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.