Whanaungatanga: Tribalism, Belonging and Inclusion

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

This difficult Psalm expresses the pain and anguish of a people who have been crushed. They are traumatised. They have watched their own friends, families and children be killed in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. And now they’ve been dragged away as captives to Babylon,  and are being mocked by their oppressors. And so they are in grief and their response, although seeming quite extreme, is a common human reaction to this kind of situation. They want revenge, they want someone to pay, they want their oppressors to suffer.

And although we now live many thousands of years since these were written, and for all of our technology, civilisation and ethical progress, we are still the same kind of fundamental being. This is the cycle of human societies and has been since ancient times. Part of the survival mechanisms of ancient people groups was to form communities of belonging who would protect one another and enable them to survive. Deeply integral to the human psyche is this need to meaningfully belong, to have your people. It helps us to feel safe and secure. And from the perspective of faith, this is not just about survival - there’s something sacred that images the divine community when we find ourselves connected in meaningful community with others.

But if belonging is defined by competition with others, then identity is shaped not just by the group you belong to, but also by those whom your group is defined against. Your sense of ‘in-ness’ is created by the contrasting sense of ‘out-ness’ that you ascribe to others. Perhaps it’s not surprising that violence is the result. When this is the way the world is, things like the anguish, despair and desire for revenge that we see in Psalm 137 are a natural outcome. 

In many respects, this same story is being played out today. The world is heading into increasingly polarised camps as over the past few decades, globalisation, migration and technology have brought us all much closer to people who are not like us. This is disrupting people’s categories of belonging and we’re seeing massive surges of people wanting things to go back to the way they were. Back to a time when things were simpler because we were surrounded by people who were pretty much like us.

And religion can essentially be used to play the same game. Our sense of belonging in a religious community can be generated by the fact they’re we’re in and other people are out. God is on our side but not theirs. 

But I think a big part of the story of Jesus is the undoing of this way of being in the world. Jesus offers us a different vision of what it means to be human, Jesus offers the antidote to Psalm 137. Not the elimination of our need to express our pain and grief, but a refusal to use our pain and grief to turn us against one another. Instead, Jesus offers a kind of belonging that does not depend on excluding those who are different from us. We see Jesus reaching out beyond the normal confines of what decided that people were in or out. Whether that was a Samaritan (an ethnic and religious other), or women, or Gentiles, or those who were considered unclean because of illness, and so on. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus offers a way of life in which ‘love of enemies’ is that which defines his kingdom.

And we see this follow through into the early church as well. Many of the letters that we have in the New Testament are not letters to individuals, but they’re letters to communities. Letters in which a lot of time is spent drawing people together and asking them to put aside all of those things that would typically identify them as ‘alien’ to one another. This was not a denial of their identity, but a commitment that this identity would not be defined ‘against’ others who were not like them. The community that is centred around Jesus is one that doesn’t buy in to the exclusions that we’re so typically attracted to.

In his letter to a church in Galatia, facing challenges in relation to different groups of people learning how to do community with one another, Paul says to them; 

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

So what does it mean to belong in a way that isn’t based on fear or excluding others? It can be easy for Christian communities to simply bend back in to the old game and to become about “in versus out” and “us versus them”. But that moves away from the kind of connection that Jesus invites us into. This is where whanaungatanga, the connectedness of healthy community, can be a potent and beautiful revolutionary force in the world. And even more so, when it is centered around the life of God that is found in Jesus, and present with us by the Spirit. 

There’s something beautiful about the idea of being a kind, hospitable, inclusive community, but we can’t do it simply by passing a policy directive. This is some of what the New Testament writers are getting at when the say the church is formed by the Holy Spirit. We need God to be at work in us, breathing new life into us, breathing the courage and kindness into us that is needed to see others truly as divine image bearers. That each person we encounter, no matter their social status, their country of origin, their language, their sexuality; each person is a divine image bearer. What would it mean to build whanaungatanga on that reality?

WhanaungatangaClint Gibson