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Opinion: The benefits of tribalism and the limits of hate

There is a natural tendency to radiate our loyalties and grudges to those around us. Yet today, we are doing the opposite — deflecting those close to us and identifying with those in distant lands.

(Image: geralt/Pixabay)

Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor and pray for our enemies. Friend and enemy alike usually cluster in families, neighborhoods, and communities. The difficulty in modern America is that we seldom know our neighbors, and the enemies we hate are often public figures we don’t encounter up close and personal. It may be helpful to identify structures that limit hate.

It takes time and effort to hate an entire nation. We often overlook the wisdom of this quip: “I love mankind; it’s my fellow man that I despise.” Indeed, it is more natural to hate family, friends, and neighbors than to despise humanity or large swaths of it. Yet, modern communications accelerate our hate for entire nations. That’s progress for you. It has even become common to hate national leaders more than despise our neighbors.

Biographies of saints often depict idyllic family lives without much controversy. Aside from the doubtful characterizations of many (certainly not all) of the stories, many of us feel excluded (as they say nowadays) by the lack of family fireworks, tensions, misunderstandings, and downright brotherly hatred. Most of us aren’t saints, and we seldom come from saintly families. Families – warts and all — form the foundation of every culture.

From time immemorial, clusters of families naturally form tribes, communities, and those groupings institute nations (more or less). Disputes inevitably arise at all levels. So it’s common for us to line up allies and form the order of battle for every social arrangement. Alliances can be holy, such as urgent national defense treaties and forming blocs to elect favorite candidates. But experience suggests alliances are often unholy and destructive.

Chronic marital problems usually lead to divided families, with children taking sides. Office politics can become toxic when factions form beyond the designs of thoughtful organization charts. We identify some communities by immoral behavior. The so-called “LGBTQ+ community” is not a community; it is an unholy political alliance. (Do we have a heterosexual community?)

The Hatfields and the McCoys fought each other for generations and shed much blood. During the internecine gunfire, it would be madness for any outsider to express a desire to take sides. The best course of action was to lament the dispute from a distance. Sometimes, containing the violence of tribal warfare is the only reasonable recourse. In manly days, fathers directed their feuding sons to settle their differences beyond the sight of their mothers. It helps to have a disinterested love for mankind and avoid despising individual members of warring families even as we deplore their atrocities. The doctrine of “minding our own business” limits the spread of hate.

Families, tribes, and nations also form unholy alliances to advance unjust economic and political interests. Unholy alliances make matters worse, with controversies becoming more ingrained and intractable. Most historians agree that the entangled alliances before World War I dragged unwilling nations to a war nobody wanted. Something is subliminally disturbing — even eerie — about the government-corporate-Hollywood pact, instantly implemented, that focuses relentless attention on Ukraine.

Emotions are an integral part of our make-up. Saint Thomas insists we must control our passions by “right reason.” Pascal writes the first duty of a Christian is to think clearly. Disproportionate emotions distort clear thinking. “I’m so angry I can’t think straight” applies to individuals, communities, tribes, and nations. When we express our desire to “love mankind,” we are determined to rise above the fray and make ourselves available for dispassionate analysis, consultation, assistance, and resolution. We also resolve to mind our own business.

During marital strife, both husband and wife look for independent outside counselors to assist them in working out their difficulties. Obtaining such help does not suggest that the counselor – however competent — doesn’t suffer from personality defects and patterns of neuroses of his own. A structure that “loves mankind” employing the doctrine of “minding our own business” shields clients from malpractice. The couple looks for a fair and professionally competent broker interested in helping them to heal their differences. A counselor that takes sides dooms the entire diplomatic mission.

When Jesus instituted the sacrament of penance, he commissioned his first priests to forgive sins on his behalf. The priest (in his flawed humanity) administers the absolution in the name of the risen Jesus. The structure of the sacrament of penance provides a “mind your own business” template. As confessors, the priests become honest brokers, hearing and evaluating the consciences of countless penitents without getting personally involved.

The sacrament encourages the penitent to acknowledge his transgressions, and the ritual (Act of Contrition) directs him to make amends. Depending upon the circumstances, the priest may give spiritual and moral advice. Every confession of sin followed by an absolution reconciles a small corner of the world to God.

Our families, tribes, workplaces, and nations could use similar structures to promote reconciliation. In human relations that extend from the family to the international community, “loving mankind” often means taking the time to mind our own business and be available for mediation if called. In his farewell address as his second term as President concluded, George Washington cautioned against entangling alliances to guide US foreign policy. The advice seems quaint today, although we would be wise to revisit his wisdom. We can happily apply the same guidance to our families, especially the in-laws.

There is a natural tendency to radiate our loyalties and grudges to those around us. Yet today, we are doing the opposite — deflecting those close to us (frequently using COVID as an excuse to avoid relatives) and identifying with those in distant lands. When we “love mankind” according to reason, to a significant extent, we mind our own business, avoid entangling alliances, and spend more time with family, neighbors, and our local community.

There are plenty of enemies we can find among the people we love. I may “despise my fellow man.” But at least my hate doesn’t extend to all of mankind. It is limited to me, my neighbor — and my confessor.

(This essay was originally posted on April 25, 2022.)

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About Father Jerry J. Pokorsky 43 Articles
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.. He holds a Master of Divinity degree as well as a master’s degree in moral theology.

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