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Against Tribal Ecumenism

Against Tribal Ecumenism May 2, 2014

There’s a certain common-sense logic to the notion that we have to begin our efforts toward unity and catholicity within our own group. First get all Lutherans could get together, and all Anglicans, and all Presbyterians, and then maybe we’d be ready to talk about getting those bundled churches together with each other.

I’m not wholly against this. We should get along with those closest to us. We should love neighbors who, as Chesterton pointed out, as by definition nearby.

But we shouldn’t confuse getting along with neighbors with catholicity. Consider: Does learning to get along with people like me, who share my religious beliefs and my whiteness and my middle-classness and my Republican politics, help me get along with African Americans and Hispanics, the homeless, Democrats? 

Color me dubious. Strengthening bonds with people like us might well make it more difficult to get along with people unlike us. Strengthening the tribe doesn’t seem a promising strategy for overcoming tribalism. Catholic means universal. Catholicity cannot begin at home because, by definition, what happens at home isn’t catholic.

God’s ways are more disturbingly violent. First he rips a rib from Adam, builds Eve, and then tells them to be one flesh. Jesus comes to unify the human race carrying a sword (Matthew 10:34). Paul saunters into a synagogue, proclaims the gospel that calls for Jews and Gentiles to be knit into one, and immediately divides the synagogue. He doesn’t stick around to heal the breach he causes. He moves on right away; the Jews who believe the gospel join with the God-fearers and plain old Gentiles to form a new catholic community. 

Ephraim Radner is right at least about this: There is an irreducible brutality to Christian unity, though I believe we must trust that Christian unity is also something more than brutal.

What else would we expect from a God who unifies the human race through a torn body on a tree?


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