Monday, December 20, 2010

Going Tribal

Something BETTER than civilization is waiting for us. Something much better--unless you're one of those rare individuals who just loves dragging stones.
Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization (1999)

Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.

Have you ever asked yourself: if, all of a sudden, I came upon $1 billion, would I still being doing the same job I'm working right now? For Daniel Quinn, this is the litmus test for all of us living in Western Civilization, a culture marked by hierarchical relationships and monotonous jobs that pay off for a few very wealthy and powerful men at the top of the food chain. Of course, none of us will happen upon this kind of treasure any time soon, but it points the way to perhaps a greater treasure: participating with a team on mission who makes decisions together and receives equal reward for your effort. This "tribal" mentality is about believing in what you are doing and finding deep fulfillment in the means, not just the ends. This, according to Quinn, is how humanity lived for millions of years until just about 3,000 years ago, when we made the fateful choice of experimenting with civilization.

Not to worry: going Beyond Civilization (1999) is not "socialism" nor self-imposed poverty, and it does not entail us to leave the suburbs and join a nudist colony or hippy commune (or are those the same thing...I wasn't alive in the 60s). Quinn beckons us to stay right where we are, but to find "another story to be in," a more sustainable mentality that honors humanity and the earth. As Quinn describes it:

The tribal life doesn't turn people into saints; it enables ordinary people to make a living together with a minimum of stress year after year, generation after generation.

Quinn invites us to imagine what life should be like, to dream about a way of life that breathes more security, hope, light-heartedeness, and freedom from anxiety, fear and guilt into every day of our existence. However, his head isn't obnoxiously stuck in the clouds. He's not shoveling us poppycock. He shares personal episodes about his own journey, through trial and error, discovering what "beyond civilization" has looked like for him. He and his wife started a small hometown newspaper in New Mexico with a few others who had the same expectations: certainly not a lot of money, but a load of personal fulfillment and joy in producing a quality read.

Quinn is a master paradigm-shifter. He teases and prods us to listen to this other way, warning that our established, rule-following ("civilized") friends and family will think our ideas are crazy. Perhaps they'll demand that we get a drug-test. His well-thought-out ideas and solutions will inevitably be received as "insane" by those who have simply taken on civilization's patented solutions. Case in point: his well-researched convictions about homelessness in America (which has vastly expanded in the decade since publication). Here's a sample:

Instead of sending in police to drive the homeless out of the tunnels, officials should send in city engineers to ask what services the city could provide to improve conditions. What they would hear is, "We need help with sanitation, with water, with electricity." Don't try to drive the homeless into places we find suitable. Help them survive in places they find suitable.

...Am I saying the homeless actually want to be homeless? Not exactly. Some are "short-termers" who have landed on the streets after a spell of bad luck and who want only to get back on the road to middle-class success...The rest are on the streets not necessarily because they love being homeless--institutionalization, undending family abuse, involvement in foster-care systems that are blind or indifferent to their needs, and laboring in a job market that offers no real hope of upward mobility.

Quinn's answer to the homelessness problem is that it is not the problem. He calls for a solution that ironically was the federal government's disastrously wrong soluton to the banking industry: deregulate and decriminalize. What has not worked with predatory lenders (leading to a home foreclosure crisis which led to a recession which led to a jobless recovery) will naturally work for the homeless whose very existence is rooted in systemic issues of violence, gross economic disparity and the dehumanizing effects of the rat race (among others). Instead, local governments regulate by proclaiming a "war on homelessness" which is about as effective as the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror."

Quinn posits that finding real solutions to society's problems is to have the same mentality as constructing buildings in an earthquake danger zone. These engineers don't fight tremors, they "accede" to them, allowing these structures to roll with the punches instead of crumble under the unstoppable force of Mother Nature. There are some forces (including drugs, terror, homelessness) that we simply cannot stop no matter how much money and how much force we throw back at them. Indeed, these forces grow stronger and more out of control as we throw more money and force at them because we are refusing to discern the deeper, more complex issues that foster them. In short, civilization--a stressful & monotonous series of obligations and market-driven-wages--makes a few men very wealthy and the rest of us exhausted, distracted and drained of adventure.

I bet Quinn's work would find major resonance with the hundreds of thousands of college grads who have moved back at home with the folks while working (if they are lucky enough to find it) jobs to "pay the bills" because there's nothing else available. Meanwhile, corporate titans get higher bonuses and businesses have shelved trillions, declining to produce more jobs because, quite frankly, their over-worked and stressed-out employees are producing more and more because they don't want to be one of the 15 million Americans who are sidelined, begging for a job.

Promise me that you'll soak yourself in Quinn's page-turner for 3 hours one rainy afternoon and you'll soon discover your long lost tribal roots. Consider the story ("the American Dream") that these principalities and powers keep telling us about hard work and success and homeownership and dream up a newer, simpler dream. Then, over a hot beverage, you can meditate and brainstorm all the ways that you could strategically start living like our pre-civilized ancestors, those old half-clothed, nomadic barbarians who lived to hunt and gather and hunted and gathered to live...and then spent the rest of their hours emotionally connecting, laughing, playing and napping. Think about the built-in intimacy and simplicity and sustainability. Beyond Civilization is more attractive now than any time since its publication late in the Clinton years. Truly, civilzation has been exposed. Let's impeach it and go tribal.

Walking away from civilization is just one way of describing what, in Christian theological language, it looks like to respond to Christ's call to repent and join the Reign of God. Those of us who pledge allegiance to a "whole new world" (II Cor 5:17) are committed to constructing systems and movements that give dignity and compassion to all God's children while being stewards of valuable natural resources. These tribes are process-oriented and refuse to allow profit to be the bottom line. The joy is in the journey. The labor is in the love.

Some churches are tribes, yet most are stuck in civilization. Sure, hierarchical leadership is "easier" and more productive. It is upon the shoulders of all those "anointed" ones who are "called" to the pastorate to get all the "kingdom work" finished. They preach, teach, beseech and reach, while the rest of the congregation plays the leech. This North American (perhaps global) phenomenon represents what Quinn calls the Taker Economy, signified by having all our spiritual needs met by the church and focusing wholly on personal piety and individual salvation when we die. We come to church as individuals, get lost in the crowd, get a good message with some nice music, and leave as individuals. What is missing is that original Christian concept called koinonia (in the Greek), what most bible translations refer to as "fellowship," but what may be better described as "solidarity" or "sacrificial service" on behalf of others. Many folks get polemic and immediately think that means that the community has to all move in together and live from a common purse. I'm convinced that it doesn't have to be so extreme to be tribal (and biblical). We can creatively brainstorm what it would look like to be faithful to this vision.

I continue to observe that hierarchical church structures accomodate numerical growth (a very civilized goal), but mostly fail to deliver mutually nurturing intimacy, loving sacrifice and humble service: the very meat of Jesus' socio-spiritual-political-economic tribal living. It is no wonder that these tribes of the Reign of God (called by various labels like house church, hive, messianic community, base community, new monasticism) are sprouting all over the place.

Historically, the political maneuvering of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century led to a deepening of civilized church culture, officially baptizing the Body of Christ into Roman Civilization (and what would become Western Civilization in the centuries ahead). From Caesar to the pope and the bishops, the church was legitimzed from the top down. Yet, from the very beginning of the Christian movement, churches were tribal, every individual having their own gifts and talents that they would offer for the common good (Eph 4; Romans 12; I Cor 12). Sure, these Reign of God town hall meetings would have two or three men (and/or women) function as the "teachers," but they didn't wield the power of the purse and/or decision-making, and they certainly did not have their names and faces on the sign out in front of the church or on the website. Only civilized churches do that.

And, as John Howard Yoder determined from his study of the New Testament, these first churches were committed to practices like mutual admonition (Matthew 18), the open floor (I Cor 14), consensus decision-making (Acts 15), interethnic solidarity (Gal 3) and the abundant sharing of resources. This is hard work, but when everyone--from the seminary trained to the single mom--participate together with their unique roles, then the Reign of God is manifested in the world.

But, again, I continue to observe that buildings, institutions and hierarchies have come to define what "church" is to North American Christians. Just think about what folks think and say about our little 6-person tribe that meets in our studio apartment every Sunday night. We call it "church," but for many (most?) followers of Jesus, it doesn't qualify because it doesn't have a building, a name, or a senior pastor (in fact, no one's "in charge"). The only problem with that kind of reasoning is that neither Jesus nor Paul ever call for building, a name or a senior pastor, but instead a tribe who commits itself "to doing ordinary things differently" (Yoder).

Perhaps, churches can best learn from businesses who have already gone tribal. The philosophy of the SAME Cafe in Denver is "that everyone, regardless of economic status, deserves the chance to eat healthy food while being treated with dignity." They do not have a set menu nor do they have prices, just a donation box in front of the restaurant. Or how 'bout Full Sail Brewing Company in Hood River, Oregon? If this isn't tribal...

The reason we started Full Sail in the first place was to build a company that was completely different from the ones where we’d previously worked. It wasn’t about business as usual. It was about finding our calling in life -- about truly appreciating our “human resources,” and balancing work, life, family and friends in a way that makes life truly worth living. It was in that spirit that we became an independent, employee-owned company in 1999, divvying up the company between the 47 of us. Of all our accomplishments, this is the one that makes us most proud.

Finally, consider Firestorm Cafe in Ashville, North Carolina which is

run without bosses or supervisors, relying instead on a horizontal workplace. Each worker-owner is responsible for both weekly shift work and a share of managerial duties. Decision making is achieved using a formalized consensus process in which each participant has an equal voice.

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