Shame/Honour, Hate/Respect, Tolerance/Intolerance

Recently a friend who has worked in a Middle Eastern country for a number of years related an Arabic proverb to me. It goes thus:

My brother is my enemy until my cousin offends me. 
My cousin is my enemy until a [more distant] clan member offends us.
(Tribes are composed of clans, which are the smaller unit, each consisting of many families, the smaller unit still. Families in that context are larger than our western conception of parents and 2.4 children).

And so on, through level of tribe, etc., until you finally get up to the level of race: Arabs against the world. Unity is always forged by the perception of offense from a larger Other.

I have written to my friend in JO to ascertain corroboration of this: I have no personal way to know whether the proverb is widespread or the accuracy of my friend’s contention that it reflects how shame/honour is the dominant cultural reference for interpersonal relationships in the society in question. His additional comment that in his host culture the predominant culture is family/clan/tribe seems likely to me and the proverb would illustrate how shame/honour paradigm works in that relational context.

However my friend then suggested the following fascinating additional theses:

Thesis 1: the dominant cultural reference for interpersonal relationships being shame/honour is not just true in the non-Western world. It is true everywhere in the world but the terminology we use to describe it is different. In the West we don’t talk about shame/honour so much, but we do talk about offense, hatred and hate crime. My friend contends that shame/honour essentially maps quite closely on to hate/respect.

Without complicating too much, the other western idea of intolerance/tolerance, is yet another restatement of hate/respect or shame/honour. And equivalently, the western notion of right/wrong is another direct equivalent. As in “you have done right by me” (implied, at least, if not said in that terminology). It reflects itself in this: "shame" in Asia doesn’t have to be “you have shamed me”. It can also be, “I am ashamed” – because of what I have done or have not done. E.g., the Philippian jailor who was going to kill himself until the Christians said “Stop!”.

Thesis 2: whereas in his host country the shame/honour paradigm is worked out in a culture that expresses itself predominantly in family/clan/tribe, in the West it is worked out in a much more individualistic culture

The question is, how does the Bible relate to this? How should Christians reflect on shame/honour, hate/respect paradigms? Honour is a biblical concept but shame less obvious – although of course Jesus "despised the shame". The biblical equivalent to culturally-expressed shame is often guilt. Being in a state of shame is tantamount to being in a state of guilt of offense. What in one culture is expressed as “shame upon you” i.e., “you have shamed me”, in mine becomes “you have offended me”. However, critically, in both cases the charge is relative to the perception of the person who is claiming the state of shame or offense. It might on the one hand be real and objective, but on the other it might be that there has been no intent to shame and therefore no objective offense committed. It is undeniable in the West that people can think an offense has been committed because someone subjectively feels offended regardless of any intent on the part of the supposed perpetrator. 

The Christian (I hope any person of integrity) will always want to ascertain whether the perception or claim of shame/offense is justified or not. The fact that feelings are hurt is insufficient. Moreover hurt feelings (even unintentionally hurt feelings) are increasingly adduced as an adequate casus belli to justify retaliation (especially in the unnuanced world of social media). Claims to shame/offense need to be examined to discover if they are correct. They are either true or false (however unintentionally. False claims are not necessarily badly motivated, though obviously they can be).

There are two options: if a claim to shame/offense is discovered to be true there is real offense and real guilt. If a claim is untrue it is an injustice. 
To give two examples:

The woman caught in adultery in John 8 really committed an offense, is actually guilty and under shame (if she did it)

Jesus was tried under false charges and falsely found guilty. There was no real guilt, no offense and no shame because the charges were false

In the situation of real offense, objective guilt and true shame the Christian solution is forgiveness for the sinner. Forgiveness is the removal of the offense and therefore the removal of shame. The correct categories are: the gospel, mercy, grace and redemption because they are about removing the shame of offense

In the untrue category, however, the Christian solution is justice. But what does it look like? The Christian response will always include seeking justice albeit with an awareness that justice may tarry in this world, perhaps until the return of Christ. But it will also include doing our utmost to forgive the perpetrator of the injustice, to the extent that that is possible. Jesus prayed for the Father to forgive his crucifiers and the Bible commands to “forgive as God in Christ forgave you…be imitators of God as dearly loved children” (Eph.4:32-5:1). Forgiveness of injustice is, by that account, both difficult (crucifixion of self in order to be like Jesus) and non-negotiable for believers. Jesus did it, so we do it. 

How different a paradigm is the gospel of the God of mercy and grace fromto that of shame/honour or hate/respect, however it is expressed and in whatever culture. If my friend is correct that shame/honour is essentially true in some shape or form in every human society then the gospel response is genuinely counter-cultural absolutely everywhere. The world says “you have offended, you must pay your debt.” The Bible says “all have offended against God and Jesus pays the unpayable debt for everyone who believes.” And Christians, in being like Christ, mirror this on at the level of human interactions. We do a Jesus, either forgiving the one who has sinned the shame of their offense and removing real shame and guilt. Or, in the case of false accusation and action against us, as part of the process of seeking justice also seeking the good of our enemies.

In forgiveness someone always pays, someone always absorbs debt. In the paradigm quoted at the start of this article it is the offender. In a Christian worldview it is God and his Christ. And, by extension, his forgiving people who are learning to be like him.

People of Unshakable Hope

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope

Romans 15:4

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the Patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy

Romans 15:8-9

Last night I helped out with a Bible training session at our church. My part was to give some reflections on how to apply passages from the Old Testament - the Old Covenant - to New Covenant disciples of Jesus. Plus a brief overview about what the Bible teaches about slavery.

It is normal (and correct and helpful) to hear two New Testament ways of teaching the Old Testament for today:

1. A Luke 24:27 approach, following Jesus’ own explanation to the disciples on the Emmaus Road, that everything written there concerns him. That is, he is the goal of the Old Testament. The fulfilment of it’s plotline, if you like

2. A 1 Corinthians 10:6 & 11 approach, that Old Testament episodes are written as examples and warnings for us on whom the fulfilment of the ages (ie Jesus) has come

I believe it’s most helpful to combine these, but usually more helpful to do the first one first. If we fail to see how a passage leads finally to Jesus, the fulfilment of the ages, then it is harder insightfully to apply it as example and warning to people in Jesus. It tends to end up as merely moral example but devoid of consideration of why or how to do it, or where the power comes from to live in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit.

But as I was preparing for last night's session Romans 15 jumped out at me. It teaches not so much the “how” to apply what is written in the Old Testament but the “why”: so that we will be encouraged and have hope and will thereby endure (with a spirit of unity, Romans 15:5).

It doesn’t hurt any preacher or Bible study leader coming to an Old Testament passage to have this  question in mind: how was this passage intended by God to encourage us and help us be people of unshakable hope?

I find Paul’s reasoning about how this works fascinating and profound. Just follow through Romans 15:8 to see what he is arguing:

1. Jesus came as a servant of the Jews
2. On behalf of God’s truth
3. The way he serves them in God’s truth is by confirming the promises God made to the patriarchs which vindicates God’s truthfulness and the reliability of the promises he made way back near the start of the Bible. That is, Jesus shows God’s truthfulness (and by extension the truthfulness of the Old Testament)

We might paraphrase it something like: Jesus came to display the glory of God’s truthfulness through confirming to the Jews the reliability of his promises

But here is the humdinger:

4. By serving the Jews in this way Jesus is also proclaiming and manifesting the glory and mercy of God for Gentiles. In order that non-Jews may glorify God for that mercy as well.

How does Jesus serving the Jews help Gentiles glorify God? First by confirming the promise to Abraham that he would be the Father of many nations. By becoming believers in Jesus we are heirs of the promise. Second by affirming that God can be trusted and doesn’t change his mind or go back on his promises. Third by demonstrating the mercy of God to sinners.

Gentiles like me are meant to read the Old Testament therefore with delight that Jesus has come to fulfil it, gratitude that we are included in the promise and glory to God rising in our hearts for his mercy. It is too easy to reduce the good news to mere forgiveness of sins. It is certainly that. But in Romans 15 it is more - that we have been included in the promises, are recipients of infinite mercy and have a God who is truthful, reliable and became Emmanuel, incarnate with us to confirm the promises of God.

If, like me, you find it easy to teach a Bible overview in a Luke 24 way but for it to be a little dry and technical, or if you find it easy (also like me) to do a 1 Cor 10 thing and just leave it as moral example, Romans 15 is a great help in both cases. It tells us that the point of a Bible overview is people glorying in God (not merely intellectually knowing the plotline) and the point of the moral example is to flee evil by setting our hearts on the infinite mercy of God displayed throughout history and laid out in his word.

(P.S. if you are after a great book on how the New Testament uses the Old Testament the IVP Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament is weighty but fabulous. An unmissable reference book)

Tips for healthy sabbaticals

I am asked reasonable frequently how ministers can make best use of a sabbatical. A second question that almost always follows quickly on is how can they justify it to church members who never have a similar opportunity. The implication being that it is a luxury, a guilty pleasure that shouldn’t really be considered by those who work hard. Perhaps even an indication of laziness. “People in the church will tell me they don’t have that kind of paid leave so why should I?”  

It isn’t uncommon for those who voice this concern to also indicate that they rarely have genuine sabbath in any form. There is a common temptation to use a time of sabbatical to try to compensate for not having had holy margins of leisure, rest, hope and joy in God for a number of previous years. Needless to say such sabbaticals rarely work well for encouraging the soul, marriage and family or for energising the next period of leadership. They are more commonly unstructured, used for col

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The Heart of Biblical, Spiritual Leadership

As I write this I am looking forward to a week of training junior church leaders at Living Leadership's Formation Trainees Conference.

You don't have to look far in the Bible to find teaching about godly leadership, about godly and ungodly leaders, instruction on leadership for leaders and for churches. There are role models and examples a-plenty and lots of images of leaders: hardworking farmer, athlete, soldier, builder, fool, guide, under-shepherd, labourer, workman, servant (and scum of the earth!). Plenty of teaching to help us understand the spiritual gift of leadership (Romans 12:8).

My favourite verses to begin exploring what the Bible says about leadership in Jesus' church are Philippians 1:25-26:

Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again you will glory abundantly in Christ Jesus on account of me.
— Phil 1:25-26

What would the imprisoned apostle tell a church he would most like to achieve with them on his release and return? Them making progress in the faith and having joy in God so that they are full of delight in the glory of Christ. This is similar to Peter's description of the persecuted Christians in 1 Peter 1. They were full of "joy inexpressible and full of glory" because they were receiving the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls. It isn't hard to see why a church is effective for God if they are all bursting with joy in Jesus. And it isn't hard to see why a church isn't effective if it isn't.

Of course it begs the question of how to work with people for their progress and joy. What might that look like in practice. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Helping people to delight themselves in the Lord. Helping them love God, love the Son of God, love the Holy Spirit, and to give expression to their love. Leadership is making worshippers
  • Helping them love the Word of God. Which flows from leaders doing so and not coming to the Bible merely as professionals to help others
  • Helping people appreciate the benefits of Christ. Adoption, forgiveness of sins, a home in heaven, entrance into God’s family, freedom from guilt and the curse of the Law, the gift of the Spirit, a new heart, new desires, a Heavenly Father, a great high priest through whom we have redemption. And on. And on!
  • Helping people see the glory of God in the gospel of his grace. Romans 5 says we reign in life by receiving of his grace and the gift of eternal life. Helping them know how to receive and seek God for his grace with them. James 4:6 says "God gives more grace". 
  • Loving people at all times and do them good, especially those in difficulty and distress
  • Having ambitions for where God might take people. Showing them some of what is possible in the Lord if they live and act in faith, especially in world mission
  • Helping others pray. Praying with them. Showing them how we pray. Telling them what we pray for them


Bible Reading in a Digital World

What percentage of people in your church have their own Bible? Most, I guess. Many own more than one. What percentage are reading them at home? Regularly - once a week, twice a week, every day? I guess a much lower percentage.

Living in a digital age is clearly having an effect on Bible reading. I don’t just mean having new devices on which it is possible to access and read the scriptures. I mean new devices that distract from reading them. Our new generation have never not had computers, gaming, multiple channels of distraction. They have so many inputs. They don’t need to retain any information because they can google it at any time. 

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