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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩