It was quite an extraordinary experience for me to be in a room full of people who I read—i.e., John Barclay, Randy Richards, Jayson Georges, Gerry Breshears, Werner Mischke, Jackson Wu. If an anti-honour-shame terrorist had wanted to take out all the leaders in this field of discovery, this was the room to bomb! This was the Patronage Symposium: Exploring the Gospel in Patron-Client Contexts in Beirut, October 3-5 2018, which I was privileged to attend.
Amidst all the world-leading papers presented from a dazzling array of different perspectives, the stand-out moment for me was a panel of Lebanese leaders, Muslim and Christian, talking about how they navigate the dynamics of patron-client expectations in real life. This “view from the inside” changed the conversation irreversibly, as views from the inside invariably do.
Changed was the conversation, from black-and-white to grey, from cognitive assent to intuitive navigation, from “what” to “how,” from “is patronage good or bad?” to “patronage is a morally-neutral cultural reality, but people can be good or bad.” Proximity always begets empathy.
Cathy Hine, in her paper, defined patron-client reciprocity as an “adaptive response to inequalities inherent in a hierarchical structure.” In Serbian Pastor Vlada Stojanovic’s observation, “such reciprocal relationships are beautiful. The wisdom required to dance this dance in my culture is enriching. I do want to see hearts redeemed. I don’t want to see my culture flattened.”
What happens next? Perhaps making and strengthening interdisciplinary and intercultural relationships, the reciprocity of mutual learning and the increase of our kingdom social capital is sufficient outcome! Perhaps, to use Jackson Wu’s phrase, relational collectivism is reward enough!
Hopefully, the West came East to learn, not just to teach. Hopefully theology in the academy learned something from theology on the road. Maybe the harder sciences gleaned something from the softer. Reciprocal exchange of gifts, after all, was the theme of the week!
I believe that this robust, interdisciplinary and intercultural understanding of patronage-clientelism will find application in three directions.
- Exegetical. Biblical studies need to take account of this social reality in both NT and OT worlds.
- Missiological. Clearer understanding should lead to more thoughtful contextualisation.
- Pastoral/ Practical. Those working, ministering, living as outsiders in patronage-based societies will be better equipped for evangelism, business, church formation, relationships, and caring for the poor.