Marching for Allah (2): alternative rationalities and the cultural value of honour

What should Christians say about the recent protests by Muslims against the film Innocence of Muslims? I suggested yesterday we need to start thinking about rationality, and how what we think is rational is at least in part culturally determined.

In the middle of last century, Eugene Nida, building on some the work of the secular anthropologists of his day, categorized the cultures of the world into three basic groups, constituting differing rationalities.1 He grouped various cultures by the way they react to transgressions of social norms. Western people, he argued, are guilt-based. A guilt-based culture relies on an internal conviction of right and wrong. In other words, western people often think that the right thing to do is the righteous thing, even if it hurts other people. Western people often value personal integrity, sometimes at the expense of relationships. They value truth, honesty, and justice. When they imagine a moral universe, they think justice will be seen to be done in the end, that the cosmic scale will one day be balanced. When western Christians talk about the gospel we talk about a righteous God who is justly angry at our transgressions, but who has found a way through the sacrifice of his son to forgive us, but in a way that doesn’t just overlook our sin and guilt. The punishment has been justly paid. Our guilt is dealt with. Just look at how Two Ways to Live frames the gospel. There you have it.

Not everyone thinks like that. Nida identified two other basic rationalities. Many tribal cultures, like those in Sub-Saharan Africa work within fear-based rationalities. But the ones that concern us now are the shame-based rationalities of the Middle Eastern world and much of Asia.2 In a shame-based culture, people often value relationship and the preservation of community over a personal sense of righteousness. In other words, people from these cultures often think that the right thing to do is the thing that honours the other people in their life; particularly family, but also nation, ancestors and God. People value and rationalize in terms loyalty, community, friendship and honour. Right action is about satisfaction, rather than justification. When they imagine a moral universe, they think that good people will be honoured in the end, and the wicked will be ashamed. There is a growing recognition by missionaries that perhaps the model of penal substitutionary atonement may not be the most intuitive way for people of other cultures to understand the work of Christ. Christians from these cultures often speak of Christ’s work in terms of his humility, shame and exaltation.3

Viewed from this perspective, we can see that the protest in Sydney wasn’t really about stopping the film. They didn’t hope to accomplish public censorship. At a far more fundamental level, it was about restoring the balance of honour. Muhammad, their prophet, had been shamed. And just as a westerner might protest against the very idea of government censorship (because it isn’t right), a Muslim might protest for censorship: to shame those who brought disgrace on an honourable man, and to restore honour in the public arena. Muslims care about the way you think about Allah, even if you aren’t Muslim. They care about the way you think about Muhammad. They particularly care about how their religion is portrayed in the public sphere, and many of them would rather be seen to be defending the honour of Muhammad by any means, than sitting idly by while he is publicly profaned. That’s what rational action means here—marching through the streets of Sydney to publicly restore the honour of Allah’s prophet. Multiculturalism is actually a much tougher goal than it first appears! It not only demands tolerance of difference, it demands tolerance of what is to me irrational. And just because someone comes to Australia doesn’t automatically mean that we will be acting rationally in their eyes either.

Tomorrow, I want to give you an example of this sort of clash of world-views, before moving on to how we might then speak about Christ into a different culture next week.

  1. Eugene Nida, Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library. 1954. It would be a drastic oversimplification to pretend that Nida’s categories are supposed to be mutually exclusive. Culture is complex, and the model is a generalization, not intended to pigeon-hole cultures into neat categories. Nevertheless, despite some refinements in the time between now and then, the model has proved essentially resilient and is still used by Christian missiologists today.
  2. Roland Muller observes that the regions of the world that most closely identified as shame-based cultures roughly correspond to the 10/40 widow, known in missiological literature as the areas of the world least reached by the gospel. Having spent much of his career living in the Islamic world, he discusses at length the pervasiveness of shame-based rationality in Muslim cultures. Cf. Roland Muller, Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door. Birmingham, UK: Xlibris. 2000.
  3. Cf. Timothy Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. 2007. I am indebted to Timothy Tennent’s work for much of this analysis of honour-shame cultures.

14 thoughts on “Marching for Allah (2): alternative rationalities and the cultural value of honour

  1. Nathan
    If the Muslim protests in Sydney were an indication of their beliefs that Mohammad should be honoured and that profaning representations of him should be censored, why weren’t the protests against Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and Serrano’s Piss Christ indications that Christians have the same beliefs?

    • Thanks Brian, good question.

      I don’t think I was claiming a Christian/Muslim distinction just yet. I was trying rather to work with a guilt-based/shame-based distinction, to help us westerners get at the rationality behind what was going on in the protest marches. In other words, I’m exploring a cultural difference, not a religious one.

      There are two things that I think we should say about your examples. Firstly, Christians can, and often do, come from shame-based cultures. In other words, its far too simplistic to say shame-based = Muslim and guilt based = Christian. It does happen to be true at a very general level I think — but only only if you paint with a very, very broad brush.

      Secondly, to say that a culture is guilt-based should not be taken to mean that it is exclusively so. When anthropologists use these categories they are making generalisations. Honour-based cultures still understand the idea justice, just as guilt-based ones still understand the concept shame. The paradigm is there to help people from one culture to explore the rationality of another, to see the reasons why they make decisions, and to explore how to understand people better.

      It’s actually not originally even a Christian paradigm. The origins of the guilt-based/shame-based distinction–as I understand them–go back to secular anthropology that happened in Asia in the aftermath of WWII. Let me know if you want details and I’ll look them up.

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  3. Hi Nathan,
    You said: “There is a growing recognition by missionaries that perhaps the model of penal substitutionary atonement may not be the most intuitive way for people of other cultures to understand the work of Christ.”
    But should we therefore present the gospel to people of other cultures in ways that would be more intuitive for them to grasp? I don’t think penal substitutionary atonement is just one of several alternative explanations of the cross but the one which the Bible emphasizes most and which is therefore central and primary to all the others. And significantly the Bible grew out of a Middle Eastern culture which focuses more on shame/honour than guilt/righteousness! In the book of Leviticus God gave detailed prescriptions for guilt offerings and sin offerings but not for shame offerings, and sin was still sinful if committed in ignorance or committed in secret out of the public gaze. God prepared the Jews for understanding Jesus’ atonement by teaching them to sacrifice animals as penal substitutes. I would argue that Paul, Peter, and John in their epistles to Middle Eastern communities interpreted Jesus’ death using various illustrations but primarily and most commonly as penal substitutionary atonement. Middle Eastern Christians today who often speak of Christ’s work in terms of his humility, shame, and exaltation may be speaking in a way that is natural to them but have their understandings been adequately educated and trained yet by the Word of God? True, Christ’s work is described in the Bible in terms of humiliation and exaltation but it is not foremost or foundational. Because the Bible’s focus on guilt/righteousness rather than shame/honour is not a cultural accident since it does not fit nicely with the worldview of the original recipients of the oracles of God, surely we cannot ditch the emphasis on guilt/righteousness from our presentation of the gospel without seriously compromising the content of the message. Is it unreasonable that God (and his evangelsists) might expect people to step back from their own culture to analyse it, criticise it, and reject those parts of it which are inimical to God’s mind?
    Thank you for this series, Nathan.

    • Oh good! I’m so glad someone picked up on that line. Thanks Phil – a sharp observation. And I’m going to ask exactly that question next week concerning Penal Substitutionary Atonement, so I’ll leave my answer till then. But for now let me challenge you in return. You say:

      “Is it unreasonable that God (and his evangelists) might expect people to step back from their own culture to analyse it, criticise it, and reject those parts of it which are inimical to God’s mind?”

      I think this is exactly what we must do, but history teaches us that no-one ever really transcends their culture. We actually need people from other cultures even to begin doing this. But when was the last time you asked a non-western Christian to critique western culture? And how often do you read theology originating in Africa, Asia or South America in hopes that it will challenge your own western assumptions? If we want to go on mission to other cultures and say “nup, your whole system of values and rationality is unbiblical” then we need to be prepared to hear the same from them, don’t you think?

  4. It’s great to see these articles and associated discussion happening – it is long overdue. As missionaries in Sub-Saharan Africa, let me assure you that honour and shame is very much a pivotal dynamic here – far more than has been emphasized. Associated Sub-Saharan shame/honour research is much of the focus of our current ministry. But whether it is an African, Asian or Middle Eastern shame/honour emphasis it is something that the Western church needs to be more familiar with if they are going to effectively reach these people overseas or in Australia’s own backyard.
    In relation to the issue of the atonement, I suggest that the book “Shame Interrupted” by Dr Edward T Welch be read as well as some of the sources he mentions in that excellent book. The atonement does have significant relationship to our shame and the covering of it.

    • Hi Sandra, thanks for the encouragement and for the reference to Welch. I haven’t come across that book, but I’ll put it on my reading list.

      I usually associate Sub-Sahara Africans with the third paradigm Nida developed: fear-power. I suppose that’s not true where you are though! Just out of interest, do you work in a Muslim culture?

  5. Hi Nathan,

    You said: “No-one ever really transcends their culture.”
    Yes, good point!

    You asked: “How often do you read theology originating in Africa, Asia or South America in hopes that it will challenge your own western assumptions?”
    I am currently reading Ken Bailey’s book “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes” and can’t put it down! Can you recommend a couple of other titles for me to try please, especially with an African or South American slant? Thanks.

    • Phil,

      Sorry for the slow reply. I takes me a while to recover from the weekend! I’m no expert either I have to admit. I’m still very much in the process of learning to listen well to Christians from other cultures. I can recommend some resources that I’ve found helpful along the way:

      From an African theology perspective, I’ve always found Kwame Bediako challenging (Theology and Identity, or Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion). If you’re looking for something very challenging, have a read of John Mbiti.

      From the perspective of western people thinking about global theology, try Timothy Tennent (Theology in the Context of World Christianity) or Philip Jenkins (New Faces of Christianity, or The Next Christendom). On anthropology go for Paul Heibert (Anthropologial Insights for Missionaries) or Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilisations).

      That should probably be enough to get you started!



  6. Thank you, Nathan. That’s enough to keep me out of mischief for a while!

    Hope you don’t mind me asking another question please. (Thanks for the time you’re giving me.) I sometimes lobby foreign governemnts on behalf of Christians who have been imprisoned for their faith. When writing to the government of a country having a shame/honour culture, what reasons or arguments would be most effective to persuade that government to release the prisoner? Many thanks.

    • Wow. That’s a great thing to do Phil. But I’m sorry – when it comes to dealing with foreign governments, I’m way out of my league. I suspect you have more to offer me than I do to you on that question!

      If I were trying to play the diplomat, I would try opening with something that honours them: tell them that you appreciate how difficult it is to maintain a civil order for the benefit of their people, and find an example of how they have done this well and praise them for it. Tell them that their people have benefited from something they’ve done. And then perhaps you could suggest that their current action might be seen as shameful by the international community. I’d go for indirect rather than confrontational. There are parts of the Qur’an you could appeal to about the treatment of Christians.

      But then, I’m not sure I could stomach writing that letter some of the time. Tell me, what’s your strategy?

  7. Nathan,
    I haven’t got a strategy! I just write the sort of letter that I think would influence someone like me, ie. I appeal for justice, fairness, and propriety. I see now that my approach is mistaken. I klike your suggestions better. Thanks.

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