Tribal Living

Tribal Textiles License: CC Fanny Schertzer
Who’s your "tribe"? Who supports your mission as a family? Historically (and pre-historically), humans congregated in tribes. Tribal living made us safer, distributed our work, and connected us with strong bonds.

Many people, especially women, probably didn’t have much choice about the tribe they belonged to or their place in it. Our modern, mobile society has improved things in this respect: if I don’t get along with my family or I hate the weather, I can always pack up and move. Yet this mobility has weakened our bonds. I remember calling my dear friend Fr. Ray, the priest who presided at our wedding Mass, early on in my marriage. My husband and I had been married five years, just enough time to have had four children. My parents lived too far away to help with the children regularly, and my in-laws worked full time. Exactly 100% of my friends from college had moved away. I was alone with my children all day, every day.

“I am so, so tired,” I complained to Fr. Ray. “You were there at our wedding—did I really promise to use myself up like this?”

“You’re not supposed to be doing this alone,” replied Fr. Ray, who had grown up in a tight neighborhood on the East Coast. “Your mom is supposed to live upstairs, your aunties across the street, the elderly lady who never had children just down the road. It isn’t natural to be raising a family in isolation.”

Fr. Ray's words didn't make my immediate need for help and companionship go away, but they reassured me I was hoping for good things. It is deeply human to long for a tribe.

The Gospel sheds some light on tribal living. Consider Luke 2:41-45:
Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
I don't have a whole lot of experience with benevolent caravans, so losing track of my son in public--even for a minute--would throw me into a panic. Yet for a whole day, Joseph and Mary assumed their boy was surely somewhere safe among all the "relatives and acquaintances" in the caravan. I've always imagined that Joseph and Mary must have been favorites among the children in the tribe; the holy couple probably welcomed, entertained, and cared for plenty of other people's children as they all ambled along the dusty path toward home. They could very well have been accompanying a little tribe of children as they searched for Jesus.

I wonder if the caravan or tribal atmosphere had something to do with Jesus' expansive view of family. In Matthew 12:46-50, he seems to inspire the first "urban tribe," a small group of unrelated, sometimes counter-cultural, people who come together as family because of shared interests.
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers appeared outside, wishing to speak with him. Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak with you." But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Here Jesus unites his counter-cultural followers as adelphoi, as brothers and sisters. This group of people, counter-cultural in their discipleship, receive Jesus' blessing as members of his Christian tribe. Jesus confirms his generous view of--and care for--family when, dying on the cross, he gives Mary and John to each other (John 19:25-27):

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
Jesus wants to give us a tribe, a family united in his love.

I have been praying for a friend of mine whose marriage recently ended. Suddenly, unexpectedly, even against her will, she faces a new kind of life. A beautiful Christian woman and mother of three, my friend inspires me. I've been praying that God give her the strength she needs to accept her new family situation. Now that I've been thinking so much about Jesus and his wide definition of family, I feel my heart wanting to do more. I want to help my friend. I want to be a better member of the tribe.

It's not like we see each other every day as we fetch water and gather eggs, though. We live in a modern world where our friends live in other neighborhoods, and our next-door neighbors are rarely home. (Perhaps they're out visiting their friends in other neighborhoods?) We have few tasks in common, and the ones we do share are not bound by time or distance: I can drive to any number of 24-hour grocery stores with automated check-outs, never coming in contact with another human. We've come a long way from the days of skinning buffalo together.

So if daily chores and circumstances will not bring us together, what will? How do urban tribal members share each other's burdens and joys? How do I care for this friend of mine, trudging through the breakup of her marriage? Or another dear friend, living on the West Coast with three small children and no tribe of her own?

First, I will turn back to Jesus, who made us adelphoi in himself. Prayer is a solid start.

What next? Care packages? Notes of encouragement? Please add comments below with your suggestions. We're taking the proverbial village online!