By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 23, 2009
One of the acts that tribes frequently practice is ritual scarification. Tattoos, circumcision, mutilation of the flesh. The purpose is to draw a line between who’s a member of the tribe and who isn’t. This is Us … this is Not Us.
Non-hereditary tribes–criminal organizations, elite military units, certain religious or social orders–often have initiations. The candidate undergoes an ordeal. Sometimes he’s obligated to break the law or commit some act that severs him permanently from the larger society. The initiation says, “The line has been crossed, there’s no going back.” Again the purpose is to define who is One Of Us and who is Not One Of Us. With ritual scarification, the evidence is visible and permanent. The effect of initiations is permanent but invisible.
Throughout the ceremonial year, tribes reinforce the sense of This Is Us, This Is Not Us by various holidays, festivals and rites. Often they celebrate historical moments central to the group’s identity–the Exodus from Egypt, the Marine Corps Birthday, the birth of the Holy One.
Tribes often dress distinctively. Certain garments or undergarments again say, “This Is Us … This Is Not Us.” Tribes wear their hair differently from other tribes, adorn themselves differently, speak and act differently.
This stuff is important. It’s identity. It’s belonging. It goes to the core of our being. We need it.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell a religion from a tribe. Often the manifestations of the two are so interwoven, it’s almost impossible to separate them. Is the Mahdi Army religious or tribal? A Mormon mission? The IDF?
Israel is a particularly illuminating illustration. Who is a Jew and who’s not? Defined by whom? The citizenship board at Tel Aviv? The Gestapo? What criteria are religious and what are social/ethnic/political–in other words, tribal? We could ask the same of Sunnis or Shiites or of virtually any religion. The elements are so entangled, who can pull them apart?
My own vote goes with the soul versus the flesh. If it’s about the soul, it’s religion. If it’s the flesh, it’s tribal.
Any time you have a group that can, with minimum mental alteration, set down the prayer book and pick up a rifle … that group has ceased to operate as a religion and is now operating as a tribe.