Humans, I agree, are tribal creatures. We run in packs, and form clans, tribes, states, nations, etc. I doubt we will ever overcome this drive to huddle together, nor should we. Belonging to tribe is part of what it is to be human. One of the problems with tribalism, however, is its tendency toward jingoism and exclusivity. When we begin to think that our tribe is superior to others, or that other tribes should be subsumed into our tribe, or at least subjugated to it, then community becomes a cancer in the body politic. We need a new sense of tribalism that honors diversity in a greater system of unity.
A second danger inherent in tribalism is its lack of respect for the individual qua individual. The true celebration of individuality is a creation of the Enlightenment thinkers of 18th Century Europe and America. They planted the ideas that ultimately grew into the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, two hallmarks of individual freedom that much if not most of the world has yet to embrace.
Free thinkers from Socrates to Jesus to Mary Dyer, the Quaker who was hung by her Christian neighbors for her faith on Boston Common in 1660, all face the same fate. And while I agree that both individuals and institutions go bad, it is the evil of the institution that I fear the more deeply. Hitler without the German State behind him was just another anti-Semite.
Your example of John Woolman is heartening, and there are many examples of individuals who have changed, and perhaps even revolutionized society. Think of Moses, Jesus, Marx, Freud, and Einstein, to name but five in the Jewish Pantheon of Civilization Shifters. This is why I am more apt to place my hope in individuals that institutions. But I am really interested in where you bring God into the picture.
God, to me, is the ultimate antiestablishmentarian. God is a force of creative destruction: knocking down the old and giving birth to the new. This is how I understand the death and resurrection of Jesus (as well as Osiris, Isis, Horus, Tammuz, etc.), and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem some decades later: the death of God and Temple is the death of our ideas about God that allows for the truth of God to emerge.
Religions, especially creedal and theologically driven religions, mistake ideas about God for God. They worship what they know, and what they know cannot be the true God for the true God is unknowable. God is like the horizon: we can march toward it, but we will never arrive at it. The death of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple are, mythically speaking, God’s way of pulling the theological rug out from under us, forcing us to live by faith rather than belief. You cannot create an institution around God, for as soon as you do God is reduced to “god” and you simply have another idolatry.
But when we face the unknown and unknowable God, when we move toward the horizon of justice and compassion, we are stripped of all our ideologies and “isms”; we are transformed by grace, and made merciful. I believe that mercy, along with compassion, justice, and humility, are the hallmarks of one who knows she does not know, and has learned to live in the free-fall that is true faith.
People like these, known and unknown, continually reshape our institutions in the light of mercy. It is in them that I place my hope for a better world.