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 j