I recall my tears shed after the Nickel Mines school massacre, an incident where a man decided to take his disgruntlement out on some Amish girls, shooting them in the head one by one, before taking his own life. They were targeted, no doubt, for their innocence and vulnerability, what normal person would not be deeply troubled by such horrendous thing?
My emotion was wholly appropriate, especially for someone living in Lancaster County at the time, and yet was quite a bit different from my response to other very similar incidents. For example, when a deranged individual slaughtered dozens at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I did not shed a tear. I can’t tell you exactly why that is, it was very similar to the public school that I had attended and a child is a child, but somehow I was simply more removed from the tragedy and had to contemplate why I would value the Amish girls higher than those other children.
Of course, the key to understanding this is my identity: 1) I was born and raised Mennonite, 2) the Amish are the slightly more peculiar religious cousins of Mennonites and, 3) as someone with an Amish surname, they are actual (albeit distant) cousins in my case. Sure, I had never met those girls nor did I know their particular families, but I could certainly identify with their culture. I could see something of my own childhood, of my family and of my religious identity in them, I mourned my own loss of innocence as much as their suffering a terrible evil.
Sandy Hook, by contrast, while tragic and as terrible, involved people who were less connected to me and thus my reaction was more muted. It just was not as personal to me and therefore I did not feel the same depth of pain. Had I known a child in the school my reaction would have been quite a bit different and perhaps a bit more like the day the child of a close friend died—that is simply the reality of our limited human perspective: One death, if it is made personal to us, will overrule the millions worldwide who have died in similar circumstances.
“A single death is a tragedy; A million deaths is a statistic.”
For Better Or Worse, Nobody Loves Everyone
Many Americans, back in the days when bumper stickers were more common, had “God bless America” message stuck to the backs of their automobile. It was one of those ways a person could show their care for all of their American neighbors and regardless of party affiliation, religious identity, country of origin or gender. Nearly all reading that message (given that it was displayed on American soil and not shared worldwide) shared that same identity and thus should have felt equally blessed by the message.
However, there is that small, but hyper-competitive segment of the population, who (like Topper in the Dilbert cartoon above) simply can’t appreciate what other people appreciate and are determined to outdo their neighbors with their superior virtue. It is that spirit that seems to be behind the bumper stickers in retort to the “God bless America” variety, and proclaiming with great piety: “God bless the whole world, no exceptions!”
Of course, that “no exceptions” part at the end is necessary in case their less sophisticated neighbors, who only expressed love for those actually present and able to read the message, wouldn’t catch the drift.
It has made me wonder, does that same person never tell their spouse or significant other that they love them specifically?
Wife: “I love you, Barry!”
Husband: “I love all women, including you!”
Nothing smug or sanctimonious about that, nope, nothing at all demeaning of the other person either, it is simply a man with a far bigger love than that which can be exclusively reserved for one particular woman and is therefore extended to all women in the world.
Anyhow, I question if someone who claims to love everyone actually loves anyone.
Yes, certainly, the “God so loved the world” of John 3:16 doesn’t exclude anyone. We are also told that following after Jesus means that our loyalties to our family are secondary (Luke 14:26) to our calling to bring God’s love to the world. Still, we are also told that a man who doesn’t provide for his own family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8) and also see love expressed for particular groups and individuals. So God loving the world doesn’t mean that our own love is not especially for some. In fact, while we are instructed to do good to all people, there is also special emphasis given:
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9-10 NIV)
Love starts locally. Loving our neighbors means caring about those who cross our paths, preferring those right in front of us over some theoretical duty to all of humanity that is never made manifest in real life. In the story of the good Samaritan, remember, it was those who were too important or thinking of responsibilities down the road, who didn’t attend to the suffering soul beside the path of their greater ambitions. In other words, it is the simpleton, with heart, who stops to help you jump start your car and not the self-important pretentious snob, with a global vision and yet can’t see what is right in front of them.
Bottom line: It is good to love those who are close to us and even to prefer investing in those who, like us, are members of the household of faith. If a person cannot especially love their neighbors across the street, whom they have met, then how could they possibly love those whom they have never met around the world?
For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20 NIV)
Of Igorot and Mennonite Tribes…
When uncle Roland, a man I had met during my stay in the Philippines, disappeared and was later found murdered in an empty lot, the call for justice went out across social media. It spread like wildfire amongst a certain part of the Filipino population and that being the members of his Igorot tribe. The amazing part is that this collective effort very quickly located the stolen van and only potential lead for this vicious crime. The people who located the van? They were Igorots too, they happened to be on holiday in the “low lands” and spotted the abandoned vehicle.
Mennonites, like Igorots, also take notice when one of their own is missing or harmed. There have been several cases over the past few years that have exploded across the Mennonite online community and made a few individuals into household names. I mean who, in the Menno-sphere, can forget that young married couple, Marco and Mary Ann Kauffman, his life cut tragically short by home invader? Or the disappearance, and later reappearance, of Rodney Sweigart? When a Mennonite is in trouble it is natural that others of their religious tribe, even those who have moved on, respond with extra care and concern.
I was reminded of this once again when I could not resist sharing the story of a young woman, Sasha Krause, who vanished from a Mennonite outpost in Farmington, New Mexico.
Dozens of similar posts about missing persons have crossed my newsfeed, there is likely very little that my sharing (as someone on the other end of the country) will do to help, and yet there is this sort of tribal solidarity that compels me to take an interest, to be somehow involved and share. This young woman could as easily be my sister, my cousin, or any of the number of young Mennonite women whom I know and care about.
Tribal identities, like family identities, are a good thing in that they provide individuals with the protection of a group. The world we live in can be a very rough place and not a place that is very easily navigated alone. We, in the developed world, have a wide range of social programs that attempt to fill individual needs, but the best efforts that government put forward rarely come close to what can be offered by a community of those who share a religious, cultural or tribal identity in common. We have finite resources and prefer to distribute them amongst those who share our common biological heritage or cause.
The Two-edged Sword of Tribally Allocated Care…
Both Jesus and St Paul showed a heightened concern for those who shared their religio-cultural background. They certainly did not hold back in terms of criticism. In fact, their commentary on their Jewish people could be very easily misconstrued into anti-Semitism and very soon was quickly used that way once the Scripture became a subject of individual interpretation in the wake of the Protestant movement in Europe.
Likewise, when a concern goes viral on social media, especially when it involves a particular religious minority group, the feedback can quickly turn very negative. Prejudice can rear its ugly head, those with an ax to grind see an opportunity to promote their own grievances. There are always those who had an unfortunate encounter with that particular tribal group and it was the only bad thing that ever happened to them. So, in the minds of these offended folks, that tribe has become the root of all evil and representative of everything bad in the world. Those full of toxic bitterness will, in the guise of empathy and concern, sow their seeds of destruction.
Very rarely does publicly broadcast dirty laundry do much good when it comes from a tribal outsider without a real or personal connection to those involved. When you leave a tribe you pretty much lose any credibility within the tribe, you have made yourself an outsider by rejecting the group identity and therefore your opinion does not need to be taken seriously by the in-group anymore. To those in that in-group you will be viewed with suspicion, as an external threat to their group cohesion, and summarily dismissed. I’m not saying that is how it should be, that’s just how it is, people do not like judgments coming in from the outside and react defensively in most cases.
Tribal identities very often come with tribal obligations. Those who are showered with concern from within the tribe, even those who did not ask for it, in many cases are expected to give something back in return. Tribes have a sort of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” arrangement that can go terribly wrong when the devotion to an individual from the tribe does not match the commitment that is reciprocated or vice versa. Feeling betrayed by your own is some of the deepest pain a person can feel. Indeed the world is a very lonely place for those who have been neglected or abandoned by those whom they expected would love them.
But, worse than that, tribes, while easily able to spot sin in all other tribes, too often shelter their own abusers or never see their own shortcomings as a group. Some tribes will, too often, send into exile those who dare to confront or challenge their status quo of the group. This is one thing Mennonites and motorcycle gangs have in common, albeit in different forms, the criminals enforce a “snitches get stitches” code” and too often Christian denominations misallocate forgiveness (for only those who have learned how to exploit their system) rather than follow the order of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13: “Expel the wicked person from among you!”
There is also something more insidious when tribes become too insular or only concerned with protecting their own and that being their lack of care for those that are outside of their identity group. This misallocation of care is up last on my list, but it is certainly not the least as far as things that should concern a Christian.
Tribal Misallocation of Care…
I understand why people prefer their own families and tribes. It is something we are biologically hardwired to do. Religions are forced to hijack familial language, like “brother” and “sister,” in reference to fellow members in hopes of capturing that level of relationship within their ranks.
I’ve observed (and years before a book with “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria“ in the title) that my high school cafeteria would segregate along racial lines.
Tribalism has long frustrated me as a force of division and strife. What side of the OJ Simpson case someone came out on, for example, had much to do with a person’s race. The evidence available was the same, yet 67% of black Americans (polled in 1995) thought Simpson was innocent while a vast majority of whites saw him as guilty, that gap has since narrowed. But what that shows is how our perspectives are skewed by our tribal identities and the potential for terrible injustice this presents. The same is true of other identity divisions, such as gender or political affiliation, we tend to see only what is good for our tribe.
Over the past few years wished that I could somehow harness some of the tribal love that is on display in the various GoFundMe campaigns involving one identity group or another. An American, with the right group connections, can easily raise thousands or even hundreds of thousands and despite having insurance, government programs, etc. Meanwhile, a far greater need overseas will often only get a mediocre response because the people don’t look like us, we don’t know them, or simply cannot identify with their struggles being too far removed. That and, given the number of scams out there, we can’t trust outsiders.
Still, we should consider those less fortunate, those less fortunate than the unfortunate members of our own tribes, and love them too. That is the greater implications of Christian love, that our love will erase some of those disparities in care. If we truly believe Galatians 3:28, that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” and that we (as a church) “are all one in Christ Jesus,” then will we ever be satisfied with misappropriation of care based in those listed identities? Can a person be a feminist, a nationalist or an activist for lessor identity groups and a Christian?
When a Mennonite goes missing or is harmed it is easy to understand why other Mennonites take special notice. The idea of having equal love for all of humanity, even those whom you never met, is silliness. That said, when our tribal identities mean indifference or lack of equal empathy for other people whom we encounter who are outside of our group, then we are also putting our Christian identity second. It means we have made an idol of ourselves, our own identity, and should consider the words of Jesus:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. (Luke 6:32-34 NIV)
Love starts locally, it means loving our own tribes. We must learn to love our own, those close to us are sometimes the most difficult to love or hardest to hold accountable. We should love our Trump-supporting neighbors as much as we love the Congolese refugee, the Democrat party loyalist as much as we do the unborn. Christian love has a global reach, it must reach across partisan lines, and should always make us wish to expand the borders of our tribe.
I believe Jesus would weep as much for Muslim children killed by a drone strike as I did for those Amish girls. God loves the missing or exploited Filipino worker overseas, who is only known by their family, as much as the Mennonite online community hopes for the safe return of Sasha Krause. We have our favorites, but God does not.
Christian love, in purest form, turns a world full of misfits and outsiders into one family where everyone belongs and nobody is left behind.