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Meaning vs. Doing

March 16, 2009

Here’s another example of why we as scholars of religion should pay close attention to what rhetoric accomplishes rather than what it means.

bacardi-select-lgI was recently in New York State, where apparently grocery stores are not allowed to sell wine or liquor. There is a movement afoot to persuade the state government to sell liquor licenses to grocery stores. That way citizens would be able to do their grocery shopping and pick up a bottle of white wine all at the same time, rather than make two stops.

I found this out when I went into a liquor store to pick up a bottle of rum. There was a giant sign in the front window encouraging patrons to protest the proposal to allow grocery stores to carry liquor. Why? Apparently because it would make liquor more available to underage drinkers; the sign additionally promised that we would see a rise in the number of alcohol related deaths. I chatted with the manager about the matter, and he reiterated the same.

Well, if we as scholars focused only on what this means, it would pretty straightforward: the extension of liquor licenses to grocery stores would result in underage drinking and alcohol related deaths.

However, if we inquired on what this sort of rhetoric does, if we asked what it accomplishes, we might find out the following: if New York State permitted grocery stores to have liquor licenses it would probably put 1,000 liquor stores out of business, practically overnight; consequently, appeals to the social dangers of the proposal would possibly keep this store manager in business.

The fact that the manager took time out of his day to chat with me about it was not innocent: he hopes to persuade me (and others) to behave in a way that keeps him in business. Undertanding the meaning of what he said to me is much less important than understanding what his claims accomplish.

apostles3tifWhat does the author of the Acts of the Apostles mean when he says that Jesus’ followers started the church? That they started the church. What does he accomplish? He accomplishes reinforcing the authority of certain sects affiliated with those apostles.

What do people mean when they say that people have free will? They mean that people have free will. What do they accomplish? I speculate that they accomplish making poor people responsible for their poverty (i.e., poor people are poor because they’re lazy).

I’m pretty much never satisfied with an explanation of what a religious claim means—I always want to insist on further investigation into what the claim accomplishes.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2009 5:54 pm

    A poor person’s poverty is not necessarily down to their free will (laziness or otherwise) it could be down to someone else’s free will.

    But that example reminds me of something. There are two basic approaches to the poor in Christianity, on one side there is the approach which almost sees the poor as a kind of sacrament, something God has given us in order that we can see them, give to them and develop ourselves through them. This approach encourages almsgiving to a great degree, approves of begging, and doesn’t take any real interest in whether the poor deserve to be given to or not. Who they are is not important, what is important is the opportunity for giving.

    The other approach sees poverty as an affront to Christian charity, and seeks to do away with poverty, this kind actually discourages almsgiving though, because it sees giving directly to the poor as a means of perpetuating poverty, it seeks social and political solutions to poverty, but at the same time it is more apt to blame the poor for their condition (when they do not respond in the right way to social programs).

    I don’t think you’d find many devoted Christians before the early modern period blaming the poor for their poverty though, because the second outlook is much more a modern thing, probably as a result of more complex social organisation making it more (apparently) realistic to think in those terms.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 12, 2009 11:01 am

    I like your twofold distinction:

    1) Poverty as a continual opportunity to exercise charity
    2) Poverty as problem to be solved and eliminated

    This seems to me to be a useful way of categorizing Christian views on the topic.

    Also, yes, I think you’re right to suggest that blaming the poor for their own poverty is a modern phenomenon. I’ve written on how the doctrine of free will is a necessary part of certain types of theodicy: God isn’t responsible for evil because we have free will and we did the evil. I argue that capitalism has its own analogous theodicy: capitalism isn’t responsible for poverty because we have free will and we make ourselves poor. But this sort of appropriation of Christian theodicy to defend capitalism couldn’t appear until well into the modern period, as you suggest. Maybe someday I’ll try to publish this argument …

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