Me and Mine: The Mixed Bag of Postmodern Tribalism

I am an upper middle class, heterosexual, Caucasian male of European descent, educated in the Western tradition and a citizen of the United States. This sentence, spoken in certain settings, would be viewed as a catalog of choices, accomplishments and fortunate circumstances that I should take great pride in.

In other contexts, however, this sentence reveals my complicity in the oppression of people around the world.

We live in a world with a great deal of diversity. Young people today come of age with terms like multiculturalism, affirmative action, postmodernism, liberation theology, cultural relativism, postimperialism, ageism, metanarrative, balkanization, identity politics, deconstructionism and culture wars as part of their stock linguistic inventory. On university campuses, they can often major in feminist studies, browse through the bookstore’s queer theory section, live in a Hispanic frat or hang out at the Black Student Union.

Welcome to the world of postmodern tribalism, which is characterized by the belief that identity is anchored in ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or some other element. Moreover, it is argued that this particular source of identity has a much stronger pull than general categories such as “American” or even “human being.” Postmodern tribalism also carries a strong feeling of being a social underdog.

From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism to Postmodern Tribalism
The dominant model of cultural interaction throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States was the idea of the melting pot. The melting pot successfully transformed immigrants from hyphenated American (Italian-American, Asian-American) to just plain Americans.

Over time, however, many began to wonder whether they had sacrificed something of significance to the melting pot ideal. Concern over loss of cultural identity and exclusion from society brought about challenges to the “melting pot” metaphor and gave rise to the idea of multiculturalism that is best captured by a common metaphor—the mosaic.

Before the debate between the melting pot and the mosaic models was resolved, new voices showed up at the party and radically changed the discussion. One voice, actually a collection of voices, came from those who also felt excluded from power structures, but had been overlooked by multiculturalism. Some were groups defined by ethnicity, such as Hispanics. Others saw themselves as disempowered because of factors such as gender, class, sexual orientation, age and disability.

Postmodernism’s message is, in part, that all social structures are essentially political in nature. To put it more bluntly, “it’s all about power.” If that is true, postmodernism said, multiculturalism was doomed to fail because disempowered people had unwittingly bought into the rules of the dominant culture.

Postmodernism looks at universal stories, claims to absolute truth and ideas of unbiased neutrality with disbelief. While modernism rejects cultural particularities and seeks to absorb unique practices into something that is more universal (e.g., human nature), postmodernism elevates particularity.

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.

Potential Problems with Postmodern Tribalism
How we get along with people of different religions, races, lifestyles and nationalities is one of the most pressing issues of the age. But postmodern tribalism may not be the best worldview for creating mutual respect between different cultures.

1. Postmodern tribalism often assumes cultural determinism. The belief that our perceptions of time, ethics, the sacred, death and a host of other things always comes to us through the filter of culture is central to postmodern tribalism.

However, when we look at the broad divergence in cultural ideas and practices, the implications of cultural determinism are quite frightening. If true, we would never really be able to understand motivations, express empathy or share beliefs with anyone from outside our limited culture and era. If our nature is nothing but the product of tribal variables that are incomprehensible outside that context, we can only gaze at others from across the cultural abyss and scratch our heads in bewilderment.

2. Postmodern tribalism relativizes “tribes” while absolutizing “my tribe.” Even if postmodern tribalism could explain how diverse cultural groups can communicate ideas across tribal boundaries, it offers no common authority to enact its agenda of peaceful coexistence between the broad range of racial, ethnic, religious and lifestyle groups.

This should be viewed as tragic by Christians, because we agree with the critique that modernism has allowed certain cultures to use beliefs that were thought to be objective, universal and eternal to subjugate minority voices and shut them out of power structures. After all, Christians must reject the belief that any set of cultural truths, norms, traditions or customs carries final authority.

3. Postmodern tribalism degenerates into just another power play. Postmodern tribalism’s reliance on power to achieve its ends has several unfortunate implications. First, it involves a reductionistic view of human nature. When post-modern tribalism defines the human problem in purely social or economic terms, it overlooks other important dimensions of human nature and will thus assume that my status is defined entirely by the social well-being of my particular tribe.

Second, there is irony in postmodern tribalism’s reliance on power as the means of obtaining the ends sought by one’s tribe. After all, its fundamental critique of modernism is its use of truth to justify coercion against other groups.

4. Postmodern tribalism creates a culture (and cult) of victimhood. An interesting feature of postmodern tribalism is that many groups use their status as victims as a means to stake their claim to resources of power.

On the one hand, we don’t want to belittle legitimate claims to victimization. On the other hand, the tribalistic approach to victimization creates several problems. For one thing, postmodern tribalism sends mixed signals that offer a strong incentive to exaggerate and perpetuate claims to victimhood and overlook real signs of progress in correcting past wrongs.

5. Postmodern tribalism is culturally reductionistic. Terms like tribe or culture are not quite as simple as they sound, because they include so many elements—language, history, traditions, religion, ethnic, racial and other components. However, tribalism, as often practiced, tends to be selective about which cultural element really “counts.” Thus, it often arbitrarily picks out one feature of an individual’s background—for example, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity or economic class—and reduces a person’s identity to that factor.

Conclusion
In the Book of Revelation, we see “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9-10). Worship of God occurs, not apart from, but within the context of different nations, tribes, peoples and languages. People retain their identity as members of specific nations, tribes and language groups while, at the same time, addressing their worship toward the same God.

I am upper middle class, heterosexual, Caucasian, a male of European descent, educated in the Western tradition and a citizen of the United States. However, the fact that I am also a Christian requires that none of these should ever be ultimately authoritative.

When I am surrounded by folks who use other adjectives to describe their cultural particularities, it reminds me that, while God transcends the unique features of any tribe, the way we experience God and express our faith will always be shaped by our time and place in the world.

Adapted from Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories that Shape Our Lives by Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford. Copyright © 2009 by Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. IVPress.com.