Tribalism: Death here, there, and everywhere

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We were in a war zone—on purpose! Refugees were fleeing South Sudan in large numbers just as we were arriving, creating an eerie discomfort in the pit of my stomach. I imagined that this must be what firefighters feel like charging into a fire engulfed building. There had just been another shootout earlier in July—between forces loyal to the Vice President and those loyal to the President —outside the presidential compound in Juba where more than 300 people had died. Did we have a death wish? Were we insane? Perhaps!

Later in the week, upping the ante, we knowingly and willingly left the relative safety of our walled compound near the Ugandan border and, under heavily armed guard (soldiers with AK-47’s), made the 200 kilometer drive to Juba, the capital and site of the carnage, through multiple armed check points. Why? Perhaps it was to have the privilege of seeing for ourselves the bullet holed walls and pock marked guard towers where the bloodbath occurred. But there was a greater purpose.

What was the cause of death? Why had this occurred? In a word: tribalism. The VP’s security forces were from a different tribe (Nuer) than the president’s (Dinka), making for a very shaky situation ever since Christian South Sudan became the world’s newest country in 2011, after breaking from the Muslim north. This is in spite of the fact that both leaders are purportedly Christians: the Vice President is Presbyterian and the President is Catholic. But, this is precisely what happens when we choose our tribe over all—death, destruction, and humanitarian crises of epic proportions.

So what is tribalism? The Oxford English dictionary defines tribalism as “The behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.” Historically, tribalism has been a very powerful cultural force. At its best, it usually breeds discrimination and distrust; at best, death and destruction.

As I sat in Juba, contemplating our crazy journey and tribalism’s results in Africa, the breaking news from America was not any better. Blacks, angered at recent death of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement, were calling for the indiscriminant targeting and killing of law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, in spite of our many cultural advances, we haven’t quite yet achieved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream where people are not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

So, in a tribally divided world on this side of heaven, is there any hope? Yes, I believe there is! Immediately before the Chaplains triumphantly marched singing and brining hope and joy to the very streets that had been recently filled with blood, we had a worship and prayer service at a beautiful Episcopal church. Team members were asked to address the chaplains with words of encouragement. Far Reaching Ministries, which trains these amazing chaplains, who hail from many different tribes, reinforces the concept that, in Christ, they are only members of the tribe of the “Lion of Judah.” My words were unplanned, but they came from my heart.

I told these 100 handsome smiling warriors of the king, that “God, through them, was bringing hope to South Sudan.” Indeed, everywhere the chaplains marched or ran in this war-torn land, we would see the women and children who had not fled, with hope-filled eyes, rejoice and follow them in a happy throng. I read Colossians 3:10-14:

“[P]ut on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

I affirmed that “in Christ, there are no tribes.” I admonished them that the only way to stop tribalism’s vicious cycle of revenge killings is the “love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.” I encouraged them that we all bear the image of God, we are all equal and one in Christ, and “when I next return to South Sudan, that I want to only see one tribe here.” To my great joy, the chaplains responded with loud cheers, shouts, and clapping. Then mustered with a marching band and they marched confidently past the fresh bullet holes and happy crowds, bringing a renewed sense of hope to a war-torn land. God is the hope for South Sudan.

Later, upon returning to the United States, it struck me that tribalism isn’t only racial, but is also often religious. I heart sank when I thought of the multitude of, mostly minor and silly things, that divide disciples in body of Jesus Christ in America and cause us to distrust each other, shoot at each other, and wound each other. And because of our often petty divisions and lack of unity, how we are so ill prepared to now stand firm against the growing darkness in our own culture.

What is true is South Sudan is also true in America and everywhere. The love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, and the authentic unity they bring, are the only things on this side of heaven powerful enough to overcome tribalism’s deep rifts in the human heart—and the division, destruction, deep wounds and death it inflicts. And we can look forward with hope and joy to the day when there will be “a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands…” Revelations 7:9. In the meantime on this side of heaven, my prayer for South Sudan, America, and the world is that tribalism will die and that Jesus Christ will live in our hearts.

Dean Broyles

— by Dean R. Broyles, Esq.

Broyles is a constitutional attorney serving as the President of The National Center For Law & Policy (NCLP), an organization fighting to promote and defend religious freedom. Copyright© The National Center For Law & Policy. Reprinted with permission.

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