Ruths Solution 2:3 – Power and Influence

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Ruth's Solution

“Power and Influence”

My present interest in Ruth’s story arises in part from a hypothetical interest in what it would take to truly integrate a refugee into a foreign community. But I am also intrigued by the possibility that simple relational strategies enabled a relatively small social success that contributed directly to the rise of a great nation. In the modern era I fear that we have relegated social or spiritual change to great men who exert great power through great events. Many of us common folk may be asking ourselves: What do my daily actions and relationships have to do with God’s great purposes in the world? What can I possibly contribute to the big picture from way down here in the trenches?

Ruth’s answer to that question will involve demonstrating positions of influence that function alongside social power structures and illustrating relational patterns that make effective use that influence. What does all that mean? It means that no matter who you are or how much power you hold, you can make deliberate daily choices that will significantly change the way your community functions. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty encouraging to me.

What’s the problem?

Before we look at the alternate sources of influence in this story, let’s take a moment to clarify the problem that needs to be solved. As we saw in the previous post, this story is book ended by the failure or potential failure of two men’s family lines.

Elimelech’s family falls apart when he and his sons die in a foreign land, leaving their widows to fend for themselves. His family is divested of its men and any social power they might have held abroad or at home. So Naomi and Ruth set out toward Bethlehem with no social capital save for their friendship and their relational savvy.

Boaz’ family failure initially doesn’t appear that way at all. His seems to be only a tale of twilight romance between a lonely old business man and an industrious young immigrant widow. Only after the story has reached its resolution and Boaz and Ruth’s son Obed has been born does the narrator reveal what might have happened had Boaz’ line stopped with him. We discover that Israel’s famed King David is Boaz’ great grandson, a fact Boaz would never know but which, had he known, would certainly have motivated him to ensure success with Ruth.

So the problem in Bethlehem is this: If the immigrant widow Ruth is unable to secure a place in Boaz’ social order, not only will Elimelech’s and Boaz’ names fade from history, but the Davidic dynasty will never come to pass. For this to happen, three separate communities must somehow integrate: Elimelech’s scattered family system, Boaz’ fruitless family line, and the town of Bethlehem including its women, laborers and power brokers.

Who is in a position to effect these kinds of changes?

Boaz and Social Prestige

There is no doubt that Boaz is central to this story. He maintains a position of power within the culture, he is never far from the narrative spotlight and he is one of the central players in David’s royal family line. We can begin our discussion of influence and power with Boaz because he clearly holds the strongest position in the local culture of Bethlehem. But from a system perspective, the question is not only what position a person holds within the network but how that position relates to the potential of the rest of the network. As the story unfolds, we realize that Boaz is not simply in possession of power but is actively expressing himself in that role and using it to develop the network even beyond his own reach.

Traditional Bible study approaches reveal that Boaz goes above and beyond what the law requires of him in order to extend hospitality and generosity to others. In the next post, we will see one of the wonderful ways that he does the same through relational patterns. But for now, let me put a finer point on Boaz’ influence. Of all the interactions that together compose the structure of this narrative, Boaz is involved in over 50%. He is the initiator of 30% of all interactions and is the object of almost 20%. This makes Boaz both the largest contributor of relationships and also the most prestigious actor in the narrative network. That he is both contributing and receiving relationships is a strong sign that he is not only powerful but also valued in his network.

But another way of talking about Boaz’ influence is to ask how close he is to everyone else in the story. If we imagine that every direct relationship is 1 meter long then we could find the average shortest distance from Boaz to anyone else. The shorter the path between Boaz and myself, the more likely that I will come under Boaz’ influence. Let’s give this a try:

From the point of view of the Narrator and given our 1m relationship length, Bethlehem is a town 2 meters wide at almost all points with Boaz living in the center. But it’s not quite that simple. For one thing,  we can see that the only path from Boaz to the town’s women will have to be provided by Naomi, who serves as cultural navigator for the couple. For another thing, Boaz is often interacting with groups of people (town, elders, young women, reapers) rather than individuals. So we can assume that the relational distance in Bethlehem has been simplified for the sake of the story and that Boaz’ influence may not be quite so dominant as it seems under this narrative lens.

Perhaps you can see from this that one way of describing the progress toward resolution in this story is to track the average distance from a character to all others. Boaz’ average distance will change somewhat over the course of the story because Naomi and Ruth are coming closer to him. But it would be even more interesting to look closely at Ruth’s distance to others over the course of the story, especially in comparison to Naomi. Ruth starts quite distant from all others and through the combination of Boaz, Naomi and her actions arrives finally at a point far superior to even the elders or the kinsman redeemer.

Naomi and Network Brokerage

I may be quite close on average to everyone in my network, but what if I don’t have direct access to more than a handful of people? To put the question in Boaz’ terms, what if Ruth was located on the far side of the “women” with whom he had no connection? Or perhaps a little more hopeful situation, what if she lived on the other side of the “town” that he was connected to only generally?

Naomi’s influence in the network arises from the fact that she is the central person connected all the networks that need to be integrated. She is not as connected as Boaz, but she is well connected because it is highly likely that a message moving from point A (the elders) to point B (the women) across the network will have to pass through her hands.

Just as the network crumbles if you remove Boaz, the same is true if you remove the widow Naomi who has significantly less power and far fewer direct connections than Boaz. In fact, the combination of Naomi’s role of broker in the narrative combined with her forward thinking relational patterns are critical to effecting Ruth’s introduction to Boaz and integration into the town.

These are only two examples of the way that network positions differ in their influence from social power. The real magic comes into play when we see how our main characters leverage their positions by Christ-like behavior in order accomplish God’s goals. More on that in the next installment: “Winning Strategies”.

Ruths Solution 1:3 – Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Ruth's Solution

In the history of every community, there are points when the future success of the many hangs on the behavior of the few. These moments may be dramatic and perilous, like the cold December morning in 1237 AD when Russian emissaries from the walled city of Ryazan turned their backs on an army of Mongol warriors who had demanded their surrender. The miscalculations of those sorry men resulted in the complete destruction of Ryazan and marked the beginning of the Mongol horde’s expansion into Eastern Europe.

But these pivotal moments can also be completely mundane, depending not on the judgements of emissaries or the skill of warriors or the wisdom of kings but on average men and women from average circumstances going about their daily business as life presents it. Such was the case as two women arrived at the eastern gate of Bethlehem in ancient Israel. The women were both recently widowed, one an Israelite woman named Naomi and the other her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. They were returning from the land of Moab where Naomi, her husband and sons had moved years before to escape famine in the region of Benjamin. Completely empty handed, Naomi was now returning to her home town with her foreign daughter-in-law hoping to make her way on more familiar territory.

Unbeknownst to anybody in the town that day, the future of Israel, the reign of her greatest King, the wealth of his beautiful hymns, and the prophecies birthed from his memory depended completely on the assimilation of these two refugees into the heart of the community.

The story of these two women’s return can be found in the Bible’s book of Ruth. The book amounts to no more than a hiccup after the great sighs of the Exodus from Egypt and the wheezing exhaustion of the period of the Judges. It is brief and microscopic compared to the great events that surround it; it is a domestic sidenote in the unfolding tale of great men and competing nations. And ironically, the whole story of Israel turns on this moment.

The precariousness of Israel’s situation as well the relational decisions that lead to its solution are elegantly demonstrated through an analytical technique called social network analysis (SNA). Simply put, SNA investigates the relationships between individuals in a system and reveals both an overview of the resulting network as well as insights into the relational patterns that lead to that system’s success or failure. SNA has been used to target populations for immunization, disrupt networks of terror or crime, increase the efficiency of large corporations, and even analyze film and literature.

SNA begins with a catalogue of interactions between individuals. I have counted 97 interactions in the book of Ruth in the following categories: family and genealogical relationships, narrative interactions, speaking events, mentions of a third party, and favors. A network map is created by drawing an arrow from each actor to its object until all interactions have created a spiderweb of relationships. Here is the resulting network map from the book of Ruth. For clarity I have colored the nodes (dots) according to their social context and drawn arrows according to relationship types (dotted for family ties, dashed for weak interactions, and solid for strong interactions). 

Network diagram of the Book of Ruth
Ruths Narrative Network Map

What stands out to you about the shape of this network? My eye goes first to the genealogic “tails” going into and coming out of the “village” and then to the tangle of relationships in the village itself. According to the color scheme, there seem to be three smaller systems built into the overall picture: a geneological system, Elimelech’s family system and the town system. If we divide up the graph to isolate those systems, we gain our first set of insights into the story Ruth.

The fragility of family lines

The genealogical tails that we see in the large system don’t actually come to light until the last few sentences of the story. What Boaz cannot know is what we see quite clearly in this chain: King David’s existence depends on the birth of Boaz’s son Obed. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this relatively simple task is not so easy for Boaz. In spite of his success in agriculture, we discover that Boaz has been unlucky in love. Fields aplenty with no fruit to show for his labors.

Boaz’ family line

This lineage problem demonstrates one of the insights of system theory: linear networks are notoriously fragile. Because each link in the chain is critically important, any interruption will compromise the entire network, including the many people represented by each male in the chain.

We find a perfect example of this susceptibility problem in Elimelech’s family. The story actually begins with the failure of Elimelech’s line which in retrospect heightens the precariousness of Boaz’ potential lack of an heir. Elimelech’s network (called a “fan network”) represents a step up from Boaz’ family line. He has successfully married, had sons and married his sons to their wives. Elimelech’s social network is expanding and we can assume even more stability in his line because of (unmentioned) relationships between Naomi and her sons. But when the men of the family die in Moab, the lineage problem rears its head again and the family disintegrates with each female returning to her original home divested of family and therefore also of future.

Elimelechs Family “Fan” Network

So while a family line allows power to be efficiently managed, contained and directed, as long as that power is centralized in one person per generation the system is susceptible to complete and catastrophic failure.

Boaz surely never saw these final verses in his own story and so our sense of retrospective urgency might only have amounted to abiding loneliness for him. But to be fair, none of us have access to the last chapters of our life, do we? We conduct ourselves as best we can in the moment entrusting our future to the Fates or to the mercy of God. But perhaps there are other ways to pass our blessings forward. Perhaps there are patterns of relating that lend more stability, resilience and effectiveness to our relational networks.

Boaz “Hub and Spoke” Network

Here it is important to look again to Boaz who in the absence of a spouse and offspring has clearly become the hub of his community, making it a surrogate family of sorts. As networks develop toward health, they move through a series of stages: separated clusters, hub & spoke, multiple hubs, and finally core & periphery (Holley, 2012). Boaz has clearly assumed his role as the hub in his community and so advanced its move toward maturity. Is this a power position for him, or is it a strategy for influencing network health? All will be revealed!

On a similar note, as we move forward in Ruth’s story you will notice the role that women play in stabilizing the social structure of the narrative network. But notice as well that they accomplish this not by assuming the same fragile linear power structures previously held by men but by skillfully exerting influence from where they are in the system. One of the tragedies of well intentioned Marxist attempts at power redistribution is that they can replace implicit positions of network influence with recognizable but unstable and potentially fragile power structures. The net effect is that the network overall can become destablized and ineffectual all in the name of fairness.

Could it be that influence within and upon a community has much less to do with power than it has to do with recognizing and skillfully leveraging one’s position within the community?

Implications and Questions:

  1. What types of interactions would you include in your relational map?
  2. What stands out to you about the shape and character of Ruth’s network map?
  3. What advantages and disadvantages are represented by “the pastors’ wall” found in many of our churches?
  4. Where are power and influence located on Ruth’s network map?