Greater Than Myself

[Updated to include link to Chapter 3.]

All boys need a tribe. It’s instinctual. They need to belong to something greater than themselves.

Banding together in groups enforces social cohesion, provides structure and purpose, gives meaning, and channels surging testosterone to something constructive. The Boy Scouts and the high school football team are ad hoc tribes that, ideally, impose external discipline to develop it internally.

But group membership has other sides. It can breed intolerance and exclusivity. We’ve all seen teenage boys bully some kid who they’ve decided, for one reason or another, isn’t a genuine member of the group. Perhaps he can’t catch, or is slow, or is socially awkward, or is perceived as effeminate.

When boys become men and join groups with ideological underpinnings, things get more complicated. If the members believe their identity confers a transcendent specialness, then outsiders and nonconformists become inferior by definition. If they believe that God confers that specialness, then any challenge to it is an affront to the divine order.

After you strip all the language away, the motive for joining these groups seems to be fear. Not just physical fear, but existential fear—the fear of being alone, of not being worthy. Gangs work this way. Membership allows you to feel special in being exactly like everyone else. It’s a strange contradiction.

There’s a hermetic quality to that kind of membership. Once you enter the world of transcendent belief, the envelope seals around you. You’re not merely a contributor to a greater whole, but subordinate to it. You must accept the group’s beliefs, practices, and authority or suffer bullying yourself or, worse, be outcast.

In extreme circumstances, nonbelievers become the enemy. Hezbollah and the Taliban are examples of groups who brand nonbelievers as enemies, but we don’t have to stray so far from home to see such attitudes.

There’s a tone of resentment and belligerence in the rhetoric of many who insist that the United States is a Christian nation. That truculence encourages fringe groups like the Hutaree, the self-styled Christian militia in Michigan whose leaders were arrested earlier this year for plotting to murder policemen in the name of “re-establishing a Christian nation.” According to the Christian Science Monitor, membership in militias like the Hutaree is up threefold since 2008–the year the current economic crisis began. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. A lot of white guys are getting squeezed out of their presumed special place in American society, which is to say the top, and it upsets them. Given the trajectory of the world economy, I don’t see that getting better anytime soon.

What does this have to do with climate change?

When the ice cap goes, as it may one summer soon, and the jet stream oscillates so wildly that it disrupts seasonal weather patterns, it will be a Biblical-scale event. Once people realize that nature, the very expression of God, has been altered forever, it’ll be like something out of the Old Testament, with rending of cloth and gnashing of teeth.

One impulse will be to atone, but the other will be to blame. Surely my God, who conferred specialness upon me and whom I’ve repaid with faith,  cannot have allowed this to happen—there must be some evil element to blame. Those groups could well feel it’s their God-given mission to right such a wrong. They might respond as a power greater than themselves.

Go to Chapter 3

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