Tribal or catholic?

Tribal or catholic?

Sun 31 Jan

The Gospel reading for last Sunday brought us Jesus’ summary of how he understood what it would mean for him to serve the purposes of God – how he intended to respond to the insistent ‘summons’ that ticked away within his mind and spirit: he would bring good news to the poor, release to captives, give sight to the blind and free the oppressed. This would be his way of living within the God-dream. Those who heard his words in the synagogue at Nazareth and who shared his dream of a compassion shaped society initially welcomed his words. But surprisingly, according to today’s reading, something went wrong in the discussion that followed his declaration of intent. So angry were those who heard his next words that they expelled him from the synagogue, some even and pursuing him to the brow of a hill where they might throw him to his death.

What went wrong? Quite simply he reminded them of ancient stories of prophets of God serving the needs of strangers and foreigners ahead of service to their own tribal family. The implication was that he would reach out to strangers and foreigners who were trapped in poverty, captured by systems that destroy human life, blind to their needs and the needs of others and denied what they most need to live a full life. The people of Nazareth, it seems, were shaped by a tribal mentality that left no sympathy or interest in those who marched to a different tune. Jesus was a challenge to their tribal security and so he was ejected from the circle of the acceptable. The implication was that if he wanted to spend time with outsiders then let him live with them. When push came to shove the people of Nazareth were protective only of their tribe, their sort of folks. It’s like a snapshot of debates we know well and that take many forms.

Reflection on what happened at the Nazareth Synagogue 2,000 years ago, in conversation with what has been for me a fairly busy January, prompts what I will say this morning. My theme is simple: the ongoing and daily choice to be made between tribal existence and catholic existence, tribal spirit or catholic spirit, tribal or catholic Christianity. Of course I am talking about small c catholic- referring to a sense of universality – rather than large C Catholic referring to an organisation as in Roman Catholic.

On the 27th December I attended a picnic to celebrate the births of the prophet Mohammed and of Jesus the Christ. On the 4th of January I was a guest speaker at an Auckland wide Shia Muslim gathering to mourn the execution by the Saudi government of Ayatollah Nam’r al Nam’r, a human rights activist in Eastern Saudi Arabia. (I was surprised to be quoted on Radio NZ the following day). The following day brought lunch with a Jewish rabbi and planning for a St Luke’s pilgrimage into the world of progressive Judaism in early March. On the 11th January, at the New Lynn Shia mosque I joined with Christians from a variety of backgrounds, a Jewish rabbi, the Iranian ambassador to NZ and a number of senior Shia leaders in welcoming two scholars from Iran. We heard of their important work at an interfaith university in Iran. Throughout the month there have been meetings with a group of young Christians and Sunni Muslims planning a peacenik/picnic for people of churches and mosques in the Hillsborough- Mt Roskill area. On Friday the 22nd I spoke at the Blockhouse Bay Rd Mosque following Friday prayers and last Friday I did the same at the 800 person Masjid Umar, the Mt Roskill Mosque. Many of you in your professional and personal lives also have dealings with people of cultures and religions that twenty years ago you barely knew about. Something is happening. Something new is present in the water of life. An enlarged and diverse world community is calling us from a tribal and closed spirit towards a catholic and open spirit. Not everybody is yet ready for the shift from tribal to catholic existence but those who ride the waves of catholicity are sharing in the creation of a new world, part of a significant and necessary evolutionary leap for humanity.

At the lunch meeting with our guests from Iran, when it came to my turn to spoke I mentioned that our being together was a sign of something important happening in our sadly divided and often violent world. Our sharing food and our conversation was like an acted prayer for peace in a world gorging itself on violence. We are part of a significant movement of people, I suggested, who refuse to be captured by divisive and destructive attitudes and behaviour. I recalled how about 50 years ago I first shared in a meeting of Protestant clergy with a Roman Catholic priest. It seemed an unbelievable, even daring thing to be doing!! In fact we quickly became friends without needing to deny our differences. We discovered we shared a desire to contribute to the healing of God’s world and we sought for pathways of cooperation. A later Roman Catholic speaker built on my words and the leader of the Iranian delegation, Sheikh Navab, wondered who we might be talking and working with in another 50 years and what harvests might grow from the seeds we are currently planting.

A tribal mentality is a way of living and thinking that primarily serves the interests of a life – shaping group to which we belong.  Love expressed within the tribe can be deep and compassionate but high walls surround it. Meaningful compassion does not extend to those from other tribes. A catholic mentality is expansive and gathers in rather than excludes. It has room for those who are different. It seeks the well being of all people rather than only those with whom we agree or share a similar background. I don’t want to set up a straw man called tribal and knock it down or pretend that tribal belonging can be done away with. My experience is that we all need to belong to a primary group shaped by shared convictions, spirituality and aspirations. We need to belong to groups where we are valued, people with whom we share certain life determining values. There is, for instance, something essentially and positively tribal about belonging to a Christian congregation. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with tribes. The problem is tribalism – worship of our tribe and our ways, the deeply rooted conviction that our group alone has access to truth, that love within our group or tribe takes precedence over the needs of the wider community, that God is on our side and that others live in error or wilful disobedience to what has been revealed to us as truth for all times and for all people. Tribalism tends to be judgemental, moralistic, and harsh and where holy books are concerned fundamentalist. There are many examples of Christian tribalism and some of you are refugees from such restrictive settings and understandings. 

A catholic spirit places whatever tribal peculiarities we may have within a larger and more expansive belonging. We acknowledge our knowing is limited and culture bound. Universal love, God’s love for humanity and our love for each other, is central. A catholic spirituality lies near the heart of a theology and spirituality emerging from the way of Jesus as expressed in the gospels. God is understood not as the companion of the ‘saved’ but as creative love embracing all people regardless of their background or beliefs. An essential implication of a desire to walk in the footsteps of Jesus is that we follow those footsteps towards our neighbours, whatever tribe they belong to, whatever social class or religious framework shapes their living. My experience is that in our day people of many religious and social backgrounds are sensing a similar call to live within such a catholic spirit. Our collective efforts seem modest when placed alongside reports of tribal violence, division, selfishness and cruelty brought to us by the daily news. Yet the seeds being sown by those of a catholic spirit, whatever their background, their nationality, their culture, will bear fruit as the future unfolds. The future of humanity lies with Jesus’ commitment to humanity rather than with his tribal critics from Nazareth.

Paul Knitter, Roman Catholic theologian, advocate for the needs of the poor and significant pioneer of fruitful interfaith activity has suggested that a new way of Christianity is being born – a less tribal and more catholic expression of an ancient faith. ‘To call themselves catholic Christians”, Paul suggests, “means that the community of Jesus’ followers must be in genuine dialogical relationship with others- with people and religions who are really different.” Living in a world in dire need of dialogue Paul, who once spoke here at St Luke’s, expresses what the new way of being Christian means for him: “I feel the need to cooperate with persons of other religions in order to prove that religions can be a much more powerful tool for peace than they are a weapon of war.” South African Muslim theologian and human rights activist Farid Esak is captured by a similar life task: “I am determined to find a space in my theology for those who are not Muslim, yet are deeply committed to seeing the grace and compassion of an all-loving creator expressed in the righteous and caring works of ordinary men and women. ” John Wesley, 18th century spiritual theologian left us a sermon on ‘the catholic spirit’ that is a classic statement of this central element of Christian spirituality. Faced with damaging division within the Christian community Wesley’s advice to his preachers and followers when in the company of those who walk to a different tune can be summarized: ‘If your heart is right with my heart, give me your hand; we can talk later about opinions that divide us into separate tribes, it’s more important that we walk together, together serve the needs of our world, supporting each other in our desire to be filled with the energy of love.’

January has gifted me a treasured glimpse of ‘catholic spirit’ lived and embodied by people from diverse backgrounds yet grasped by the same dream of a healed world.