Friday, January 27, 2012

Honor and Shame, Part 3

Continued from last time.


Last time we started investigating just how a person of a collectivist society accrues honor and shame and today we'll pick up where we left off and also examine the role woman played in this social game.

To sum up where the last blog post ended, the main way a person added to his acquired honor was by engaging in an intense and entertaining technique known to anthropologists and sociologists as challenge and response (also known as riposte). There are a few things to understand about this game - 1) it can only take place among social equals, 2) it occurs in public, 3) it requires a perception of a challenge by the opposing party, 4) it requires that the observing audience realizes who won and lost in order for one party or the other to gain a new grant of honor, 5) only males can engage in it and, 6) if one of the parties loses their temper and gets violent, they lose. Furthermore, riposte isn't necessarily negative. Friends can also engage in this game by exchanging compliments or gifts (this topic will be explored in much greater detail when and if I ever get around to making a series on patronage).

Aside from riposte, there are a few other ways for a person to accrue honor or shame. To put it simply, if a person fulfills their given social role to an extent that the society approves of, then they are considered honorable. This social role can be broken down into three components: authority, respect, and gender status. Bruce Malina instructs us that "authority" refers to "the ability to control the behavior of others" and "It should not be confused with physical force.". Furthermore, respect means "the attitude one must have and the behavior one is expected to follow relative to those who control one's existence." Finally, gender status "refers to the set of obligations and entitlements - what you ought to do and what other ought to do to or for you - that derive from symbolic gender differentiation." In other words, if you are a male, do you adequately fulfill your manly social duties? If you are a female, do you display attitudes expected of woman?1

Let's take a closer look at the first category of "authority". Imagine that you are a father in ancient Judea and you have a few children (preferably males, you see). To be honored in your society and to be respected amongst other fathers within your social circle, your children must themselves act honorably. If you give an order to one of your sons and he disobeys, the son's rebellion would heap upon you shame and your "peers would ridicule [you], thereby acknowledging [your] lack of honor as a father."2 Think back to the story given by Jesus in the 21st chapter of Matthew:

"'What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?' 'The first,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.'" ---Matthew 21:28-31

Now, imagine that you had a friend who was a teacher who had a sizable following of disciples. However, one day your friend took his students into a public space and taught a controversial message. To your horror, his crowd of followers dispersed one by one, muttering under their breath how foolish his former teacher is. Presently, your friend is left all alone and bears the scorn and mockery of the other people who saw him disgraced. Your teaching friend was disgraced and shamed because he had no authority. Malina says, "disagreement means people do not acknowledge his teaching influence." A teacher with no teaching influence is no teacher at all and thus deserves no honor as one. In fact, the only thing he acquires is shame among his peers.3 Skeptics sometimes like to argue that the Bible is full of made up stories in order to push an agenda; but it's hard to imagine what positive agenda John had when he wrote about the following story:

Many of [Jesus'] disciples, when they heard it, said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that you betray him. And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." ---John 6:60-69

Furthermore, even the closest of Jesus' inner circle deserted him in the Garden of Gethsemane during his arrest and almost all were gone at the foot of the cross. Some teacher indeed!4 The fact that the Scriptures keep these incredibly embarrassing and shameful stories intact testifies to their veracity. They could have done nothing but harm to the movement.

Now let's move on to "respect". In short, a person's acquired honor rating was partially contingent on how well he honored those who were honorable, especially those of higher social status, such as wealthy patrons, the chief priests, and (above all) God. Malina explains that "it is up to upright citizens to defend the honor of their social superiors, and God is the most lofty of all social superiors." Therefore, for instance, if an honorable individual witnesses someone blaspheming God, it was their social duty to defend Him.5 Think back to the story of David and Goliath:

Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and asked his brothers how they were. As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.

...David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”...David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, "... Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.” ---1st Samuel 17:1-37
David gained massive amounts of honor for defending the name of king, country, and supremely for God whom the Philistine blasphemed. Finally, we should note that Paul reminds us to render honor to whom honor is due in the congregation of the church.

The last element that we'll look at tonight is a person's fulfillment of their gender status. David deSilva elucidates in Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity that "In the ancient world, as in many traditional cultures today, woman and men have different arenas for the preservation and acquisition of honor, and different stands for honorable activity." The world of the Mediterranean was (and is) divided into two spheres - the male spaces, and the female spaces. Men, says deSilva, occupy the public space. They are the public face of their in-group whose honor they must defend and it is men who engage in riposte. Woman, on the other hand, play a very interesting role indeed. Somewhat paradoxically, a woman's honor was referred to as shame. Shame in this sense doesn't mean gaining shame but having such a finely-tuned sense of her honor that she had shame. I'm sure at one point or other, we have heard or ourselves have said, "How disgraceful! Doesn't this person have any shame?" By "shame" in this context, we really mean modesty - a virtue that a woman was expected to exhibit and was in fact her honor.

Woman occupy the private space, especially the interior of the home. "A woman," said Plutarch in his very politically incorrect Advice on Marriage, "should be seen when she is with her husband, but stay hidden at home when he is away." Plutarch and his contemporaries also believed that a woman should only be heard by her husband and should speak through her husband to others outside of the kinship in-group. Furthermore, a woman who has shame (read: modesty) knows her husband, and only her husband, sexually. A "loose woman" who enters the male arena, speaks to males she isn't married with, and lies with other men loses her group respect and, in fact, brings shame on the male she is "embedded" with.6

The last point we'll look at here is the concept of a woman being "embedded" into some male. Under this cultural paradigm, a female from birth until death is embedded into the honor rating of a male. This means that any action she takes, honorably or dishonorably, primarily reflects upon her male guardian - and only secondarily upon herself. While a virgin, a lady is embedded into her father. When she is married off, her father relinquishes all control of her and she becomes embedded into her new husband who then accepts the responsibility of protecting her sexual purity and social timidity.7

Much more can be said about this topic, but for now we'll wrap things up. Next time we'll look at the vocabulary used by the ancients when they speak about honor and shame and sometime in the future, we'll connect all of the concepts we looked at with the New Testament and explore the role that honor and shame played for the early Christian church and the role is still plays today.

  1. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 29-30.
  2. Ibid., 30-31.
  3. Bruce J. Malina, Windows On the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 17.
  4. NOTE: Jesus is, however, vindicated by none other than Yahweh Himself when He was raised from the dead. Any apparent honor lost and shame gained were rendered null and void - in fact, Jesus' honor rating shot through the atmosphere and pierced the highest heavens!
  5. Ibid., 15.
  6. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000), 33-35.
  7. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 33.

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