Community and the New Tribalism

We live in a time of rampant fragmentation. We live in a culture in which community is hard to find. A recent survey indicated that Americans have fewer friends now than ever. The average American has only two close relationships – down from three in 1985’s survey. The number of people in our society who have no one with whom to discuss important matters has doubled in the last two decades to one in four.1

But we don’t need statistics to tell us that the bonds of friendship are weakening. People are becoming “islands,” lonely and isolated. Even within families, intimacy is missing. Many people lack any kind of support network or safety net to help in times of crisis, much less to provide encouragement in the struggles of daily life.

The blame for the breakdown of community has been placed in several locations. High numbers of single parent families mean that many kids grow up without a healthy, functional family life to teach them about relationships. We work longer hours, leaving little time for people in our busy schedules. Women work outside the home more, leaving them with less time to cultivate neighborly friendships compared to the past. Whatever free time we do have, we fill with impersonal pursuits like television, movies, and surfing the web. We allow “virtual friends” to replace flesh and blood relationships. We have lost any sense of “parish,” that is, of inhabiting a particular geographic spot, where we work, worship, and play in a shared community. We live in a culture that fails to foster the maturity and sacrificial love that are needed to make relationships viable. Instead, our culture nurtures us in the ways of consumerism, individualism, and narcissism. Instead of learning the virtues needed to cause community to grow and flourish, we are trained to treat people as products, using them to our own disposable ends.

No one feels like they “belong” anymore. American culture is dominated by a deep sense of alienation. Conservatives in our country feel isolated because the nation is so liberal. Liberals are alienated because they think America is far too conservative. Immigrants do not feel welcomed. Natives feels they’re being overrun by other cultures in their own land. Boys are alienated from masculinity, afraid to grow up and take on the responsibilities of manhood. Girls are alienated from femininity, and fail to enter into mature womanhood. Parents and children find themselves at odds, as the generation gap widens.

Even if my fifty cent social analysis is flawed (and I admit it’s vastly oversimplified), community is clearly the need of the hour. We live in an age of new tribalism. All the things that once seemed to hold people together are flying apart. We seem to lack any kind of cohesion, or social glue, that makes people stick together. People crave a sense of belongingness, but do not know where to find it.

The words of Gandalf to Theoden before battle in The Two Towers ring true: “For behold! The storm comes, and now all friends should gather together, lest we all perish singly.”2 Indeed, while individuals go to hell one by one, salvation is always social. God saves us as he restores us to community in the new humanity of the church. He reconciles us to himself at the same time he reconciles us to his people. He adopts us as his children, making us a part of wider family. No Christian is allowed to think of himself as an only child.

The church is – or at least ought to be – a place of true community. If people are craving community, we should be able to point them to the church as the place where they can reconnect not only with God, but also with other people. Christian community is not based on the same kinds of natural affinities that the world looks to for communal cohesion. Christian community in found in Christ alone. It is what Christ has done for us and to us and that bonds us together. Thus, in the church, we learn to accept one another by “faith alone.” We learn to accept others as they are, as God has accepted us. We do not hold ourselves aloof until people become what they should be – we accept them in Christ because Christ graciously accepts us both. This is not to say the church refuses to deal with sin, head-on. But it is to say the church is a place where the repentant can always find forgiveness, both divine and human.

Learning to live as a Christian means learning to live in community. In Galatians 5, all the “works of the flesh” are anti-communal vices, but the fruit of the Spirit are community-building virtues. Being a member of the Kingdom of God means dwelling with the brethren in unity and fellowship. It means cultivating relationships of mutual service and edification. To live in the body of Christ means each one of us has an essential part to play in contributing to the health and maturation of the whole. We have been given gifts by the ascended Christ through the Spirit not for our own self-aggrandizement, but so that we can do our part in the serving and strengthening the whole community (Eph. 4:8ff).

We cannot be satisfied with “playing church.” Maybe it’s because their dad is a pastor, but my kids have always loved playing church. It all started with baptizing one another in the bath tub (though thankfully not by immersion!). Then it was doing the Lord’s Supper with bread “stolen” from the pantry and sippy-cups. They would do the whole bit – even the liturgical music and responses. Of course, it’s cute when little kids play church in the living room. But it’s not cute when adults play church. We’ve got to do the real thing – which means real community, with real people. If we’re going to really be the church, we must maintain and cultivate the gift of unity and the bond of peace that Christ has given us (cf. Eph. 4:1ff). We must master the arts of friendship and the skills of hospitality. We must resist the tribalization of our world and culture in the name of the catholic church and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must show one another and the world around us what the gospel looks like when it is embodied in the life of the Christian community.

1This recent survey was widely reported on the media. Some newspaper articles: The Detroit Free Press; The Charlotte Observer; and The News Tribune.

2From J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, page 138.