The Image of Limited Good and the Fragmentation of Society

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.

Hebrews 12:15 (NRSV)

In the previous blog post, we looked at the folk belief of the Evil Eye, showing how it is rooted deep in the worldviews of many cultures throughout the world. In this post, we examine what appears to be the root motivation for the envy that is generally considered the primary catalyst of the Evil Eye: the assumption that good in this world is limited and must be fought for if it is not voluntarily shared out equally. Finally, we postulate a strong resemblance between this very traditional assumption and the phenomena of Marxism and cultural Marxism, a resemblance too close for comfort—a resemblance that explains why tenets of Wokeism imitate tenets of the Evil Eye.

Why Envy Others at All? Because Good is Seen as Limited in Quantity

In studying so-called “peasant” societies,[1] anthropologist George M. Foster[2] coined the term “The Image of Limited Good” (ILG) to capture a theme he found recurring in many of them: good things are believed to exist in limited amounts. Depending on the specific society in question, these good things might not be confined to material wealth; they may also include food, crops, honor, knowledge, and love. Any good at all may be considered to be subject to society-regulated sharing out; the exact configuration of the ILG is determined by the society in question.

A young child, for example, might envy a newborn sibling, who has newly emerged as a competitor for mother’s milk and love.[3] In societies that harbor a version of reincarnation, a child might turn out to be the reappearance of a displeased ancestor, angry at those who did him harm and intent on afflicting their descendants with revenge. In at least one traditional society in Mexico, a person never teaches another any skill, because its acquisition is thought to dilute the teacher’s own ability to practice it.[4]

In such societies, there can be enormous pressure not to be seen as having acquired more than one’s fair share of good. For example, if a villager should receive a surprising windfall of money, the safest thing to do with it is not to invest it in some profit-making enterprise, but to throw a big feast for the whole town. You blow the wealth, but you avoid any accusation of unjust gain by giving it all back to your fellow man.

The Image of Limited Good in Africa

During my years in Nigeria, I came to know an elderly pastor who had been, fifty years previously, the first Nigerian to study for the ministry and become ordained. He then embarked on a salaried position of preaching, church planting, and teaching at the new seminary that a sponsoring American mission had established.

One fine day, the pastor found himself standing trial in his hometown for witchcraft. His fellow villagers could not understand how he had acquired enough money to buy an electric generator for his house, and then an automobile for his transportation. He must have defrauded them somehow. Especially because they could not observe the defrauding occurring, he must have employed supernatural means.

In Africa, many young men who grow up in villages adopt almost as a rite of passage a journey to a large city, often one very far away, to spend some years working there. They tend to visit back home extremely rarely, and some never return at all. The reason can be viewed as one effect of the ILG: the home folks and relatives generally expect him to return with many gifts, bought in a place that is practically paved with gold. Their expectations are financially impossible to meet, so young men stay away.

Many of Nigeria’s four hundred seven different ethnic groups live by a version of the ILG. However, one major group that either has no idea of the ILG, or at best a very weak version of it, are the Igbos of south-central Nigeria. The Igbos seem to rise to the economic top wherever they go. Is it because they enjoy a higher IQ than average? Or is it because they are not constrained by the ILG?

The second explanation is the likely reason. Whatever the case, the Igbos tend to be resented wherever they go. It was this resentment that boiled over and produced the infamous massacre of Igbos in northern Nigeria from May to September 1966. This event resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 8,000 to 30,000 Igbos, and in the flight from the north of a million more. The consequence was, of course, that the Igbos formally seceded from Nigeria and declared the Republic of Biafra. These actions precipitated the bloodbath and famine known as the Biafran War (1967–1970).

It was the villagers’ ignorance of Western-style economics and of wealth creation that landed our Nigeria pastor and professor in trouble. One might equally well say that it is an ignorance of the same economics that induces many Westerners to assume they are being defrauded by the wealthy on a regular basis. This ignorance forms, of course, part of the basis of Wokeism, a new version of classical Marxism.

The Evil Eye in Today’s West

What happens when a folk belief dating back millennia—that good exists in limited quantities—is awakened and institutionalized in all western society? What happens when strident voices in the West claim that it is right for the “have nots” to envy the “haves” and to perpetrate violence against them? I suggest that the following results occur:

  1. The emotion of envy, although it is seen in many traditional societies as dangerous and illicit because it motivates the Evil Eye, is now often seen in the West as beneficial and licit. Those who envy “oppressors” actually envy their success; they claim that oppressors stole their way to success. They accuse their “oppressors” of what they themselves are guilty of: envy. But in the accusers’ case, they see their own envy as legitimate, for they call it not envy, but justice.
  2. The laying of curses with the Evil Eye, seen in traditional societies as illicit and punishable by custom and law because of the physical and psychic harm that results, gains its equivalent today of actual physical violence perpetrated against more successful people—and this violence is rewarded by the regime that encourages it.
  3. The Woke doctrine of unconscious bias against whole classes of people is found to be analogous to the unconscious perpetration of harm through the Evil Eye. This bias is said to result in actions and words motivated by unconscious racism, unconscious sexism, etc.

Perhaps Marxist and neo-Marxist theories are, in fact, nothing more than high-grade forms of the Evil Eye. Perhaps Wokeism is simply a novel resurgence of the Evil Eye today’s West. Perhaps it indicates that, although man can live without a formal belief in God, he has great difficulty in living without grasping in some way for something supernatural or supernormal, something that transcends all normal explanations.

Keep Thinking.

[1] A “peasant society” is a kind of society, found mostly in the Third World, in which the people use some products of industrialization, but themselves produce none of them. They tend to be significantly closed off to the outside world, living on their own local economy.

[2] Foster, 1965.

[3] This appears to be why, in various societies, mothers feel deep shame if they become pregnant before they have weaned their latest baby.

[4] Pike, 2008.

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James N. Pohlig of Richmond, Virginia, is a graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, St. Louis, and holds a doctorate in Bible Translation from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. For most of his career he served in Bible translation projects in West Africa. He subsequently authored aids for translators of the books of Joel and Malachi. He also served as a liaison for Wycliffe Bible Translators with the Vatican. In retirement, he is writing translation helps for the Psalms, and serves as a translation consultant. He is the author of various linguistic papers, as well as a college textbook, "Introduction to Biblical Themes in Cultural Context".

1 Comment

  1. Thanks Jim for this great thought-piece. My sister and I were just speaking about the challenges facing Igbo people even today, particularly first born sons such as our dad, and the financial, social, and other pressures it imposes even on their foreign-based children. Traveling ” home” these days can be a trying and saddening experience, especially when our adopted country (the USA) has begun to embrace the very ills that resulted in the murders of both of my grandfathers and the continued diminishment of a resource-rich land. I pray the USA begins to heed its founding principles, because I’ve seen its future in my native land.

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