by Berry Friesen
One of the off-putting things about the Bible is how it gives such prominence to social and political structures. It starts with a story of liberation from an empire (Egypt), follows with a long and complicated account of “the people of Israel,” transitions to stories from the life of Jesus and the emergence of a network of Jesus-following assemblies, and ends with another account of an empire shamed (Rome).
Most Westerners have no patience with this emphasis on groups because they understand life to be a story about autonomous individuals. Life isn’t a group project, in other words; it’s a personal project fashioned by each individual to the best of his/her ability.
This core dissonance between an individualistic worldview and the Bible’s structural approach explains much of contemporary disinterest in the Bible. It also explains why questions the Bible regards as important (e.g., What tribe are you? How does your tribe relate to the empire?) seem so alien to Western ears.
Christianity has done its best to overcome this dissonance by reframing the Bible as a story about personal salvation and self-improvement. That is, each of us as an autonomous individual is estranged from the One who created us; we are without hope for the future unless we make personal peace with God and find our true purpose via faith in Messiah Jesus.
If Not Empire, What? (the book I co-authored with John K. Stoner) does not follow conventional Christianity in this reframing exercise. Instead, it accepts the Bible’s structural approach and applies it to modern life.
As we present it, the purpose of Messiah Jesus was “to save the world” (John 3:17) from all that enslaves and destroys. This entails the forging of a tribal identity around “the way” Jesus embodied; it also entails engagement in a struggle, not so much against human enemies (Ephesians 6:12), but against social and political structures that deceive us, exploit us and turn our hearts toward evil.
Stoner and I briefly outline this perspective in chapter 4 of our book.
Within the biblical worldview, “cultures and their gods, not individuals, create social reality. How we as individuals perceive the world to work . . . . is shaped by the group with which we identify. Because groups and their gods construct social reality, and because YHWH intends for that reality to be just, liberating and sustainable, the Bible focuses on the transformation of a group to lead the way by example” (pages 25-26).
In short, within the biblical worldview, Earth’s salvation is mediated historically through a righteous tribe committed to YHWH. We as individuals recognize and desire the way to Earth’s salvation only when we see it embodied in a community (a tribe).
Greg Boyd, an Anabaptist pastor and author from St. Paul, Minnesota, reflects aspects of this approach. He and his comrades have launched a network-building website called Tribenet. Boyd intends it “to help kingdom people and communities begin to network together (and) also give all who share our kingdom vision a sense of belonging to a common kingdom tribe.”
Why is it important to belong to a tribe? Boyd answers this way:
“God is currently birthing a movement that we believe will eventually transform the face of Christianity. All over the globe people are being gripped by a beautiful vision of a Jesus-looking God raising up a Jesus-looking people to transform the world in a Jesus-kind of way. Many of those who have been captivated by this vision no longer feel at home in traditional churches, but they also are unaware of others who share this vision. They therefore feel isolated and without a ‘tribe.’
“TribeNet was created in response to the many requests . . .asking for referrals to kingdom-minded individuals, groups and/or churches in their locale. By allowing kingdom-minded individuals and groups to find each other, it is our hope that TribeNet will help everyone acquire a sense of belonging to an identifiable global tribe and that God will use this site to help shape and expand the kingdom movement that he is raising up.”
All of this is a change from prevailing understandings (whether religious or secular, conservative or liberal) of how the world works and what life is all about. What’s your response? Does it make sense to you that the salvation of Earth requires a tribe—yes, many tribes—committed to the way of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil?
If so, how might you “go tribal?”
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. A version of this essay first appeared at his blog, http://www.bible-and-empire.net