Sunday, 11 May 2008

not from round here

We’ve seen it satirised in Hot Fuzz, where the local community dresses up like the Gloucester Klan and does away with any unruly or interfering blemishes to their village. But the satire has more than a grain of truth to it:

The freedom of country life is an illusion of the city dweller. It is real to him only as long as he doesn’t belong to the village community. That community demands strict adherence to its laws and customs. (1)

Kill a child before you kill adat (tradition) (2)

The coercive power of local community sentiment is remarkable. Jesus’ parable on the “friend” at midnight, as recorded in Luke 11 relies upon this. I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his αναιδεια he will rise and give him whatever he needs (verse 8, ESV). Ken Bailey argues that αναιδεια needs to be translated ‘avoidance of shame’ – the neighbour does not want to be known as tight-fisted and since the local community can all hear the guy shouting up to him in the middle of the night he will certainly come and give him what he needs. (3) Ostracism by the local community that would be consequent on such shame, and would increase shame, is not something to be desired!

The purpose of that parable is to point out by contrast the tremendous generosity of God, unconditioned by such local community coercive sentiment, who delights to hear his people’s prayers and answer them. Nonetheless it wholly relies upon the prevalence of that sentiment and to a certain extent relies upon our approval of the coercive function.

This kind of local community traditionalism, enforced with ostracism and even violence is not part of the mindset of the urban Westerner but it is a reality across much of the world. It would be all too easy to point to Muslim communities as exemplary in this case. Even though they do display much of this conservatism and bring it to bear on religious questions (what an affront to the privatised religion of the Rationalist Secular West when it bothers to think about such subjects!) as well as ‘cultural’ or ‘social’ ones (having correctly recognised that such distinctions are fairly artificial) they are not alone in that. Prakke finds remarkable examples in the rural Netherlands persisting into the early 20th century – shopkeepers driven out of business, people carried bodily out of the local area, individuals completely shunned for not keeping local traditions or for leaving the ‘parish’ church in order to join a seccessionist church or house church. This was one of the reasons for the emmigration of hundreds of people from Drenthe to Michigan in the mid 19th century. (4) This was happening in a majority Christian country whose legal system was shaped by the Christian faith and was taking place largely among professing Christians. Perhaps that explains why there are not records of people being killed for shaming the community or for forsaking their religion, things which do still happen in Muslim communities from Africa to the Philippines (including Britain) today…

But pointing the finger is not a simple matter. There are social mechanisms for restraining behaviours in almost every group one can think of, even the unselfconscious evangelical churches of the UK… ;-) There is much to think about here concerning degree, legitimacy, agency and several other –cy words, I don’t doubt.

(1) P. W. J. van den Berg, Het Karakter der Plattelanssamenleving, p.74, quoted in H. J. Prakke, Drenthe in Michigan (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983 [Dutch 1st edn 1948]), p.62.
(2) Malay proverb
(3) Bailey, Poet and Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Appraoch to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp.119-133.
(4) Prakke, Drenthe, pp.62-65