Geometry of blessing: embodiment, relatedness, and exorcism amongst Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Malara, Diego Maria
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This thesis is about kinship, neighbourliness, sainthood, fasting and exorcism among Orthodox Christians in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The uncertainties of providing for oneself and one’s family in the city make people deeply reliant on neighbours, kin, and religious networks in order to survive. But these dependencies are also sources of vulnerability—to the demands of close others and the harm they can inflict, but also, increasingly, to demonic possession. A recent surge in public exorcisms testifies to a broad sense of spiritual threat, as well as a perceived need to re-entrench the power and authority of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) at a time when the effects of religious pluralism and modernization policies pose a particular challenge. In this thesis, I document the ways in which Orthodox Christians are working to re-situate and reframe their relationships with the EOC in their daily lives. I argue that these efforts are inherently relational, based on the sharing of blessing through substances such as holy water, and on various labours of devotion performed for others or on their behalf. Through fine-grained ethnography, this study finds kinship and other local networks, rather than institutional practices or large-scale rituals, to be the basis of religious action in the city. I show how ordinary people, faced with the contradictions between religious imperatives and the material necessities of life, seek blessing for themselves, their neighbours, and their kin, from powerful human and non-human intercessors and, in turn, how they become intercessors for others. I pay particular attention to the bodily and affective dimensions of these practices: how people fast together and for one another; how they circulate and consume holy water; and how they subject themselves to violent exorcistic interventions. For Orthodox Christians in Addis Ababa, these bodily practices constitute key methods for acting on the flesh, and thereby engaging with the basic problem of the fallen nature of humanity—which is felt to be particularly pressing in contemporary urban conditions. By taking such perspectives, my thesis aims to contribute to discussions of Christian embodiment, personhood, and subject-formation with a detailed study of the networks and relationships by which people build an intersubjective and interdependent ethics of daily life—an ethics, that is, which contrasts with the discourses of individual self-fashioning that have informed many recent studies of Christianity and piety in other world religions.