Thursday, February 16, 2012

Occupy Ancient Palestine

I’m going to take another from the book “Parables as Subversive Speech”, but this one won’t be as painful as the one from a few weeks ago. It was not the analysis of the parable that was as interesting as the sociology he drew on to do the analyzing. You can google “moral entrepreneurs” and find out more about that, or just read my summary here. The parable is from Luke 18:9-14, about the toll collector. It is commonly used to contrast piety and humility and sometimes to discuss how to pray. But this book never goes with the common interpretation.

Before beginning the discussion of what he thinks the parable is about, Herzog (the author) gives his historical analysis, explaining what a toll collector was and why he thinks it is a toll collector and not a tax collector and why that is significant and what a bunch of other people have thought about it, then concludes that the parable was a riddle, even to the people who first heard it. To understand the riddle, he describes the “agonistic” society of the time. Not “agnostic”, “agonistic”, meaning one that is in flux, with competing political groups attempting to draw boundaries. Not too dissimilar from America today.

Drawing those boundaries was not done by committee or democratic vote. It was done by those with some power and authority creating boundaries and declaring that if you were outside of them, then you were a deviant. Deviance then, is a social creation. He sites Erdwin Pfuhl’s The Deviance Process (1980). I got quite a few hits for that on google too.

But you don’t really need to read social-psychology to know what he is talking about. Most of us have either experienced this or seen it in the schoolyard. A group sees someone as a threat to their boundaries, so they label them, attach a stigma. Pfuhl, Malina, Neyrey and others help to understand the details of this by giving us some vocabulary. They define the “rule creators”, the “moral entrepreneurs” who construct the norms and the “rule enforcers” who apply them to specific people. They must raise awareness through wide dissemination of the norms and gain public support. They borrow respectability through existing high profile public figures, seek testimonials and solicit endorsements.

They must also create stress in the population so others feel the threat of the deviant is real. They need to show the current rules aren’t covering theirs, that they aren’t being adequately enforced and there are inadequate means to deal with the crisis. Attention is then turned toward individuals. Deviants are identified and their lives are used as examples. If successful, the actual identity of the individual may be replaced by the deviant one in the eyes of the society.

This all sounds kinda evil, but moral entrepreneurship can be benevolent. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is a moral entrepreneur group. I’m not too bothered by their campaigns to prevent drunk driving or that stigmatize people who do it. Even though the drunk driver may be suffering from the illness known as alcoholism and should be treated with compassion, it is hard to put aside the dangerous choice they are making and give them that. And I really don’t know the scope of the problem or what the best preventative measures are, I just see those horrible pictures of cars crumpled next to the ones of the children who died that M.A.D.D. put up on the television. That’s all I need to know.

An unsuccessful moral entrepreneur, at least unsuccessful for me was George W. Bush when he said I was either with him or against him. It didn’t matter what images he put up, I knew I could be faithful to my country without spending more on consumer goods and without being suspicious of anyone who looked like they were from the Middle East. I put a peace sign on my garage and talked to people about how we should not go to war in Iraq.

Back to the parable, we have two individuals, one representing the Temple, the elite, the keeper and enforcer of the rules and one who has had to take a job that is despised by everyone, collecting tolls. They meet during the time of prayer in public. No one there cares much for the toll collector because he is poor and care even less for him because his job involves taking their money. He has little to appeal to in this situation but a higher power. The book, although often a historical analysis, is in the end a Christian book. When it says “higher power”, we know what it means. In this case, “higher power” can be redefined to mean a set of morals and standards that have been arrived at by agreement over generations and the meaning of the parable will still hold.

The Pharisee makes his appeal to anyone who is listening. He speaks loudly about how he is tithing and fasting and makes no bones about shaming the toll collector. To fulfill his role, the toll collector should have just left with his head hung low. Instead he makes his appeal to the higher power quietly with a prayer asking for mercy. This may seem like a simple act and in a more equal world it would be. But in the world of first century Palestine, it is a breakthrough, a slap in the face of the establishment, a return volley against the violence of a system that keeps people like him in poverty, doing work that perpetuates that very system.

And the final comment of the parable is about the toll collector, “…this man went down to his home justified.” 

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