A Healthy Form of Tribalism

Author’s Note: Due to a technical glitch (that has since been resolved by the amazing Jamie Morgan) and a packed schedule, I have been unable to complete the article that had been slated for May 2017.  As I get ready for the Morrigan’s Call Retreat 2017 in just over a week, I thought it would be appropriate to reissue this article that originally ran on Nature’s Path in July, 2016.

In this article, I discuss what the concept of “tribe” means to me, and identify what I see as the traits of a healthy Pagan tribe.  I also talk considerable about the Morrigan’s Call Retreat.  My experiences there in 2015 and 2016 inspired this piece, and I am excited to be attending for the first time as a staff member in 2017.


 

Germanic Thing (governing assembly), drawn after the depiction in a relief of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, 193 CE.

Germanic Thing (governing assembly), drawn after the depiction in a relief of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, 193 CE. (Source: Wikimedia)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “tribe” in a modern Pagan context. The impetus for this has been the presence in my life of an amazing community that I’ve been blessed to be a part of, a group of Morrígan devotees and priests that I’ve come to call “The Morrigan’s Call Tribe”. And over the last two years, this disparate group of strangers have morphed into a kind of extended family for myself and others.

Technically, we’re simply the folks who attend the Morrigu’s Daughters‘ annual “Morrigan’s Call Retreat”. Anyone is welcome to attend, and a core group of Morrigu’s Daughters members are joined by pagans from up and down the East Coast, as well as from California, Canada, and Ireland. Most attendees are either themselves devotees of the Morrígan or support those who are. There are Pagans there from a range of traditions: Druids, Devotional Polytheists, Traditional Witches, Wiccans, Celtic Reconstructionists, and Heathens. For three days in early June, we gather in central Connecticut to attend a series of workshops, rituals, and community-building activities dedicated to the Morrígna, the group of Deities that make up the complicated figure that is the Morrígan. There we eat together, learn together, and worship together. And when the weekend is over, we all go home a little closer to The Queen, to our Gods, and to each other.

In the shadow of this year’s Retreat, I’ve found myself contemplating why I would consider these folks my “tribe”, as opposed to some other flavor of community. From the questions I explored, I unearthed a definition of tribe as a healthy community that becomes a form of extended family for its’ membership. And while this definition could apply to any kind of community (believe me, I’ve seen how Penn State alumni behave), I feel that it is especially pertinent for those communities that we form within the Pagan movement. So I would like to take the opportunity to examine my personal definitions of “healthy community” and “tribe”, in the hopes that we can learn something about building lasting community.

What Makes a Healthy Community?

In my mind, there are a few factors that make a healthy community, Pagan or otherwise. Specifically, it should:

  1. Be relatively stable, both emotionally and politically.
  2. Bring together a group of people with a common set of interests.
  3. Give its’ members license to explore those interests with each other.
  4. Provide its’ members with opportunities to grow and share their common knowledge.
  5. Provide its’ members with opportunities to form bonds with other like-minded individuals.
  6. Allow its’ members to feel safe in pursuing these opportunities.
  7. Have well-defined boundaries for acceptable ideals and expression.
  8. Allow dissent within those bounds.
  9. Encourage respectful dialog among its’ membership.

Of these, the most important are that the community publicly provides an agreed-upon standard of acceptable behavior and beliefs, and that individual members should feel safe. Nobody should have to worry that they will be ostracized from the community for their self-expression and their ideas, provided that both are within the boundaries defined by the community’s ideals. I’m aware that the phrase “within the boundaries defined by the community’s ideals” may sound like a slippery slope, but I don’t agree. Whether they want to admit it or not, every community has its limits for what it considers acceptable ideals. A good example is the old misnomer that Unitarian Universalists will accept everyone, no matter what their belief. No, we do not. Someone who doesn’t believe in “the inherent worth and dignity of every individual” is going to find themselves very lonely at Sunday coffee hour.

So What Makes a Tribe?

So if that’s how I define a community, then what would turn a community into a tribe? For me, it comes down to the nature and quality of the relationship that forms amongst its’ membership. A community is a group of people that meet periodically and share common interests. A tribe looks insularly to protect, nourish and support its members. Using what I like about the extended Morrigan’s Call community as a basis, I’ve come up with six principles that I think differentiate a tribe:

  1. A tribe is first and foremost a healthy community.
  2. A tribe develops organically.
  3. A tribe supports its own.
  4. A tribe encourages its own.
  5. A tribe protects its own.
  6. A tribe forgives its own.

Principle 1: A Tribe is First and Foremost a Healthy Community

Central to this view of tribe is the idea that it is a close-knit community that supports each other. In order for this to happen, it must first be a healthy community. This means that members feel free to express themselves and form bonds with each other, and that community standards for behavior and beliefs are well documented.

Principle 2: A Tribe Develops Organically

Alternately titled, “A Tribe is Not Made, It’s Grown”. I don’t think that it is possible to engineer a tribe from the top-down, as the fabric of a tribe is the quality of the interactions among it’s members. A real, honest-to-goodness tribe can only form when all members of a community feel so bonded together and so safe within it that they start to support each other outside of the context of the community. So if you’re a group leader who hopes to someday grow a tribe, then the best thing that you can do is form as healthy a community as possible (see Principle #1).

In contrast, any attempt by a community’s leadership to “force form” a tribe through top-down methods should be taken as a red flag. The methods required to force a community to interact as an extended family would involve community leaders exerting control over the social interactions of people in the group, and may be indicative of a cult. Remember! When in doubt, consult the ABCDEF (Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame)!

Principle 3: A Tribe Supports its Own

Members of a tribe come together to support each other in times of need. Even if it’s with nothing more than heartfelt prayers and virtual Facebook hugs, one of the hallmarks of a tribe is the ability of its membership to strive to lift each other up. Even if only from afar, tribemates voluntarily share in each other’s’ daily struggles, family news, little joys and sorrows. Common tribal activities I’ve seen include prayer circles, magickal workings, political activism, and holiday card lists (yes, I have a Yule card list).

Principle 4: A Tribe Encourages its Own

If a member of the tribe is trying out a new project or life goal, others will throw encouragement their way. If somebody is posting to social media that they’ve had a crappy day, tribemates will jump in to offer condolences or try to lift the mood. For me, if I see a tribemate on Facebook feeling down on themselves, I’ll often reach back and give them a heartfelt pep speech.

Principle 5: A Tribe Protects its Own

When a someone is in trouble, their tribemates jump in to help. People who are close enough to show up in person might offer roadside assistance, provide a sober ride, or help get someone away from a bad situation. People who live at a distance might help by finding resources for things like domestic violence shelters and suicide hotlines. When someone is the most vulnerable, members of their tribe will step in to help in any way they can.

Principle 6: A Tribe Forgives its Own

This is the most difficult principle, and in my opinion is the real test of the strength of the tribe. What should happen when a member of your tribe screws up? I feel that a tribe should forgive minor or major screw-ups, to a point. As with anything of this matter, there are so many complicating factors: the nature of the incident, the way in which people were hurt, the ethos of the tribe, and its well-defined guidelines of acceptable behavior. If a tribe has a hard line on being inclusive and anti-hate, I wouldn’t expect it to forgive someone for being a neo-Nazi. But if a leader on a power trip simply causes a lot of hurt feelings, the tribe should come together and try to see if they can keep them in the fold while still allowing everyone to heal.

Building Lasting Community

So what can we learn from this in our own efforts to build lasting community? This being Nature’s Path, there will be many people reading this article who are trying to create community in their own CUUPS chapter, or who may be trying to build their CUUPS chapter into a lasting institution. CUUPS chapters have a leg up on the journey to becoming healthy community, as the UUA Principles and the CUUPS Continental Vision provide those “well defined community ideals” that I keep on bringing up. Its then up to an individual chapter’s coordinators to create a space where people can connect with one another, learn things, and feel safe while doing it.

If you want to form lasting community, make sure that your chapter has the basics down. Make sure everybody feels safe to express themselves and to disagree. Encourage respectful dialog through leading by example. Then as an individual, try to model the behaviors that turn a community into a tribe. Take a personal interest in other members. Cheer them on when they seem down. Help them out when they’re in trouble. Be a good neighbor. Be a good friend.

Be family.

About the Author

A Unitarian-Universalist since 2009, Dan McBride is a practicing Devotional Polytheist, a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, and the former Coordinating Officer of Binghamton CUUPS. His spiritual interests are in Neo-Pagan religions and Irish folklore and mythology, as well as in inter- and intra-religious dialog. Outside of the grove, he enjoys technology, hiking, camping, skiing, history, photography, and adventuring with his wife. A fifth-generation downstate New Yorker, Dan traces his roots back to the Italian region of Calabria and County Waterford in Ireland. After a decade spent living near the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers in Binghamton, NY, he has made his way to the rivers and forests of Western New England. He makes his living as a technology professional.

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