The Need to Belong

Fair warning.  As I wrote this I began to realize that the title should have been “Reclaiming Love Thy Neighbor.”  So there we are.

Two weeks ago we talked about reclaiming “us” and the habit of “theming” that has so overtaken our culture.  We saw how this is a spiritual problem, not a political problem one, and reviewed how our diverse spiritual paths have urged, demanded, even begged us to love our neighbor – and how it seems to have gone in one ear and out the other, over and over and over again.

But what has made it so easy for humanity to ignore its greatest prophets, spiritual leaders and Scriptures?  In a word: tribalism.

It’s as old as humanity.  My tribe.  Your tribe.  I belong to “us.”  You’re one of “them.”  Our Scriptures have grappled with it.  Hebrew Scripture talks of how we were all one once, but because of the arrogance of humanity building the tower of Babel, we got divided into … “tribes.”  The Qur’an tries to put a more positive spin on it, telling us that while we were all one to begin with, there’s a trend here, we were divided into tribes so that we might better get to know each other.  Bottom line, we are divided.  We are divided into tribes.

But while spiritual tribalism gets most of the press, it’s so much broader than that.  Tribalism is how we create “other”.  “Those people” are not like “us”, so we feel free to treat them … differently.  “Those people” may refer to division by what we call race, or gender, or people who live on the other side of a line we’ve drawn in the soil, or people whose politics doesn’t agree with ours.  And tragically, that’s just the beginning.   And every time we create “those people” we lose “love thy neighbor.”

So it’s not a Muslim problem, it’s not a Christian problem, it’s not a Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Pagan, Hindu, UU, or Humanist problem.  It’s a human problem.  Today we’ll try at least to begin to discern why tribalism has had such staying power, and more importantly, how we might …might… at last begin to move away from it in a positive, loving way.

I can’t help but feel that fear of “other” and tribalism go as far back as the time we first dared to drop down from the trees and are related to if not indeed a crucial part of what’s been called our reptilian brain.  Fear of “other” is primal.

Our reptilian brain is often cited as responsible for aggression, dominance, territoriality, and our fight or flight response.  Like our reptilian brain, tribalism was undoubtedly crucial to our survival as we evolved on a seemingly hostile planet.  We counted on our tribe for protection, for shelter, for food.  So tribes are not inherently bad.

But I would submit that like our reptilian brain, tribalism may have outlived its positive usefulness and indeed I believe is the single most profound obstacle to the love, compassion and community we seek as members of our diverse spiritual paths and traditions.  Particularly now, as the world convulses, if we can’t at last get away from “theming” there may be no hope for us.  But can we at last start moving away?  I hope so.

I believe the first step in moving away is to try to understand why it remains so powerful and influential in our lives.  We need to take the time to understand it because I believe tribalism and theming are not a conscious actions.  It’s a reflex.  Our desire to belong to a tribe comes without thinking about it.  This is what makes it so easy for the unscrupulous to tap into it.

Tribalism helps us to feel stronger.  We are indeed stronger as a part of a tribe than by ourselves.  Tribalism helps us to feel safer.  We don’t feel as vulnerable in a group as we do when we are all by our lonesome.  Tribalism gives us a home, a place to belong.  We feel more certain, less fearful and less lost when we have a place to belong – a place where we belong, just us – not them.  That’s makes us not only more secure but superior.  Tempting.  If we are not aware and careful, much too tempting.

Thus the need to belong is a deeply human need: we all need to belong to something.  The question is to what?  And crucially, how might we hold both our needed sense of belonging and the call to love thy neighbor?

This is not an easy question.  For one thing, as with so much in the world, there is no one “right” answer.

I was in High School I think when something was shared with me that has stayed with me to this day.  It was at some kind of youth conclave.  Someone I hadn’t met before had expressed a prejudice he had about some people, I believe it may have been people of color but I honestly don’t remember.  What I do remember was that he knew it was wrong.  I asked him why, since he knew it was wrong, why he couldn’t put his prejudice aside.  And he told me with great anguish but also great passion.  “I can’t.  I have to be better than somebody.”  “I have to be better than somebody.”  Let’s be with that.

Self-worth.  If we are to deal with tribalism we need to deal our human need for self-worth.  We have a culture, we have nurtured a culture based on telling people how horrible they are and then offering them, or more likely offering to sell them something to help them feel more important, more attractive, more worthy.  I believe a crucial aspect of taking “love thy neighbor” out of the realm of platitudes and into a way of living is moving forward with intent to respect and honor our neighbor’s self-worth.

Another aspect of tribalism is fear.  The more fearful we are, the more fear-filled we are, the more quickly we retreat from love thy neighbor and take refuge in tribes.  Fear, of course, comes in many flavors.  We usually talk about fear of death, but I believe we are mostly governed by other fears.  Fear of irrelevance – that’s a potent fear.  The fear of being unimportant.  It can make joining a tribe not only seem attractive but imperative.  In this world, with everything that is happening, how can I possibly lead a life that has any meaning? – by joining a tribe.

By joining a tribe I become more than just me.  And we need to remember that once I join that tribe to gain some measure of meaning I dare not leave it … even if I believe the tribe is doing something wrong, even something horrible.  If I leave I lose my relevance.  My self-worth disappears.  So I’m stuck with my tribe.  Right now, right now across the country, we are watching a whole lot of people stuck in their tribe.  Even as they are disgusted or horrified, they cannot leave.  So most I think dare not admit that they are horrified, even to themselves.

I believe, then, that another crucial aspect of taking “love thy neighbor” out of the realm of platitudes and into a way of living is moving forward with intent, to listen to and respect each other’s fears – even if they are not shared fears.   The more powerless we feel, the more quickly we retreat to a tribe.  The more fearful we are, the more quickly we retreat to a tribe.  If we will not listen to each other’s fears, without judging, we will never succeed in putting those fears behind us.

Still another aspect of tribalism is the pursuit of power over one another.  I believe this is tied in with self-worth – or the lack of it.   A bloated, grasping need to find ways for me to strut and proclaim I’m better than you is a primary motivator to grab at power.  And tribalism can give us that power.

It’s wrong.  We accept that it’s wrong across all our diverse spiritual paths, even as we steadfastly ignore it.

If we are truly to reclaim and embrace love thy neighbor, we are going to have to start putting the universal “we” ahead of the tribal “me.”  Ok.  Fine.  How?  We’ve been trying for thousands of years.  What on earth can we do differently?

The first thing we can do is what we’ve been doing today – to actually look at it, to stare tribalism in the face and state that tribalism and love thy neighbor are incompatible.  Tribalism and love thy neighbor are incompatible.  That’s the truth of it.  We must, therefore, choose.  And if we would choose “love thy neighbor,” then we must not only choose, but then act on our choice.

I deeply believe that to truly embrace love thy neighbor, to truly embrace that there is no them, there is only us, we must accept and then take to heart that love thy neighbor ranks among the most revolutionary thoughts in human history.  Now clearly, the revolution started centuries, millennia ago.  It’s not our revolution to start.  But we can make it our revolution to nurture.

I believe that the day we begin to listen to and respect each other, the day we are at last able to see that our self-worth and loving our neighbor are inextricably intertwined is the day we shall at last see hurtful tribalism take its place in the dustbin of history.

Particularly as Interfaithers, we can nurture love thy neighbor by doing what we do, both here and outside of this room.

Let us declare that we will not be divided.  We refuse to be divided.  We will not be divided by race.  We will not be divided by gender.  We will not be divided by spiritual path.  Our tribe is humanity.  Yes, we have a need to belong.  And we belong to the human race.


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