Digging in Deeper: Mark 9:38-40

“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.’ ‘Don’t stop him,’ said Jesus, ‘because there is no one who will perform a miracle in my name who can soon afterward speak evil of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

We are naturally tribal. Our world has always been divided into two groups: Us and them. Now, sure, the exact makeup of those two groups changes. There are all kinds of different “uses” and all kinds of different “thems.” A person might fall into both categories within the same group of people depending on which particular flavor of us and them is being considered at the moment. But while there is all kinds of variety when it comes to exactly who goes in which group and when, the basic dividing line between us and them remains consistent. It is natural. It always has been. When Jesus came and began teaching about the kingdom of God, He didn’t try and tell us to operate differently. Surprised by that? Jesus didn’t try to undo our tribalistic impulse. He simply invited us to think about ourselves as part of a much bigger tribe.

One of the oldest and most storied rivalries in college sports, but particularly in college basketball (because with a few exceptions their football and other sports teams weren’t all that good), was between the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri. The operative word there is “was.” For 121 years the two schools battled back and forth in athletic competition. They were in the same athletic conference for 105 of those years. The hatred that had simmered hot between the two states during and in the years following the Civil War still burned between them.

As a Kansas fan (even though I am originally from Missouri, my explanation to MU fans who questioned my state loyalty was that I lived geographically closer to KU than MU), I was always proud that we not only held the moral high ground in the rivalry since we were originally an anti-slavery state whereas Missouri was a slave state, but that we generally won our matchups – in basketball at least.

And the rivalry was indeed intense. There were many epic games. Rankings (and ours was generally higher than theirs) ceased to matter when the two teams met. Long time MU coach, Norm Stewart, was famous for not ever spending a dime in Kansas. He would make sure the team bus was filled up with gas before they crossed the state line and wouldn’t buy so much as a pack of gum until he crossed the line back into home territory. I heard of respective fans who kept a picture of the other team’s logo…on the bottom of their toilet. You can probably imagine why. As a rule, KU fans didn’t like MU fans and vice versa.

And then it ended. In 2012, Missouri left the conference and but for a couple of exhibition games the two teams have not played each other since. The cowards ran off so they didn’t have to keep suffering the beatings we gave them…or at least, that was the very much tribalistic response of KU fans to the parting. While there have been some grassroots efforts to bring the teams back together, we have been pretty firm on the matter: you left us, not the other way around. We’re simply honoring your decision…you cowards.

Now, I tell that story for you not just for cathartic reasons. Did you pay attention to the language I used throughout? I spoke in terms of “we” and “us” and “them” over and over again. Here’s the thing: I didn’t attend KU. I have family connections to the school, but that’s it. I certainly never played for any of their sports teams. I actually attended a school in the University of Missouri system. By sheer program loyalty (not to mention state residence), I should be an MU fan. I didn’t and don’t have anything at stake in the rivalry at all. I got to see a few games from the glorious benches of Allen Fieldhouse where KU’s basketball team plays, but that’s about it. And yet the us versus them language. Because I’m tribal on this point. I’m an “us,” and they’re a “them.”

All things considered, though, this is a pretty harmless bit of tribalism. My college roommate who was one of my groomsmen and I’ll get the opportunity to be one of his in a few months is a committed MU fan. We lived together for three years and love each other in spite of it. There are tribal rivalries, though, that aren’t so harmless. Some tribes are taught to hate other tribes and the reverse is equally true. If anything, today we live in a cultural moment in which our tribalism is increasing. We divide ourselves along all kinds of lines too. Skin color, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, gender, religion, political affiliation, are just a few of the major ones. And far from thinking that as Christians we are better than this, we tend far too often to be right in the middle of it.

This tribalistic tendency is what we see on display in these couple of verses from Mark. The group was gathered there at the house in Capernaum. This was probably Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. Jesus had just offered the gang a little object lesson on humility in the form of what may have been one of Peter’s own children. His final point was about welcoming Him. Well, John heard this point and wanted to justify just how committed he was to welcoming Jesus. He was so committed to welcoming Jesus that he was against anyone who wasn’t part of their group. In fact, he had recently seen someone trying to steal a bit of their thunder by doing miracles in Jesus’ name but who wasn’t a part of their group. He quickly tried to put a stop to that nonsense. This person was clearly a “them,” and John wasn’t about to stand for his using their methods to try and get some glory for himself.

John boasted of his loyalty to Jesus and sat back to wait for Jesus’ tribal attaboy in response. No doubt the other guys were echoing John’s passion. “That’s right, Jesus. We all tried to put a stop to this nonsense. Who did this guy think he was trying to do what we do. He’s not part of us.”

As He so often did, though, Jesus quickly turned things around on them and responded in exactly the opposite way everyone expected Him to respond: “Don’t stop him. . .For whoever is not against us is for us.” Wait, what? That’s not how tribalism works, Jesus. Don’t you know that? See, the thing about tribalism is that if they aren’t part of our tribe, then they are necessarily against us and we are against them. If we try and treat people who are not in our group like they are for us, what’s the point of having a group? How do we know who we’re supposed to be against like that? It messes up the entire system.

And if Jesus had responded more directly to this rebuttal, I wonder if He wouldn’t have said something like this: That’s exactly the point. The way you do tribalism doesn’t work. It results in a lot of enemies and needless hatred. No one accomplishes anything of great value like that. What I am calling you to is not an end to tribalism, but a different version of it. I’m calling you to be in my tribe. And the thing about my tribe is that we don’t have enemies the way normal tribes do. We have people who are in the tribe and people who aren’t yet. That’s it. And, if someone isn’t actively working against us, we’re happy to work with them. It may be that they are advancing our purposes and we just don’t understand how yet. Either way, we’re going to love everyone whether they are in our tribe or not.

Let us not underestimate just how utterly countercultural this kind of thinking was in Jesus’ day. This was a complete reversal of how the average person thought about the people around him. Every single person you met was either an “us” or a “them.” You loved and accepted the “uses,” and worked to undermine and destroy the “thems” every chance you got. That’s simply how the world worked.

That’s still how the world works. In fact, if anything, our culture today is even worse. Thanks to the terrible influence of strains of thought like critical race theory, we are more tribal than we’ve ever been. Worse yet, instead of working to find real counters to the tribalism that will leave us too weak to stand against our real enemies, we are doubling down on hating those who aren’t like us. This creates a tinderbox wherein sparks like the pending verdict in the George Floyd murder trial are set to create a nationwide conflagration that will leave all sides worse off than not.

In the midst of this mess that is a direct result of our nationwide turning away from the wisdom of the Christian worldview (which itself is the result of folks claiming the name of Jesus living out a very much worldly tribalism that understandably convinced skeptics of its moral bankruptcy), there is only one hope for better results: the Gospel. Jesus’ command to love everyone, even our enemies, is the only positive way forward for our nation; for any nation similarly in the grip of this progressive tribalism. Our work is not easy. About that let us be clear. Our line of love will be hard to hold, particularly when our opponents are as committed as they are to hating us. But that hatred will only further the destruction we are seeing unfolding all around us. We need to show the world a better way. We need to offer the world a bigger tribe. Let us love like Jesus and show the world why that’s the solution to much of what ails us.

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