Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tribes and Cultural Christianity

In the last week, there's been a spate of particularly ugly news coming out of West Africa. Meaning, it's something that most Americans are utterly unaware even happened. There's just no room for it in our brains, what with March Madness and the Oscars, so why even bother putting it on the air?

The news comes from Nigeria, a country where my folks lived for several years, and which I had the opportunity to visit on several occasions many moons ago. In and around the town of Jos, a group of Muslims attacked Christians, shooting and hacking to death several hundred people. It's a reprisal for a similar attack undertaken by bands of Christians, and part of a long cycle of interreligious violence in that region. It is, or so it might appear, yet another example of the brutality that folks inflict on one another in the name of God. Look at the bloodshed that faith causes, one might say. If there were no religions to divide people in the name of God, then the world would be a much better place, one might say.

Problem is, that's not what is at play here. The Muslims were all Fulani tribespeople. The Christians were all Berom tribespeople. The recent attacks seem to be related to the theft of some livestock a while back, which was followed by reprisals, which were followed by more reprisals. The Berom all are Christian, but they also are ethnically and linguistically separate from the Fulani, and have been so since before Jesus and Mohammed showed up in that part of sub-Saharan Africa.

The violence has to do with the thing that causes most human conflict...that tendency for groups to organize around a shared identity that differentiates them from other groups. The most elemental of those groupings is that of blood, as our bond to family becomes the most significant Us. We are the Hatfields! What was your last name again, stranger? On another level come the bonds that come from shared culture and land. We are American! We Support Our Troops (tm)! On yet another come the bonds that come from mutual interest. We are the West Burlington Knitting Society! Death to the East Burlington Knitting Society!

When faith is delimited by the particular forms and expectations of a given culture or society, then it can become yet another rationale to shore up hatreds driven by blood and material possession. That, as I've been opining of late, is one of the more radical things about what Jesus taught.

The bonds of blood and language and culture...even the bonds of religious self-identification...are things that Jesus explicitly rejected. It is the hated Samaritan who is offered as the highest model of grace. It is the Syrophonecian woman who Jesus yields to in a serious breach of gender and ethnic protocol, in front of his disciples no less. It is the pagan Roman centurion's child who is healed.

When we start viewing Christianity as functionally identical to our culture, when it becomes yet another Us that permits hatred of those who are Not Us, then we've lost our Way.