From the Gospel according to Mark:
The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy him.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 2:6 (NRSV) – July 18, 2013.)
Jesus had healed someone on the sabbath; that’s the simple back ground to the Pharisees and Herodians conspiracy against Jesus. This alliance is an interesting one since in generally the two groups hated one another! But their fear of Jesus apparently was enough to get them to work together against him.
It’s an odd alliance, particularly if looked at from the view point of the Pharisees. Their name is taken from the Hebrew word parash meaning “to separate;” they adhered to a strict piety and disciplined adherence to the Torah. They refused to associate with Gentiles or any “unclean” person or thing. They exhibited all of the characteristics of what, in our modern world politics, has come to be called “tribalism.”
Recently a friend and colleague bemoaned what she called “the tyranny of liberalism” noting that those on the political left were “wasting precious energy and time beating each other up.” I suggested to her that the problem is not with liberalism (nor, indeed, with conservatism). Rather the issue in modern society is the “tribalism” that seems to have taken over all of American social thought and civic behavior (including behavior in the church).
Tribes (like the Pharisees) group around and define membership on the basis of some type of purity – purity of thought, purity of belief, purity of blood, purity of precious bodily fluids, purity of whatever. Stray even a little bit from that purity and, like white blood cells, other members of the tribe will attack. A liberal voicing illiberal opinions, a conservative embracing a liberal point . . . they will be pilloried by their co-tribalists much faster than by the “opposition.”
This kind of tribal thinking has infected both political parties, many churches, the liberal and conservative political camps . . . name some segment of current American society and you can identify its tribal attributes. There are Pharisees of all stripes in our national community today. Both houses of our nation’s legislature have succumbed to a deeply seated “us versus them” mentality of political tribalism that goes beyond even traditional partisanship; nothing is getting done and so long as this persists nothing is likely to get done.
Not a single one of us is immune to tribalism; none of us avoids it entirely. However, we can do something about it. We can become aware of it. We can identify our own biases and question our own motivation. We can confess our own sinfulness in this regard and repent, turning away from it in favor of a more constructive way of working together.
In the second chapter of his catholic epistle, James addresses the issue of favoritism:
If a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? (James 2:2-4)
He then condemns this favoritism as sinful: “If you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (v. 9) It is, he says, a violation of what Christ called the second great commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. Partisan tribalism, I would suggest, is simply a political form of the favoritism scripture here condemns.
I remember reading once that Christians are called to pledge unwavering allegiance to the Lamb, not to the donkey or the elephant. We are bidden by scripture to pray for our governments and our leaders without regard to their politics or our own. If we will do that, while becoming aware of our own motives and biases, we can eschew tribalism and model a way of doing social business, of being community that will benefit all.
The alliance between the Herodians and the Pharisees, even though it was against Jesus, demonstrates that even those with the most tribal of instincts can compromise and work together. We should foster and encourage such behavior, even if this example might not the best illustration to use.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.