The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Changing the War

Changing the War

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

War is hell. I already wrote about that (here), but as wars continue, I continue to ponder the stuff that is underneath them. A few weeks ago, I had opportunity to think about this again as I found myself in a conversation about the Israel/Palestine conflict. If you know me, you know that I have a particular way of navigating conversations around divisive topics. I listen, comment a bit, ask a question or two, then continue listening. I do this because most conversations aren’t conversations at all. Instead, they tend towards just a series of statements, where participants navigate agreement and disagreement rather than curiosity and generosity.

In this particular conversation there was something that came to the surface. The conflict was being described as tribal (discreet groups fighting against each other), but what was more striking for me was that the ideas being shared as ways forward were also tribal in nature. This, the framing of the tribe, is what I’m thinking through today.

There is something profound about the framing of the tribe. Tribes are an inherent mode of organization for human beings. They are the primary way we have operated over history. We, after all, are social beings – we live in relationship. Individualism is a much newer phenomenon, and the hermitic life is a notable outlier here. While many conflicts might be framed as tribal, tribes aren’t something that we can easily just do away with, nor do I think we have to in order to solve conflicts.

The idea of the tribe has many benefits. For folks on the inside of a tribe there is an inherent sense of trust, safety, intimacy, and access to an experience of formation through immersion. For those outside a particular tribe there are easy identifiers, group reputations, and clear boundaries. We come to know who we are by being immersed with others from our tribe. And we know who we aren’t by encountering folks from other tribes. The lines are clearly defined, the boundaries set. This dynamic allows for areas of life in which we can more easily feel at peace (within the tribe) and areas of life in which we might be more guarded (when away from the tribe or interacting with another tribe).

The formation of people and relationships into tribes has usually required at least two things: time and place. It takes a lot of time to make a tribe from scratch – a group of people who come to trust each other, feel safe with one another, experience intimacy in relationship, and are immersed in one another’s lives. It also requires that people stay close to one another, literally and figuratively. Tribes have in the past been bound by geography. Being close to one another and spending a lot to time together gives ample opportunity for people and relationships to be formed in meaningful and deep ways. Interrupt either of these aspects of formation (time or place) and you potentially interrupt the growth of every aspect of the tribe. The bonds of trust, safety, intimacy, and process of formation through immersion will all look different.

In today’s world, the idea of formation by immersion is almost lost to history. As is being bound to a particular geography. We dip in and out of formative experiences and many consider travel (even intercontinental travel) a right, not a luxury. Today, tribes mean something more like a group of people who have something in common, experience less guarded relationships together, and maybe even want some of the same things out of life. It notably has little to do with the proximity we have to other members or the amount of time we spend with them.

Even more insidious in this societal shift is the trend in advertising to leverage our tribal predispositions for the sake of brands cultivating customers. The idea of customer groups being formed as tribes has far reaching implications if we take it to its logical end. Just replace Israel and Palestine with Apple and Android, or for a former generation Coke and Pepsi.

This is the dark side of tribalism. Clear boundaries and deep formation make for strong identities. Strong identities are inherently separate. This isn’t a bad thing until boundaries are crossed. Without continual subversion of division, contempt, and anger, the crossing of a boundary can easily lead to violence. However, if we subvert the formation of the strong identities the outcome is groups that are more easily moved. Members continue to follow voices within the tribe, and resist “outside” voices, yet are not necessarily rooted. Instead, they are left without the strong frame of reference with which to judge the world that comes with a deep formation.

This all can be linked to the idea that tribes are integrated. Everything they do is reflective of their identity and worldview. Everything has meaning. The symbolism that abounds in tribes runs deep. Food, fashion, language, ritual, dancing, music, even the organization of daily life all are expressions of the tribe’s identity. Nothing is just put on. The identity and worldview are interconnected and solid. This makes tribes seem entrenched in their thinking. They are not apt to change. Without some other mechanism in play, tribes are positioned for disagreement at best and war at worst.

What can be done?

The frame with which we view an issue dictates the options we can see. A tribal frame will bring about a tribal solution. A tribal solution to a tribal conflict leaves the potential for another tribal conflict down the line. How might we interrupt this cycle? I think the shift is not a dismantling of tribal frames, but rather shifting the frame we use to solve the problem. Instead of thinking of the group, we might think about people. If we think about the people, we might begin to think about love. If we think about love, we can begin to work out what love might look like in the smallest scale of relationship – one-to-one. What we do in the smallest of scales is, after all, what will most likely be amplified in the group.

Here we undermine the abstraction of identity. Instead of considering ourselves part of any particular group, we think of ourselves as part of a gathering of individuals with consideration for the persons we gather with. We need not judge our group reputation – let others do that. We only need to attend to the kinds of interactions we hope to have with one another.

Something to Consider

If we, as individuals, agreed to be forthcoming with one another about moments we felt crossed, we would have to find a way to navigate that crossing. We might agree to be honest in confessing the reality of the situation, be willing to change our thinking for the future, and stand for reconciling the relationship. This might sound outlandish for some at the individual level. After all, how many of us are very forthcoming with how we feel? Maybe that’s a problem and not a feature.

If we stood ready to be honest about our disposition and perception of a situation, our conversations would change. If we stood ready to change our thinking for the sake of a different (even better) future, the potential for deep shifts would be dramatic. If we stood for the ongoing reconciliation of relationships, the crossing of a friend or neighbor would invariably lead to different outcomes.

Now think of this dynamic happening in a small group. Say 12-18 people. How about a larger group? About 50-65. Or even larger, say 120-150 people. What about this dynamic playing out in members from one group interacting with members from another group?

This is the idea of internal renewal, even rebirth. Such a shift sets aside the normal identifiers of a tribe – like language, fashion, or geography – for much deeper ideas, like honesty, repentance, and reconciliation. Notably, such shifts are nearly impossible to instigate through imposition. An individual cannot be forced to become an honest individual. While they may be forced to tell the truth in a moment, the shift to desire to be – and ultimately become – an honest individual is one that can only come through inspiration.

Inspiration is fundamentally a mystery. Unlike emotions, inspiration can’t be choreographed or manipulated. The only thing I have known to work on inspiration is imagination. Envisioning what a world of honest people would look like may prime one’s heart for the inspiration to become one of those kinds of people. Envisioning what a world of reconcilers would look like might ready one’s being to become one of those kinds of people. Envisioning such realities can be difficult. It can take significant effort to even begin to shift our attention towards such things.

If imagining such realities feels impossible don’t force it. Instead try starting with this question: Would you like to be able to envision such a reality? Start there, be honest, and see what comes.

While wars are very real, require real action, and have real consequences, ultimately the war we face is not necessarily with another person or group of people. If we want things to change, the war is with a world organized for continual destruction, and an imagination that can’t envision anything else…yet.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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