At the root of ‘tribalism’ across Africa are a number of factors ranging from an innate feeling of superiority of one’s ethnic group over others, a fear of and contempt for the little-known culture of other ethnic groups, to anger over some hurt meted out to one’s own ethnic group by another ethnic group. When entrenched in a polity, tribalism can breed corruption, nepotism, ineptitude, underdevelopment, civil conflicts, wars etc.
However, the words of Jesus Christ are clear regarding how to relate with people of a different culture. First, let us look at the fact that Jesus Christ made it clear in His teachings that he had come to challenge the notion of stereotypes, labelling a group of people or assigning a common way of behaviour to a group of people or even a family. This is a common mindset of many who are inclined to tribalism: they generally tend to essentialize the ‘other.’
A mature Christian is one who understands that such statements as “The Gikuyu are like that or the Yoruba are like this or the Shona are like that” should not feature in their thinking and conversation. This is because with Jesus came the window of opportunity that humanity desperately needed to break free from stereotypes. Prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the attendant salvation he offered humanity, it was expected that children would likely end up like their fathers and forebears. Families were known for evil or for good; individuals were helpless within the socialization process and family system in which they found themselves. There was darkness as far as the knowledge of how to break free from negative character traits that ran in the family bloodline pertained. A thief gave birth to a thief who would also give birth to a thief, and the family line of thieves continued until the end of the lineage. Only an extremely rare set of individuals, like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, could chart a different path from their fathers.
However, Jesus came with grace and strength for those individuals whose DNA has been marred by ancestral sin. “Whosoever the Son of Man sets free is free indeed,” Jesus said to his followers while He was on earth in the bodily form. Jesus said that He came to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” By that statement is meant that Jesus’ death and resurrection gave the believer a previously non-existing opportunity to be socialized according to the principles of the kingdom of God, instead of the machinations of a dysfunctional family and social system. In that way, such individuals turn towards righteousness and away from wickedness and evil. This means that there should be no more stereotyping, labelling or generalizing about a family or an individual; a man or woman shall have to answer for their own character in a post-resurrection world.
Scientists have established that beliefs, experiences and events can permanently alter or change an individual’s DNA. An individual with addiction and laziness in his DNA can transform all those by receiving Jesus Christ as His Lord and personal saviour, meditating and acting on the word of God. Through that, he separates his bloodline from that of His father and is able to pass on better DNA to his own children.
If, at the micro-level of the family, Jesus’s death and resurrection have made it imperative for the believer not to stereotype or label, how about at the macro community or ethnic group level? Again, the Gospel is clear on that. When Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Saviour of the world and that He was from Nazareth, Nathanael responded by declaring what he knew about the stereotype of people from Nazareth, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Indeed, excavations reveal that Nazareth in the days of Christ was a “tiny, off-the-beaten-path hamlet” whose roads could only allow one camel to walk at a point in time. Beyond that, and worse still, Nazareth was a notorious city of rebels: crude, uncultivated and the most morally bankrupt and spiritually inept of Jewish people. Not a city fit for a king by any stretch of one’s benevolent imagination.
Yet, it was this city that God carefully chose to be the birthplace of the righteousness, peace and joy of this world. God wanted to shatter stereotypes, and He used His Son as a perfect example.
The attitude of Christians to stereotypes that profile ethnic groups should always take the form of Philip’s response to Nathanael’s stereotyping question that nothing good can come out of Nazareth, “Come and See”. Philip encouraged Nathanael to see Jesus for himself and not conclude on him based on the stereotype of what people from Nazareth were or should be like.
Therefore, in relating with other ethnicities and people groups, Christians should emulate Nathanael, who left his comfort zone under the shade of a fig tree and took the bold step of going to see and interact with Christ. He walked away from the shade, which was representative of the covering and comfort of his long-held beliefs about people from Nazareth, and stepped out to encounter Christ personally. Christians must be bold to step out into the unknown ‘other’ world and territory of other ethnicities and get to know them more deeply without judgement or criticism. One question we can ask ourselves is: how many people of the other ethnic group we hate or fear do we know closely enough? African Christians, like Nathanael, must step out of their age-long beliefs, probably passed from generation to generation, and try and make friends with those of other ethnic groups who are stereotyped.
Like Nathanael, who realized the truth about Christ being the Messiah, many Christians who step out of the comfort of their stereotypical beliefs will realize the sad reality that tribalism or the things we believe about other people groups are mostly based on hearsay and therefore untrue. If Adolph Hitler had left the comfort and familiarity of his intoxicating Germanness to interact and cultivate friendships with even one Jewish person, it is highly unlikely that the Holocaust would have occurred. But Hitler, like many who hold on to stereotypes about other ethnicities or nationalities, refused to “go and see” who the Jews are for himself, choosing instead to believe hearsays and inherited stereotypical mindsets about Jewish people.
In every ethnic group, in every community, God’s mercy, goodness and graciousness abound and can be seen by any person who chooses to look out for it amongst the people. When Elijah complained that he was the only righteous and zealous person left among the Jews in 1 Kings 19, God told him that the Lord still had 7,000 prophets who had not bowed to Baal. We must never see ourselves or our ethnicities as the only good thing there is. God always has people that are loyal to him across ethnicities and communities. Our task is (and should be) to look (out) for and believe the best of every person and every community, as the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 13:7.
Lastly, when anger, disrespect, hatred or fear of other ethnicities well up within the heart of a Christian, the individual must approach the throne of grace and ask for mercy and grace to overcome. Feelings of unforgiveness of any previous hurt towards one’s own or other ethnicities should be addressed, as Jesus admonishes us to forgive seventy times seventy in one day. The Holy Spirit of comfort should be invited to bring healing, wholeness and comfort. After praying, the Christian should make an effort to reach out to people of the other ethnicity and get to interact with them as fellow human beings. In the end, blessed shall be that (African) Christian who continues to look out for God’s goodness and glory in other ethnic groups and to love their neighbours as themselves.