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Our Common Bonds


We live in turbulent times, particularly in the United States, where ideology seems to drive us from one manufactured political crisis to another. Most recently, we have been taken to the brink of an economic abyss through a debt default – only to be given a few weeks reprieve when the cycle may be repeated.

We could label this the theater of the absurd if it weren’t for the fact that the stakes are so large. The reality is that the law of unintended consequences can sometimes start a domino of devastation that brinkmen did not intend. The soberness of the current drama can be found in the fact that a U.S. government debt default would be a huge deal, and if allowed to happen could reshape world history in ways that are incalculable. So there is a degree of insanity affiliated with even playing this sort of game.

Though the issues are quite different, Adventists are also quite familiar with ideological warfare. One current issue is a struggle over the master narrative, between tradition-based and evidence-based approaches to Genesis. (There are certainly other issues as well, including women’s ordination, and application of Revelation among them.)

In this video, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, discusses with Bill Moyers how liberals and conservatives see the world differently, and some thoughts regarding ideological pathology. He proposes that the way we extricate ourselves from a destructive path is to alter our focus from tribalism to that of our common bonds.

In thinking about this, I am mindful that tribalism is a part of human nature; all of us tend to engage in it quite unconsciously, viewing the world in “us” vs. “them” terms. Some the of tribal categories that come to mind are the following:

  • Family
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Doctrine
  • Political
  • Education
  • Class
  • Ideology

Not all tribal instincts are bad, for they do have survival value in defense of the tribe (those that we identify with) against unwarranted outside assault. Yet unbridled tribalism can be blinding and lead to wars — unnecessary wars. Tribal instincts often play out through vilification and demonization, as well as by reducing issues to good vs. evil.

This latter category is particularly problematic, as Haidt points out, because once an issue is reduced to good vs. evil, then the ends often justify the means, frequently spilling out in dangerous and harmful ways.

There are a great many things that create common bonds, not the least of which should be stewardship over our governing institutions that have been entrusted to us by the generations that came before. Pivotal to how these divergent situations evolve — whether Federal or Church — can be as simple as whether we are capable of rising to our better natures or whether we will retreat to our destructive tribal ghettos. If we choose the latter, there is a pretty good chance that the future of these institutions will be altered in ways we will come to regret.

Perhaps it is time that we challenge ourselves, as well as our neighbors, our communities, and our leaders, to pivot away from tribal impulses and rise to the occasion by building on our common bonds. 

Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.

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