Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fr. Touma (Bitar) on Tribalism in the Church

The Arabic original can be found here.

The Church and the Spirit of the Tribe
What is tribalism, through the human spiritual lens? It is the convergence of selfishnesses on a common bond. And what is the Church, existentially? She is the convergence of altruisms on the love of Jesus. And so the Church is a rejection of tribalism and tribalism is a rejection of the spirit of the Church. This is why the Lord said, “If someone loves his father or mother… more than Me, then he does not deserve Me.” And this is why He commended the centurion, saying that He did not see in Israel faith like his faith and why he praised the faith of the Canaanite woman and revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman in a way that He did not reveal himself to any of the Jews. Christ did all of this in contradiction to the customs of the Jewish tribalism which dominated in those days. And so, if an individual or a group treat the Church with the spirit of tribalism, they corrupt, or they try to corrupt many souls within her, in the measure of the dominance of the spirit of tribalism within her.
That is in principle, but what about the details?
There are national identities in the Church. There is no doubt that national identities cause scandal and disrupt the work of the Spirit of the Lord! This might not be completely clear in a church with a single national identity. However, it becomes clear as a point of conflict, hidden or open, in the relations between churches with different national identities. The same thing may be said of churches which are considered to be historical inheritors of local churches which were known in the past. The nationalist spirit might not be active within them, but they nevertheless tend towards a kind of tribalism insofar as they consider themselves to be a continuation of deeply-rooted historical churches. This is, for example, the situation in the Church of Antioch to a certain degree. The relations between churches with different national identities or different historical affiliations can become sharp and the cause of discord, provoking fragmentation in relatively new geographical regions, in which are found people belonging to this church or that, namely the church groups in the diaspora. Within the borders of these regions, you find Orthodox itself to be cruelly held captive by the nationalism which is adopted by some individuals or attributed to them. Through this, the Church is captive of political dependencies, even if only partial, on the states or regimes from which that nationality first spread and which are consider these groups to be their colonies. This situation causes the relationship between these groups in the diaspora to be especially complicated because it is based on combining being Orthodox with belonging to a certain nationality, secretly infiltrating both with political issues. For this reason it is currently impossible to unite the Orthodox who belong to different nationalities or quasi-nationalities into one independent Orthodox Church with its own leader, as it is assumed things should be. This mean that if we want to be realistic then we need to, in a positive spirit, be satisfied with doing what is possible to order the relationships between these groups so as not to cause worse crises than we already face. Currently, Orthodoxy in the diaspora is to a significant degree subject to nationalisms and politics and her freedom of spirit is hindered, including with regard to her apostolic work with the non-Orthodox and the non-Christians. However, this does not prevent the field from being open for each group to individually bear good fruit and for individual effort from those enlightened among them to cultivate renewal. Perhaps if significant numbers of non-Orthodox are guided to Orthodoxy and join this or that Orthodox group in the diaspora, it would constitute, for these enlightened ones, a truly transformative reality which would rescue Orthodoxy from this bottleneck, out of the current captivity to tribal or quasi-tribal national identities, in the same way that the Apostle Paul and his companions’ going out among the gentiles rescued her in the past from Judaizing Christianity!
In addition to tribal nationalisms, there are tribalisms within the local churches which reach even into the parishes and organizations active within them. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration if we were to say that every group within a parish, or in a diocese, or on the level of an independent local church in its entirety, is strongly subject to the temptation of tribalism. In this way, the spirit of tribalism is no small thing within the See of Antioch, and at times it can reach the level of tragedy. Family bonds, for example, can very often come to dominate a parish. This engenders quarrels and disputes and frustration which has a negative impact on the health of the parish and its rootedness in Orthodoxy. The finances of parishes at times create strains and refuse to let go of the reins of these parishes, controlling the priests. And then, most parishes remain as though they were independent entities and they rarely engage in cooperation. Because of this, you will rarely find a rich parish helping a poor parish. Even the parishes which contribute to the revival of the finances of the same diocese, their support will rarely be comparable to the size of their assets or income. Tribalism in our parishes, in general, is centered on the subject of money and its connection to endowments (awqaf). There is a great ignorance of Orthodoxy among us! It’s as though the Church, in most people’s minds, is an endowed institution (waqf), and the one who controls the endowment—and there are many who seek control over money—controls the parish! Even the patriarch and the bishops find themselves bound to a significant degree by this painful pastoral reality, which reflects a difficult problem on the level of spiritual life. There is need for general re-evangelization that would take us out of this state of fragmentation into a state of unity in faith and true cooperation in love, whether it’s on the level of a single parish or on the level of relationships between our parishes.
And what is said about parishes corresponds to the situation in all church organizations. Such organizations are subject to the temptation to consider themselves independent of the ecclesial structure within the Church. Even any circle that might gather around a given person might be poisoned by the tribal spirit. Because of this, members of an organization or a circle can develop tribal bonds and their souls can be overtaken by haughtiness and they can easily be led on by a mentality of “support your brother, right or wrong.” There is no doubt that the Apostle Paul discussed a temptation of this sort when he wrote to the people of Corinth, warning them, “If there is jealousy or rivalry or schism among you, are you not fleshly and behaving according to the way of the flesh? Because when someone says, ‘I am of Paul’ and another ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not fleshly? Who is Paul and who is Apollos? They are servants through whom you believed… Let no one take pride in people, for everything is yours’, Paul, Appolos, or Cephas… but as for you, you are of Christ and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3:3-5, 21-22, 23). There is nothing easier, in such an environment, than for everyone among us to consider himself to be right and others wrong. Only if someone falls into heresy or goes against the canons of the Church should we correct him, if possible, and if he does not accept correction we should work to thwart what he says or does. In all other situations, we should practice humility, self-knowledge, and love. If only everyone would look for the wrong in himself to correct himself, and for the truth in others, and for others’ justification for the glory of God and the joy of the spirit. So let us avoid this severe temptation! Often you find people who consider themselves to be right but rarely will you find someone who says,
“Forgive me! I was wrong.” This is a sign of great decline and a readiness to accept the spirit of the tribe and to act in its way!
And so, if we keep at it, we have this warning from the Apostle Paul: If you bite and devour one other, watch out lest you destroy one another! (Galatians 5:15).

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite- Douma
October 10, 2010

1 comment:

James the Thickheaded said...

Wow. Wonderful sermon. Pray to hear it here in the US! FWIW, I've never heard anything like it anywhere... even before I was Orthodox and asking my bishop for a reprieve for my then over-stretched parish... which was granted so that it could grow. And it did. The "we're all in this together" thing goes a long way towards building up the Body of Christ.