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Tribal salvation

tribal warriors
Posted September 20, 2018

How can we discover a salvation that doesn’t seek to destroy other cultures? We need to re-capture the biblical view of a great, inclusive ‘tribe’ that embraces all other tribes, says Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hutson.

Salvation in the Western Christian community is something to be experienced at an individual level. This is especially so in evangelical circles.

Because of our focus on individual experience, at first glance this could appear to be a global worldview, and we tend to miss the tribalism of it. Yet so much of what Westerners think is ‘global’, could arguably be ‘tribal’.

The ‘Anglo’ tribe shares so many things—economic policy, military alliances, language, sport, art and culture. A global empire of sorts. The Western church speaks about ‘salvation for all’, largely unaware that we are doing so from the perspective of a larger Anglo ‘tribe’—and that our culture doesn’t always ‘bring life’ to those whom we presume to reach for God.

In 2007, a national Church Life Survey was filled out by New Zealand church attenders. According to the resulting statistics, The Salvation Army in New Zealand then had an ethnic makeup where 82.6 per cent of attenders were European New Zealanders, with the next biggest group being Māori at 5.5%. Clearly, The Salvation Army was then a very homogenous ‘tribal’ group, despite rhetoric of inclusion, diversity and global mission.

Tribalism, like nationalism, can be a thing of beauty where resilience, inclusion, belonging and nurture are evident. Or it can be an ugly blight, where walls are built or violence perpetrated on those who are different.

Indigenous salvation

In colonised countries like New Zealand, attempts to carry out Christ’s mission can be experienced as malevolent or foreign by indigenous peoples. This is especially so given that the church was, and is still, sometimes, complicit in the process of colonisation.

The idea of a ‘tribal salvation’ was particularly highlighted in New Zealand during a period when Christianity flourished. From the late 1820s through to the 1860s, Māori embraced Christianity in huge numbers. The gospel frequently travelled ahead of the missionaries, transmitted by indigenous messengers. Huge numbers of Māori responded because the gospel, as they received it, spoke into their cultural context in a time of extreme war, violence, cannibalism, slavery and utu.

As one specific example, the Whānau-ā-Apanui iwi and the Ngāti Porou iwi, responded to biblical concepts like forgiveness and peace in their dealings with each other. The move to one God and one religion marked a ‘crucial breakpoint’ in the history of both tribes, resulting in 30 years of peace and prosperity, according to Keith Newman, in Bible and Treaty.

This was by no means an isolated occurrence. Māori took the gospel seed out of the European cultural pot and planted it into an indigenous soil where it flourished.

Sadly, as the full force of colonisation hit, the church became more settler-focused and the destruction of the mana of Māori undermined the light that the gospel initially reflected. To a significant degree, Māori drifted away from the church in the latter part of the 19th Century—developing their own forms of religion that retained various levels of Christian emphasis, or making up a small minority in mainline churches. This is largely the case today.

Christianity and culture

Much of the Western ‘tribal’ church does not readily engage with other cultures. Instead, like the wider dominant white community, the church expects immigrants to assimilate into the church community.

This disconnect from people of difference significantly diminishes the kind of salvation promoted by a Western church. For instance, social justice issues perceived as critical to the marginalised group are not understood or seen as important by the dominant group—even though the dominant group may profess to having a strong commitment to social justice.

Former New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd describes having an attitude toward Māori that they should ‘get over their grievances’. But he found himself hugely impacted by the contact and dialogue he had with Māori when he was warmly welcomed onto their marae as Mayor. Hearing the genuine pain and suffering of Māori throughout New Zealand’s history, Judd had what can be described as nothing short of a Damascus Road experience, going onto describe himself as a ‘recovering racist’ in the light of his ‘conversion’.

Personal contact with Māori radically altered Judd’s concept of ‘salvation’ in their context. His engagement with Māori in some senses mirrored the incarnation of Christ, who came and dwelt among us with the consequent identification with humankind (John 1:14).

In American history, the establishment of the Kingdom of God was somehow intertwined with the birth of the nation. And Christianity has developed alongside white nationalism. ‘Like the people at the Tower of Babel, American Christians have attempted to build a global monument to ourselves,’ writes Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson, in The Heart of Racial  Justice. ‘We have owned Christianity to such an extent that we cannot differentiate between what is Christian and what is culture.’

Tribal salvation

There is a kind of sickness in our Western culture with its focus on the individual, competition aHeading 3nd the motive of greed. There is much evidence that more equal societies have better social outcomes, while more unequal societies have a greater prevalence of ill health.

At its best, the church runs counter to this kind of individualism. But existing as it does in such an unhealthy cultural context, the church community too often fails to resemble a collective resilience. Too often, the Sunday gathering does not go beyond polite discussion, to realise that, ‘Yes, these people know me and if the chips were down they would be there for me’.

In richness of real collective support, an individual is able to feel needed. This is a stark contrast to journalist Sebastian Junger’s sad statement (in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging) that ‘[modern society] has perfected the art of making people feel not necessary’.

 A tribe is ‘the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with,’ says Junger. Any concept of salvation must in some way involve a welcome into a tribe that offers this kind of nurture.

A tribe of tribes

The New Testament records a church that is constantly wrestling with what it means to be Christian from multiple cultural perspectives. Peter’s vision in Acts 10, where all animals [tribes] were made clean, revealed that God’s salvation was broader than Peter could have ever imagined.

Galatians 3:28 declares, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The Bible tells us our tribe’s primary unifying value is a oneness of identity in Christ, that encompasses the diversity of multiple tribes without colonising them.

In The Salvation Army, such a tribe is surely a natural consequence of our sixth Salvation Army doctrine that ‘whosoever will may be saved’. Our inherent challenge is to embrace a vision of salvation that is unifying of tribal identities, but that does not seek to erase them. We work toward the humble, gentle, patient and loving ‘unity in diversity’ depicted in Ephesians 4:1–16. This is a mature unity where the whole Body grows together, ‘attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’.

For all are ‘one in Christ’, and yet somehow ‘people will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed, those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.’

Is this vision of a tribal, connected salvation that values and honours difference, rather than ignores or homogenises it, the salvation to which we all need to be converted?

This is an abridged version of Ian Hutson’s paper for Thought Matters 2017— for the full article, request a copy of the Thought Matters journal at

(c) 'War Cry' magazine, 8 September 2018, p20-21 - You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.