Who Are We? On Tribes, Love Feasts and Shopping for Culture

“No, you don’t have a tribe.”

This was a headline that came through my twitter feed this morning and attracted me enough to click.  It led me to an article by literary publicist Dan Blank.  Dan is tired of hearing people refer to their social media followers as a “tribe.” So am I.

The article got me thinking again about how prevalent the metaphor of the market has become in our culture, and I wondered whether this habit in thinking, with its focus on personal choice, rugged individualism, self-expression and status through achievement might be pushing aside an intuitive understanding of what a community, a “tribe” is all about.  Blank wrote:

  • When I first heard the term “tribe” I thought it was used to mean alignment. That you have found others who care about the things you do. That this was a relationship of kinship, and the word “tribe” symbolized the connection you feel to these other people. As equals, as members of a larger tribe of like-minds. That it was being respectful that this is not a speaker vs audience relationship. Everyone is equal, and the audience isn’t passive. All have something to contribute.
  • LEADER OF A TRIBE: But what I see again and again is not that; what I see is people needing to take a leadership role. That if I sign up for someone’s newsletter list, it is THEIR tribe, they are the leader, and I am the follower. I am now in his or her tribe. They are tribal leaders. They say “my tribe” not to indicate that they BELONG to a tribe, but that they are leading a tribe.

Amen, brother.  Ask not what your tribe can do for you, ask what you can do for your tribe.

As an aside, I recently read an article in which a blogger argued that social media was more effective than broadcast news in attracting viewers.  As proof, she pointed to her ever-growing list of followers and called it “building an audience.”  This is not a fair comparison.  Television ratings measure viewers who actively make a choice that particular night to tune in.  The numbers don’t roll over.  If you don’t hook the Monday viewers again on Tuesday, they are not part of the ratings.  The number of twitter followers you have is largely determined by how many people are too lazy to prune their follow list.

The notion of a tribe as “people who have bought into my idea” completely misses the bigger picture of what it is to be part of a community.

I have started reading the book Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton.  I am a big fan of Alain de Botton and was anxious to read his thoughts on how the important elements of religion can be brought into secular life.  (When I first heard the title, I thought “Religion for Atheists?  That already exists.  It’s the UU Church.”  No letters please, I’m allowed to make that joke, I’m a UU.)

The book points out that before Christians held a symbolic mass or communion with wafers and wine, the communities would gather for an a real sit down (actually a lie down) meal.  These were known in Greek as agape or love feasts.  It was a practice that was said to emulate Jesus and the apostles themselves.  The apostles and the early Christian communities would gather with people from all walks of life, the social status of the outside world did not come with them, and they shared food.  When I first heard about this practice (I was introduced to this history by other authors) I found it to be deeply meaningful.  The modern communion, a contemplative moment between you and your God, moves away from the idea of bringing together those divided by social hierarchies in every day life.

De Botton is also inspired by the ideal of sacred meals, the inclusiveness, the focus on values other than of what he calls “superbia”– the constant focus on ego building: titles and possessions as signs of social status.  He admires the ability of the church to “inspire visitors to suspend their customary frightened egoism in favor of a joyful immersion in a collective spirit.”

His concept to bring the sacred meal to a secular crowd is an agape restaurant.  People would dine with others and the conversation would be steered by a script inspired by the structure of the Catholic mass or the  Jewish Passover meal.

Yet listen to how De Botton describes the conversation prompts at such a restaurant:

Like the famous questions which the youngest child present is assigned by the Haggadah to ask during the Passover ceremony (‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’, ‘Why do we eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs?’ and so on), these talking points would be carefully crafted for a specific purpose, to coax guests away from customary expressions of superbia (‘What do you do?’, ‘Where do your children go to school?’) and towards a more sincere revelation of themselves (‘What do you regret?’, ‘Whom can you not forgive?’, ‘What do you fear?’). The liturgy would, as in the Mass, inspire charity in the deepest sense, a capacity to respond with complexity and compassion to the existence of our fellow creatures.

There is something missing here, don’t you find?  It sounds much more like a mixer, albeit with deeper conversation, than a transcendent communal experience.

There is a difference between asking “Why do we eat unleavened bread?” and asking “What do you regret?  What do you fear?”  The first is asking “Who are we?” The second asks “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”

The point of a sacred meal is that the people who partake in it are expressing their consent to be part of one tribe.  Our collective history, the story of who we are as a people, becomes more important than the stories of each of the members as individuals.

This is why the restaurant context of the agape idea is off.  There is no sense in a restaurant that the participants will meet again, will not only get to know each other as individuals, but agree to tackle the problems of life as a family with mutual interests.

In any society and any time the needs of the individual and the need to be part of a community will be a balancing act.  We want to make the most of our beautiful, difficult individual personalities and to live in an environment that gives us that opportunity, while at the same time none of that feels particularly meaningful if it is not put into the service of a larger community.  Have we tipped so far in the direction of the individual that we have trouble even conceptualizing what it is to be part of a tribe?

You are not part of a “tribe” unless you have a fairly strong answer to the question “Who are we?”


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