Ecclesia – (lat. from Greek ekklesia [εκκλησία]): a “gathering” of citizens, in an ancient Greek city-state; a “gathering of the called out ones”, gathering of those summoned”.  [britannica.com]

Tribe – A socially, ethnically, and politically cohesive group of people. [wiktionary]

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. [1 Peter 2:9]

Written with a view towards “Afrika Burns” with the theme “tribe” (November 2007), the South African version of Burning Man.

I have no real training in social theory, anthropology or ecclesiology, but I’m not going to let that get in the way: I’d like to take a non-expert, common sense, imaginative foray into the idea that G-ds people, the ecclesia (more commonly but more problematically known as “the church”), might be imagined as a Sacred Tribe.

Firstly, I like to explore my own myths (as at least somewhat representative of my culture), to unpack the key terms. What do I mean, and not mean, by “ecclesia”, and by “tribe”?

Ecclesia is not

  • a building or place where Christians meet.
  • any organisation based on certain doctrines.
  • the moral authority.
  • a time of the week.

Rather, the ecclesia is the community of believers who seek to follow Jesus, the mystical “Body of Christ”. It includes people of all cultures, ages, subcultural affiliations, denominations, and doctrinal persuasions. It has a time dimension, and exists through history, as well as into the future. As to who is actually included, only G-d ultimately knows.

What about “Tribe”, or “Tribal”? Here are some of the thoughts that come to mind:

  • non-Western – e.g. “The social structure of African Tribes”.
  • non-Urban or Pagan – “The Tribal customs of the countryside”.
  • primitive – “In earlier, tribal days”.
  • an ironic anachronism: (re-using an ancient term to describe contemporary subcultures), as in “The Modern Tribes of Britain”.
  • having a similar ethos : “We have like this rapport, y’know, we’re the same tribe”.

So why would one bring the concept “ecclesia” together with the term “tribe”?

As we see in the above definition, the ecclesia are “called out”, and there is a sense in which they need to forge an identity different to the default identity of their culture. Generalising, the “Western” culture which I for one find myself in, is essentially individualist, materialist consumerism.

Inside this culture, people identify with brands or economic classes before other things – ethnicity, culture or nationality. Globalisation is about the homogenisation of world culture around consumer values and technology. Whereas the Catholic Church may have been the overarching authority for a millennium and a half, and nationality thereafter, it is now the superbrands who call the shots. I wear Nike, I use a Mac, I drink Coke.

In my western, 21st century context, this global consumer culture is what is rejected by Jesus when he says, “My kingdom is not of this world”. [John 18:36]. This culture stands diametrically opposed to the “Kingdom of God”. To my ears there are more than a few echoes of the Roman Empire, the dominant political power of his milieu, in the current consumerist age.

One of the key features of Empire is its veneration of the City as the seat of authority. Empire is essentially urban rather than rural. As such, many fundamental values of life – connectedness to the soil, closeness with nature, and simplicity, are superseded by market economies, abstraction from nature, artifice, and increasing sophistication.

As an aside, I am not dispensing entirely with the hope that “City” might represent more than this negative picture, note its uses in Augustine (“The City of God against the Pagans”) and the book of Revelation (The New Jerusalem). Additionally most of the apostolic writings are letters to churches in urban centres, and there is no direct suggestion that living in an urban setting was of itself unethical.

Also, it is important to realise that the “pagan”, so often demonised by christian theology, means both “rustic” as well as (in the Roman context, according to Steve Hayes) “civilian, not in the imperial army”. I have been discussing the prophetic nature of the pagan in recent posts.

But I feel that it is now appropriate to re-examine our assumptions about the urban, especially insofar as we are living in an advanced state of spiritual dis-ease. The unchecked trend towards urbanisation has a cost, and we need to count this.

To the extent that it represents the Kingdom of G-d, the ecclesia will find itself at odds with the Empire of Materialist Consumerism. The called out ones are “called out” precisely to live a life different to this, where the values of G-d are both respected and enacted: community rather than individualism, spiritual rather than materialist progress, serventhood rather than mastery, obedience rather than autonomy, creating rather than consuming, nature rather than artifice.

As far as I understand, before Cities and City-States, community took place in a different way: The Way of the Tribe. I need to acknowledge that any elevation of Tribe (even using a capital “T”) is open to the romantic. But since this is not social science, but rather an exercise in re-envisioning, I am not going to be afraid of skirting ideal and dream. Obviously if we go too far we end up with something no-one can practice, and I am interested in changing the way I live rather than simply playing with ideas.

Clearly, the tribal is not without problems. Warfare between Iraqi tribal groups has derailed the nation; intertribal fighting almost derailed the South African transformation process. And as David Ronfeldt points out : “Continuing to view Al Qaeda mainly as a cutting–edge, post–modern phenomenon of the information age misses a crucial point: Al Qaeda is using the information age to revitalize and project ancient patterns of tribalism on a global scale.”

Obviously we need to radically rework any concept of the tribal with a view to values such as peace, compassion and inclusion. Despite notions of hospitality and care of the stranger in many bona fide tribal cultures, most models of tribe seem to have had strong delineators defining who was in and who was out. If we have a view of the world informed by G-d’s Kingdom, then we cannot define belonging based on hard borders and bounded sets.

I have increasingly found that looking backwards is a good way to move forward. We are not trying to romanticise the past, or become something archaic or premodern, but rather to understand and distil principles we see having merit and reapplying them in our context.

The Way of the Tribe seems to me to represent a viable alternative to the domination of the urban, as well as offering a worthy expression of the ecclesia and the Kingdom of G-d.

So we can not accept the idea of the tribe uncritically. But neither can we reject it without proper understanding; we need to recognise that modernity has not in fact superseded tribalism, but rather sublimated it. Many aspects of the tribal have simply been repressed; as such they are still present but unacknowledged. This repression results in, for example:

  • gang mentality – banding together to survive, especially in a ghettoised situation.
  • an unearthed spirituality – spirit-matter dualism, whereby the shamanic or nature based aspects of religion are demonised. We are left with spirituality unconnected with creation.
  • unnatural and impotent social alignments – birds of a feather still flock together, but over things like economic status/aspiration, branding, racial identity, nationalism leading to xenophobia, sporting allegiances, hobbies, and a variety of other factors which do not have the power to build true community.

I would like to present a few ways in which I find a tribal paradigm helpful, especially as a metaphor for the ecclesia:

  • Common Good: In a tribal ethic, the common good comes before the individual good. Acts 4:34 records that “there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”. And 2 Cor 8:15, “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”
  • Honour Motivation: As opposed to the profit motivation of the City, Tribes according to David Ronfeldt “… behave more like balance–of–honor than balance–of–power systems.” If we remind ourselves of the purpose of the ecclesia, which according to N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, are to “be Gods agents in the putting the world to rights”. The means of this are the placing of the creator on the throne, in worship. An honour motivation, in honouring G-d the creator as the central presence within the tribe, appears to be a credible alternative to the profit motivation of this current age.
  • Connected to the earth: “Treat the earth well, it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children”, says an American Native proverb. The tribe lives close to the earth, lives off the soil, is deeply aware of season, climate and its place in things. Rather than the land belonging to us, we belong to the land. One of the most devastating effects of western colonial expansion was the annihilation of native and tribal peoples in their deeply misguided belief that they could “own” what ever land or resources they wanted to. In so doing, the real custodians of the creation were systematically wiped out, their millennia-old wisdom disappearing in the process. Not only are the effects of this western attitude are now being felt, but the genocide and ecocide of the last 2 centuries has been a corporate sin of immense proportions.
  • Bound in Ritual: The rituals and icons commonplace in tribal culture are, like the tribal itself, sublimated in western urbanism. This sublimation creates lifeless habits from healthy ritual, and idols from icons. The empty informalism and lack of imagination of our way of life robs us of a sense of the sacred, the creative and the communal. Many westerners are starting to acknowledge that the rites of passage practiced in earlier times – coming of age, birth, death – have gone missing at great cost.

The 21st Century Tribe

What might this new Tribe look like in practice?

  • New or creatively reappropriated Rituals and Liturgy appropriate to our situation.
  • More dance and rhythm : “I praise the dance, for it frees people from the heaviness of matter and binds the isolated to community.” [St Augustine]
  • Eldership over Celebrity. We need to acknowledge the wisdom of the wise and root out our need for gossip and celebrity as sources of affirmation.
  • An ethic of gifting and servanthood over acquiring and self-preservation.
  • An economic of sharing over profiteering.
  • An economic of barter, wherein we exchange things and skills based on what we do, make or already own, rather than buy into the cult of the new, the cool or the industrially manufactured.
  • The decommodifying of our exchanges. Friendship and kinship over sales and “client” interaction.
  • An active ecology: care of the earth, and efforts to live more in tune with it, political action with existing efforts. More time spent in the open, walking, camping, gardening.
  • A new agriculture: Growing our own, or supporting organic farmers, and going directly to the source rather than via the repackaging supply chain of the market process.
  • A vibrant spirituality which acknowledges the untamed, rediscovering the shamanic arts. Aligning to nature based approaches such as the Wheel of the Year, over more artificial or “scientific” calendars; rediscovering the totemic.
  • A living mythology which feeds the imagination, in which narratives are told and retold, directly and intimately rather than via the products of industrial mythmakers like Disney.
  • Technology in its right place. Always question the increasing ubiquity of computers, entertainment devices and impersonal systems instead of passively accepting it. Says Adbusters Kalle Lasn: “When the TV malfunctions, don’t fix it; decide to suffer through the withdrawal. Fight your way out of the consumerist cage.”
  • Creativity in all things, to combat our industrial alienation from the processes of production. Buying less, making more.
  • Holding our place in the created order, and holding the Creator as the “Honour Centrepiece” of all that the Ecclesial Tribe does.
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