your tribe is monstrous

There's an offshoot of the Amahuatoto tribe in the Amazon basin of Peru that believes that to ensure good hunting they have to sew a male child into the carcass of a goat and hoist him over a fire on a stick . After fifteen minutes they cut the child out (with usually only a few minor burns for his trouble), but the child's muffled screams are nonetheless considered powerful enough to ward off for an entire year the evil spirits that can sabotage a hunt.

This is bullshit.

The story, I mean. I made it up just now to illustrate something that you, reader-person, believe to be true. To wit: that there is no practice so barbaric that there is not some group of humans, somewhere, who has figured out a way to do it.

Even if you are familiar enough with the people of the Amazon to be wary of my made-up story about my made-up tribe, I most likely could have fooled you by setting it in Africa, Indonesia, or perhaps a little further in the past.

Because you believe that people are monstrous. 

You also believe (deep down in the very marrow of your bones), that your group of people is somehow qualitatively different.

This isn't exactly a "race" thing. It's pretty likely you're willing to admit that there are people who share your language, skin-tone, or peculiar hairstyle who are demonstrably awful.

No, I'm talking here about whatever tribe-cluster with whom you personally identify most clearly. That could be your "race," but it could also be your family, people at your church, the members of your political party, or just People with the Good Sense to Avoid Eating Processed Sugar.

Whoever they are, you believe that YOUR people aren't monstrous.

Sure/yeah/fine, there are may have been some incidents where members of your tribe have done some unspeakable things (that they were probably forced into, in order to keep barbarism at bay).

But there is always a ready solution to the problem of unspeakable things: just don't speak of them. Deny your tribe's complicity long enough and with enough vehemence and eventually it'll just disappear. Not because it has been proven false, but rather because there will be no one left around who can call you on it.

Then, when nobody's looking, you can just re-draw the borders of your tribe.

Or redefine barbarism.

This is bullshit.

Before I go any further, however, I want you to know that I think tribes are great. I think people need communities to belong to, and that tribes are a way of forming the sort of fellow-feeling necessary to accomplish great things. A healthy, porous tribe is a wonderful way to organize a potluck, or put together some blankets for hurricane relief.

But I was raised in a tribe with often very hard, impermeable borders, and I am gradually realizing (through the wonders of social media and the revelatory beauty of our racist new White House) that a lot of the people in my tribe (not you, of course) are sorta/kinda/alottabit racist, regardless of how appalled they'd be to be accused of it.

My tribe is monstrous. 

Here's what I can do: I can deny and defy my tribe by writing a word like "bullshit" into a blog post, a word that the sorts of people I'm talking about will find so monstrous that they'll cast me out of the tribe, turn their backs, and carefully re-draw their borders to exclude me.

This I have done.

But rather than then turning my back, I can pause and ask myself why my tribe is like this. I can dig into nuance. I can open my eyes to the darkness that's inside me, and the ways in which I am willing to overlook ugliness and cruelty and violence in order to fit in, get along, and be a part of something bigger than myself.

I am a conspirator in the ugly violence of modernity. I drive the petrochemical roads, fly in the petrochemical jetplanes, and write blog posts on the petrochemical machines. I quietly wear my white-mantle privilege. I do little (nothing?) to make a difference, consoling myself with some intellectual-bullshit narrative about how "storytellers are essential to positive change" and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

I am capable of as much monstrosity as I can imagine, and so are you.

But I am also capable of imagining an entirely different world, where people form interconnected, porous tribes that enrich and support each other.

I am capable of redefining what a tribe is.

Monsters are real, but they are phantasms that live and die in the human imagination.

Let's redefine our tribes, and reimagine something better.


  1. I wonder if tribes and communities might be old mindset thinking. Might the idea that we need community to thrive be an outdated idea? Don’t tribes need exclusivity to exist? To belong to a group must necessitate that some do not/must not/ can not belong. Can this really be the path to human thriving? In conversation just tonight, I noted that I belong to nearly every powerful and monstrous group - white, straight, male, western, christian wealthy - and I hate that I have to explain to people of colour, LGBTQ, female, other faith, less privileged people that I don’t by default consider myself better than them. I don’t think that they just need to work harder, and believe more correctly, and swallow their pride more, simply because their experience has not been my experience. We need to grasp the reality of our privilege and renounce it. I think we might need to renounce our “community” as prideful bigotry when it leads us to think things like “I’ve earned my place”, or “they should show more respect”. I’m horrified by people who look like me who cannot see that there isn’t an us and them, and even more horrified when I sometimes see that same bigotry in myself. Christians should be leading the charge against othering people and worshiping empire, but instead are lining up to be the first to accuse others of the crime of not fitting the mold of nationalistic, narrow dogmatism. God help us - where to go from here, I fear it’s too late to save the church and society from itself and the only way up is total collapse and eventual reconstruction. If we do not stand with the oppressed and against our own inclusive tendencies, we’ll never get there.

  2. Good points, Darren. But I think perhaps the only reason we think we can do without tribes is because we have small glowing rectangles in our hands that perpetually insist we're okay without them.

    There are a rare few who seem to thrive in cabins on the fringes of the world - but even they still enjoy visits from neighboring trappers.

    As a corrective, it's quite likely that current existing tribes - ESPECIALLY ones like white, straight, male, western, Christian, wealthy - need to be dismantled. That those of us who fit those categories need to make extra efforts to bust out and reconfigure. Seeing the horror is great, and IF your community is racist and ugly, then YES, it needs to be dismantled.

    But often the oppressed NEED the strength of their tribe if they're to have the slimmest shot at surviving us oppressors.

    As usual, I think it comes down to that dividing line between dark and light that runs through the human heart. I, too, am very saddened that our tribe can't see the "us and them" that exists, because it leaves very little hope for change.

    You say " I hate that I have to explain to people of colour, LGBTQ, female, other faith, less privileged people that I don’t by default consider myself better than them."

    I think it's GREAT that you hate that, and great that you'll keep doing it. Not in a pedagogical way, but in a practical, ongoing, self-sacrificing-and-dismantling way. You are a Christian? BE a Christian, wail for the world's (and your) wrong, and continue to do your tiny bit to change the porosity and ugliness level in the tribe you (like me) are a part of, whether you like it or not.

    And that's MY bit of preaching for the day :-)

  3. I guess that’s probably more what I’m saying - the institutions and power structures masquerading as community need to be called out for what they are. Of course human thriving is best accomplished in tribes, but my question is - where do tribes/communities end, and where does the “othering” of people I don’t identify with begin? Groups, by nature, must have barriers to belonging or else it will cease to be a group. Will power structures and institutionalized racism not always arise when groups are formed? It does seem obvious that marginalized groups need their communities desperately in order to thrive and belong, but everyone seems to think they’re persecuted in some way (see: christian church in America), when in fact, they are the dominant force. I think a recognition of our difference is important, as is the recognition of our sameness, but when your tribe is all the things previously mentioned - white/rich/straight/male/christian/western - a sense of belonging is actually damaging to me and the people around me. Time to call out and renounce my privilege, and put some effort instead into identifying with the marginalized and disaffected. The current political climate in your country has never made this so clear like never before - so many of those who belong to the elite class (w/r/s/m/c/w) are so invested in their own community that, incredibly, they cannot even understand what Colin Kaepernick et al are even talking about. This is the part that I was talking about when I mentioned being embarrassed by my whiteness because of guilt by association. If these are my tribe, I want out.

    1. Yeah... perhaps that's why Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler (us) to sell all he had and give it to the poor, and why he was so sad.

      I'd love for there to be a once-and-forever answer to the question, but I think that perhaps because of what people are inherently like, tribes with more power will ALWAYS abuse that power, and require dismantling. Think of the incredible act of will required for ONE privileged person to break the chains of their own power, and multiply that by the inertia of the group. I know a lot of very nice (white, rich) people who are too cocooned to even begin to see what's going on at the fringes, in their name.

      And I, too, am oblivious to what my privileging COSTS.

      I do think though that one day, one tiny choice at a time, we can become more healthy. We can make our ugly, brutal tribe a bit more beautiful and kind.

      Not sure we actually GET to opt out, though. I think that maybe for US, the cost of our privilege is that we have to own our guilt and continue to confess it until that privilege is dismantled.


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