Me and Mine: The Mixed Bag of Postmodern Tribalism

By Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford | April 8 2012

Emphasizing particularity over universality yields significant implications. First, it means that truth does not come in a one-size-fits-all variety but is, instead, socially constructed. What we take to be truth will be shaped by our gender, history, culture, race, abilities or sexual orientation.

Second, one's sense of well-being cannot be measured by any supposed universal standard, but is determined by how well one is integrated into a tribe with its unique ideas of the true, the good and the beautiful.

If this is the case, the third implication of postmodern tribalism is that marginalized groups must undermine the claims of dominant culture in order to get the social recognition and power that is due them.

Positives of Postmodern Tribalism

In some segments of Christianity, postmodernism is the symbol of all that is wrong with the world today. But even if postmodern tribalism is unacceptable as a Christian worldview, it offers a useful appraisal of modernism. Here's how.

1. Postmodern tribalism can help us develop empathy. Certain segments of American Christianity today once felt very comfortable within the mainstream of American society. Over the years, though, civil rights crusades, multiculturalism, the emergence of postmodern tribalism and other factors have brought significant changes that many Christians believe have placed them on the outside of social structures. Public schools sponsor "holiday" programs that don't mention Christmas but put Kwanzaa and Hanukkah front and center, universities give preference in admissions to certain minority groups and Disneyland advertises "gay day" at its parks.

If we have to fight the impulse to withdraw into the safety of our group, the sense of disempowerment others experience and their own tribalistic responses make a lot more sense to us. Power can blind us to the oppression of others, which makes it difficult to feel empathy. To those in power, pleas from those on the fringes of society sound like whining. But sharing this sense of disempowerment might help American Christians hear what others have been trying to say. This holds the possibility of rediscovering our ob- ligation to social justice.

2. Tribalism can help Christians recognize dependence on alien definitions of power. Postmodernism views the world as competition for social power to advance the cause of one's own group. This confronts Christians with an important choice. Do we buy into this definition of power and want to do all we can to protect our share of it, or do we pursue a uniquely Christian understanding of authority? Many long for a return to "the good old days" when Christianity had a great deal of influence within the corridors of power. Others, however, see great danger for Christianity when those who hold secular forms of power wrap it with spiritual language.

3. Tribalism can help Christians recognize the systemic aspect of sin. Christians often fall into the trap of limiting sin to the individual level. However, sin has a history that becomes ingrained in our social structures. This helps us understand tribalism's focus on the power of systems and cultures.

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