Tribalism, and the tribalization of America, has been in the public debate for some time, and now the president has added nationalism to the menu, with white nationalism as a subtext. It raises a question about the proper role of boundaries between tribal and national identities. Tribes have boundaries. Tribalism creates barriers. Trumpians complain that liberals don’t believe in boundaries. They want open borders and a one world government that destroys national identity. It’s silly at best, but I remember similar scare tactics from the 1950s and ‘60s. Thought they were dead and buried. Guess not.
In the meantime Europeans are discovering that it’s hard to have economic union and maintain different cultural identities, because economic integration invades long cherished cultural territory. Added to it are pressures from immigrants bringing strange, alien cultures with them. It must seem to Europeans like reverse colonization, and it does have some of that flavor.
As a Christian, I’m committed to following Jesus who led the way in breaking down barriers that separate us one from another, but that’s not the same thing as eliminating boundaries, or demanding that tribes and nations be abolished. For one thing, boundaries are permeable while barriers are impermeable. Barriers keep others out. Boundaries mark where one tribe or nation ends and another begins, permitting passage from one to another.
Jesus broke down barriers that prevented people from abundance of life and enjoyment of a welcoming place in community. He never demanded that Pharisees and Sadducees become Pharducees. He didn’t demand that the centurion cease being Roman, or the Jews and Samaritans merge into one. He did demand that no tribe or nation impose on others that which would prevent them from a full and complete life.
For all our dysfunction, America may have something to teach other nations about tribes and boundaries. Of course we struggle with systemic racism, it’s a huge problem, but we know it and continue the struggle. In the meantime, we’ve managed to form a nation of enormous variety in cultures, heritages, religions, strange names and stranger words. I thought about it the other day when reading articles written by authors with Asian, African, and Arabian sounding names who argued passionately as Americans, about America, for America.
American English, our unofficial official language, is filled with a growing vocabulary of words and phrases from any number of immigrant groups. In fact, they help mark cultural boundaries between regions. I grew up in Minnesota where Scandinavian phrases were woven into everyday conversation. It’s hard to do the NYT crossword if you don’t know a handful of common Yiddish words. Some Spanish is essential to getting around in Santa Fe. Louisiana has its Creole, and Hawaii has a patois mixing half a dozen languages. American Indian words are a staple of geography. All of them are integrated, in small ways and large, into American English spoken in every region.
So what’s the point? Part of it is that language helps carry the continuation of cultural heritage into a new place, and it helps make it a part of the larger culture of that place while maintaining its unique identity.
Here’s another point. I don’t believe we need to be paranoid about tribes. Being a member of a tribe is not tribalism. Not too far from us is the land of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes maintain their identities but live in confederated union. With increasing confidence and economic clout, they’re engaging with the communities around them as important players in the life of the region. Tribal identity is important. There’s nothing wrong with it as such. It goes wrong when tribal identity is used to denigrate, oppress, or erect barriers that prevent members of other tribes from enjoying universal rights and privileges. That’s tribalism. White nationalism is tribal identity that intends to do just that, and it’s morally wrong.
My final point is that nationalism is, or should be, an expression of pride and patriotic loyalty to a nation state, its history, customs, and hopes for a better future. Think of it as super tribe. It’s the kind of patriotic pride that has no need to put down the patriotic pride of other nations, nor does it feel compelled to define the world in terms of enemies, allies, and the rest who can’t be trusted. Borders? Certainly? Secure if need be, but not excessively so. The United States, perhaps more than any other country, ought to know how to do that. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.
We need to put away tribalism, confronting it for the immoral thing it is. But we need not put away our tribes, and the pride we take in them. Like the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla, our tribes can live together in harmony, sharing with each other the best of what each has to offer, without one claiming privilege of place at the top of a competitive heap.