Tribes & neighbors

The ancient Hebrews, ancestors of Western scriptural religions and to the secularized marketplace ethics of the modern West, maintained a two-fold moral and social code: 1) love God, and 2) love neighbor as oneself. Both parts of this code referred to exclusive cultural experiences. God was only their deity. Neighbor was a fellow tribe member. This experience was not exclusive to them but characteristic of every cultural group since — with the possible exception of their conception of God.

For the Hebrews, then, further commandments elaborated on this code. Not killing meant not killing one’s fellow tribe members. Similarly not lying to them or about them, not stealing their possessions or wives, and so forth. People beyond the tribe were subject to a different moral code, and this treatment was reciprocated. Conflict over land, water, and space inevitably demarcated neighbor from enemy. To marry within the tribe and to protect the cultural and presumed physical purity of the progeny was a primitive survival measure. Hence the fate of captive or slave women like Hagar under Abraham, and the fate of their progeny such as Ishmael versus his half-brother Isaac.

None of these facts is new in history but their impact as subconscious psychological and social practices are widely neglected in assessing the evolution of tribe and society into civilization.

Tribally-oriented societies characterized all ancient and indigenous peoples. But even modern societies retain the tension between identity and xenophobia. The cultural beliefs, behaviors, styles, and ethics of those who hold power — political, economic, cultural — are emulated by the society at large. Those within a society holding a different cultural custom are often eager to discard it and embrace the appearance of the powerful. The alternative to assimilation (status of neighbor) is to remain isolated, subject to persecution and attack. Hence, the whole of a society tends toward reasserting its primitive instincts, its unchecked sense of tribalism, even when manufactured for the modern age.

Between this reconstructed social persona and the rest of the world is recreated the ancient tribe versus everyone else. The momentum of popular societies is to remain within the orbit of its primitive and instinctive penchant for consensus and amalgamation. However complex and technological a society, especially modern societies with no conscious cultural foundation, the striving for identity always reasserts itself.

Christianity attempted to discard the tribalism of its predecessor religion in order to rationalize the universality of its theology and accommodate the teachings of its “founder.” But lacking the tribal cohesion of Judaism, the concept of “neighbor” was necessarily derived instead from the secular or pagan world around it, namely, the Greco-Roman social distinction between tribesman as citizen (a political construction) versus barbarians (a cultural and ethnic one as much as political).

To the ancient Greeks, a non-Greek speaker merely uttered sounds of “Bar! Bar!” — hence a barbarian. The Romans, wrestling with the universalism of both empire and institutional religion, assented to incorporating German tribes within its cultural center, but could not amalgamate this stronger if less “civilized” force. Hence, “neighbor” was taken in the Judaic sense for a while, then returned to the hostile military sense of enemy.

The Christian sense of “neighbor” mixes political and coreligionist, not anticipating an equal cultural force in the world. The conversion of Germanic peoples, Celts, and other peoples of Europe evolved a culture that attempted to transcend boundaries but not cultures. The checkered history of “neighbor” in the Christian sense, followed by the secularized Western sense after the Enlightenment, has never adequately transcended its Biblical origin. Unlike Judaism, Christianity was not built on a cultural neutrality but a direct inheritance of what it realized as a flawed view of ethics. Without a culture of its own, however, how could Christian society amend the flaws? Without a radical break envisioned by its historical founder, Christianity carries the millstone of its historical inheritance, undermining the universality it intended. That the West exterminated the indigenous cultures it encountered, whether in druidic Europe or in the shamanistic Americas, or through ongoing colonial wars outside of its continent can be seen as a failure to address the concept of “neighbor” in any cultural and social way different than the ancient Hebrews.

The Western view of the “neighbor” as foreign and menacing to the cohesion and identity of the predominant culture can be described as what modern psychology calls “the Other.” The Other is infinitely different in every way and threatening in that it reflects something at the same time very similar to some part of the unconscious self. The Golem and the Frankenstein monster are projections of the Other, resembling staid society men but fundamentally Other, harboring what is within but seething under bare control within.

And the Other has proven useful for the powerful classes to stir the masses to anxiety and resentment of their plight, ascribed to not their rulers but to the “Other.” What is a primitive survival and territorial instinct metamorphoses into an ideology, the only cohesion left to a dying culture already riddled with its own failing ethics. The “Good Samaritan” of the gospel is not bound by society or culture, but reacts from the heart, violating the codes of his culture by recognizing the fundamental humanity of all “neighbors.” The “Other” does not frighten him as much as does the cold indifference of the majority.

And this is how the “Good Samaritan” himself becomes the “Other.” This is how the distortions of one’s culture and society create the stranger, the alienated, the solitary within their midst. The solitary is sensitive to the contradictions and hypocrisy of the tribe, and to the universal similarities of mind and heart that transcend the baser instincts in any “neighbor.” This is the first step to an understanding of ethics, the universal ethic that one ought not to do to others what oneself would not want done to self.

But historical time cannot achieve a balance that has only existed in the hearts of some. After thousands of years, the prospect for humanity continues to fade. Yet, ironically, the potential for individual insight is as available as ever. As individuals attempt to discern how a universal ethic can be pursued, their path, however, becomes austere, uncomfortable to others, alienating. Tribal comforts are lost; the ready option to hide behind the masks of rapacious society as does everyone else is renounced on principle. The seeking of a path through a social and cultural morass is increasingly a lonely effort. The solitary is at least psychologically more disposed to being stranger in a loveless world.