What African Tribalism taught me about the future of America

In 2016, the Civil war that was simmering in South Sudan finally boiled over, and the capital city erupted into genocide and retaliations. Animosity and hatred spread into the remote provinces, and all hell broke loose.

The two tribes involved in the conflict had distrusted each other for centuries. They believed the worst about each other. They taught their children not to trust anyone from the opposing tribe.

Each tribe exaggerated the shortcomings of the other and overstated the dangers of their rival clan. They worked each other into a frenzy and justified their atrocities with generalizations and stereotypes about each other.

I had a unique vantage point from which to view the South Sudanese civil war. At the time, I was leading a group of missionaries who were serving in the country. Every missionary I lead wanted to stay and continue their gospel endeavors amid this violent crisis. Most of the fighting was not near where they were serving, so we agreed to allow them to stay, with the caveat that if things got too dangerous or if the fighting migrated to their area, that we would pull their families out.

To safeguard our missionaries from harm, I closely observed the ever-evolving security situation. Daily, I was reading into the gory details of war, and I got a front-row seat to just how far people will go to destroy their enemies.

When you believe that your rivals are evil, their ideas are dangerous, and they have no redeemable qualities, your perception of them takes you to a very dark place. You no longer see them as human. They are more like animals. And not the cuddly companionship type, but wild animals that are dangerous and intrusive and MUST be destroyed for the safety of your family and your values.

When you begin to see people through these lenses, you are not far off from the atrocities that I read every day in my security briefing. Throwing grenades into school rooms or murdering pregnant women is justifiable only after you have dehumanized your enemy.

Every atrocity in human history began first with dehumanization. We are not capable of killing “our own” in cold blood until we can look at them and see something different, something less, something undeserving of life.

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

American Tribalism

But that could never happen in America, right? Before you self-righteously assume that we are incapable of these atrocities, let me remind you that American history has its own dark moments, and they follow the same patterns.

The American colonists thought the Native Americans to be less civilized, and chased them from their homes and killed them.

Wealthy landowners considered slaves to be cattle rather than men. They were abused, used as free labor, and discarded when they outlived their usefulness. If they demonstrated their humanity, their masters hung them for insubordination.

In the 20th century, we refused women’s right to vote because their opinions had no value in the political arena.

Blacks were not allowed to eat in the same restaurants, drink from the same fountains, or go to the same schools because many believed they were less than human.

Many of those injustices have been corrected. And in every case, Christians led the charge for change. Brave Christians led the Abolitionist and suffrage movements fighting against the grain of cultural acceptance.

The Civil Rights movement was led by Black Christians who proclaimed the Biblical truth that all men are created in the image of God and have value. They suffered for their courageous message, and we are a better nation because of their sacrifice.

History repeats itself

But a new wave of divisiveness is on the horizon. I am now hearing the same hateful words, distrust, and dehumanization in my home country that I saw l leading up to the civil war in South Sudan. It’s coming from ordinary Americans who religiously devote themselves to the political right and left.

This time, it’s not about race or gender. It’s about ideology, and the rhetoric is becoming increasingly dangerous. My friends, these divisive words and polarized ideologies are the foreshadowing of dark times to come.

When the right believes that all Democrats are baby-killing, election stealing, immoral monsters, and the left believe that all Republicans are child caging, greedy, despots, with no compassion. Then the stage is set.

Listen to what people are saying. Read the comments of any political post, and you will see the writing is on the wall.

Unfortunately, the polarization of America has become big business. The news outlets push their agendas and stir up controversy to get viewers. They are making money off of this impending disaster.

Social media herds us into echo chambers where we only hear the opinions of people like us so that people with opposing views seem insane and dangerous.

If we want to avoid the coming civil war, we must begin to see the people behind the ideology. We must see them as image-bearers of God.

1 John 3:14–15 (HCSB) says:

“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. The one who does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”

I have seen many hateful comments coming from professing Christians on both sides of the political spectrum. How can this be? We have lost our way.

Blessed are the peacemakers (Not the troublemakers)

Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9, NASB).

Yet today, we can not think of peace unless it includes the complete surrender of our opponents.

Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, but modern Christian culture has a new translation, Blessed are the troublemakers.

We don’t have to compromise our values, but we must start seeing people who disagree with us as humans that God loves. We must recognize that some of what they say has value and reflects a biblical worldview. Search deep, look beyond political rhetoric, and tell me this isn’t true.

Progressive Christians cry out in protest in the name of compassion and social justice. These are Biblical precepts.

Conservative Christians make similar pleas for moral absolutes and values — also, foundations of our faith.

The Gospel recognizes both.

It has become admirable in the church for some to stand on the right and for others to stand on the left. But the tricky thing is to stand on the truth of the Gospel that declares a truth that goes beyond political ideology:

The Gospel demands that we:

  • Love our neighbor
  • Pray for those who persecute (oppose) us
  • Care for the powerless
  • Heal the sick (physically and emotionally)
  • Introduce people to Jesus, who gives inner peace.
  • Change culture through an internal transformation.

The Gospel DOES NOT command us to:

  • Love only people like us.
  • Debate political opponents
  • Politicize the powerless
  • Ignore the sick
  • Convince people to join our political ideologies
  • Change culture by legislating morality.

We must adjust our perspective. The kingdom of God should be our priority, not the political right or left.

Our enemy uses political polarization to divide the church and make it utterly useless during one of the most critical times in history.

Wake up, Christians! Turn off the news. Quit debating on Twitter. Stop being led around by divisive puppet masters.

Pick up your Bible instead, get on your knees and pray for your enemies. Let God change your perspective to see others as He sees them.

Maybe then, we can be bringers of light and peace rather than turmoil and confusion.

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