Men and their tribes

My son plays rugby at West Point and put me onto this video. It’s from the 2011 World Cup Rugby winners, the New Zealand All Blacks, possibly the baddest group of sportsmen in the world. The dance they do prior to each match is called the “haka” and is a traditional demonstration of courage of Maori men before battle. The movements, gestures and facial expressions are all intended to frighten the enemy. I can understand how they would. It’s pretty scary to me just watching it on Youtube in the safety of my own study.

The thing of it is, while these guys are a sports team, the dance itself is much more primitive. It emerged well before Youtube or rugby or even national teams like the All Blacks or nations like New Zealand. In fact, the haka is tribal in origin, predating all other kinds of associations, which is why it’s so appealing.

The dictionary defines tribal as: any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions or adherence to the same leader. Ok, that’s pretty dry. What tribal really is, is the most basic way people, especially men, connect with one another.

My son’s buddies in the military are preparing to fight our nation’s wars. Their training prepares them for what they’re likely to encounter, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or somewhere else not yet on our radar. And they’ll be well prepared and trained. But when men get into battle, what keeps them there isn’t military training or thoughts of their families back home or even patriotism—even though all those things are important. What keeps them there is the love of the men on either side of them. What keeps them there is the same kind of tribal loyalty that’s bound people together for centuries before there was even the idea of nation or empire.

The All Blacks pound their hands on their legs. They widen their eyes to look ferocious. They stick out their tongues. They call out ringing challenges in the Maori tongue. All in unison. That’s because they’re all part of the same tribe. Watch Baltimore Ravens Middle Linebacker Ray Lewis do the same kind of thing before a football game, while encircled by his teammates.

Or Quarterback Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints.

You’d be wrong if you think their strange custom is about motivating a group of millionaire athletes to perform better on television. No, what they do is call the tribe to warfare. And we who watch them yearn to be in the middle of it. Someone, I think it was William Faulkner, said, the heart of every Southern man secretly longs to march with Gen. George Pickett’s Infantry division up Cemetery Ridge during the battle of Gettysburg, the high water mark of the Confederacy. We want to be part of the tribe.

Men instinctively connect with the tribe. And in modern church life, that’s a problem. We make little provision for the tribe. Sure, we talk in glowing terms of the gospel and mission and church and all those things that are so right, and yet, somehow, we’ve sanitized them and homogenized them and made them safe and, well, feminized them to the point that the spiritual connection between men, that at its best is something that inspires us and galvanizes us and makes us together much than we’ll ever be apart, has little tribal feel to it. And no matter how well you package it, you can’t take something that’s intrinsically organizational and make it tribal.

A group of men at my church are taking small steps toward tribalism. It takes time, I’m learning, because we don’t want to expose our real selves too much to fellow Christians, at least not until we trust each other more. Tribalism isn’t particularly civilized or acceptable to all branches of the church. But we’re getting there I think. To the point that I believe in the near future I’ll be able to point to a group of guys I go to church with, who love Jesus like I love him, who love me like I love them and with whom I’ve risked who I really am, and say to my wife, “You see those guys over there? They’re my tribe.”

The tradition with the West Point ruggers is that they get a tattoo before their senior year. All of them get the same phrase, tattooed all around their massive thighs, with a rugby ball in the middle. It’s taken from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and is a quote from King Henry’s Saint Crispen Day Speech: “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Who’s in your tribe?

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