Tribes: The Black Community Can Help Heal White Police


Hyde Park, Chicago — Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, a book written by journalist Sebastian Junger, should be obligatory reading for all, especially politicians, community leaders, clergy, educators, parents and anyone who is in charge of others.

He begins by noting that for most of human history, we have lived in small communities, which he calls Tribes, 150-200 people, who depend upon one another for survival and protection. Everyone worked hard for the common interest, which promoted the welfare of its members. That is why Robert Frost could write, home is where they have to take you in. You are part of the Tribe.

To be disloyal, to cheat, to not pull one’s weight was cause for exclusion or even death. It is not so much that earlier people were more moral. They just could not get away with cheating. If a group of hunters went out and one tried to possess more of the meat than was his share, he would be punished. Everyone received an equitable share.

In contrast, Wall Street investors destroyed trillions of dollars of our economy and left millions without jobs or home, but not one of them was prosecuted. In olden times of the Tribe, they would have been driven out, lucky to escape with their lives for their selfishness. Bad actions were punished, as good acts were rewarded.

As a journalist, Junger has covered many wars and crises, noticing that during these times people pull together, citing such incidents as the Blitz in London during World War II. Instead of being selfish and looking out for their own best interest, they were willing to make sacrifices for the group. Suicide rates went down; fewer people had deep psychological problems.

Once the problem was over, however, people looked back to those “bad and hard” times with nostalgia as when something special had goon on! His conclusion: social bonds are reinforced during disasters, and people devoted themselves zealously to working for the common good.

Our modern industrial, globalized society, which began to give us many material benefits more than 200 years ago, has also cost us a high cost as we lost the need for being interdependent upon one another. He states that modern society has done a good job of making people not feel necessary. What is going on, he asks, that with the progress in medicine, science and technology, we also see a greater rise in rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety and chronic loneliness?

He claims that in wealthy countries there is a depression rate as much as eight times greater than in poor societies! It seems that financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can lead to a great risk of depression and suicide. So it is not only our environment that is in trouble, but far too many people who make up a part of it! There is far too much “every man for himself.”

Maybe that was why John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” mobilized millions of young people at the time. If the country is too big to get our fingers around today, maybe we can understand the value of a good neighborhood where everyone knows one another and looks out for each other.

One of the more notable symptoms of what is going on in an unhealthy society is the high rate of suicides of soldiers, 20 a day, according to 2014 statistics. We like to project people in uniform as the best of our society, those who put their lives on the line to protect our liberties. “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”.

As strange as it may seem, war, with all its evil consequences, has a way of arousing sentiments of courage, loyalty, and selflessness, which can intoxicate a person. Coming home they miss what they gained in the midst of danger and hardships. They realized that they were not fighting for country, but for their fellow buddies, ready to put their lives on the line. That was their Tribe.

In the same way, many Peace Corps volunteers reported suffering depression when returning home from poor countries. “Adversity often leads people to depend more on one another, and that closeness can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to.”

Rereading American history, he has found many cases where white settlers from so-called more developed societies, escaped willingly to live among Indians. They found a looser society, with very few rules making it easier to live in, especially women who enjoyed a freedom unheard of at that time. This egalitarianism appealed to their deeper nature. While there were many negative factors in indigenous cultures, no one was making those who chose this way of life to stay. As a consequence, each person was very loyal to the Tribe. Its preservation became like a sacred task.

As agriculture, then industry took over, fundamental changes happened. Accumulation of private property made people develop individualistic choices, thus diminishing group efforts toward a common goal. More and more one could live well independent of any community contribution.

It seems that we are wired to help one another. Frustration and uselessness comes when we do not feel necessary or needed; no one asks for our help. There is no way to contribute. Please stay in your corner. It is not for nothing that people who make great sacrifices or risk their lives feel that they got more than they gave. He claims that persons who do something for another — a prosocial act – are not only rewarded by group approval, but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones. Group cooperation releases Oxytocin, which generates a good-feeling. On the contrary, selfishness closes down our heart, snuffs out a spirit of generosity. There is a saying in Portuguese: He who does not live to serve, does not serve to live!

Junger holds that there are three basic things we need to be content and happy: feel competent in what we do, feel authentic in our lives, and connected to others. These are intrinsic to human happiness. Do not depend upon the size of one’s salary or earnings. There is a saying that says we need to be hugged eight times a day. Touch and closeness are clearly fundamental not only to infants, but for anyone from two to 82.

While no one is advocating returning to live in caves or log cabins, nor necessarily destroy or dissolve every multinational company, is there something we can do to recuperate that sense of community which we have lost? While protecting those individual liberties, which bring us fulfillment, can we not find ways to work together more, to share and cooperate for the common good of all? Junger closes his analysis by quoting a person who has worked with traumatized vets: “if you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different – you underscore your shared humanity.”

Have you ever noticed how young mothers with babies bond so quickly? Or two black strangers find something in common? So it is my belief that new “tribes” will build coalitions that bring peace and healing, mending those deep wounds part of our present day society.

Whether true or not, blacks, because of their tribal sense of being targeted and persecuted by a predominantly white police force (with many institutional records of racism and bigotry), will permit that their leaders — their clergy, mothers and fathers, educators, professional, sport and entertainment people — to build more harmonious bridges and inclusion between their community and law enforcement. The healing will begin with the Afro-American tribe! Progress will spring up from the bases, not come from the top down. One change at a time.

While little change may happen because of one book, Junger’s contributions need to be incorporated and addressed. As he himself says, “belonging to society requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice gives back way more than it costs”.

Father Donnell Kirchner, CSsR, received a degree in moral theology in Rome and taught for 39 years as a Redemptorist priest in Brazil, teaching at a regional pastoral institute in Manaus. He is currently working with theologians in Chicago.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2016

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