Baker Academic

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Positive Examples of Collectivism? - Le Donne

One barrier that stands between our culture and that of Jesus is the difference between individualism and collectivism. In service to a recent writing project, I've been searching for examples of collectivism in ancient narratives. My hope is to illustrate the difference.

One might think of individualism as a typically western default position. In general, the countries of Western Europe and those colonized by the British have tended to privilege the rights and well-being of the individual. These cultures also tend to emphasize personal achievement even at the expense of family or group identities (+ printing press + fenced land + Magna Carta etc.). It is often argued that individualist cultures nurture a greater sense of competition. Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, emphasize family identity and group ideals, often at the expense of individual needs, desires, and achievements.* Jesus’ culture was closer to what we would call collectivism as compared to modern, western individualism.

In trying to provide examples of collectivism, I asked several friends for help. Invariably, all of the examples that came back were seemingly negative examples of collectivism.  E.g. Achan's execution, Ezra's demand for collective divorce, and the like. Not all of my advisers were American nor conservatives. They were, however, all modern westerners.  So I pose two questions: 

1) Are modern westerners simply too entrenched in individualistic ideals to understand the virtues of collectivism?

2) If the answer to number one is 'no', what are some positive examples of collectivism from ancient narratives?

-anthony

*Cultures of individualism can also value collective identity and well-being. Conversely, cultures of collectivism can also value individual desire, need, and achievement. The difference here is which concept of well-being is primary. I should also clarify that I have no intention to promote one cultural system as intrinsically better.

13 comments:

  1. would Joseph's arrangement for Egypt during the 7 years of plenty /7 years of famine count as an example of collectivism?

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  2. Anthony, the distinction you ask about here is important to understanding the ancient world, but I think in some ways the distinction is misleading. From the little I’ve read, it seems that in the ancient world, someone who successfully advanced family identity and group ideals was honored for doing so, and this honor was a personal achievement. However it is that we identify the “good” that a modern individualist seeks (whether it’s gratification, satisfaction, pleasure, self-esteem or what have you), I’d argue that the ancient collectivist achieved all of these same goods by seeking collective ends.

    I wonder whether your second question is unintentionally loaded. What do you mean by a positive example of collectivism? The Exodus? I’m no expert on narrative, but it’s in the nature of narrative to focus on the individual. If the narrative is heroic, then the central character is the hero; if the narrative is tragic, then the central character is tragic. The hero may seek collective ends – Moses seeks liberation and nationhood for the children of Israel – is this what you’re talking about?

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    1. Larry, as to your first point, I had hoped to nuance the distinction a bit with my footnote... surely, we don't want to collapse the distinction altogether.

      The Exodus is an interesting case for this. The trouble is that I'm looking an example that will allow my readers to see a group act in a way that seems alien to modern, individualistic ears so that I can illustrate the difference. Liberation, of course, is a narrative that is common to both kinds of societies... perhaps a particular episode from the Exodus would be helpful. The Golden Calf (as collective sin) comes to mind - but, of course, this just brings me back to my original problem.

      -anthony

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    2. No, surely not collapse the distinction. But I'm saying something more than what you said in your footnote. It's not just that a society can combine collectivist and individualist elements. It's that the quality of collectivism is not purely selfless, and that the quality of individualism is not purely selfish.

      I see another issue, that with narrative. If we think of story-telling, the focus is on an individual (say, the hero) and other individuals (ally, villain, henchman, etc.). That's how we tell stories. We tell the Exodus starting with a baby in a boat; we don't start the story with "Once Upon A Time, three million people packed their things and left."

      True, the collective can function as a character in the story, like a greek chorus. In the Exodus, the "children of Israel" function as a character (mostly complaining and building idols, but also accepting the Torah at Sinai with one voice -- THERE's a positive collective narrative act for you). One might argue that what makes a narrative function as narrative places limits on what the collective can positively accomplish within the story. The story of how a good person defies the common wisdom to achieve something great -- that's a good story. The story of how the collective kicked the butt of the lazy guy so that he'd get out of bed and do something -- that's not such a good story. And I'd argue that this latter story is uninteresting in a way that crosses cultural and time borders.

      One exception to the rule is tragedy. Often in tragedy, the collective acts to warn the tragic hero not to proceed into the tragic situation. That's ancient stuff too, and sometimes modern -- I'm thinking of "Citizen Kane", and all the individuals that warn Kane that he's proceeding to a bad end. Of course, the warning from the greek chorus is not perceived so positively, and it can't be, because even in a tragedy our sympathy must lie with the tragic hero. If the hero is merely doing something stupid in spite of the collective's best efforts to prevent the stupidity, we won't want to watch the story.

      I hate to make a cross-cultural claim, but I think that narratives don't work without conflict, and the natural role for the collective to play in a conflict is to oppose the will of the individual hero. In some narratives, the collective is in trouble and the hero helps the collective to achieve a positive end (think "Shane", or for that matter, many other Westerns), but in these cases the collective is positive in a passive sense, mostly to reflect the active positive good done by the hero.

      We can brainstorm about what narrative example will serve your point. What about "Romeo and Juliet"? There's a case where the collective tries to warn the young lovers to break it off. The story has been retold successfully in many different ways -- think "West Side Story" or "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner". Because the story has been told so often, perhaps it's possible to pick the story that either causes the reader to understand the collective concern, or see it as alien. But it's a timeless concern: some love matches are problematic because they defy the "collective wisdom". And in the case of any good narrative of this type, there is something to what the collective wisdom has to say. I mean, if you're a member of a gang, you maybe should think twice before dating someone from the rival gang.

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  3. Your definition of collectivism is essentially negative (Collectivist cultures... emphasize family identity and group ideals, often at the expense of individual needs...), which, I suspect, correlates to the negative responses you received (Achen, etc.). I suspect we individualists are pretty entrenched.

    Not sure it is any help, but it might be interesting to look at an ancient example of the clash between such cultures. I'm thinking of the passage in Josephus where he attacks the (for him) problem of Jewish intermarriage, for which he uses the Balaam stories (Ant. 4, 100-158; esp. 143-149). In Josephus' caricature, the Midianite women voice what amounts to Roman anti-Jewish sentiment, and Zambrias (Zimri), the spokesperson for the Israelite young men, (similarly) makes an impassioned plea for their right to radical self-determination. Josephus has Moses characterize the radical self-determination as apostasy. The point is, that from the Roman side, Jewish religious exclusivity and resulting social aloofness is totally negative, where Roman ideals of self-determination are held high.

    On the parallels between anti-Jewish Roman rhetoric and Josephus' characterization of the Balaam story, see my article, "'They Promise Them Freedom': Once again, the Ψευδοδιδάσκαλοι in 2 Peter," ZNW 99:1 (2008) 129-138.

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    1. Thanks, this is really helpful. Relatedly, Rufus says, "Therefore those who contemplate marriage ought to have regard neither for family, whether either one be of highborn parents, nor for wealthy, whether on either side there be great possessions, nor for physical traits, whether one or the other have beauty. For neither wealth nor beauty nor high birth is effective in promoting partnership of interest or sympathy, nor again are they significant for producing children” (Discourses 13b).
      -anthony

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    2. sorry-- I did not intend to post as "anonymous" (never seem to get that right)...

      Scott Caulley

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  4. Looking after the poor. Leaving part of the crop for gleaners. Returning land (in theory anyway) in the Jubilee Year. Redeeming your relative's field if he's had to sell it, or your relative if he's had to sell himself. There must be loads of examples.

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    1. Thanks. I was hoping for examples from narrative, but these are the obvious legal examples.

      -anthony

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  5. It may be worth observing that we can also observe something of a transition toward a stronger sense of individualism in, e.g., Jeremiah 31.29-30: "In those days they shall no longer say, 'The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge." A similar statement occurs in Ezek. 18.2-4. Both represent a development from/disagreement with the thought of Exod. 20.5//Deut. 5.9, which promote a more collective sense of guilt for sins.

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    1. That's interesting... hadn't considered those texts in that way.

      The example that keeps popping up for my is the conversion of Lydia in Acts... her whole family converts. No doubt, this is positive within the evangelistic framework of Acts.

      -anthony

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  6. I think the most positive examples of collectivism in ancient texts – a least NT texts – are many of Jesus’ “I am” sayings in the FG – both emphatic and predicate: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, “ego eimi!” (Jn 8:58; cf. Ex 6:2 et al); “Ego eimi the good shepherd” (10:11, 14; cf. Ps 80:1).

    “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30) is not a statement of a bounded, individualist self-identity, but a clear statement of embeddedness IN the Father.

    Likewise, Jesus’ followers are embedded in him and the Father, just as Jesus is embedded in them.

    “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9).

    “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The word that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (14:10-11).

    “Abide inme as I abide in you…I am the vine, you are the branches…” (15:5).

    Jesus praying to God: “All mine are yours, and yours mine, and I have been glorified in them!” (17:10).

    So, the collective-self identities are dyadically (word?) construed between Jesus, Jesus’ Father, and Jesus’ followers.



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  7. There's lots to be said on collectivism. My summary of it is the phrase of unbuntu - "I am because your are" (or "I am because we are"), as opposed to the individualism of descarte's cogito.

    In Deuteronomy we have Moses saying "The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day." This makes perfect sense to a culture that sees people ontologically linked with each other.

    I agree with CulturalJesus that this is what is captured in the phrase "in Him". I have had a Muslim in South Asia say to me "Because I am in him I will be saved" where the "him" in question was the prophet Muhammad. He was stunned when I told him that Christians believed something similar.

    It also links into an atonement of being in Christ, united with him in his death and resurrection, as opposed to the individualistic exchange of penal crime, penalty and payment.

    A note of caution. Malina, Neyrey and others of that school of thought use an anthropology of the 1960's. (Even worse is the "collective person" of Wheeler Robinson). To use this concept we need to look at more modern writing (e.g. Bourdieu, and Triandis).

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