About two weeks into the COVID-19 quarantine, just when my wife and I were about to strangle each other out of sheer boredom, we were saved by the CBS show, Survivor. Allie discovered this vast archive of entertainment streaming on Hulu—more than 600 hours of reality television from 40 full seasons of the show– and it has been a godsend. For months now, she and I have been settling down in the evenings to watch other people try to live together while competing for survival.
The Struggle For Survival
If you have ever watched the show, you know that every season starts in the same way. Eighteen Americans are dropped onto a deserted island with only a few rudimentary tools and a couple bags of rice. They are immediately divided into two or three tribes, and in the days that follow, these tribes are pitted against each other in a series of contests.
After each contest, the losing tribe must vote one of its members off the island. When the total number of players has dwindled to around a dozen, the tribes are merged. The contests continue, but now only the individual winners of each contest are safe from elimination. On the 39th day of the game, the nine most recently ejected players serve as a jury to determine which of the two or three remaining players has earned the title of Sole Survivor and deserves the million-dollar prize.
The game is physically and emotionally exhausting. Deprived of their regular diet, most contestants lose weight at an alarming rate. Huddled in makeshift shelters, deprived of sleep and worn down by relentless competition and their endless search for food and firewood, some players lose their mental equilibrium. Disputes arise. Tempers flare. As alliances form and collapse under the constant strain of rumor and betrayal, even highly principled players find themselves thinking and acting in primitive ways.
Reverting To Tribal Thinking
Watching the show, I have been fascinated by the behavior patterns that invariably emerge. Regardless of their age, race, occupation, social class or gender, players in this competitive environment tend to behave in predictable ways. Season after season, I am amazed by how quickly they revert to tribal thinking.
The players are divided into tribes in the opening minutes of the game. These assignments are both arbitrary and temporary—random “tribe swaps” can happen at any point—but even when the initial tribes have been disbanded, and the remaining players have been told that “you are now all one tribe,” tribal identity survives. Players instinctively distrust anyone who began the game on another tribe, and each tribe does its best to dominate and eliminate the others.
Tribal solidarity is unsustainable in the long run, of course, since only one person can win the game. Inevitably, players whose status in their own tribe is slipping will find it necessary to reach across tribal lines in an attempt to form a new alliance – if only a temporary one. These exploratory conversations are fraught with peril, however. A friendly conversation with a member of another tribe can get you branded a traitor. And the riskiest move of all is to actually vote with another tribe. That is called “flipping,” and conventional wisdom among aficionados of the game is that “flippers never win.”
Am I Playing Survivor?
Even though I will never compete on Survivor, I feel a certain kinship with the players. After all, I was born into a tribe.
For better or worse, I arrived on this planet as a white male in America, a member of the Baby Boomer generation, born into a deeply religious family in a sect of the evangelical church. I am proud of my tribe. My tribe-mates are good people. As a child, I naturally believed that my tribe was the very best, the most honorable, the most righteous, the most right. Almost instinctively, I developed an attitude that boys are better than girls, that whites are superior to others, that America is the greatest nation on earth, and that our church was the only one that got Christianity right.
Later, however, as I ventured into the wider world and began interacting with the members of other tribes, I began to question those assumptions. Today I am coming to understand that the Christian faith is actually at odds with tribal thinking.
Jesus, after all, was born into a very exclusive tribe with strict taboos, but he consistently disregarded tribal rules. Although he was a respected Jewish teacher, a traveling rabbi, he refused to restrict his social contacts to those approved by his tribe. Jesus openly associated with outcasts and foreigners of every description, a policy for which he was heavily criticized. In a society that regarded women as second-class, he spoke with women as fellow humans and counted several of them among his closest friends. In a culture that was politically polarized, he interacted respectfully with Romans, Roman collaborators, Zealots, and Samaritans.
Jesus was not afraid to critique the customs or question the leaders of his own tribe. Pointedly ignoring the prohibitions of caste and political ideology, he molded a very diverse collection of misfit disciples into a cohesive unit, commanding them above all else to “love one another.”
In today’s atmosphere of division and suspicion, it is easy for Christians like me to slip into tribal thinking
In today’s atmosphere of division and suspicion, it is easy for Christians like me to slip into tribal thinking, despite our Bible’s insistence that we are all one tribe. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “There is no more Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”
I do not need to revert to tribal thinking because I am not playing Survivor. I am safe. I have a Savior. I belong to a very large human family, whose members I am called to value, love, and serve.