Abstract: Debtera are Ethiopian Orthodox ritual specialists known for their advanced religious education, as well as for engaging in illicit magic. This article traces how their secret magical knowledge and practices emerge from the official Orthodox tradition. Yet, while drawing on this tradition, the debtera’s ritual repertoire also transgresses some of its central proscriptions. Transgression, in this context, does not abolish the boundaries it violates, but reinstates their legitimacy. This dynamic prompts debtera to engage in imaginative ethical reassessments of the unstable relationship between illicit knowledge and official tenets. Through their transgressive performances, debtera enable their clients to secretly address and actualise sinful desires that otherwise remain unacknowledged or are suppressed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. By examining this ritual management of covert desires, I conclude that the study of debtera’s secrecy illuminates fundamental complexities and contradictions in Ethiopian Orthodox sociality which operate beneath the surface of public moral discourse.
Abstract: With Pentecostalism frequently analysed as gaining traction in contexts of globalised individualisation and neoliberally-induced insecurity, scholars have paid less attention to the social purchase of the religion among the peasantry. This article draws on fieldwork in rural Nicaragua to argue that the distinctive relational form of campesinos – namely the rural household – should be central to the analysis of Pentecostal appeal. I argue that the Pentecostal demand to eliminate vicio (vice) – bound up with a dualistic conception of a world driven by either divine or malevolent power – speaks closely to an everyday project of domesticity which deals with the erratic forces associated with male and female bodies, and which revolves around problems of incorporation. Identifying male unreliability as vicio allows Pentecostal ritual, and the spiritual power afforded by faith, to address a domestic imperative focused upon containing inherently excessive vital force.
Abstract: Gender is central to most religious orders. In turn, religions have a significant impact on gendered relations. The study of gender and religion stems from a broader interest in feminist anthropology, and multiple approaches to the study of gender and religion have been developed. An early approach explores the ways that religious practice influences male and female behavior. Studies in this vein explore changing gender norms attending conversion to new religions, or the ways that women’s and men’s roles are constrained and shaped by religious practice. More-recent work analyzes the ways that gender itself structures religious and spiritual ethics and practice. While patriarchal relations are central to many global religions, this is not a universal principle. Some religious orders emphasize cooperation and respect for women over hierarchy. Others may prioritize male leadership but indirectly provide women with types of ethical identities and spiritual positions that create spaces for women to practice their own agency and forms of power. The ethnographic record also demonstrates that there is often a significant difference between how patriarchal gender relations are prioritized in formal religious spaces and how they are practiced. Gender often shapes the religious meanings of space and materiality. Continue reading
Abstract: As clerical sexual abuse scandals hit the news and the crisis of vocations worsens each year, debate about the merits of mandatory clerical celibacy continues to grow. The fact remains, however, that supposedly celibate priests have been sexually active in significant numbers throughout history and that their sexual activity has barely affected the power of the Church. In this article, I focus on the ‘everyday’ nature of sexual ‘incontinence’ among a group of Northeast Brazilian priests and analyse the relative systematicity with which vow-breaking is accommodated. Such systematicity, I suggest, reveals an ongoing stable-instability at the heart of the Church as an institution; a dynamic which, if better understood, can help to explain the most characteristic (but often overlooked) feature of institutions more generally: their impressive longevity.
Questions of discipline are, today, no less ubiquitous than when under Foucault’s renowned scrutiny, but what does ‘discipline’ in diverse religious systems actually entail? In this article, we take ‘lenience’ rather than discipline as a starting point and compare its potential, both structural and ideological, in religious contexts where disciplinary flexibility shores up greater encompassing projects of moral perfectionism as opposed to those contexts in which disciplinary flexibility is a defining feature in its own right. We argue that lenience provides religious systems with a vital flexibility that is necessary to their reproduction and adaptation to the world. By taking a ‘systems’ perspective on ethnographic discussions of religious worlds, we proffer fresh observations on recent debates within the anthropology of religion on ‘ethics’, ‘failure’, and the nature of religious subjects.
Malara, Diego. “The Alimentary Forms of Religious Life: Technologies of the Other, Lenience, and the Ethics of Ethiopian Orthodox Fasting.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Anthropology. 62(3): 21-41.
Abstract: Focusing on the practice of fasting, this article traces the ethical efforts and conundrums of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians who take their religion seriously, but do not necessarily see themselves as disciplined believers. I argue that the flexibility and lenience of the Orthodox system allow for morally ambivalent disciplinary projects that, in order to preserve their efficacy, must be sustained by an array of intimate relationships with more pious individuals who are fasting for others or on others’ behalf. By examining this relational economy of spiritual care, its temporalities and divisions of labor, I ask whether recent preoccupations with ‘technologies of the self’ in the anthropology of religion might have overlooked the relevance of ‘technologies of the other’.
The first phase of anthropology’s turn toward ethics called our attention to freedom, evaluative reflection, and projects of intentional self‐cultivation. While the inclusion of such moments of intentionality and freedom provided a helpful corrective to overly determinist frameworks for the study of morality and social life, we lost sight of other aspects of ethical life and personhood that are less easily controlled. Drawing on an ethnographic case that might otherwise be considered exemplary of a Foucauldian “care of the self,” this article draws on texts from Africanist anthropology and Franciscan theology to explore how members of a community of Ugandan, Kenyan, and Tanzanian Franciscan nuns living and working at a residential home for orphans and children with disabilities in central Uganda understand and engage with the uncertain potential of moral transformation.
Abstract: The paper explores the ethical attitude of Christian evangelicals in a church in Britain and how it affects boundary-making of their community. Evangelicals in the case study seek to be accepting of the person and to refrain from being judgemental. The paper distinguishes between the person-centred ‘ethic of compassion’and the norm-centred ‘ethic of purity’. The ethic of compassion consists in accepting another and recognising the dignity of another based on shared humanity. It is a frame of mind that combines moral intention with the emotions of empathy and sympathy. In contrast, the ethic of purity privileges adherence to the moral order of the group over considerations for the person. The ‘compassionate’ frame of mind weakens boundaries, while the ‘pure’ frame of mind reinforces them. The boundaries of a community result from the interplay of the two ethics.
Abstract: This introductory essay seeks to reintroduce character to anthropological inquiry. Although it has long been out of favour due to its historical associations with accounts that attempt to describe national or ethnic character, we argue that a return of the under‐theorised concept may be in order. The essay invites socio‐cultural anthropologists to describe the diverse contexts in which character is recognised or enacted, out‐there‐in‐the‐world, and to become far more reflective about the ways in which characterization is deployed in our ethnographic writing. At the same time, it asks how the concept might be fruitfully operationalized at a meta‐language level to reorient current fields of anthropological study, without necessarily resorting to any collective or individual essentialisms. To illustrate the utility of re‐interrogating the concept, the question is addressed to two specific fields in which one might expect a concept such as character to already feature strongly: the anthropology of ethics and the anthropology of Christianity. What does an ethnographic attention to the ways in which character gets attributed reveal? How differently might these and other fields look if anthropologists embraced the concept of character or rejected it more knowingly? Finally, the essay asks what kinds of recombination of insights an anthropology and character approach might enable.
Abstract: This essay presents an ethnographic account of two divorced Catholic women’s memories of praying to the Virgin Mary while seeking illegal abortions under the Romanian socialist regime. These women’s stories focused on troubling memories of being in love, reflections that were retrospectively shaped by divorce. Drawing on Sigmund Freud’s notion of the uncanny, I call these recollections uncanny memories of the self in love. Uncannily remembering one’s self in love combines experiential self-examination and ethical assessment of actions. The notion of the uncanny self in love thus helps bridge the divide between experience- and action-oriented approaches to lived ethics. I argue that the ethical significance of the Virgin Mary’s actions depended on my acquaintances’ approach to love. For one woman seeking to stay estranged from her ex-husband, the Virgin Mary’s actions accentuated his ethical immaturity. My other acquaintance harbored more ambivalent feelings toward her ex-husband; for her, talking about the Virgin Mary helped her relativize feelings of ethical indignation. As a core implication of this argument, I urge greater awareness of the problematic tendency to include the need for greater awareness of tendencies in theories of lived ethics to reify socially situated perspectives on love.