I grew up with a sense of belonging in both received and chosen communities. I existed in several –Christian and Episcopalian; OU fan; Republican; middle class; Okie; American; guy. All of those communities create images of shared characteristics and maybe even a sense of connectedness for me at times.
Community membership has many immediate benefits: it helps us identify “our” group and helps us put demarcation around “others” based on how they are different from us, and often this is harmless. OU fans love giving OSU fans a difficult time during football season, and vice versa. It can be fun, like when one branch of my hospital plays another branch in our annual team-building games with a sense of esprit de corps. A good friend, John King, has co-authored a book explaining how to move forward as an individual and build or enhance positive groups within organizations, to everyone’s benefit, based on an understanding of shared, chosen community (Tribal Leadership, Logan, King & Fischer-Wright, 2008).
It can also cause humans, and in particular “others,” harm. Right now, in our country, our Western culture, our world, sectarianism is harming us. As nations and communities change over time, some see change as negative, as losses for their groups and wins for others. Yesterday a sizable crowd of White Supremacists, who believe that there was once a White America (their words), engaged in a public protest to voice their feeling that our country has become too diverse, too multicultural, and to demand a country run by and for themselves.
As a human and a Christian, I have been challenged in my view of community. Until I truly began to know and listen to those outside my religion, class ,culture, gender and sexual orientation, it was easy for me to make assumptions about them. I used to hold anti-Islamic and homophobic views, was a denier of cultural subjugation or sexism in the world around me. I believed all of us had an equal opportunity in the world, so our success or failure was only determined by our motivation and determination, not our color, creed, or birthright.
Experiences I did not initially choose began to change my understanding of the “other.” Loving people gave me a chance to talk even when my views, as uninformed as they were, spouted ignorance and assumption about the “other.” I had patient friends and mentors who gently and carefully showed me a bigger world. I explored this further, first through psychological training and then through interfaith exploration (remaining a Christian throughout, but clearly changing some of my understanding in the process). I began spending time in service to others, with those different from me in many ways, and listened to their stories.
I didn’t leave my communities for the “other.” I didn’t self-condemn or disown my identity within them during this process. Perhaps I became more self-critical and analytic about my own history and that of the people of my shared history, but I never left home.
My community grew.
For the last several years I have been trying to learn about and engage in experiences that allow me to better appreciate the lives of women, LGBTQ community members, members of different religious groups, races and cultures. I cannot claim the history of trauma and continuing systemic problems others face as minority members within our society, and there is much work ahead to repair the harm done, to ensure place and opportunity and status to those who are still denied it. This work will happen and change will occur, I believe, when we know each other and experience better in-group understanding and a desire to create a new community, one that includes all of us. And this will happen through relationships. It is, I believe, always our encounter, our engagement, our listening and sharing time and activity with those from different groups than ours, that slowly but radically changes us.
Identify your own communities and how they have shaped your views, without feeling like you have to criticize them. It may be difficult to identify all the teachings about others you’ve received inside your groups, but examine the types of people with whom you socialize, the religious and political views you hold, the beliefs that tend to cause some people to argue around you, to group together against the ‘other.’
Then, choose one area and decide you’re going to go spend time with the ‘other’ in that area. Say you’re thinking about your own membership in the community of mainline American Protestant churches (although that’s actually a pretty messy, diverse group itself). Find a Roman Catholic you know, or an Evangelical, and ask them to teach you some things. People generally love explaining their worlds and sharing them, and don’t get enough opportunities to do it (because, well, groups). Go to events to experience their religious community in vivo. Stay connected to that person’s good qualities, the ones you have always known, while you talk about their history, understanding, views. Don’t condemn differences, try to understand them. Ask lots of questions rather than engaging in argument. Let yourself experience rather than defend. Stay awake, stay open, stay grounded in who you already are.
Continue your journey in broader realms of differences between people groups. Take a look at resources and learning tools related to others different from you. Consider learning more through scientifically valid research and study, at places like the Cultural Cognition Project (http://www.culturalcognition.net). Read reputable news sources that offer different perspectives.
Imagine staying connected to all the communities that give you meaning, foundation, history, that are not harmful to others. Begin building a bigger group. You may eventually be called, by your own heart, to stand up for others, to insist they be treated with equal respect, to work to heal past injuries done to them. America will heal when we realize that, as our religious traditions teach us to “Love others as we love ourselves,” every single human is included in the category of “others.” There is no way for America to cut off part of its history or leave behind any groups, even those groups that have caused harm. But, there is a way forward. Together. And any way truly forward will include all of us.*
Noel Jacobs is a child psychologist, nonprofit diversity advocate, husband and father. He believes in and seeks to promote the best that humans can offer each other in Oklahoma and around our beautiful country, through peaceful dialogue and relationship.
Note: This post has been updated, removing the words ‘tribe’ and ‘tribalism’ to denote community membership, to avoid confusion or negative labels of Native Americans or any other people group.