I discovered recently that there are still clubs in London which only accept “gentlemen” members who have been to appropriately illustrious schools. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Most of us love to fit in. We look for those of our tribe.
The signs that mark out a tribe are sometimes subtle, sometimes glaringly obvious.
“Oh you’re reading the same newspaper as me – you’re my sort”.
“You dress like me.” That makes tribe-spotting easy. Just look for the similarities in groups together. Fake eyelashes are usually worn in batches of well-bronzed, thoroughly made-up girls with long hair while the Jaeger tribe wear mute autumn tones, nude make-up and helmet hair that costs a salary in itself.
We gravitate towards our own, towards those who make us feel safe. I have the uniform. I won’t be judged. Even wild individualists play this game, gathering in clans of eccentricity and evicting anyone who carries the aura of establishment.
The internet is increasingly tribal. Chat rooms are often more parochial and boundaried than a little village in the wilds of Ireland, full of people who are from the same backgrounds, affirming in other in their narrow views.
Jesus smashed through tribal distinctions of every kind. He spent time with the highly educated Nicodemus and with illiterate peasants. He taught women as well as men. He mixed with the lowest in his society, with cheats and prostitutes and he taught in the synagogues. He reached out to the most hated tribe, the Samaritans and he healed the servant of a Roman centurion, the loathed oppressors. Jesus saw beyond externals to love the person inside the outfit, inside the gender, inside the race.
So Jesus says to us,
If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:47)
Why do we find it so hard? Is it that stepping out of my tribe means losing the rewards of mutual back-patting, the little advantages that it gains me? It’s harder to give without a subtext, without an agenda of applause, without expecting a return.
Jesus calls us to break through barriers of class, race, gender, status and perceived success and ability. I have been deeply inspired by the L’Arche communities. These were founded by Jean Vanier in 1964 after he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalised with learning disabilities. He took the radical step of inviting Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux to leave the institution where they lived to share their lives with him. Philippe said,
Before I had no life. It was just sitting all day in a chair in one room. We weren’t allowed to go out or do anything. I was bored. When I came to L’Arche I was just so pleased to be there!
Jean Vanier saw beyond apparent differences to discover the gold within.
To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’
This love brings freedom. Not desperately trying to fit in, not excluding and judging those who don’t. Instead we see ourselves and each other all as beloved creations of God. The result is a fuller life. Vanier explained that those who refuse to accept disabled people lose out because it’s not about being do-gooders to disabled people, “rather receiving the gift of their presence transforms us”. It makes me think of my friend’s son Olly with Down’s Syndrome which he calls Up syndrome . Olly has a gift for joy which he passes on very generously.
Vanier’s vision saw beyond the surface, beyond the tribes. He puts it beautifully,
To love someone is to reveal to them…the light shining in them.
When we grasp this, we are on our way to the stunning vision of heaven that we see in the book of Revelation,
I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
That’s where we are heading. Let’s start practicing.