Truth, Power, Love, Hate - and Social Media and Elections

Violence is what happens when you try to resolve a religious dispute by means of power. It cannot be done. Trying to resolve ultimate issues of faith, truth and interpretation by use of force is a conceptual error of the most fundamental kind. Just as might does not establish right, so victory does not establish truth

You cannot impose truth by force…greater is the pursuit of truth than the exercise of force
Religion leads to violence when it consecrates hate…You cannot create a free society on the basis of hate

Do not wage war on the children of darkness. Make sure instead that you and your children are sources of light

The above quotes are not from a Christian (though they could easily be) but from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ wonderful book Not In God’s Name. A book I thoroughly recommend. 

Rabbi Sacks’ sets out to analyze specifically religious violence but just about everything he says is relevant to any situation where force is used to impose someone’s idea of truth. His conclusion (correctly to my mind) is that it always fails and always will fail because of the most basic conceptual mistake: truth is not amenable to imposition by force. The results are firstly, bitterness at being thus assaulted; second, what he describes as the consecration of hate - people mostly behave as enemies because they perceive themselves to have been made enemies of, and; third countermeasures by those imposed upon, force is met by force, perception of being hatefully treated by hatred.

His almost shocking conclusion is that the only way out of the cycle is powerlessness. On the subject of religious violence to deliberately separate out religion (truth) and politics (power).

Sacks has, I think, a rather Utopian view of the neutrality of the state:

The liberal democratic state does not aspire to be the embodiment of the good, the beautiful and the true. It merely seeks to keep the peace between contending factions. It is procedural rather than substantive. It makes no claim to represent the totality of life…It does not invtie its citizens to worship the polis, nor does it see civic virtue as the only virtue. (NIGN p.229)

One might reasonably ask what happens when the state is perceived by one party or another to have been hijacked precisely to make universalising and substantive claims on all. Law will be used to impose a state-authorised morality and civic virtue will indeed be seen as the only virtue (”fundamental British values” being an obvious case in point). When that happens the state has ceased to be an arbiter and itself become a contending faction. 

But that aside, what of his contention that powerlessness is the way out of the standoff? His suggestion that the house of study must replace the battlefield? The best picture of a standoff with power is the cold war nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The problem of course is that nobody can be the first to disarm because that makes you a defenceless target. Why wouldn’t the other person simply destroy you? But to not do so leaves you with perpetual heightened tension with no way out. 

Catch 22. But you have to admit a very Christian Catch 22. We follow one who refused to retaliate to the point of his own life being taken for the sake of his enemies. And who insists that his followers do likewise. Retaliation is what non-Christians do, not Christians:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also; if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well;    (Matthew 5:38-40)

Jesus had a principled willingness to be walked over.

But what about the recent US election? I suggested in my previous post that this is an election in which for many young voter social media has played a significant, but not healthy, part. In Rabbi Sacks’ terms I think that limiting access only to views that you already agree with is like turning the house of study back into the battlefield. If religion can consecrate hate that leads to violence then so can Twitter - just read the comments on many politicians’ Twitter feeds if you are in any doubt about that. 

Truth is not established by by force. Facebook might not look like a means for exerting force - it isn’t a battle fleet - but by dint of having 1.79 billion users it is precisely that. And in that way people have tried to use it: to deny the face of the Other, make substantive moral claims which it is hoped would be assimilated by the state. The use of social media to disrupt the neutrality of the state, turn it into a competing party and then use it to impose views by force on the unwilling. 

How should Christians respond? I suggest Rabbi Sacks is right - embrace powerlessness. The thing we must not do is fight with the same weapons. The Apostle Paul tells us that our fight is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of evil. Peter says:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people   (1 Peter 2:13-15)

Be willing to be powerless in this world’s terms. And don’t use the weapons of the world, instead do good. I am suggesting that social media is definitely a weapon of the world and Christians must avoid at all costs using it the way the world uses it. That might be by simply deleting the app and having nothing to do with it if you can’t be self-controlled in the way you use it. It might mean that you deliberately follow the feeds of people with whom you disagree so that you are not inadvertantly sucked into the way it can shut down competing voices and debate. It might mean you use it as deliberately as you are able to bless those with whom you disagree. It definitely means not saying anything online that you wouldn’t say with the Lord Jesus in the room.

No, we commit to the word of God (that’s our weapon, the sword of the Spirit, we are people of the book not the Twitterstorm, still less the riot), to prayer - including for our enemies for them to be blessed - and to doing good. The Christian question for election outcomes we don’t like is not “how can I push back?” but “given this situation how can I bless for the good of society and the sake of the Lord Jesus? Given this outcome, what is the most redemptive way for me to behave? How can I bless my opponents? How can I avoid being swept up in a tide of sentiment and dismay and instead be self-controlled, loving and kind, full of the fruit of the Spirit?”

The danger of the social media election is that it makes everyone, both before and afterwards, ask the wrong questions: how can my group win? How can we dominate the state? How can we use its laws and constitution for the good of us and the detriment of the Other? The Christian instead will always ask, how do we bless the Other, how do we serve not dominate, what does kindness, love and the redemption of God look like in a  world full of hate?

Jesus called his disciples together and said:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28)

Social Media and Echo Chamber Elections

Social media is notorious for being an echo chamber. It repeats what you already think back to you, often amplified, rarely more harmonically. All the while dampening access to alternative melodies and harmonies. It affirms your existing opinions. Your tune is the right tune, your drum the only drum. To mix my metaphors, like a planet with a large gravitational field it captures you within the orbit of what you - or your group, your interpretive community - already think. 

However social media does not, as it so often likes to claim, democratise thinking. For it has its own demagogues, its high priestesses and priests. The arbiters of orthodoxy operate on the one hand by of millions of retweets and on the other the threat of appalling censure. Depart from received opinion and you can find yourself unfriended, deplatformed, demonised (maybe even killed if you are of a gentle disposition) by twitterstorm or simply isolated and chucked out of the in-crowd. It might not be the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition) but there are nevertheless some pretty powerful incentives not to challenge the high priests and priestesses. 

Fine, you might say, there is no forcible association with social media. You don’t have to belong. But that is to ignore the fact that at least among Western Millennials just about everybody signs up before they realise there might be a problem. Social media is thus frequently a tool of group think masquerading as a tool of individuality and self-expression. Rather than taking public discourse from the hands of the powerful and putting it in the hands of the powerless it often simply places it in the hands of a differently-powerful group to the old one without anyone noticing because the new media elite don’t have offices at the tops of tall towers.

The other thing about social media is that by dint of being an unnuanced medium it tends to extremes. It actively excludes alternative, perhaps ameliorating, voices. Group dynamics maintain the in-crowd by dismissing, even to the point of dehumanising, the out-crowd. Social media attracts its fair share of what have become known as “virtue signallers”, those who parade their own value by heralding their great commitment to whatever cause is deemed virtuous by the community. Of course if you define your cause as virtuous and yourself as a champion of said virtue, what does that make those who disagree? They are no longer merely mistaken, misguided or wrong because what they oppose is not my ideas but me. And I am virtuous which makes them at least risible and possibly evil. How else could they oppose virtue? If they weren’t evil they would be over here with us and the fact that they aren’t has to mean they can’t be good or virtuous. Because if they are good or virtuous that means our group doesn’t have a monopoly on those things. The tools of narcissism don’t just work by telling us that we are great, they do so by telling us everyone else is appalling. We demonise the Other in order to exonerate and praise ourselves.

And then, of course, social media is rapidly killing traditional print media with its emphasis, however flawed, on fact-checking, public accountability and extensive - and therefore expensive and therefore dying - investigative journalism. (Even the Guardian is frantically appealing for subscribers on the basis that it will otherwise go under, for crying out loud). And - oh the horror for the social media crowd - different views, competing, comparative, trying to persuade in the same newspaper. Did the old media not research their niche audience well enough? Surely they couldn’t have been sufficiently naive to think that their audience actually wanted to read a variety of opinions? How very last century!

The recent elections have been extreme. The responses after the event equally so. There have clearly been many on each side who have bought the idea (actually been sold the idea) that their opponents are entirely and utterly negative. Black holes devoid of all virtue and humanity. Just look at how much Hitler/Chamberlain rhetoric has been thrown around recently. Not only have they nothing good to say but anything they might say is pre-interpreted as actively evil and opposing our valiant forces of goodness. America, never averse to a bit of Black Hat / White Hat dualism, has taken it to wholly new levels of inability to compromise. One by one all the more compromising candidates fell in line behind the most polarising and unconcilliatory leaving the average voter with a stark choice - vote for us or vote for evil. 

There are large numbers of younger voters in America (and to a lesser extent in the Brexit referendum) for whom the recent elections are the first and only large scale vote in which they have participated. Clearly some have found it a shocking experience: “those people only won because they lied to us” is not just an winsome and endearing response from first time voters, it is also astonishingly naive about the sides they themselves chose to support: “its us against the liars so the vote should be retaken on the basis of truth-telling.” Much as I like the instinct towards the virtue of truth-telling, the idea that one side only tells the truth and the other side lies (horrifyingly winning by doing so, the bounders!) is a position I doubt could have existed for voters who haven’t spent half their lives on social media before being ask to take part in their first election. 

Note too that those who are used to thinking in binary terms about themselves and others are now turning disagreement into perceived conflict. Not agreeing is now offense, micro-aggression, disrespect, even shame. How dare you suggest by your voting position that I am not the arbiter of correctness? My relativist worldview has brought me up to believe that is oppressive. It is my basic human right to never be contradicted. I don’t believe in truth and you are going to force on me the result of decisions I do not like and make me live with their consequences. What kind of tyrant are you?

And so emerges the Great Divide. The other lot are no longer rational actors with real lives and real concerns because I no longer have a real facility to listen and discuss. Only to try to impose my view, to fight by fair means or foul (nothing is too foul anyway because they are aliens and what is at stake is, you know, the whole world), to ignore ideas and deny opponents the field by depersonalising them - and to respond in shocked disbelief when it doesn’t work. 
The point of democracy is participation. The effect of social media is to try to exclude, especially by making your opponents literally non-people. After all they weren’t there in your social media feed so you’ve never had any reason to think they and their views actually existed. Until they awkwardly popped up at election time and expressed things you find unbelievable because you don’t believe them and you only ever listen to yourself being reflected back to yourself. 

If there is a positive result from the recent elections (and I will be the first to say how depressing the whole thing is) its that social media didn’t exclude the Other. Amazingly it didn’t skew things (or if it did then it did so in highly complex and unpredictable ways). Perhaps the subsequent meltdown is at least partly an inchoate feeling of betrayal at our own darling media. Surely we weren’t lied to, were we? No, no, shift the blame anywhere else. Whatever the problem, it can’t be me and my lovely Facebook feeds (though, ironically, it clearly can be them and their lying Facebook feeds which are so full of propaganda, falsification and incorrect news). 

When the dust settles, the world is still turning (I will repent this piece if it isn’t!) and the more cataclysmic propositions from the virtue-signalling prophets of doom are seen to not come true one can only hope for some more serious reflection on why things got so overheated. And what we have lost in the absence of an ability to hear and interact well with carefully expressed views with which we happen to disagree. All kinds of horrors have moved into the vacuum created when civil discourse left the room.

(Rant over. Next post I will try to give a little more specifically Christian reflection on the subject)

Lament and Political Apocalypse

Violence, the paralysis of law, the perversion of justice and the victory of the wicked over the righteous. That is the complaint of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk at the start of his book. And - immeasurably worse - God isn’t listening (or so he thinks):

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? (1:2)

Every single person of faith utters that cry sooner or later in our lives. Everything seems bleak, meaningless and terribly frightening and God seems to do nothing about it. Indeed many have argued from the apparent implacable cruelty of the universe and human nature to the non-existence of God. Worse by far is the notion that God does exist but his lack of help in the face of evil indicates that while he may be powerful he is not good. If ever there is a reason why the believer might catastrophize, that is it.

I have watched the American election with a mixture of fascination and repulsion only possible from a reasonably detached distance. Distance, I am aware, that almost removes any right to comment. Yes, along with many around the world I am rightly (very) worried about demagogues with access to nuclear launch codes but external pontificators don't have the same insight or personal stake that our friends in the US do. How easy would I have found it to choose between an attractive abortionist who might just shoot down Russian war planes and a repulsive, racist misogynist? Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t. (On the issues of supporting Clinton over Trump's racism, this is an excellent read by Thabiti Anyabwile).

I was interested just as much at the whole tone of the political campaign as the outcome, as the discourse was ratcheted up to apocalyptic levels of rhetoric. Or maybe not rhetoric, I don’t know. On the one hand “a vote for Trump means certain nuclear apocalypse”, on the other “a vote for Clinton means tens of millions of child murders and the end of Western civilization”. How on earth is anyone meant to have a sane, nuanced public discourse or serious policy discussion - let alone ethics discussion - when it comes to that? It is impossible and unthinkable - and deliberately so. It was meant to make it impossible to even think that the other candidate had any redeeming features whatsoever, and that neither therefore did their policy platforms. It is an extreme example of mutual demonisation. Both sides claimed divine prerogative and threatened that violence, paralysis of law, the perversion of justice and the victory of the wicked over the righteous were the inevitable consequences of the other lot winning.

Therefore it is no surprise to wake up in the aftermath and find that there are a lot of very, very scared people in America. After all they were told incessantly that they should be afraid. Whoever won, half the country was going to anticipate the apocalypse, and now they do. Perhaps more so in the case of a Trump win because the liberal media were so hysterically worried about the protection of their own value systems. And so today we have the remarkable spectacle of liberal riots and Americans - yes Americans! - burning the American flag. And, perhaps worse, damning the democratic process and contemptuously declaring that all those people who are on the wrong side of history (you know, the ones who won) shouldn’t really be enfranchised to vote anyway. Oh the irony.

Is it not right to critique winners? Of course it is. Is it unacceptable to express your fears? Of course not, especially when they have been intensified to fever pitch. There was always going to be an venting. Perhaps there is something positive. Pressure cookers without escape valves explode. 

But what of the nature of the escape valve? Liberal riots are surely a disproportionate response to the mere fact of losing. Which shows that it is not just losing that is the issue. You didn’t see conservative riots after Obama was swept in with his messianic mandate regardless of how disappointed and worried people were. No, the issue is bigger than losing. It is that people are now so divided that both sides think a victory for the other is the demolition of their way of life, hope and worldview. And maybe a real global apocalypse as well as a personal and political one. Rioting externally manifests the disorientation of a riotous mind. It realizes what a friend of mine refers to as a "howling tempest in the brain". Feeling oneself caught up in a storm we become stormy.

A public protest at democratic result, in some cases leading to riot, is what you do when you believe all other options are denied you. Let’s be honest there aren’t very many riots so I don’t want to overstate the case but the fact that there are any shows to what extent the system has got overheated and people feel there is no other option. It is almost impossible to have imagined it in a previous generation. 

David, King of ancient Israel faced his own personal catastrophe. In the agonising aftermath of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah his infant son was taken from him by God (2 Samuel 12). David spent days pleading with God for the child but he died and David was devastated. That was that, the worst outcome he could imagine. His life was in tatters and his son dead. Personal apocalypse with no way to reverse it and God didn’t answer his prayer (at least the way he wanted). 

David’s immediate response was staggering. He cleaned himself up, changed his clothes, went into the temple of God and worshipped. It is inconceivable that this was happy worship. No, this was the worship of a broken man with a troubled soul, the worship of grief and tears and repentance and lament. It is striking how many of the Psalms are laments - far more than any other type - often with God feeling far away.

Previous generations of Christians were much better at lament. I wonder how much contemporary worship has been affected by a relentless drive for personal happiness and fulfillment from the non-Christian world because it seems our current worship songs have little room for it (Blessed be your name by Matt Redman being a stunning exception). We’d rather be happy in church on Sunday. In the process we have lost the emotional vocabulary to express the whole range of our human experience back to God with authenticity. We don’t know how to say what we need to say, the language has gone - despite there being myriad biblical exhortations to do so and examples of how to do it. And so our emotion and grief all stays pent up inside.

And if we Christians have lost the means to lament (as our Jewish friends have not), how much more the unbelieving world? Perhaps protest and riot is what you do with your grief and fear when reflective lament is no longer a mode that is open to you. The grief has to get out somehow.
To return to Habakkuk, his disaster wasn’t personal like David’s. It was political (and personal in as much as he was a member of a nation about to get obliterated). He watched and foresaw the approaching Babylonian apocalypse heading inexorably towards Jerusalem. He brought the word of God in devastating times to a people who could not escape. His own fear is palpable. At the sound of the enemy:

My heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones and my legs trembled (3:16)

Yet how different is the response of the prophet to that of people with no hope in God. If you have no hope then fear of calamity overwhelms and produces some of the reaction we are witnessing this week. If you have hope then in the face of calamity you worship. You don’t know why the events are coming on you, you don’t know how God is acting, you don’t even know if you will survive. You just don’t know. Questions aren’t answered. They weren’t for David and they weren’t for Habakkuk. Here is Habakkuk’s response:

Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. 

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.  (3:16-19)

Calamitous times are opportunities for Christians to live for the hope of the glory of God and to show what it looks like to trust when there are no obvious signs of blessing and prayers seem unanswered. And to worship, particularly through recovering lament. Perhaps one contribution we have to make at a time like this is helping people express their grief and fear to God by providing a profound and cathartic language of emotion and worship that the Western world has all but forgotten.

I can't be honest

Here are two situations I encounter reasonably frequently as I talk to church leaders

1. A leader has become overwhelmed in their ministry situation. There may be a whole raft of factors including:

  • progressive job creep so they are now doing an unsustainable quantity of work
  • the perception they can fulfill a whole range of roles they never originally signed up for and are outside their gifting and calling
  • trying to sustain too wide a range of personal relationships
  • changes in life circumstances, aging and decreased energy levels while they still try to run at the pace they could 15 years ago
  • helping other people in their discipleship walk and ups and downs of life but nobody helps you

The list could go on and on. Often many of the factors will coalesce to form a toxic - and potentially explosive - mixture if not worked through with the help of others and the development of a robust enough support structure.

I have had several similar conversations recently and when I have pointed out that the person is carrying burdens that are simply unsustainable (by anyone) and that something will have to be renegotiated if a health is to be recovered, they have all said the same thing: “I cannot renegotiate because the church will say that I am the one who is paid to do all this.” In other words they feel no choice but to continue to juggling the impossible because it is too threatening to do otherwise. Self-destruction (while trying to look outwardly serene, in control and competent) feels like the line of least resistance.

2. A leader finds themselves involved in a pastoral or disciplinary situation where it is impossible to explain all the details to the church. They take decisions that they have to take knowing they are unable to defend themselves and that criticism they can do nothing about will come their way. An especially difficult version of this is when leaders are under personal attack from people who are happy to spread their side of the story widely but there are good pastoral reasons why the leader is unable to reveal what is really going on. I remember personally one individual behaving atrociously to church leaders (including me) while adopting a totally different character with everyone else, and there were good reasons why it was inappropriate to reveal the person’s true character to the church.

The thing that connects these two types of situations is that in both cases the leader struggles with circumstances that are incredibly personally debilitating but is either unable or feels unable to act to resolve their debilitation. They are vulnerable by dint of being unprotected - they perceive they have no defense against the situation - and undefended - nobody else can come to their aid because nobody else knows about it. And so there is a difference between their public persona and their private struggle. In the first case they feel they can’t be honest and open because it potentially damages them and their ministry. In the second because it potentially damages other people and the wider church.

As I said at the start, I think this is comparatively common. Everyone in Christian ministry will meet these things sooner or later. What is also common is that we only discover whether our support structures - our scaffolding if you like - are adequate and robust enough when the difficult circumstances happen - and in many, perhaps most, instances they aren’t.

Almost all ministry situations begin happy and fulfilled. It is frequently described as a honeymoon - with the slightly cynical expectation that it will wear off sooner or later. But, less cynically, everyone starts off with happy assumptions of the best case scenarios - and therefore rarely put in place robust enough support structures for the worst. Why would you when all has begun so well?

The reason to do so, obviously, is that it is almost impossible to do so when you find yourself in the difficult times. You got used to operating in isolation when your environment was positive and supportive and used your environment as your scaffolding. But when you are debilitated and one of the main debilitating factors is precisely what you used as scaffolding in place of more thorough-going support structures then at one fell stroke you lose the thing that helped you and find yourself in that moment without the emotional resources to construct a positive alternative. At exactly the time you most need it.

Add in the often-observed fact that people in Christian ministry cannot demarcate various areas of their lives in the way others do: it is possible for work, leisure, community, personal spiritual life, family life and church to all merge together. Therefore anything that damages church-as-support-structure has the possibility of damaging all the other areas as well. Areas that for anyone else would be separate from difficulties in the work place. Is it any wonder that many Christian leaders become cagey about trying to protect or draw boundaries around personal life? They have much to lose if things start to go wrong in their ministry sphere and domino into every other area.

Therefore it is important to develop those structures of support when the sun is shining. Needless to say the things that help best when stormy clouds loom are also pretty good when everything is bright. Good support structures include:

  • prayer-filled, worshipping ministry fraternals of depth
  • good rhythms, habits and patterns of rest, refreshment and worship
  • mentors
  • friends
  • accountability groups for leaders and spouses outside of the ministry context
  • opportunities for personal and professional development
  • clarity with the church about expectations of what they expect and what they should not expect, usually set out in a clear job description
  • clarity about the hows and wherefores of how to renegotiate those expectations when necessary

And probably most of all good team life. It is hard for a paid minister to talk about everything with unpaid church officers. For one thing it is unusual for officers to understand the ministry job (even if they think they do). There is just so much you only get to understand from the inside. And, second, the relationship isn’t 100% symmetrical. A paid minister who struggles with a pattern of sin feels far more vulnerable than an unpaid elder or church warden with the same struggle. Nevertheless team - especially elders or the equivalent in your church stream - that prays together, is dedicated to each other and loves each other well is a key means of unlocking the necessary honesty, transparency and help that stop toxic situations turning into explosive ones.


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.