Tribal America

You all know I love New York. Some get nervous in Manhattan, but I get peaceful. I think it's the anonymity factor (you rarely run into people you know). Each time I swoop out of the offices onto 6th Avenue, I know it's a whole new crowd. The tourists mix with the business regulars like oil with water. Together, they weave in and around my two favorite human reference points — the smiling shoe shiner, whose dark pine seat sits kitty-corner to the front entrance, and the garage attendant around the corner on 48th Street, whose monosyllabic grunts are as good as any Midwestern tête-à-tête.

They call me “reverend.” I call them “sir.” And we're friends. They've become for me a common sense sounding board:

“What do you think about all the violence in Iraq?”

“Is it worth rebuilding New Orleans?”

”Are things tougher for kids today?”

“Why so?”

They are never deliberately sophisticated and always refreshingly independent. Independent or shall we say “free.” In contrast to the vast majority of those who use their services, these two men don't belong to any tribe.

Tribes are small or large groupings of people who see everything and everyone through political or ideological prisms. For tribal America, every issue breaks down along conservative or liberal divides. For lefties, Iraq will always be bad and getting worse. For righties, it is all good and getting better. Likewise, President Bush is either stupid, fundamentalist, hard-headed, and delusional or visionary, saintly, steady, and always misunderstood.

On this note, on Thursday I wrote about news reporting. I said the media has a responsibility to report both good and bad news in proper context and proportion. I chided those who would use the alleged atrocities in the town of Haditha to suggest the military's ordinary operating procedures include the random killing of unarmed civilians.

I want you to see a few of the messages I received. It's a mix of "tribal" America and downright good people with great hearts and a lot of common sense.

"May God have mercy on your soul for defending this administration! When you study and live the message of Christ, how do you come up with this BS you write?" — Elisabeth

RESPONSE: Elisabeth, I know it is frustrating to hear people defend our president's administration without daring to examine the issues. I run into people like this as well. But go back and read my blog. Did I say anything about President Bush or any member of his cabinet? Did I defend them? Those would be good topics for another day, but it wasn't the topic at hand. Be careful; the military is not an institution of the Republican Party. It is our country's first line of defense.

"Bravo, for your article entitled 'War is Messy.' I hope all the news people read it. I fear they will not. I have already read and heard some accounts where the storyteller was deliriously happy to tell about the evil U.S. and its even more evil military.

I pulled two tours in Vietnam, and what we heard from the anti-war crowd was disturbing and demoralizing.

Thanks again for your article." — Sam (Memphis, TN)

RESPONSE: Sam, thanks for your service to our country!

"Why blame journalists for reports of misbehaviour? They report what they see. Unlike the Pentagon (and some officers in the chain of command), they don't cover up misdeeds. Don't forget that the soldiers who commit these and other atrocities are at least nominally Christian.” — Richard (Port Washington, NY)

RESPONSE: Hmm, Richard, two separate issues here. First, if you go back to the blog you will see I wrote this: "The press plays an important role in Iraq. We are to commend them for uncovering criminal behaviour, even when it threatens morale. But we must also hold them to the same standard of professional ethics we require of our soldiers." Second (without making judgment about the guilt of any soldier in these particular cases), I agree with you on one thing — Christians are far from perfect, and of course, that includes me. Are non-Christians more perfect?

"Our son is a Major in the Army, and I cringe every time some negative press portrays his professionalism as less than it is. He has served in Iraq under the harshest of conditions with little thanks from anyone outside his family and friends. But he continues to serve with honor and focus on the ultimate goal: a peaceful existence for all nations. I hate war as much, or more, than most people — his dad was a victim of Vietnam — but that does not change my perspective that we must continue to hold nations and people accountable for their actions of terror against mankind. Somebody has to!" — Pamela

RESPONSE: Pamela, you can be sure there are many, many people in this country and around the world who are grateful to your son for his commitment to rebuilding structures of peace and security in the dangerous land of Iraq. I will pray for him today.

"As an army spouse, all I can say is AMEN! I only hope you are right and the American public will be able to tell the difference between bad news and bad reporting. The media hasn't got it right yet. May God continue to bless you and your work. — Gerilynne

RESPONSE: Gerilyne, I hope so too, but the media is powerful. It changes the way we think and even what we value. I believe we all have a responsibility to study the world in which we live and speak up for the truth we find.

”Where's the condemnation of this illegal and immoral war? You're a pathetic excuse of clergy; making excuses for murder and other crimes. Your soul is filthy and you will forever feel the wrath.” — Peter

RESPONSE: Peter, thanks for your message. You obviously have strong feelings about the Iraq war. I can understand that. But this blog entry was not about the legality or morality of the war. Those would be good topics for other days. It was a reminder to journalists to put the alleged "deplorable acts of a few" — as I wrote — in context and proportion. Hope that helps.

"I am not a Catholic and have, for a very long time, been suspicious of the Catholic church. I am, however, a committed believer in Christ. Among other things, I am a retired Marine Corps officer with a couple of combat tours. Your comments today about the events in Haditha contained profound wisdom.

Like anyone who has experienced this kind of combat, self-doubt, and regret rise occasionally to remind me that I'm both flawed and deeply blessed. I felt compelled to distribute your words to everyone in my address book. Some of them will not understand; some of them will.

These words have given me a new perspective on the Catholic church, and more importantly, they have given me a different perspective on myself and on the parts of my past that I try not to think about. No man is ever proud of his combat experience, but thanks to you, Father, I am now closer to living with it in peace. God bless you.” — Capt. Raymond (USMC ret.)

RESPONSE: Captain, what a beautiful soul you have! I didn't mean to defend the soldiers or the Catholic church. I was just trying to make sense of the news. I can see the only prism you see through is the prism of love and forgiveness. Thank you for your words.

There are so many other fascinating messages I could share with you, but you probably have to get back to work, and so do I.

Thanks for your understanding as I start this new summer schedule of Monday and Thursday entries. I'll keep you abreast of how the book (and the second book…a secret) is coming.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. All of us have a little tribal attitude in us. It is a result of being human and wanting to defend at all cost what we hold dear. One way to overcome this is to oblige ourselves to examine causes and consequences of what happens around us and being willing to change our opinion even at the cost of embarrassment.

This article is part of a regular blog hosted by Father Jonathan Morris on You can invite new readers by forwarding this URL address:

Write to Father Jonathan at