On a recent visit to extended family, I greeted my nephew’s wife Emily and their year-old son Kenneth. She immediately thrust her child out to me, introducing him to his “auntie from away.” Like a thirsty desert traveller, I drank in the sweetness of the youngest family member, who settled without protest into my eager arms, stranger though I was to him. “Family,” I thought, “this is what it means to be in the tribe.” Where else do parents trustingly give over their babes with such openness?
Kenneth’s mother married my nephew Matthew, a fine young man I’ve known all his life. Because we’re in the same tribe, Emily generously shares her little boy with me, all the while teaching him what it means to be in this family. “This woman that you do not know is connected to you,” she conveys. “This is a stranger you can trust, someone known by and important to your parents, someone who journeys with you in life. She is in your tribe.”
What a blessing to have a tribe! My family tribes—original and in-laws—are among my greatest gifts, full of loving, agreeable people with enough wackiness and scrappiness to keep it interesting.
I was also blessed by attending Mennonite World Conference in Pennsylvania this past summer with thousands of my Anabaptist cousins. Even with the variations in denominations, nationalities, ethnicities and language, common themes were sounded: Jesus is our centre; peace, justice and reconciliation form our mission; community is our life-blood. And let’s proclaim all those values with full-bodied song.
Tribes are essential. They provide us with a place to belong, a home base, and a sanctuary in which to retreat. They are integral in forming our identities. From our tribes, we learn language, religion, gender roles, sexual values and patterns of responding to conflict. We acquire tastes for certain foods. We develop capacities or inhibitions in giving and receiving emotional support. Consciously and unconsciously, we absorb how to bury the dead, how to navigate life’s storms, and what to do when we’re defeated.
Sometimes the tribe helps us define who we are not, as individuals separate themselves from the communal identity. Does any of the following sound familiar? Everyone gathers for the monthly extended family birthday dinner, except for the lone wolf who seems unable to tolerate all that cheery togetherness. Or, endless conversations about church and Christian faith hold the attention of everyone, except for the atheist who quietly removes herself. Or, everyone suits up for the annual back yard hockey game, except for the bookish cousin sitting in the corner, with a book. We need the tribe, and yet the tribe is not all of who we are.
Tribal language permeates the Bible, written in a time and place where society was largely organized in such tribes. Recall the many references to the twelve tribes of Israel. Recall the careful inscribing of Jesus’ lineage in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Recall Paul’s boasting of his tribal connections. Tribes—to whom one belonged and where one fit—were very significant to the people of the scriptures, and it was natural, necessary even, to tell God’s story through these tribes.
Yet the Bible also pushes beyond exclusive tribal boundaries. Threaded throughout these stories of God and God’s people are many examples of the tribal borders being expanded and redefined. Jesus’ lineage included a member of the despised Moabites. Paul called his credentials “garbage,” as he saw God throwing open the doors of the family to welcome all peoples from all tribes.
We need a tribe, and we need to be stretched as well. Thank God for tribes and thank God for pulling us beyond them.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.
See more thoughts on tribes in "Tribalism."