For the past twenty-five years, I have met early every Wednesday morning with a group of a dozen or so men. Over the years there has been some coming and going in our membership; but a few of us have been together the entire time. And, for the most part, attendance has been remarkably consistent.

We meet for an hour. We pray, talk politics, church and family. But, most of all, we read the Bible and discuss what we have read. Nothing much is off the table. We share our opinions even when they are outrageous and provocative. We seldom argue, though we do not always agree.

This week, the question was raised whether our small group constitutes a community or could better be characterized as a “tribe”.

There is no question we are a relatively monochrome group. We are all middle class, relatively privileged, well-educated, white men, either pushing or well past fifty. We are all married and have children and possibly grand-children. We dress alike; we all have short hair, some more, some less. As far as I know, none of us has a tattoo or a single body-piercing.

We read many of the same books, watch the same movies, and follow similar news sites. We may not all vote the same, but we share many political points of view. I doubt any of us has ever voted for the Communist Party of Canada.

Our values are alike. We would all self-identify as Christian, although some of us with growing embarrassment and discomfort these days. While our denominational backgrounds differ, we currently all give communal expression to our faith in an Anglican Church.

Up until COVID when we migrated to zoom, we have always met in homes, so the number we have been able to accommodate has been limited. It has never been realistic to issue an open invitation, making us essentially exclusionary.

We are, by any definition, a pretty homogeneous (“of the same kind, alike, similar, comparable”) group. We might well be viewed as a “tribe”.

But, I know we would like to think of ourselves as a small community.

What keeps a community from being a tribe?

The thing that most profoundly distinguishes a tribe from a community is identification.

In a tribe, individuals derive their personal sense of identity from their membership in the group. I know who I am because of my place in the collective. I know I belong because of our shared practices, rituals, beliefs and values. If I become separated from my tribe, I lose my sense of identity. I become uncertain and insecure. So, I will fight to protect my place in the tribe from any threat either from within the group or from a perceived enemy on the outside.

A tribe risks becoming a self-serving echo chamber in which the only acceptable ideas are those which have been authorized by some recognized authority figure and which reinforce an insecure illusion of unity. Dissent is neither encouraged nor embraced. Tribes have gatekeepers authorized to monitor belief and patrol behaviour.

Communities recognize that the group is enriched by diversity. Differences of opinion are welcomed, explored, and given free expression. Communities do not look to some power from above for permission to hold an idea or explore any way of being that appears to move towards life and openness. Otherness, while not necessarily equally embodied in every community, is not perceived as a threat or a challenge.

My community does not define my identity. Rather I participate in a community, as a means of expressing and deepening my sense of personal identity.  I know who I am without the group and do not depend upon my membership for personal validation. The group is a tool to help me connect with and share my true self. It is a place to practice the art of expressing who I truly am more deeply and authentically.

When I look at the group of men with whom I have met for all these years, I see that over the time we have been together, we have all grown and changed. None of us is precisely the person we were when we entered this little community. Our beliefs have shifted and developed. We are able to be more authentically the people we truly are. We go from our meetings better equipped to live expansively and gently in the world we encounter outside the group. Having reconnected with our true sense of identity, we are equipped to share more fully in more diverse human connections than are embodied in our small Wednesday morning gatherings.

 

I may be deluded, but this feels to me like a valuable exercise in authentic community.