We All Have Our Tribes

by David Stewart

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on July 2, 2017

We all have our tribes. How we act, how we joke, how we run our congregations, our committee meetings and our conventions all are influenced by our tribal affiliations. I start with my family tribe, our stories, and culture among my relatives. 

After my family tribe, I am from the white tribe. I inherited assumptions and beliefs about white culture with many of my fellow tribal members. It is the majority culture in America and is often portrayed as positive and beneficial. The benefits granted to members of the white tribe are subtle and numerous. I often don’t realize when I am impacting members of non-white tribes with my white culture filters. I have often assumed that the way my tribe does things is simply the way things should be done. 

White tribal history is taught in America’s schools and they are often intolerant of other tribal stories. Few, if any, stories of what Native Americans suffered from genocide and disease due to the white tribe are told; nor are stories told of African Americans who were enslaved and sold to members of the white tribe. The history of brutality and hard-heartedness of the white tribe against other tribes is sometimes difficult for us to hear and wrap our minds around in these modern days. But as a simple reminder of that history, we worship today together on land stolen from the Cherokee Indian nation, a few of whom survived the Trail of Tears on their journey to my home state of Oklahoma. As you likely know, their land in Oklahoma was stolen as well.

Next, I am from the liberal tribe. We often believe in the power of government to make America a better place. Liberal psychology was examined by psychologist Jonathon Haidt, who found that liberals place more importance on fairness and harm prevention than authority, loyalty, and purity, unlike conservatives who equally value those five concepts. 

Tribal membership allows us to stay comfortable, unchallenged, remain unchanged in what and how we think. Though much has been said of social media bubbles, social media is only the most recent way we have erected barriers around ourselves. For example, white flight to the suburbs in Atlanta in the 1970s was a creation of a geographic bubble of white culture that persists to this day. 

And politics, like religion, has reverted pretty strongly to tribalism, as evidenced by the American electorate cheering political candidates of their tribe regardless of their candidate’s qualities beyond tribal membership. The unfortunate truth is, Washington warned us about those tribes known as political parties. We can’t operate without them, but they are dividing our country unlike any time in my lifetime in ways that are frightening and fraught with various negative emotions. 

We do need to understand our and other tribes. But we need to always remember: tribal stories are almost always intended to reinforce loyalty to the tribe, the distance between one tribe and another, and to de-humanize those in other competing tribes. Therefore, let us remember that stories of grievance and victimization not based in historical fact are often justifications for aggression against other tribes. 

And finally, let us remember that our ultimate goal of Unitarian Universalism is to create a table that seats all comers. We have much work to do to create such a Beloved Community. When we awaken ourselves to the fact that many of us have benefitted from our culture at the expense of others in the past, we make some more room to achieve the Beloved Community in our congregation and the Unitarian Universalist denomination.