One Tribe

From “Knowing Jesus” by James Alison.

One of the first questions we can ask ourselves about whether or not we know Jesus is: to what extent are we caught up in a sectarian frame of mind? To what extent are our responses tribal? Let me suggest ways in which we might be: whenever we behave as though some group to which we belong is self-evidently superior to, more truth-bearing than, some other group. That is to say, whenever there is a note of comparison in our reactions and behaviour. The comparison can be to our favour, as when we consider ourselves superior, or to our detriment, as when we take on the role of the oppressed victim of society, or whatever. Both of these comparative forms of behaviour betray that we have not found the givenness of the self-giving victim as the foundation of our unity.

So, for instance, Catholics may easily talk of Protestants, or Muslims, as though the Catholic Church were superior to these other groups. Thus, belonging to the Catholic Church makes of one a superior sort of person: after all one knows the truths of the faith and belongs to the true Church. This attitude is not uncommon, and it gives a sort of feeling of combative brotherhood with other fellow Catholics, a strengthened sense of belonging as one faces up to a world run by a hideous army of Protestants, pagans, Masons and what-have-you. In some countries, the word ‘Jew' would traditionally be part of this list of others. Well, I hope that gives it away. The unity that is created in this way - even the laughing emotional bonding that seems to have no practical consequences, is created at the expense of a victim or victims, at the expense of an exclusion. That is to say, it is a unity that is derived over-against some other. And that is to betray the very deepest truth of the Catholic faith, the universal faith, which by its very nature, has no over-against. The unity which is given by and in the risen victim is purely given. It is indicative of no superiority at all over anyone else. Anyone who genuinely knows the crucified and risen victim can never again belong wholeheartedly to any other social or cultural, or religious group. He or she will always belong critically to all other groups because all other groups derive their unity over-against someone or some other group.

The only unity to which he or she cannot escape belonging is the new unity of humanity that the Holy Spirit creates out of the risen victim, the unity which subverts all other unities. And this new unity is not yet a realised unity, as must be apparent. The Church does not teach that it is the kingdom of heaven, which is the realisation of the unity in the new Israel, but that it is the universal sacrament of that kingdom. That is to say that it is the efficacious sign of a reality that has been realised only in embryo. As such, it is radically subversive of all other forms of belonging, all other ways of constructing unity. But it is so as a gift from God.

So, knowing Jesus implies, of necessity, a gradual setting free from any tribal sense of belonging, and the difficult passage into a sense of belonging that is purely given. Its only security is the gratuity of the giver, and that means a belonging in a group that has no ‘abiding city’, that unlike the fox, has no hole, and unlike the bird, has no nest.

Comments are closed.