Political divisions in the US remind us why Kingdom must always come before tribe

(Photo: Unsplash/Element5Digital)

Well here we are. No matter the result, or how long it takes, we are at a defining moment in American history. And bearing in mind that ripples from the US eventually reach most of the world, it is also a significant moment for everyone else.

Commentary on this election will continue for weeks (as may the election!), but I want to instead examine one of the reasons we have got to where we are and the lessons we need to learn quickly in the UK to prevent us sliding further down the same slope.

I have dear friends on both sides of the political divide in the US. Speaking to them at present is like having to learn two different languages. It is painful to hear wonderful, kind people describe two totally different countries while living in the same country. Their news feeds and/or social media are reporting two different realities with two different sets of priorities and pre-occupations. At times it seems they may even be breathing different air and operating from two utterly different sets of facts.

Meaningful conversation and reconciliation is very difficult if it is not built on at least a shred of shared vocabulary or reality. Trust me. I'm from Northern Ireland.

The theological idea of the Imago Dei (ID) gleaned from Genesis 1:26-28 and beyond reminds us that we are all made in the image of God, designed to reflect him to the world: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'"

This is our core identity. This is the thing that people should see if they bite into us like a stick of rock. But if we lose connection with that core, we will still find our identity elsewhere. Our God-given desire to get a sense of who we are and where we fit in continues to operate. We find our tribes, and that is good and natural. But if we lose a grip on our primary identity as those made in the image of God, we inevitably hold too tightly to the other identities that give us a sense of home. We cling to our tribes.

In the political realm these tribes may be conservative, progressive, brexiteer, remainer, democrat, republican, or many others. I have seen it happen to myself and many friends. Insidiously these identities start to take precedence. Of course we would never say that they do, but sadly our actions and especially our reactions tell a different story. There is a visceral quality to our present debates that goes far beyond the discussion of policies. The enraged offence and wild language thrown at the other side speak of a deep and unhealthy suffusion of our identities to these tribes.

The reactions we see on social media are the reactions of a child when their iPad is taken away. It is primal. Bearing in mind the toxicity of the social media-scape, it is easy to see how tribes are needed for protection, but if our responses to every situation are the knee-jerk reaction of our tribe, then we leave no space for breath, prayer and reflection. And there is certainly no time to consult some ancient wisdom. There is a reason people try to keep religion and politics away from polite dinner table discussions. Nobody likes their identity being questioned. But rather than avoid the subjects, could we instead be so rooted in our primary identity that a disagreement doesn't have to lead to the end of fellowship and embrace?

Tom Wright often points out that in life we will always need progressive (things need to change) moments but at times we also need conservative (things need to stay the same) moments. History is littered with both being significant. To pretend that one is always more important than the other is intellectually vacuous.

The same is true of parenting. There are times when a progressive response is required (okay you can start eating solid food now) and times when a conservative response is required (no, we still don't pour milk on the laptop). On a more serious note, discussions around parenting styles that sit on a spectrum between earth-mothery co-sleeping and Gina Forde military drilling are another good example of when disagreements within and between families get visceral. Again it is because we don't just feel that this is a theoretical discussion. So much of our identity is unhealthily tied up in our insecurities around parenting that we feel that our very person is being attacked. The political and parenting spectra are eerily similar.

Failing to remember that we are all made in the image of God and all part of the one human family also leaves the door open to the next level of ugliness – it leaves us able to 'other' those we disagree with. They become people who are easy to label, mock, and dismiss. Our 'othering' of them renders them less human in our eyes and we are then able to countenance appalling things happening to them. They may become people we would rather see removed from proceedings than have reconciled to us. We forget the words of theologian Vinoth Ramachandrara, who said that "when you stand face to face with another human being, made in the image of God, you are standing in the presence of a vehicle of the divine". Let's pray we aren't about to watch this play out in the US.

Yes we need to be part of earthly tribes, but we also mustn't lose our identity to the tribe. Connecting fully with the core of who we are leaves us less vulnerable to the lure of easy identity. That's what Christians in Politics is trying to do. Helping people stay true to their calling and who they're made to be. As you've heard me say many times before, for us it has to be 'kingdom before tribe'. But as with American elections, it's never as easy as a simple slogan might make it sound......

Andy Flannagan is the executive director of Christians in PoliticsFor more resources on getting involved in politics and more information about our new ID v Idols campaign #ID_v_idols, visit www.christiansinpolitics.org.uk