On Tribes and Holy Thieves 

“If, in trying to do the will of God, we always seek the highest abstract standard of perfection, we show that there is still much we need to learn about the will of God. For God does not demand that every man attain to what is theoretically highest and best. It is better to be a good street sweeper than a bad writer, better to be a good bartender than a bad doctor, and the repentant thief who died with Jesus on Calvary was far more perfect than the holy ones who had Him nailed to the cross (…) The dying thief had, perhaps, disobeyed the will of God in many things: but in the most important event of his life he listened and obeyed. The Pharisees had kept the law to the letter and had spent their lives in pursuit of a most scrupulous perfection. But they were so intent upon perfection as an abstraction that when God manifested His will and His perfection in a concrete and definite way they had no choice but to reject it.”

Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (Italics mine)

It is never too late to hear God. 

As long as we still draw breath, though they may be among our last, we still have the capacity to change our relation to God (which is repentance) and honor God by honoring Christ. 

God does not give us credit for doing what we deem to be good. Religious adherence in its most highly esteemed outward forms is pure vanity, unless we ourselves hear God’s voice lead us onto such a path. 

I was up late last night, mulling over my last post. Asking God to help me understand the root of my own resistance to His will for me. 

You see, I love God (however imperfectly). And, because of His Grace and Mercy, I hear Him quite clearly on occasion. 

The fact that I still struggle to intellectually assent to the will of the One I love points to something sinister still hidden from my view. 

Twice now, I have been told by new acquaintances (both later developing into deep kinships) that they didn’t expect me to be, well, me. After spending more time with each other, they admitted that my being a self-professed Christian, and a homeschooling Mom, they expected someone quite different. 

I can’t blame them. I know the stereotype, and I know it well. I’m a second generation homeschooler, from a long line of religiously devout women. I know full well the pressures to conform to those kind of sub-cultures. 

Because of this, or maybe inspite of it, I am still me. Familiarity with  the anxiety, and the compulsion to control others, that comes along with striving to conform to such high-pressured, pseudo-spiritual standards– led to my rejection of all of it. Long before becoming a homeschooling mother myself. 

Yes, before my firstborn came into the world, I had already rejected the idea of becoming a “Christian homeschooling mother”.

And then, once called into that life, I tried to reject it all over again in order to find a new, more ‘socially honorable’ identity in a less conservative church culture (and, if you’ve followed my blog for long, you know how well that played out for me…)

God tells me, stop trying to find who you are outside of yourself

And I say, but…but… if I can’t find my tribe, I do not have an identity! 

This. That I can believe that I am merely what I do, or am the human groups I relate with, is where I still get spiritually stuck. 

Human beings in groups feel the need to exert pressure towards outward conformity, because we believe it provides security. Security from what, I am not sure. The fear of nonentity? Maybe. As the temptation to pledge our allegiance to a group (no matter how godly or ungodly it purports to be) promises to secure our identity as long as we toe the line drawn by our tribe. 

And that goes for any and ALL tribes.

Be it the likes of holier-than-thou Pharisees or crucified thieves. 

How can God’s still small voice compete with the totalitarian dictates of human tribes?!

It can’t. 

The Gospel account of the two thieves crucified with Jesus can teach us everything we need to know about true holiness, and how it stands in opposition to tribal mentalities. Ever hear the saying “thick as thieves”? You better believe it! Many criminal sub-cultures (think of the organizational structure of modern-day gangs, or the Mafia) demand the same tribal allegiance as religious sects, or even military forces. 

Which is why Luke 23:35-43 will forever remain a relevant commentary on the tribal aspect of fallen humanity. 

On the scene, identified as distinct and separate from “the people” standing by in verse 35, we have three human tribes at the cross of Jesus: “the leaders”, “the soldiers”, and “the criminals”:

And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 
Luke 23:35-39 (NRSV)

What a travesty, right? Not only is Jesus being unjustly crucified, He is being scoffed at –ridicule coming at Him from every direction!

Save one:

But the other (criminal) rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:40-43 (NRSV)

The only person present that dares to stand against prevailing human sentiment– even that of his own comrade–is a condemned criminal. At his own crucifixion, one admittedly deserved, this thief refuses to allow one of his own to dishonor Christ. 

Say what you will about being a condemned criminal… Aren’t we all, in a sense, condemned men apart from Christ?

No tribe can save you. No amount of fasting, head-covering, or study of Scripture can save you, if it is done merely in accordance to the dictates of your own tribe. 

On the other hand, no amount of thievery, illicit sex, hedonism or debauchery can rob you of the ever-extended Grace of God. 

No matter how holy you try to appear, or how ungodly you’ve chosen to live your life, we ALL belong to the tribe of fallen humanity. 

You are my tribe– whoever you are. Whatever it is that you believe. Whatever you wear or don’twear, or read or don’t read. And, this is only possible, because Christ desires to make all of humanity His own.

So, what is my personal issue then?

It’s the same issue that everyone making their way along that narrow path encounters: 

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, the things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

1 Corinthians 1:27-29 (NRSV)

It’s painful to have all that you once thought you were be revealed to be nothing in light of Christ. All of your wisdom revealed to be foolishness. All of your great social connections to be revealed to be worthless. All of your material wealth to be revealed to be vanity. All of your own righteousness to be revealed to be filthy rags.

Damn. It was painful to write that last paragraph.

In fighting to remain “something” in my own eyes, I revert to the comfort of the human tribe. Only to realize, there is no going back without denying the One I love.

I’ve reached the point of no-return. My soul knows too much, loves too much… because He already has wrested my heart and my will from futility. 

Only my serpentine intellect can thwart Him now. 

Oh to cast it down from that delectable tree, where it can writhe away, forever defeated!

I’ve made up my mind (again)– better to stand with a crucified God, than to stand against Him in the comfort of a tribal identity…

…even if it means I appear to be standing alone, and enduring the same ridicule.

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6 thoughts on “On Tribes and Holy Thieves 

  1. Hi Kirsten.
    I loved this post but felt the weight of the words you spoke. I rely on my works more times than I would like to but to God the best of me is still sin! Thanks for this reminder!
    I loved the quote you shared from Thomas Merton. Could I please use it?

    Rolain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely!
      I’m a big Merton fan… but “No Man Is An Island” (where I pulled this quote from) is his best work IMHO. The book was originally dedicated to the scholastics studying for the priesthood at the Abbey of Gethsemeni. It is very deep… I’ve read it many many times, and still glean wisdom from between its pages:)

      Liked by 1 person

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