“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on November 6, 2016
At the First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“My friend Ellis was once asked by a troubled young boy
whether there was any compelling reason for him not to
pull the legs off a spider. Ellis said that there was.
‘Well, spiders don’t feel any pain,’ the boy retorted.
‘It’s not the spider I’m worried about,’ Ellis said.”
– from “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,”
by Sebastian Junger
This week, especially…
“I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”
— from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
(Introduction to Tribe)
In the fall of 1986, just out of college, I set out to hitchhike across the northwestern part of the United States. I’d hardly ever been west of the Hudson River, and in my mind what waited for me out in Dakota and Wyoming and Montana was not only the real America but the real me as well. I’d grown up in a Boston suburb where people’s homes were set behind deep hedges or protected by huge yards and neighbors hardly knew each other. And they didn’t need to: nothing ever happened in my town that required anything close to a collective effort. Anything bad that happened was taken care of by the police or the fire department, or at the very least the town maintenance crews. (I worked for them one summer. I remember shoveling a little too hard one day and the foreman telling me to slow down because, as he said, “Some of us have to get through a lifetime of this.”)
The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping – somewhat irresponsibly – for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe. What I wanted wasn’t destruction and mayhem but the opposite: solidarity. I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers, but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous really ever happened. Surely this was new in the human experience, I though. How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage”
Those kinds of tests clearly weren’t going to happen in my hometown, but putting myself in a situation where I had very little control – like hitchhiking across the country – seemed like a decent substitute. That’s how I wound up outside Gillette, Wyoming, one morning in late October 1986, with my pack leaned against the guardrail and an interstate map in my back pocket. Semis rattled over the bridge spacers and hurtled on toward the Rockies a hundred miles away. Pickup trucks passed with men in them who turned to stare as they went by. A few unrolled their window and threw beer bottles at me that exploded harmlessly against the asphalt.
In my pack I had a tent and sleeping bag, a set of aluminum cookpots, and a Swedish-made camping stove that ran on gasoline and had to be pressurized with a thumb pump. That and a week’s worth of food was all I had with me outside Gillette, Wyoming, that morning, when I saw a man walking toward me up the on-ramp from town.
From a distance I could see that he wore a quilted old canvas union suit and carried a black lunch box. I took my hands out of my pockets and turned to face him. He walked up and stood there studying me. His hair was wild and matted and his union suit was shiny with filth and grease at the thighs. He didn’t look unkindly but I was young and alone and I watched him like a hawk. He asked me where I was headed.
“California,” I said. He nodded.
“How much food do you got?” he asked.
I thought about this. I had plenty of food – along with all the rest of my gear – and he obviously didn’t have much. I’d give food to anyone who said he was hungry, but I didn’t want to get robbed, and that’s what seemed was about to happen.
“Oh, I just got a little cheese,” I lied. I stood there, ready, but he just shook his head.
“You can’t get to California on just a little cheese,” he said. “You need more than that.”
The man said that he lived in a broken-down car and that every morning he walked three mile to a coal mine outside of town to see if they needed fill-in work. Some days they did, some days they didn’t, and this was one of the days that they didn’t. “So I won’t be needing this,” he said, opening his black lunch box. “I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
The lunch box contained a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. The food had probably come from a local church. I had no choice but to take it. I thanked him and put the food in my pack for later and wished him luck. Then he turned and made his way back down the on-ramp toward Gillette.
I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life. He’d been generous yes, but lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he’d taken responsibility for me. He’d spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay. Robert Frost wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. For reasons I’ll never know, the man in Gillette decided to treat me like a member of his tribe.
This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why-for may people – war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.
It’s time for that to end.
Last week, observing the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which commenced on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses into the Wittenberg door, I repeated historians’ common assumption that the new epoch called the Reformation was triggered by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (though one of you quickly corrected me that Gutenberg did not exactly invent the printing press, but instead he invented moveable type. I stand corrected!).
The free flow of these moveable-type ideas fueled the Reformation and the fragmentation of Christendom, and I noted that the doubting, questioning, anti-authoritarian and individualistic nature of Unitarian Universalism flows out of that branch known as the Radical Reformation.
I concluded that sermon by noting the growing assumption that with the advent of the Internet, we too stand at the threshold of a new epoch, here and now. We are, I said, “witnesses to the fragmentation, the segmentation, the devolution, the atomization, the pixilation, the bits-and-bytes-ization, the disruption of everything. Some might even suggest,” I concluded, “that the inmates are now running the asylum. Thus no longer are we mere witnesses, we indeed are participants in the innovation of everything. Our hands are now upon the hammers that will build or destroy.”
The author Sebastian Junger has written a cogent short book that speaks to the breakdown of many norms of American community and the absence of what he calls “shared public meaning.” Junger was embedded as a war reporter with an Army unit in Afghanistan. Junger sees returning veterans as extremely vulnerable to the insanity of our American asylum. Veterans, however, are not the victims for what is wrong is wrong not with them or even with their horrific experience. What is wrong is wrong with us, the community to which these veterans return.
This morning I’ll summarize some of Junger’s observations, but I do so to frame and prepare for several events of the coming Veterans Day weekend which First Parish and the Bedford VA Hospital are co-sponsoring.
This coming holiday Friday at noon in Veterans Memorial Park, I plan to attend the official town-sponsored Veterans Day observance.
Then, on Saturday morning at 10am, we have rented the Lexington Venue theatre for a special open-to-the-public showing of Restrepo, an unnarrated documentary about the war in Afghanistan, produced by Junger and his best friend Tim Hetherington who later was killed while covering the war in Libya.
Rather than thank veterans for their service or give them tokens like priority seating on airplanes or recognition at sporting events, Junger says that what we most owe our veterans – and what does them and us the most good – is… however hard it may be…to listen to them and to honor the truth of their diverse experiences. For those who can make it, we owe it to veterans to watch Restrepo.
(Reservations are not necessary, but it helps to know how many are coming. You can sign-up on-line at the First Parish website, call the church, or put your name on this piece of paper which I’ll leave on the pulpit.)
Then, next Sunday morning at 10, our time together will be given to our parishioners and Gold Star parents, Alma and Brian Hart, parents of John Hart who was killed in Iraq in 2003 while serving with the same unit that Junger would later join in Afghanistan. With us next Sunday morning as well will be Melida and Carlos Arredondo. Besides being Gold Star parents of their son Alex, killed in Iraq in 2004, the Arredondo’s second son, Brian, committed suicide in 2011 after his brother was killed. There is a known correlation between military deaths and suicidality, especially of male siblings.
Carlos is also the iconic “man in the cowboy hat,” a first-responder to the Boston Marathon bombings. Together the Hart and Arredondo families have a message of mental health care, suicide prevention, community-building and peacemaking. Again, what we owe these families is to honor their experience not with sympathy but by listening as they speak their truth.
And then, knowing that you have time on your hands, at 2pm next Sunday, Sebastian Junger will be with us to enlarge on the observations he puts forth in Tribe. Please do invite your friends to all these events.
At all of the weekend’s free will donation events we nonetheless plan to raise funds for the Arredondo Family Foundation which works to prevent military-related suicides and meet unmet needs of veterans and their families. Our Board has voted to give all of next Sunday’s loose offering to the Foundation. I am making a personal contribution of $500 and I encourage you to bring your checkbooks.
As a community significantly affected by the presence of Hanscom and the VA Hospital, Bedford has an obligation and an opportunity to be in right relations with the military and with our veterans. Those of us who, like me, are not veterans, have a special obligation. We are learning how to do this.
This morning, I will lay out Junger’s observations and read even extensively from Tribe (but not enough that you shouldn’t buy a copy for yourselves), but again I connect it to the Reformation. Not only did the Reformation fuel anti-authoritarian individualism which we do cherish but it has also contributed to a demonic dog-eat-dog everybody-out-for-themselves breakdown of community.
Besides the free flow of ideas, another well-documented consequence of the Reformation is the free flow of capital and the rise of capitalism. Trumpism, in my view, is the shocking but perhaps inevitable consequence of capitalism gone wild, the chasm between elites and a permanent underclass. Unfettered, unregulated, and unchecked by community and shared social meaning, we today are witnessing the germination of dragon seeds, poisonous fruit that have lain gestating for centuries. People seem entitled not just to their own opinions but to their own facts!
Junger’s title, Tribe, refers to the tribes of American Indians. Life in the tribes was hard, the amenities were few, enemies were everywhere, the consequences of being cowardly in battle or being traitorous to the tribe were swift and cruel and deadly.
And yet time after time a “surprising number of Americans…wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. (These American colonists) emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and…fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal.”
Whites were sometimes kidnapped by the tribes but often they refused to return to so-called civilization. Many whites ran off to join the Indians. We didn’t learn this in school!
Junger cites many examples and many reasons. Hunting was more interesting and varied than plowing. Sexual mores among the Indians were more relaxed than in the colonies. Their clothing was more comfortable, the religion less harsh, women were more autonomous, and, fundamentally, social relations were more egalitarian. Loyalty and courage were foremost values. Everybody was in it together.
Suicide was almost unknown in Indian society. (Did you notice in the news last week that suicide is now the leading cause of death for adolescents, now surpassing traffic deaths?)
While Indians were fighting with spears and tomahawks, white society was building factories, growing slums, and enslaving people of color.
And, if we fast-forward to today, we know what happened to the Indian tribes and what has happened to our tribe, the American tribe? Our tribe has shrunk and it may consist only of parents and children, maybe grandparents. A faith community, if you’re lucky. We simply don’t care for one another the way we used to.
What’s missing is shared social meaning. Writing of his youth in Belmont, Junger said, “…Nothing ever happened in my town that required anything close to a collective effort.” Those words should reverberate in our ears!
The group in American society today that does have shared social meaning, however, is our active duty military. There are life-and-death consequences to military service. There is purpose. There is excitement and risk. There’s absolute reliance on one’s band of brothers. People work, play, eat, bleed, sleep, and shit together. Loyalty and courage are rewarded. Traitors and cowards are punished.
Junger takes note of the famous example of Beau Bergdahl, the young soldier who abandoned his outpost in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The massive search for him placed thousands of soldiers at risk and may have caused the deaths of six soldiers. So great was the feeling of betrayal that many of his fellow soldiers wanted him charged with treason and, indeed, he still faces charges that could carry the penalty of death. Junger calls the Bergdahl case a perfect example of the “kind of tribal ethos that every group – or country – deploys in order to remain unified and committed to itself.”
But then Junger goes on to say that the harm done by Bergdahl pales compared to the harm done to our country by the financial collapse of 2008 when bankers and traders gambled trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on blatantly fraudulent mortgages. Nine million people lost their jobs. Five million lost their homes. Unemployment doubled to 10%. Suicides increased by 5%. Not one high-level CEO was charged, let alone convicted. If there were a true tribal ethic in this country, their betrayal of the American people would carry at least the outrage and penalty leveled at Bergdahl.
“War Makes You an Animal” is the title of one of Tribe’s chapters where he notes not only our need to live more in harmony with our human essence but to rise to acts of selflessness that distinguish us from other mammals. Men are particularly capable of physical risk-taking and derring-do. Women, he says, tend to be more capable of moral courage.
“In late 2015, a bus in eastern Kenya was stopped by gunmen from an extremist group named Al-Shabab that make a practice of massacring Christians as part of a terrorism campaign against the Western-aligned Kenyan government. The gunmen demanded that Muslim and Christian passengers separate themselves into two groups so that the Christians could be killed, but the Muslims – most of whom were women – refused to do it. They told the gunmen that they would all die together if necessary, but that the Christians would not be singled out for execution. The Shabab eventually let everyone go.”
Junger cites example after example of people living amidst the worst of circumstances who not only survived but thrived – not despite their adversity but because of their adversity. The London Blitz united the population: mental health improved, even epileptic seizures diminished. Even for the Germans subjected to worse bombing by the Allies – they stiffened their resistance and German industrial production actually rose during the war.
Junger tells the story of a young girl in Bosnia who lived a kind of communal life during the war in the early 90s. “Everyone slept on mattresses on the floor together,” she said, “and ate their meals together and fell in and out of love together and played music and talked about literature and joked about the war. ‘The boys were like our brothers,’ she said. “It’s not like we girls were waiting for them and crying…no, we had a party. To be honest, it was a kind of liberation. The love that we shared was enormous….We didn’t believe in heroes. We were punk rockers. Our biggest hero was David Bowie.”
This girl’s parents managed to evacuate her to Italy but she worried that, if everyone were killed, she’d be left alone in the world. And so she managed to sneak back into Sarajevo. “I missed being that close to people. I missed being loved in that way. In Bosnia – as it is now – we don’t trust each other anymore; we became really bad people. We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with human beings close to you. The best way to explain it is that war makes you an animal. We were animals. It’s insane – but that’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.
Junger asked her if people had been happier during the war. “We were the happiest,” she said. “And we laughed more.”
Junger says, “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieve of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger – or even to give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for – and for whom – is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.”
And Junger concludes:
“Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of trying deliberately to harm their own country – a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.”
“I know what coming back to America from war is like,” Junger says…. “First there is a kind of shock at the level of comfort and affluence that we enjoy, but that is followed by the dismal realization that we live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about – depending on their views – the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime…. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker…. Contempt is often used by governments to provide rhetorical cover for torture or abuse. Contempt is one of (the) behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.”
Junger contends that short-term PTSD is a normal and, indeed, healthy response to trauma. Long-term chronic PTSD is the result of a society’s failure to reintegrate veterans who have experienced trauma. Long-term chronic PTSD is a pathology of the community. To heal the community means not treating veterans as victims. Rather than life-long victimizing disability payments, veterans need good jobs. They need to live in a more egalitarian society. Most of all, veterans need to feel that they are as needed and as essential to the success of a peacetime mission as ever they were valued in war. Truly, all of us need to feel part of a collective effort for purposes greater than ourselves. We need to feel like we belong.
Whatever the result of this week’s election, I think we know what we have to do. We have to restore the sense of an American tribe. Often we do this at First Parish and we can enlarge upon it. We’re learning. No matter what, I remain hopeful because I think we know what we have to do.
I conclude with the blunt words of the great Catholic Dorothy Day:
“No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”
While I was researching this book, I read an illuminating work by the anthropologist Christopher Boehm called Moral Origins. On page 219, he cites another anthropologist, Eleanor Leacock, who had spent a lot of time with the Cree Indians of northern Canada. Leacock relates a story about how she went on a hunting trip with a Cree named Thomas. Deep in the bush they encountered two men, strangers, who had run out of food and were extremely hungry. Thomas gave them all his flour and lard, despite the fact that he would have to cut his own trip short as a result. Leacock probed Thomas as to why he did this, and he finally lost patience with her.
“Suppose, now, not to give them flour, lard,” he explained. “Just dead inside’
There, finally, was my answer for why the homeless guy outside Gillette gave me his lunch thirty years ago: just dead inside. It was the one thing that, poor as he was, he absolutely refused to be.