In 1893, Emile Durkheim, who is created with founding modern sociology, published a brief work detailing differences he observed in the labor force. One group of workers, he noted, was required to perform repetitive tasks while the other needed to employ a wide variety of skills, disciplines, and actions. Durkheim named the first type of labor Mechanical Solidarity and detailed how its redundant nature discouraged innovation and adaptation to changes. He named the other Organic Solidarity and stated its multi-faceted approach fostered and valued new ideas and methods.
Through his observations Durkheim determined these two basic groups in the labor force were unable to exist in harmony with one another. Coining the phrase “anomie” (or normlessness), he stated the mechanically inclined could not tolerate the open-endedness of the organic approach. Those immersed in organic labor felt stifled by the closed nature of the mechanical approach to work.
Durkheim continued to develop his thinking about anomie and took it in new directions in an 1897 book studying suicide. He found that just as resistance to change and change occurring too rapidly had an impact on the workforce, so too societal anomie influences our lives more than we realize. There is a human, psychological cost when norms are lacking as well as when they are too rigid.
Durkheim learned a diminishing of clear values and codified behavior causes people to experience a sense of alienation and purposelessness. Life feels frustrating, confusing, and even disturbing because one is not sure how to live and act. It is as if there is no clear-cut path forward, no guidebook to tell you how to do it, and no shared vision of what life is to look like. Think of it as the exact opposite of Ozzie and Harriet and the 1950s.
A common example of anomie occurs every time a child acts up in a checkout line. If ten people are watching there are at least fifteen difference ideas as to how the parent should handle the situation… and no matter what the parent does, it will be deemed improper by those watching. This, in a microcosm, is what it looks like and feels like to live in anomie. Things are changing so much so fast our norms cannot keep up.
While some manifest anxiety in response to this, others opt for rigidity. They hold hard and fast to the old ways and remember nostalgically (if inaccurately) a time when everything felt more settled and sure. So, for example, some pine for the return a Father Knows Best era when role expectations were clearly defined and followed.
In a time of normlessness everyone feels adrift and unsure because society lacks a consensus about how to act and behave. And while periods of rigid norms offer clarity, those who do not or cannot abide by them are pushed to the sidelines or expelled from the community. The question I want to pose is this: Is there a third way, a way striking a balance between normlessness and rigidity?
Let’s use all of this as a lens through which to look at this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. Travelling by boat, Jesus and his followers come ashore in the land of Gerasenes. It does not appear to be their destination, but a ferocious overnight storm has blown them to this pagan land on the western side of the Sea of Galilee.
They disembark, perhaps to catch their breath after a harrowing experience, and immediately are confronted by a demon-possessed, unclothed man. Local townsfolk are so disturbed by him they have taken to chaining him in a nearby cemetery. The crazed and tormented individual begs Jesus for relief.
The text does not tell us Jesus’ initial reaction to the situation. Perhaps he was startled. He might have been afraid. Maybe he was annoyed. We are not told. But here is one thing to note: Jesus is in a pagan land, in a cemetery, in close proximity to a herd of pigs, speaking with a possessed person. All four are forbidden in Hebrew law and any one of them will make Jesus “ritually unclean” and prohibit him from public worship until going through an elaborate cleansing rite.
This episode bears similarities to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, a priest and a religious scribe both avoid an injured person, in part to avoid becoming defiled. It is only the foreigner from Samaria who demonstrates compassion for the man in need by treating one different from him in so many ways as a neighbor. Well, to use an expression common to us, Jesus does not just talk the talk, he walks the walk. He lays aside all the rules and regulations and frees the man of all that torments him.
It is easy to sympathize with the locals. You cannot have a crazy, possessed person running amuck on the streets. Certain behaviors and standards need to be upheld. But their response to banish him and confine him in such an inhumane manner is the picture of moral rigidity. It is a retreat to the way things “should be” that does not grapple at all with the way things are. Everyone feels better once the threat of his disturbances is removed… well, everyone except the possessed man.
A truly normless response to the situation would be to allow the man to behave as he will. Jesus could brake off his shackles and send him back into the town unchanged as a statement no one has the right to treat a human being in such a manner. After all, “to each his own” and “live, at let live.”
Jesus rejects both moral rigidity and anomie; striking a balance between these two extremes by focusing on the humanity and dignity of the possessed man. His compassion, leading to the man’s healing and freedom, becomes itself a new kind of normative behavior. Jesus elevates compassion above ritual purity and demonstrates it supersedes property rights and economic prosperity (just ask the pig herders!).
So much is changing in our society and standards of behavior simply have not kept up. We live in a time of anomie with all its effects on well-being outlined by Durkheim over a century ago. Many feel like a rudderless ship at sea being tossed about and blown to and fro. Jesus offers to us a new ethic of compassion based on human dignity and flourishing. His words and his actions invite us in every situation to ask “What does this human being need?” To ask, “If I was in his or her position, what would I want people to do for me?”
Have you heard of the advocacy group called No More Deaths? They have mounted a humanitarian effort to leave food, water, blankets and other provisions in desert regions along our southern border in an effort to provide relief aid for migrants seeking to enter our country illegally. Last March four of its volunteers were found guilty of federal misdemeanors and sentenced to probation. Earlier this month a jury was unable to render a verdict in the trial of Scott Warren, an Arizona schoolteacher who provided aid and shelter to pair of migrants who were in desperate condition. Warren’s defense attorney argued he was exercising his religious beliefs by doing unto others as he would have them do unto him.
The immigration crisis facing our country is not a challenge easily solved or understood. I know good Christian folks who state emphatically people trying to enter our country illegally should not receive humanitarian aid and if they die in the desert it is their own fault. I know other people of faith who advocate for completely open borders. I believe the group No More Deaths is navigating a path between rigid morality and normlessness by addressing human need and real suffering. It feels to me like a Jesus action in the midst of this ongoing debate.
Where in your life do you sense what Durkheim called anomie and what might a compassionate response focused on human need look like? How might this give you a sense of meaning, direction, and purpose in a world changing so rapidly you yearn for guidance?