With England in a Rugby World Cup final, it's a good weekend to allow ourselves to be a little bit tribal. I'm not intending to paint a St George's Cross on my face, but I might allow myself a chorus of "Swing low, sweet chariot" or two. Meanwhile, I shall quite understand the majority of my Welsh, Irish and Scottish friends hoping for a Springbok victory. After all, if you can't win yourself, at least you can hope that your nearest neighbour and closest rival doesn't.
A good portion of my academic research has been around the concept of Belonging (quick ad – my book God's Belongers has been reprinted ahead of my next opus You Are Mine coming out later this month), and the various tribes we belong with form a core part of who we are. Among our tribe we feel included, protected, valued, understood; apart from it we experience higher levels of loneliness, exclusion, vulnerability and mistrust. A tribe can support quite considerable levels of diversity, about all those issues that aren't part of its defining identity; it isn't just a fancier word for a club. The basic cost of joining, and remaining a member of the tribe, may be little more than the expectation of loyalty, even if there are many opportunities to express ones identity in more visible, audible or tangible signs – from rhymes to rituals.
The tricky issue however, is that loyalty is not a fixed or readily measurable substance. How do we judge when standing up for our tribe has become a cost no longer worth paying? A cost greater than that which will be exacted from us for leaving.
The last few months have seen MPs leaving their parties, or having the whip removed, in numbers and across a range of traditions not seen for many decades. An even greater number have rebelled in ways that party colleagues (and even more so the world of social media) believe amount to treachery. For many, it signals the end of their political career, at least for the foreseeable future. Whichever way they have jumped, and for whatever reason, I would want to at least applaud their bravery. Most have faced not merely harsh words but direct, personal threats of violence.
So, perhaps swimming against the tide, I think many of our politicians emerge with greater honour than do some of us in the Church.
There are too many examples of how our ecclesiastical tribes can police a loyalty fiercer than their political equivalents – not least because we often invoke God as our ultimate enforcer. Deserting the tribe is equated with heresy or apostasy, and the leaver treated accordingly. Exalting tribal loyalties so high, putting them almost on a level with God, is perhaps the single most corrupting force at work among Christians of our generation.
The evidence of that corruption is all too visible. It is deeply shameful when those trusted with responsibility in the Church sexually abuse children. But what survivors repeatedly declare to be even more shameful are the ways in which the Church then works to deny, minimise or cover up the abuse. Often it is those closest to the abuser, the members of the same tribe within the church, who work hardest to deflect scrutiny and prevent accountability, whilst whistleblowers are anathematised.
Loyalty has been permitted to grow, cancer like, to the point where the potential dishonour faced by the tribe is seen as of greater import than the lives and wellbeing of those abused. Even at a more prosaic level, I come across good missional endeavours being resisted and opposed on grounds that seem more to do with them originating from the wrong tribe than any other defect.
Like in rugby, if we can't be victorious ourselves, we don't want our rivals to enjoy success. St Paul spoke out against such sentiments, challenging those who wished to claim allegiance to Apollos, to Peter, or even to himself, to such an extent that it superseded loyalty to, and unity in, Jesus.
This is no way to be the Church of God.
So this weekend, let's enjoy the rugby. Sing with, or shout at the TV set if we must, whoever we want to win. And let's enjoy the particular qualities and strengths of our church tribe. But remember to whom it is that we ultimately belong, the only one who merits unswerving loyalty.
This article first appeared in ViaMedia and is re-printed here with permission.