Understanding and Transforming Patronage

Patronage is one area of foreign cultures that is hardest for us Westerners to comprehend. Sometimes described as patron-client systems, this is a global and historical way to structure society when you can’t rely on impersonal institutions. If Westerners need to borrow money to buy a house or a car, they get a loan from the bank. If they need a job, they submit a resume to a company. Impersonal institutions help us acquire some of our most important resources for succeeding in life. A patronage system instead relies on important people to get these needs met.

In the West, we sometimes hear that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. What this means for us is that relationships are still important, as a sort of lubricant that makes the institutions run more smoothly. In a contest of two equal resumes (or CVs), the resume of the person who is already known will win, because relational experience has been thrown in as the tie breaker. In places like Central Asia, resumes are almost meaningless. Far superior candidates are passed over for the unqualified relative or loyal client whose uncle or patron heads up the company. In patronage systems, who you know really is everything.

The basic logic of a patronage system is that society is set up like a pyramid, with patrons on top and clients on the bottom. To get ahead, members of society look to secure patrons, individuals higher up in the pyramid than they are. The client will offer their loyalty, services, and public praise to the patron who will in turn secure the material goods or connections that the client is looking for.

If you’ve ever seen The Godfather, the character Don Carleone spells this out explicitly. After agreeing to order a hit on a man who has shamed his new client’s daughter, he clarifies that this relationship is one of mutual obligation. “Someday – and that day may never come – I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as gift on my daughter’s wedding day.” Don Carleone offers a favor of power and influence and the client is thereby indebted to offer any services which might be in his power to offer his patron in the future.

In the past in Central Asia, this could look like an important chief granting land, seed, a horse, and a rifle to a villager. The expectation would be that that villager would give the patron a portion of the crops, that he would fight for him when conflict arose with other tribes, and that he would in every way become his loyal man. Central Asian culture being what it is, this also would mean the client must regularly visit the patron in order to drink his tea and thereby honor him. The peasant was client to the chief, who was client to the regional governor, who was client the emir or king, who was himself client to the emperor or caliph. A current manifestation of Central Asian patronage might look like a politician giving cars or monthly salaries to individuals in order to ensure their votes and support come election time. Or a working class woman bringing food regularly to the family of a university professor to ensure that her son gets into university – while that same professor is indebted to a patron higher up for his job.

There are at least two types of patrons, the powerful individual and the one who connects you to the powerful individual. This latter person is sometimes called a broker. He may not be able to get you the job, but he’s got the ear of the guy who can. Individuals who are on an equivalent level in society with one another are either rivals or “friends,” equals who are in a positive relationship of helping one another out, perhaps sharing the same patron above them.

The mutual obligations of patron-client relationships are the sort of thing continually taught and modeled to kids by their parents and broader society as they grow up, in a sort of “how to invest and get ahead” informal mentoring. These obligations are then (unlike the quote from The Godfather) usually implied rather than spelled out. Patron-client realities are something everyone in society is just supposed to understand. This is what makes this aspect of culture such a minefield for Western missionaries, who arrive completely ignorant of how a patronage society works.

Westerners often look askance at a patron-client society as one in which unequal access to powerful individuals replaces a more just system of merit and equal opportunity. This critique is not always wrong. But remember that most of these societies do not have dependable impersonal institutions to rely on, such as insurance companies. So, your extended family serves as your insurance policy, and beyond that, your network of patrons and clients. Westerners often assume that everyone in their new society can depend on impersonal institutions as they can back home, not realizing that things like banks and government entities are often merely shells which actually contain an internal patronage system. Westerners come from a society which assumes that everyone should be equals, whether “friends,” rivals, or strangers. So a Central Asian may befriend a Westerner in hopes of finding a broker or a patron, only to have the Westerner treat him as an equal “friend” with no strong mutual obligations. Confusion and frustration results.

Patronage causes some big problems for missionaries and for the establishment of healthy churches in our region. For starters, the Western missionary is viewed as a potential patron with lots of wealth and connections. This brings a flood of relationships that are trying to get a leg up on the societal ladder, but which the missionary might mistake for purely friendship or spiritual interest. Missionaries hiring locals is another minefield. Far from the limited contractual relationship between employers and employees that we are used to, employers in Central Asia are patrons responsible for much more than the unsuspecting Westerner knows. Many warm relationships blow up when the Westerner ends the employment of a local. It’s even more dangerous for how locals might come to understand the local church, as a place where their loyalty and services are given in return for the patron-pastor’s providing them with their physical and spiritual goods. But viewing the pastor as patron or broker merely recasts the church in the image of a fallen patronage society.

After living these past seven years in a patronage society, I’m only now beginning to see the through the fog of it all a little bit. Since so much of this kind of a system is meant to be intuited rather than explicitly taught, I’ve had to find scholars who have studied these kind of systems in order to make sense of the patronage sea I’ve been swimming in. One of these helpful guides is a New Testament scholar who wasn’t writing with my context in mind at all, but instead doing historical context work on the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural world of the first century. David A. DeSilva’s book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, has proved to be a very helpful resource for better understanding how patronage still functions among our focus people group. Even my framing of patronage in this post relies heavily on language that that DeSilva uses to describe New Testament culture. Turns out much of the culture of the societies in the Bible has hung on in parts of our region – not entirely surprising given how the mountains tend to preserve things and Islam itself arose in and is compatible with a patronage culture.

The wonderful surprise I found, with DeSilva’s help, is that the New Testament authors model how to transform a patronage culture. I’d like to go into more detail of how this is done in future posts, so for now I’ll content myself with a preview. In short, the New Testament authors didn’t reject patronage, but they did radically redefine it. God is held up as our true patron, the generous patron of all humanity, yes, but the specific patron of believers to whom he freely gives gifts of salvation and new life. Jesus is presented as our true broker – or mediator, in first century language – who mediates creation, redemption, and continual access for us with God the Father. Believers are now all “friends” with one another, regardless of socioeconomic status, who share the same patron and are to work for one another’s good and honor, without rivalry. All of this results in a certain posture of gratitude and service toward God the Father and Jesus Christ which taps into the logic and motivations of a patronage system: what client could ever betray such a generous and trustworthy (faithful) patron? To do so would be unspeakably shameful. Instead, God is worthy of our eternal loyalty, public praise, and joyful service – for our patron has even more glorious gifts yet in store for us, namely resurrection.

This is how the New Testament authors transformed the patronage cultures of the early churches. To make sense out of patronage cultures, and to faithfully engage them ourselves, we need to follow their lead. Given that so many of the unreached people groups of the world are patronage cultures, how amazing that the New Testament authors can serve as such direct models of faithful engagement. My guides for understanding and engaging patronage were there all along, right under my nose.

Photo by Europeana on Unsplash


3 thoughts on “Understanding and Transforming Patronage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s