Something remarkable is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (as reported recently by Christianity Today). A civil war has been raging in this African country for decades, costing the lives of nearly 3 million people. The U.N. is introducing 3,000 members of an intervention brigade into the country. Unlike previous forces like this, these troops will be allowed to take proactive action against violent groups in the region.
Along with these high-profile moves to bring peace, something ultimately more powerful is taking place on the grassroots level. Local churches are forming peace committees designed to handle domestic disputes and small crimes so that they will not ignite larger conflicts rooted in simmering tribal and ethnic divisions.
Although this movement is originating in churches, and most people in Congo identify themselves as Christian, Muslim leaders and others participate in the peace committees. Each committee must include at least three women, in light of the impact of rape as a weapon of war here.
One of the most striking reasons for the use of churches in this peace-making role is their independence from the alliances of other groups and organizations. In addition, they possess deep roots and a long-term commitment to their communities.
This description of the churches in Congo stands in contrast to the tribalism that lies at the heart of the country’s serious problems. Tribes are simply comprised of family groupings. “Tribalism,” on the other hand, reflects the negative extreme that occurs when an identifiable group demonstrates its willingness to go to almost any length to protect and preserve its interests. The churches in Congo remain true to their roots and available to serve due to their ability to transcend tribalism. In the Bible we see God forming a tribe in the family of Abraham, but one with a unique identity in that it existed with the explicit purpose of blessing all the families of the earth.
As the New Testament makes clear, Jesus initiated, and the church is called to continue, the removal of the divisive walls of tribalism. Israel was to serve as a light to the neighboring nations, but the church exists as a light within all nations. As some have expressed it, churches are outposts of the kingdom of God wherever they find themselves. This is part of what it means to be in the world but not of the world, as modeled by Jesus himself.
Tribalism rears its ugly head many times and in many ways in the U.S. Thankfully, it does not typically provoke the same level of violence often seen in places like Congo. On the negative side, however, American churches do not readily come to mind as mediators because too often we reflect the tribalism of our culture rather than transcend it. Perhaps the remarkable role our African brothers and sisters are playing can remind us of our calling to be in the world but not of it.