It can be hard to know what to make of Paul’s words here. Especially in our day when tribalization of groups and identities is among the highest of cultural virtues. Oneness is about the last thing many of our citizens want. And, sadly, the same can be said for many in the churches. Was Paul deluding himself? Was he some kind of Utopian dreamer, casually sweeping aside those stubborn identity differences as if just asserting oneness will make it somehow happen?
I recently watched a talk given by a fellow who has done a lot of work, internationally, on trying to understand political motivation and affiliation. He came to the undeniable conclusion that the collective emotions that drive affiliation are essentially tribal in character. We see the evidence all around us. The current hyper-polarized political atmosphere puts the lie to any claim that many actually want a united states of America. Millions of us are quite content to mouth such sentiments but our politics betray us. We have increasingly become a nation of tribes, suspicious and even hostile in relation to one another.
And there is little mystery here. For well over half a century our cultural elites have cultivated the art of repudiating our cultural inheritance. The result has been predictable. We are moving from being a national community to becoming bickering, squabbling enclaves of tribes and minority allegiances.
You simply cannot trash cherished and received traditions of culture without trashing the bonds which hold that culture together. And that is what is happening all around us. The growing emphasis on the cults of ethnicity fundamentally redefine the nation away from a polity of individuals to a collection of tribes whose boundaries are impenetrable. As a result, the coherence of the entire culture is at stake.
So, back to St. Paul. No, he was no Utopian dreamer. And he knew full well that speaking of ‘oneness’ in and of itself accomplishes little. He was also quite familiar with what it meant to identify with the tribe. He was from the ultimate tribe, the Jewish people, the people of God. In the wake of meeting Jesus Christ, Paul’s entire ministry was a rejection of lesser loyalties.
The key to grasping Paul’s negation of the prominence of tribal identities is in the little phrase, …”in Christ Jesus.” And this represents a serious challenge, then and now, to Christian people who allow themselves to join the tribal skirmish to the point where those allegiances, all under the law and the temporary governance of this world, are allowed to close our hearts and minds to one another.
Like Paul, I am also no Utopian dreamer. Just by writing these things I do not expect to make much of an impact on the sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in. But I do write in the hope, Christian friends, that we might look to our allegiances in this world and ask ourselves whether or not we have made “Jew of Greek, slave or free, male or female” more defining of our allegiances than the Lord by whose bloody cross and reconciling love we have been made one.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in
Christ Jesus our Lord.”