Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Hey, Who's That Girl?

That was more or less what Boaz said when he walked into his barley field to check on the harvest.  Over the years, I have interpreted this favourite chapter 2 of the Book of Ruth variously.  This reflects to some extent contextual changes as well as changes in my life and work.

1. Refugee work

I first noticed this chapter, which is almost a one-act play, when I was living in Zimbabwe during the 1980s.  There were so many Mozambican widows crossing the border for refuge at the time, as their men engaged in that proxy war.  Like Ruth leaving her land of Moab and coming to Israel, leaving a series of disasters behind her.

I even preached from this chapter at times, as a way of unpacking what was happening, and the need for those with resources to provide mechanisms to show mercy.  Gleaning was the Hebrew mechanism, a form of charity.  Relief agencies are a modern equivalent, and I was working for World Vision at the time.  The problem was that in refugee camps, the widows could not do much to receive the benefits of charity, which I found degrading.  So we explored other options like food-for-work projects that still helped the needy without robbing them of their dignity.

2. Volunteering and Voluntarism

In the next decade, after the Cold War ended and apartheid with it, the focus was on building Democracy, participation, inclusion… My practice as an NGO consultant (“helping development organizations with organization development”) in the 1990s was one of the roots of C4L as a resource centre for nonprofits, beginning in 1999.

In morning meditations at C4L training events, I would often read this beloved chapter and apply it differently.  All those in the work place are contributors, whether paid managers or unpaid volunteers.  Gleaning may be a mechanism of charity, but it also serves an agricultural purpose in the scheme of crop rotation.  If Boaz was going to plant another crop in that field during the next season, this would avoid having barley popping up where ever the grain has fallen to the ground during the harvest.  So what every person contributes is important, no matter how insignificant they may feel.   In fact, for a Human Resources meditation - in any sector not just for nonprofits - the drama of the Book of Ruth chapter 2 is useful and instructive.

3. The Rainbow Nation

During my two decades living in South Africa, into the new millennium, themes like non-racialism and xenophobia have been recurrent.  One could always turn to this chapter for inspiration.  Unlike the much stricter Nehemiah, who tore people’s hair out for inter-marrying with other races and culture, the message of the Book of Ruth is unambiguous.  Ruth was not Jewish, but that didn’t matter to Boaz.  By the same token, Ruth bought into the local culture, being a cultural relativist, not an enclave of Moabites in Bethlehem.  In this she was incarnational.

4. Age-disparate Romance

Now some of you will laugh!  I don’t know whether Boaz was a bachelor, a widower or a divorcee, it doesn’t say?  But it is clear that he was older and wealthier than Ruth.  One thing is for sure, though… it certainly didn’t take Boaz long once he arrived (fashionably late) to notice her.  Did he have that much of an eye for detail?  Or was she just drop-dead gorgeous?  I’ll ask him when I meet him one day, this intrigues me.

In 2004, Save the Children published a study of research in Malawi called Cross-generational relationships: using a ‘Continuum of Volition’ in HIV prevention work among young people.  It concluded: “rather than defining cross-generational relationships as inherently problematic, it is important to understand the choices (or lack of choices) that young women have in their own communities.”  Ruth could have told them that, three thousand years earlier.

By lunch break, Boaz invites Ruth to eat with him and his workers. She stuffs herself full of bread and wine (she's poor and hungry, remember?).  Then when Ruth leaves to go glean some more (she been at this all day; the young lady is a hard worker), Boaz tells his workers that she is allowed to take some non-charity grain as well. Was he just being altruistic?  Or did he already have a crush on her?

Graca Machel married a man almost 30 years older than herself when he was almost 80.  She and Nelson Mandela still got on like a house on fire, as did Boaz and Ruth… who eventually became the grandparents to King David.  What better endorsement could you get than that?!

5. Inequality

Unemployment is a kind of inequality, because the others have jobs.  Poverty is a manifestation of inequality because the others are wealthy.  So I am not sure there is a “triple conundrum” – the lowest common denominator is inequality.

In its Medium-Term Strategic Framework 2014-2019 (MTSF), the government has lambasted as “offensive” those who show off their wealth.  Josephilda Nhlapo-Hlophe, outcomes facilitator for the presidency’s department of planning, wrote the social cohesion section of the MTSF document.  Get this!

“Many times we see people who we know do not work or have any access to income and suddenly, the person is driving a flashy car. The question people will ask is: ‘Where does that person get this money from?’

“This person might not be a good role model for young kids who think getting flashy things is more important than hard work and the contributions they are making to society. We are trying to build a citizen who knows you get rewarded for working hard.”


Makes you wonder if Boaz arrived at the barley field that day driving his Mazerati, or what?

It is that kind of insensitivity that led Karl Marx to famously comment: “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”  Well, then what?  In my view, scientific Socialism failed miserably to improve the quality of life.  I lived and worked in Angola and Mozambique before the end of the Cold War.  I walked into so many stores with empty shelves, they didn’t have food to sell, let alone rope!  The answers lie rather in the example of Boaz, and three comments from our time:

“Warren Buffett wrote: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Pope Francis wrote: “These days there is a lot of poverty in the world, and that’s a scandal when we have so many riches and resources to give to everyone. We all have to think about how we can become a little poorer.”

Mamphela Ramphele wrote: “South Africa does not have a poverty problem. Poverty is a result of denialism of the way corruption taxes poor people, the inefficiencies that undermine poor people’s opportunities and our refusal to admit that we are part of the problem.”

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