[This article is an edited and compressed version of the Marching for Allah series originally published here in September 2012. This version appeared in the print edition of the magazine, and is published here for the sake of completeness. – Ed.]
Last month I awoke to the news of an Islamic protest march through the centre of Sydney that was not entirely peaceful. I am Australian, but I live in Africa, where this kind of thing is common and often worse.
Earlier this year, one of my students from Nigeria was unable to attend the first two weeks of term because his town was under siege by Muslim insurgents who were burning churches and the homes of Christians. No doubt the Christians were also doing their own share of insurgency. Nevertheless, it was still shocking for me to see pictures of Muslim protestors marching through Sydney’s Hyde Park in order to uphold the honour of Muhammad. One photograph showed a child holding a banner that read “Behead all those who insult the prophet”! How should Christians respond?
Their prophet was being insulted. They were protesting against a new movie being made in the United States, apparently depicting Muhammad as a womanizer and child molester. Subsequent media attention has, unsurprisingly, focused on reassuring us that Muslims are not generally violent people; Islam is a religion of peace, and these minority factions exist within many religions. Apparently, we have nothing to fear from Islam. My Nigerian student might disagree.
But true or not, the Western media has missed the bigger picture. The protests weren’t about violence in the name of religion, and the relevant point isn’t whether this is a minority sect within a largely peaceful Islamic sub-culture. The protests were about honour. It is completely nonsensical to me that a group of people would march through Sydney protesting the production of a film in the United States. What did they expect the Australian government to do? What could have they possibly hoped to achieve? But they did achieve something. Muhammad had been publically disgraced; shame had been brought upon the Islamic religion. The protestors sent a clear message that that wasn’t okay with them. We’ve seen this plenty of times, from the epigraphs of Muhammad in the Danish press, to the trial in Melbourne of Pastor Daniel Nalliah for vilification. The protests weren’t about policy, they were aiming to restore honour.
To be sure, Muslims will disagree on how best to honour their prophet and their god. The founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, Keysar Trad, was quick to respond that the protest “[did] nothing to uphold the prophet’s honour as they claim”.1 But whatever method they advocate to do it, something every Muslim holds dear is that Allah, Muhammad and the Islamic religion must be seen to be honoured.Islam is an inherently honour-based religion. Allah must be seen to win.
If you are scratching your head at this point, wondering why honour is so important to Muslims, why a bunch of people thought the protests honoured anyone, and why common sense didn’t prevail (because protesting in Sydney could accomplish very little in California), then you need to stop and consider that perhaps what you call common sense isn’t actually all that common. Perhaps what is sensible, what you call rational, is in part determined by culture.
Alternative rationalities and the cultural value of honour
For a very long time, Christian missionaries have been noticing that cultural differences run far deeper than just food, clothes and customs; people also think and rationalize differently. I’m not talking about the kind of rationality you use to do mathematics. I mean the thoughts you think in order to motivate action: the thoughts you have to determine what activities are morally acceptable, practical, useful, wise and ethical.
In the middle of the last century, Eugene Nida categorized the cultures of the world into three basic groups by the way they react to transgressions of social norms. These groups constitute differing rationalities.2 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. We value truth, honesty, and justice. 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 to forgive us through the sacrifice of his son. The punishment has been justly paid. Our guilt is dealt with. For an example of this, just look at how Two Ways to Live frames the gospel.
Not everyone thinks like that. Nida identified two other basic rationalities. The one concerning us now is the shame-based rationality of the Middle Eastern world and much of Asia.3 In a shame-based culture, people often value relationship and the preservation of community over a personal sense of righteousness.4 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 of loyalty, community and friendship, and right action is about satisfaction, rather than justification. 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.5
Viewed from this perspective, we can see that the Sydney protest wasn’t really about stopping the film. They didn’t hope to accomplish public censorship. Muslims care about the way you think about Allah, even if you aren’t Muslim. They care about the way you think about Muhammad, who had been publically shamed. Many of them would prefer to defend the honour of Muhammad by any means rather than sit idly by while he is profaned. And so the protest was what rational action demanded of them.
Multiculturalism is a much tougher goal than it first appears! It not only means 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.
This difference between rationalities came across starkly in a public Christianity-Islam debate I attended recently in Melbourne. It was set up as an irenic dialogue about the differences in our ideas of God. The two participants were allowed to speak freely, and each responded respectfully to the other side. But in the end it was most valuable as an exercise in how difficult cross-cultural communication can be. I don’t pretend to be a dispassionate observer, but I was impressed with the Christian debater. He was soft-spoken, his arguments were careful, they relied on firm evidence, and he was very measured in his statements. If he didn’t know something, he said so, and he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that his opponents made good points from time to time. For the most part, I found his case compelling.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that these are qualities we value in debates as westerners. We find these arguments compelling because that’s what rationality means to us. Looking at the many Muslims in the audience showed that every time the Christian debater acknowledged ignorance, he strengthened his opponent’s argument in their eyes. Each time he complimented his opponent on a point well-made, he shamed himself. The same thing that came across as compelling to me came across as a weak argument to them. The Muslim debater never did these things. In my eyes he argued bullishly at times, sometimes overstating his case without (what I considered) sufficient justification, and spoke with a confidence that his argument didn’t appear to me to warrant. In his eyes he was presenting an argument through which Muhammad and Allah would be honoured. Allah had to win and be seen to be clearly superior. Personally, I found it unconvincing. But then I’m western, and it isn’t my rationality.
The ironic thing about the night is that both sides came away thinking they had clearly won the debate. The differing underlying rationalities meant the two sides had completely spoken past each other. The Christian, through doing what western people value in debates, had made an argument that appeared timid and weak to the Muslims in the room. Likewise, in debating the way Islamic people value, the Muslim made an argument that appeared to be overconfident to the Christians. Yet neither side saw from the opposite viewpoint, and so both thought they had won. At least everyone was happy!
Well, not quite everyone. The question time at the end revealed a small group of Egyptian Christians in the audience. Though they were Christian, their culture was shame-based, and so they saw the debate very differently to the western Christians. Their comments made it very clear that they felt Christ had been dishonoured. They cared little for irenic dialogue. They yelled insults, and in the most provocative way possible spoke of being freed from the bondage of Allah and his false prophet. The adjective ‘satanic’ may have made an appearance. Their goal wasn’t to persuade by appeal to careful, measured, justifiable arguments. Their goal was to honour Christ, and if that meant upsetting the Muslims, so be it. That’s what any rational person would do. Right?
Culture and the complex task of commending Christ
Having made this missiological observation, as Christian evangelists we are left in an awkward place. On the one hand, when we speak as missionaries to people of other cultures—whether in Egypt or Hyde Park—we probably want to be understood. We feel like we should commend the gospel to them in a way that will appeal to their rationality, using arguments that will be convincing to them. We want to become all things to all men so that by all means we will win some (1 Cor 9:22). But on the other hand, is it possible to remove the shame of the cross and still be Christian? Perhaps, before we rush to abandon our ‘western’ way of thinking and arguing, we should consider the origins of our western thought. Could it be that the way we do some things might be a product of the gospel more than our culture?
This thought will sound strange to many people who are aware of issues in Christian missiology, and the mistakes our forebears have made in this regard. Review any history of missions and you will quickly notice that missionaries of the past have very often failed to distinguish between what was gospel and what was culture. We have insisted that people become western and ‘civilized’ before they can become Christian. However well-intentioned (and however graciously God used our missionary efforts despite their failings), much of what passed as mission was ultimately a form of cultural imperialism. Today we are extremely careful to bring the message of the gospel without western entrapments.
But the pendulum has well and truly swung back. Western self-loathing has pushed us so far that many people do not now believe that western missionaries have anything valuable to say. Everything we say is tainted with our culture, and many even within the church don’t believe in the task of mission at all. But perhaps we fail to realize that some things we think are just western are actually Christian. It’s true that western culture isn’t Christian culture, and that the gospel is not western. But it’s also true that the west has been shaped for 2000 years by thinkers who worked in a vaguely Christian milieu.6 The west is post-Christian, not post-something else. Might it be possible that we have something to unashamedly contribute to God’s people who haven’t enjoyed this heritage?
Let us take an example, a theological issue current in missiological literature. When I was discussing the way people from shame-cultures understand the gospel, I mentioned that very often they see the work of Christ in terms of his humiliation, shame and exaltation. Might we then, when we commend Christ to people from such cultures, explain the gospel like this?7 Do we need a new version of Two Ways to Live that is better contextualized? There are many good reasons to do so; not least of which is that the Bible itself understands Christ’s work in this way sometimes (e.g. Ps 25:3; Isa 53:3; Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:6). Christ has dealt with our shame as much as our guilt. He has exalted the humble and destroyed the proud. In many ways, this is a fantastic example of how people from other cultures can help us see what is in Scripture that our own culture has made us blind to. Even making this observation will be a big step in speaking with people from shame-based cultures about the gospel.
But before we abandon penal substitutionary atonement entirely as we witness to our Muslim friends, perhaps we should consider that there may be a reason why western Christians relate so well to this particular explanation of Christ’s death. Historical theology is of some help here. Anslem, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, wrote a treatise on the work of Christ titled Cur Deus Homo? (Why God became Man). Strictly speaking it belongs to the western theological heritage, but it is very far from a western world view in the modern sense of the word. In it, Anselm outlines the satisfaction theory of the atonement: the idea that the work of Christ is about restoring the honour of an offended God. It is a theory well-suited to medieval Europe—a world that thought in terms of shame, loyalty and fealty. When someone was offended, satisfaction was required to mend the relationship, a rationality not too different, I would wager, from many modern Middle-Eastern countries.
So it would seem that the west used to be a shame-based culture, but is now a guilt-based culture. No doubt there was a multiplicity of factors involved in this transition, but can anyone seriously doubt the impact of the Protestant Reformation? Martin Luther’s analysis of the gospel played an enormous part in the cultural change of 16th century Europe. His realization was that the righteousness of God wasn’t about God’s own righteousness: God’s intrinsic honour and glory. It was about a righteousness imputed to us; our sin condemned us, but in Christ we stand justified because Christ has dealt with our guilt. How powerfully transforming this idea was in the history of western thought!
Before abandoning penal substitutionary atonement, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the west is a guilt-based culture precisely because penal substitutionary atonement is the dominant biblical explanation of the work of Christ. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to rid ourselves of our ‘western’ way of arguing just yet either. Cultures are not static, and the gospel will shape them wherever it goes. Were it (by the power of the Spirit) to take deep root in the Middle East, then we would no doubt see a shift in the rationality and underlying value systems of those cultures also.
Speaking into a Muslim world view
This then is the goal of speaking to Muslims: to find ways to penetrate Muslim rationality with the rationality of the gospel. I suggest that the way to do this is to talk more about those topics that best expose the difference of rationalities, and to do it in a way consistent with the rationality of the gospel. We should talk about the offensive and foolish subjects—the cross, the atonement, justification, the Trinity, and the fatherhood of God. And we should speak from a position of humility, even if it appears weak. Many times Christians recoil from theological conversations with Muslims because in every topic the Muslim evangelist seems to have the upper hand. We can’t explain the Trinity and we don’t know what to do with the shame of the cross. Many of us don’t talk much at all, hoping instead that our loving actions might win our Muslim friends. Perhaps. But Muslims, like Christians, are who they are because of the way they think about God. They will understand the Christian God, and the logic of the gospel, when they see the difference our theology makes.
It has been widely assumed in missiological circles that the way we do theology will depend on our culture, but theologians are starting to see that the reverse relationship is equally true. Much of our culture depends on the way we think about God.8 In Islamic theology Allah is unknowable. He is utterly transcendent, and it is impossible to penetrate the inside of God to enter into any kind of relationship. The best we can do is know his will for our lives, and then honour him by doing it. It isn’t a religion of relationship, it’s about submission—which is what the word Muslim means. This idea of God shapes every area of Islamic culture. The task of the government is to ensure that Allah is honoured by society and that society conforms to his will. Because of this, Islamic culture will always tend towards social uniformity and political totalitarianism. The concept of dhimmitude9 also makes complete sense, because non-Muslims also must be seen to honour Allah, even if they don’t believe. Life becomes about conformity and obedience. The good life is one where Allah is seen to be honoured.
But consider the difference that Christian theology makes—the Christian church in its better, more self-consistent moments. Consider that the Father of Jesus Christ would humble his own son; that Christ would become man so that we might penetrate the unknowable God and discover the inner nature of the Father. We think about reality differently because of this. All of a sudden, true power is power to serve others self-sacrificially, just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. True being is in relationship: existence for another, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. Consider how much changes when you see God not through the lens of glory, but through a theology of the cross—that God would be humbled and shamed, cast into the despair of a grieving parent. What might it mean for our dialogue with Islam that God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ doesn’t always have to be seen to win?
Christians must talk more, not less about these things with Muslims. We must get a solid handle on the doctrines of the Trinity and atonement, and we mustn’t be afraid to speak of them with our Muslim friends. But when we respond to events like the protest march, it not only matters that we do respond, but the way we respond is important. The Islamic world has come to our doorstep (to our shame—shouldn’t we have gone to theirs?). They come with a message of victory: Allah will triumph, he suffers no rivals, above all Allah must be honoured. Our response must not be Islamic. Even though Christians do need to speak, we don’t need to shout louder. We don’t need to insist that the whole world honour Christ with the dignity due to him.
A time will come for that, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, glorifying God the Father. That is something that God will do. For now, however, we might have to be prepared to lose, prepared to pick up our cross. We may have to acknowledge that there is in fact nothing rational we can say, but then say it nonetheless. Allah may have his day, while Christians continue to meekly proclaim a nonsensical Trinitarian God, a dishonoured and crucified saviour, while we love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. All of this is utter foolishness to them, but there is a hidden wisdom to it through which the Spirit of God quietly works. We aren’t going to be able to boisterously commend a crucified God.
Christians suffer in this world—ask my Nigerian student. But more than that, suffering is a part of God’s plan for salvation. Satan has his day. The powers of this world overcame the Son of God, nailing him to the cross. Allah’s day is Friday. But it is only one day, and you can’t tell on Friday who wins. Allah may be honoured by all and Christ may be in the grave, but the true God doesn’t always need to appear victorious. The victor will only be known three days later. We live on that Saturday in between. We do not yet see all things subjected to Jesus. Rather we worship, proclaim and honour a crucified God, who bore our sin—and shame—in his own body on the tree. He did it to show us the inner heart of the God who suffers with us. He did it to win forgiveness for the meek and humble, and for those that hunger and thirst for a righteousness that they didn’t see in the placards of the protest march. If it is a message that is foolish, then so be it: we will be foolish. For vindication we must wait. But we wait with altered rationality, with a hidden wisdom. We wait with patience and eager expectation, for Sunday.
- Ilya Gridneff, ‘Police gas Sydney protestors’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September 2012. ↩
- Eugene Nida, Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions, William Carey Library, Pasadena, 1954. Nida’s categories are not 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 over time, the model has proved resilient and is still used by Christian missiologists today. ↩
- The third group is the fear-based cultures of many tribal groups, including South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. ↩
- Roland Muller observes that the regions of the world most closely identified as shame-based cultures roughly correspond to the 10/40 window, 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 in Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door, Xlibris, Birmingham, 2001. ↩
- Timothy Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2007. I am indebted to Tennent’s work for much of this analysis of honour-shame cultures. ↩
- A good read on this is David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009. ↩
- I am indebted to Timothy Tennent for this question also, and I again commend his extremely helpful Theology in the Context of World Christianity. ↩
- Robert Letham discusses this in The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, 2004. ↩
- Mark Durie, The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom, Deror Books, Melbourne, 2009. ↩