The Separation of Church and Hate | The Danger of Tribalism

[This is the text from the 10/18/20 sermon preached at Avenue United Methodist Church. You can listen to the audio here or watch video here.

Last week, we talked about the effects of advertising to impact our lives by selling us the promise of a lifestyle rather than the product. Author James K.A. Smith writes about the change in what is expected in the typical ad executive at a major corporation. Where they once were responsible for design, packaging, and promotion, the brand manager is now asked “to create…a meaning system for people through which they get identity and understanding of the world.”

One Ad Executive, Douglas Adkin, asked himself, “What makes people exhibit cult-like devotion?” He began to study cults in order to figure out how brands could induce “loyalty beyond reason.” When he listened to people talked about paper plates or sneakers he realized that people attach to brands for the same reasons they join cults and religions: To belong and find meaning. They cease being merely customers and now identified themselves as disciples, or “members of the tribe” whether that tribe be VW owners, Starbucks drinkers, or Mac users.[1]

I had a roommate in college who was a Mac user before it was cool to be a Mac user. It was still Indie then, in a sense. I had a PC desktop at my desk and he would give me a look of disdain every time I had an update, or received the blue screen of death, or had a freeze up. I was outside of his team, outside of his tribe.

For my birthday in 2010, Andrea got me tickets to go see the Steelers and the Ravens play on a Sunday Night in December. I went with a friend and we are both Steelers’ fans, having grown up in Western PA. The temperature at kick-off was 26 degrees and it went down from there. While we could have worn coats on over our jerseys, we went walking into Baltimore with our Steelers gear in full display. We were part of a tribe encroaching on the land of an enemy tribe. During the course of the game, I had a member of the rival tribe spitting on my jersey while my friend had a beer poured on him as we left the stadium- that doesn’t include everything that was shouted at us. It could have had something to do with the Steelers winning the important game.

Our sports team gave us an identity. For me, sports continue to be an important way to relate to my dad. We’ve watched, listened to, and talked about sports since I was little. Our sports teams often connected us to our neighbors who were part of the same tribe. If your sports tribe was in another region, then you may be in danger of being singled out by the dominant tribe of the area.

The human race has been tribal from the beginning. In many ways, tribes can be healthy and helpful as they provide meaning and purpose. Tribes provided protection from wild animals and other tribes. But there is a danger to being part of a tribe or team. Tribes can cultivate devotion to their group and purpose at the expense of other tribes.

Our nation is becoming more and more polarized, more tribal. We are being pushed into more insulated silos where we cultivate devotion to “our” tribe while being opposed to those outside of our tribe. Think of the divide between Republicans and Democrats. While their purpose is the same (caring for our nation) they oppose each other. Our churches are tribal as well. We are Mainline, Evangelical, or Pentecostal. We are United Methodist, Presbyterian, Independent, and Non-Denominational. We are conservative or progressive in our theology. Even within the church, we are tempted to express our devotion to our side and protect our tribe from the influence of outsiders. We are tempted to love those who think like us and to see those who are different than us as our enemies.

Jesus has something to say about that.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy…’”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes commands from the Old Testament and reinterprets them with a Kingdom mindset. You will not find a direct command in the Old Testament to ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ What Jesus is doing here is summarizing the ways in which religious leaders understand the narrative of the Old Testament. We don’t have time to get into it, but in Joshua Israel is to destroy enemy cities. In the Psalms, we can read prayers of David seeking vengeance against the enemies of God. Tribalism created an identity around the worship of Yahweh, but anyone not in the tribe could be seen as an enemy. On one hand, the tribalism protects the group from foreign gods and false teachings. On the other, tribalism can cause those inside the tribe to see those outside the tribe as “less than” God created them to be.

Jesus invites us to live differently:

Matthew records, “but I tell you to love your enemies…”

This is revolutionary as Jesus teaches that we are to love our enemies. This would come as quite a shock for those who would have been listening to his teachings- especially as Israel was occupied by Roman forces and had a long history of exile and enslavement. It would be easy to look at Romans, Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians as enemies. A good Israelite would have seen Samaritans as enemies and half-breeds even though the worshiped the same God. Israel had an “it’s us against the world” mentality and were waiting for God to restore them to their rightful place on top of the political and social heap.

Jesus calls them to love their enemies. To love the Samaritan. To love the Gentile. To love the Roman soldier who mocked them and crucified their countryman. To love the corrupt tax collector. To love the unclean. To love the sadistic and tyrannical Roman Caesar. Jesus calls them to love their enemies.

Have you read the story of Jonah lately? Especially beyond the story of Jonah and the whale? Jonah was called by God to go to Ninevah and to call them to repentance or else they would be destroyed by God. Ninevah was the one of Israel’s enemies. They hated each other. Jonah doesn’t even want to go there. When he does, and calls them to repent expecting them to be destroyed by God, something remarkable happens. These enemies of Israel repent. The King of Ninevah even declares that the animals were to participate in the fast of repentance. When God saw Ninevah’s response, God forgave them.

This made Jonah mad. He couldn’t believe it. Jonah is angry at God for forgiving Ninevah, the enemies of Israel. Jonah wanted fire and brimstone. Jonah wanted to see his enemies suffer and face the consequences of their sin. Jonah is so angry with God that Jonah says he’d rather be dead than to see Ninevah be forgiven.

For Jonah, his nationalism has become an idol as it prevents him from valuing those who are different from himself. In the same way, when we allow our tribal identity to distort our view of those around us, we sin. When we see a Democrat or a Republican as anything less than created in the image of God- we have sinned. When we see a Muslim, or someone of a different ethnicity as less than someone created in the image of God, we sin. When we see a member of the LGBT community as anything less than someone created in the image of God, we sin. When we allow our tribal identity to be greater than our identity in God- and the “others” identity in God- we sin.

Pastor and author Tim Keller writes:

“When Christian believers care more for their own interests and security than for the good and salvation of other races and ethnicities (we can put political beliefs here), they are sinning like Jonah. If they value the economic and military flourishing of their country over the good of the human race and the furtherance of God’s work in the world, they are sinning like Jonah. Their identity is more rooted in their race and nationality (political party) than in being saved sinners and children of God.”

Our primary identity and tribe is that of the tribe of God and we are called to love those outside of our tribe. The question is how are we to do this? Jesus tells us:

“But I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The best way, and sometimes the only way that we can love an enemy or someone different than us is to pray for them. Jesus directs his disciples to pray for those who persecute them- this likely meant to pray for the occupying Romans who would persecute them. Can you imagine the church living this out during the time of Nero and other times of persecution? They prayed for their enemies.

Our prayers should not be that our enemies will be proved wrong, or that they will face eternal punishment- but our prayer is for our enemy that we can love them as Jesus taught us to. We are to pray, and then pray some more for our enemies until we are able to feel the love God has for them for ourselves. “We are not asked to love the enemies character or deeds or teachings or anything else about them; We are not called to agree with them;  we are asked only to love the enemies themselves.”[2] If  would take a miracle for me to be able to love someone who I see as an enemy- do we not worship God who has a thing for miracles?

When our devotion to a tribe is greater than our devotion to Jesus we will begin to see other people as opponents to beat rather than people made in the image of God. When our devotion to our tribe is greater than our devotion to Jesus- then we are practicing idolatry and our tribe has become our god. Our identification as Christians should be primary. It should lead us to love and pray for those around us- especially our enemies. This is the only way we will begin to see the polarization in our country begin to heal.

As followers of Jesus, how are we doing at loving Donald Trump? How about Joe Biden? How are we at loving Muslims? People of Color? LGBT community? An Evangelical? A Mainliner? Loving someone who looks like me, speaks like me, and believes like me is nothing commendable. That’s tribalism. We are called to love our enemies and the starting place is to pray for them so that we feel God’s love for them.

As we consider living as Jesus taught us, we must consider what it means to pray for our enemies. I believe that Jesus taught this because Jesus really meant for us to do this. We are not to hate or cancel those who are different than us. We are to pray for them until we are able to love them the way that God loves them. That is truly revolutionary.


[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of Matthew

About Steve LaMotte

Husband of Andrea and father of four amazing children. Pastor at Avenue United Methodist Church in Milford, Delaware.
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