplaces, and our congregations.

Cornell University published a document about belonging in an effort to help employees bring their ‘authentic selves’ to work - knowing that employee retention is increased when people feel like they belong. their goals are to create connections that build trusting relationships and invite different perspectives and opinions into the conversation. And the method they suggest for achieving these goals is to:

  • Engage in purposeful storytelling: Understanding aspects of another person’s story can dissolve interpersonal barriers and help show the many layers, dimensions and experiences about a person we otherwise would not know. It helps people be seen.”

And, in a 2013 article in the NY times called ‘the stories that bind us’, 2 researchers found that the single best predictor of a child’s emotional health and happiness depended on how well they knew their family story. Knowing the answers to such questions as,

“Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”

became a determinant in how well children would weather the crises of life. According to the article,

“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. Children who have the most self-confidence have what [the researchers] called a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

As it turns out, building that narrative about who you are and how you, or your family, or your congregation came to be, is something sociologists call ‘sense-making’ in life. It has tremendous power to help people have a sense of who they are, where they come from, and their intentions in life. Creating a ‘master narrative’ helps create coherence in life and purpose in our life choices. And, as a congregation, these same things hold true.

At the Transitional Ministry training I attended last month, we began with five critical components to navigate a congregation through change. The first and most important of the five steps was to encourage ‘heritage’; helping a congregation tell its unique story of how it came to be. Researching, updating, and articulating the heritage of a congregation is a vital and dynamic process of developing purpose and meaning for the future. It is a critical link from a congregational past to a congregational future, and the process of cultivating the narrative of a congregation can enliven a congregation to go on a journey together.

We have the absolute best opportunity to illustrate and elevate the narrative of the heritage of Kansas City UCC; the celebration of our 100 years in existence. We have piles of historical documents that may hold critical puzzle pieces to our history, and a Centennial committee eager for volunteers to help construct the congregational narrative and capture it through historical photos and features.

I also hope that we, as a congregation, will find opportunities for us to tell our own personal stories, beginning - but not ending - with the November event celebrating the stories of our Grandmothers. Sharing our stories with each other is the first step in being seen and being known; appreciating each other’s stories and how God has moved in each of our lives to bring us together here at KCUCC may grow our connections to each other and be the first step in helping us all belong more and belong better. May you begin to think now on your personal origin story, how it illustrates who you are and what you believe, and think about ways to share it with others as we build a stronger net of connection and love here at KCUCC. Amen and Amen.

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