Can the Cushite change his skin?

20 10 2010

I remember being in a Christian bookshop that was shutting down. Books I’d been after for ages were being sold off at ridiculous prices. (I literally blinked and missed Ben Witherington’s commentary on Acts for 99p – some conniving little weasel snuck in and nicked it off the shelf from before my very eyes. I nearly beat him to a pulp with a £2 copy of Lloyd-Jones on Romans volume 1 – a book I think is far more suited to inflicting pain with than reading) And in the midst of the sale I ended up picking up a random, dull grey covered book that I had no interest in, but was in a series I’d heard of… and would set me back about 30p.

That book was J. Daniel Hays’ From Every People and Nation. I got it home, read the back, discovered it was bound to be even less exciting than I had thought. A survey of the ethnic make up of the Bible – made up almost entirely of non-extant people groups, 80% of which I couldn’t even begin to pronounce.

I shelved it. Wouldn’t you?

J. Daniel Hays - From Every People and Nation

Some years later, I had read a couple of other books in the series, and recalled that I had this volume sitting on my shelf. I thought I would give it a go. So I packed it as holiday reading (!!) along with another couple of books. My philosophy with holiday reading is that if I only take boring looking books that I know I should read, but have little desire to, in the hope that I will have no choice but to get through them… and then I can steal one of my wife’s novels as a treat!

Hays’ book was a surprise. Essentially it went through the Bible, beginning to end, listing nation after nation, telling us where they came from and what they looked like. Not exactly what you would call a riveting premise! But as I read it, I have to say, I was amazed at the picture it painted. I had never quite realized how prominent black Africans were in the Biblical narrative! It’s not that I’d though they weren’t there – and I certainly didn’t hold the old ‘all the holy people of Scripture were beautiful European Aryans’ view, characteristic of so much anachronistic (quasi racist?!) western artwork – but I guess I’d never stopped to think that the Cushites were a black African people. And I’d certainly never noticed how frequently they occur in the Biblical narrative. Was Zephaniah a Cushite? (Zeph 1:1) How about Phineas? Says Hays:

Ph’ functions like the definite article. ‘nehsiu’ means inhabitant of the region along the Nile. Thus Phinehas means ‘the negro’ or ‘the Cushite.’ He is ‘the only leader other than Joshua that takes the initiative in any action within the book of Joshua.’ (p81).

Ok – so his writing could perhaps be a little punchier. But an interesting insight I’d not picked up before.

The section on Moses’ marriage to a Cushite (possibly the daughter of the Cushite King, according to Josephus; Ant 10:1-2) was brilliant, and unlocked the narrative in a way I’d never previously appreciated:

Yahweh’s punishment on Miriam is swift and severe. He strikes her with a skin disease and she becomes (white) as snow […] an intentional, appropriate response to Miriam’s prejudice against the black wife […] More important, and much clearer, is the theological dimension of Miriam’s punishment. She was sent outside the camp, a temporary expulsion from the family and the people of God. While the Cushite woman becomes part of Moses’ family and the people of Israel through marriage, Miriam, through her opposition to Moses, is separated both from the family and the people of Israel.’ (p76)

Slightly less seriously, (but almost equally interesting!) I was amused to learn that ‘the leopard changing his spots’ was a Biblical phrase – I’d always attributed it to Aesop, or some other peddler of fables. But no:

Can the Cushite change his skin or the leopard his spots?‘ (Jeremiah 13:23)

Perhaps I’d always been naïve… but I was astonished as I read about the way various people had used and abused texts to endorse and condone racism over the years, in particular Genesis 9:18-27. It amazed me that people could so twist the word of God to create division between people based on their skin colour.

The final chapter was an appeal to the church to root out and deal with racism. It puzzled me. Hays laid out seven concluding thoughts, as follows:

  1. The biblical world was multi-ethnic, and black people were involved in God’s unfolding plan of redemption from the beginning
  2. All people are created in the image of God, and therefore all races and ethnic groups have the same status and unique value that results from the image of God
  3. Genesis 10 and the Abrahamic promise combine to form a theme that runs throughout Scripture, constantly pointing to the global and multi-ethnic elements inherent in the overarching plan of God
  4. Racial intermarriage is sanctioned by Scripture
  5. The gospel demands that we carry compassion and the message of Christ across ethnic lines
  6. The New Testament demands active unity in the Church, a unity that explicitly joins differing ethnic groups together because of their common identity in Christ
  7. The picture of God’s people at the climax of history portrays a multi-ethnic congregation from every tribe, language, people, and nation, all gathered together in worship around God’s throne

Sure’ I thought. ‘But don’t all Christians agree with those points?‘ I had friends who were dating or married to people with a different skin colour. I’d never even questioned it: ‘Surely people aren’t that racist these days?‘ I thought. ‘Not in England? Not in English churches?’

Bizarrely enough, the two other books I’d chosen to take away with me were Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama, and William Hague’s biography of Wilberforce. Hague seems to have a peculiar habit of only writing biographies of people who share his first name. William Wilberforce. William Pitt. I half imagine we might see an account of the life and times of William Shatner in the coming years. Or seeing as Liam is a Gaelic shortening of William, perhaps I might even be the next lucky subject! Had ‘Just William‘ not already been taken, it might have made a suitable title for the series. But I digress…

Together these three books really challenged me on the issue of race. Reading again the story of the abhorrent racism that Wilberforce and friends fought to bring down, and the rather more modern account of Obama facing mockery and abuse over his mixed race parentage, really helped me to realise that it is by no means an issue relegated to the long grass of distant history. The combination of this trio of books made me question whether I had been quite naïve in my assumption that racism isn’t that prevalent in the church these days. Perhaps it doesn’t take the same recognisable form today, but it’s still there, and still an evil to be rooted out and destroyed mercilessly.

One of my favourite books to teach on is Ephesians. I have the joy of being able to spend a whole day teaching through it to hungry volunteers on a Newfrontiers training course, and the beauty of the truth that God has made for himself one new man, reconciling the irreconcilable gets me excited and emotional every time. Even preaching this summer on Genesis 10 and God’s plan to regather the nations to Himself through the Church excited and stirred me afresh.

Let’s not make the mistake of Miriam. And let us not think arrogantly that we have reached the pinnacle of history, from which we can survey the past and think ‘aren’t I glad we’re no longer like that unenlightened lot.‘ Racism is always a danger, especially in its subtle, passive forms – more about what we don’t do for those who are different to us than what we do. But the Biblical narrative does not allow for it. Neither does the Gospel. And neither should we.





Honour and Shame iv – Strung Up and Lifted Up

24 09 2010

In this fourth and final post I explore two more passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example:

Disarming the Powers

‘When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ (Colossians 2:13-15)

Similarly to Leviticus 16, in Colossians 2 we see God dealing not only with the legal demand of guilt, but also the problem of shame. The cross was a hugely brutal and shameful thing to endure. As Jesus hung there, bloody, bruised, broken, naked and humiliated, with a mocking sign above his head, to all intents and purposes it seemed like the powers and authorities (both Roman and Demonic) had won. But actually, as Christ wilfully endured that shameful act of cruelty on our behalf, he turned the tables on the powers, triumphing over them and putting them to open shame as he broke their power forever more. Colossians 2 says he did it ‘at the cross’ but implicit in this as well is the resurrection. It was not only at the cross that he shamed them, but at the grave as well, where he demonstrated their impotence and rose again in glory. And now he is ascended into heaven and there is only, and will only ever be, glory for him!

The Christ Hymn of Philippians

‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Phil 2:5-11)

Philippians 2 is an awe-inspiring passage that depicts beautifully Jesus’ willingness to transition from glory, being in very nature God, to shame, becoming like a servant/slave, and ultimately dying a humiliating criminal’s death. The passage ends with God exalting him to a position of extreme honour – every knee bowing before him in heaven and on earth and under the earth. Jesus took on a shameful form to pay for our shame, and his resurrection and ascension in glory prefigures our own eventual resurrection at the second coming.

Conclusion

The Gospel cuts across every culture at some point and causes discomfort. It is not only those in honour/shame cultures that will feel some repugnance at the notion of leaving your family (and dying father?) without a farewell, in order to follow Jesus (Luke 9:59-62). Socialising with prostitutes is as much of a cultural faux pas for modern western politicians (and footballers!) as it was for ancient eastern Rabbis! (Matthew 21:32) The Gospel has always been, and will continue to be, foolishness to the perishing (1 Cor 1:18).

There is no easy and comfortable portrayal of the Gospel, as it will always confront our assumptions and challenge us to give up something our culture holds dear; independence, personal comfort, prejudices etc. In a sense, Gospel and Culture will always be somewhat in opposition.

Having said that, it is vital we contextualise the Gospel responsibly, and ensure that we present it in a way that genuinely addresses the concerns of the recipient. Failure to recognise the differences between cultures can result in the presentation of an irrelevant and incoherent gospel.





Honour and Shame iii – Scapegoat and Son

23 09 2010

In this third of four posts I intend to briefly explore two passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example.

The Scapegoat

‘Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.’ (Leviticus 16:9-10)

Leviticus 16 tells the story of two goats, one of whom is killed on behalf of the people as a means of paying the penalty for their sin (guilt), whilst the second is sent off into the desert, carrying their shame with him. The second goat, the scapegoat, is driven outside the camp, separated from the community. It is symbolic of the penalty of sin; shameful separation. [1]

Removal of guilt is not the only thing God is concerned with. He is concerned with the feelings of shame and the social and relational ramifications of sin. His scapegoat is the means of removing that shame, and Jesus, who was sent outside the camp, ridiculed, naked and bearing our shame, fulfilled both the role of the sin offering and scapegoat in one fell swoop.

The Prodigal Son

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:21-24)

The story of the Prodigal Son is a brilliant example of how the gospel is relevant to the honour/shame culture. In fact, there is little in it to appease those of us entrenched in a guilt culture, such is the emphasis on the restoration of relationship. The following elements are of particular note:

  • The younger son brings shame upon himself by wishing his father were dead, thus enabling him to have the inheritance (15:12)
  • He brings shame upon the father by squandering his hard earned wealth (15:13)
  • He gets a job tending swine, which is immeasurably shameful for a Jew (15:15) and he even contemplates eating the swine food (15:16)
  • He is in such dire need that he considers going back to his father, begging him and offering to become a hired hand – to give himself in slavery to his father and giving up his title as son (15:19)
  • But the father himself takes the bold move of running, undignified, towards his returning prodigal son (15:19) rather than rejecting him.
  • Even more amazing, he refuses to allow his son to be a slave, but blesses him. He doesn’t even allow him to return and carry on as if nothing had happened, but he showers honour upon him, with a robe, a ring and a feast (15:22-23)

This story paints the picture of a God who won’t abandon you to shameful separation, even when that’s what logic and society deem appropriate. He will step out and come running toward you, eager to restore you to a place of honour. I think it is telling that the Father takes a potentially shameful step, putting his reputation at stake by running (an action not befitting of an older gentleman!) and accepting a clearly sinful man back into your family. It beautifully makes sense of the God who was willing to endure the shame of the cross to take away the shame of humanity.

There is a great significance in the character of the older brother as well. He reproves his father, a clear advocate of the honour/shame mindset; “This son has dishonoured you, I have only brought honour to you, it is dishonourable for you to accept him back!” But God defies the logic of those who are bemused by his lavish grace. The cross is foolishness…

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[1] It is worth noting that death would have been the fate of both goats. The scapegoat didn’t simply wander off to live a long, albeit lonely, life. In fact the Rabbis indicate that they went to extreme lengths to ensure the goat didn’t return, bringing the shame back into the camp. They established ten booths along the way towards a large ravine in the wilderness. At these booths, a man whose job it was to lead the goat could stop for water, food and rest. When the man reached the ravine he would push the goat into it, ensuring it died. He would then wave a towel so that the people at the last booth could see the goat was dead. This was communicated from booth to booth all the way back to the camp, where the people would rejoice that their shame was gone, no more to return. Thus it was essential that Jesus not only bore our shame and went outside the camp, but that he died too, thus putting an end to our shame once and for all. He will never return to us with our shame. Our shame is in the grave, and now the risen Christ is clothed in only glory!





Honour and Shame ii – Eden and Exodus

22 09 2010

In this second of four posts I intend to briefly explore two passages of Scripture that address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example. It’s a fairly arbitrary selection and there are, of course, many more I could add…

The Fall

‘The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed […] Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths […] And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.’ (Genesis 2:25, 3:7, 21)

In God’s original creation, shame was non-existent; or at the very least, the things of which we are now ashamed bore no stigma. Right at the beginning of history we see a story that shows a number of key elements of the gospel, namely:

  • We were created to be without shame, in perfect relationship with one another and with the Lord (2:25)
  • Sin leads to shame (3:7)
  • Man tries to cover his shame through his own efforts (3:7)
  • Shame leads to fear, not only of what others think, but what God thinks (3:10)
  • The result of man’s actions is a curse of enmity (3:15, 16), pain in childbirth (3:16), a curse on the earth (3:18), painful work (3:19), physical death (3:19), loss of eternal life (3:22) and, crucially, banishment from God’s presence (3:24)
  • God took an active role in covering our shamefulness and restoring dignity to us (3:21) probably through an act of sacrifice.

Thus in the story of the fall we have a basic structure for explaining how sin affects relationships, creating a sense of shame that results in banishment, and how God Himself offers a way of covering our shame and restoring our dignity.

The Exodus

‘The Egyptians set taskmasters over [The Israelites] to afflict them with heavy burdens […] they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.’ (Exodus 1:11, 13-14)

The Exodus story depicts a people who are removed from their homeland and reduced to the shameful position of waiting on their ruthless Egyptian captors. Slavery is a shameful thing, and being oppressed and unable to do anything about it would be looked down on in honour/shame cultures (as it would in most cultures, I imagine.) Yet the Exodus story paints a picture of a God who:

  • Cares about His people, and doesn’t abandon them because He is ashamed of their degraded state
  • Acts to bring an end to shame, when the Israelites could do nothing by their own strength to free themselves
  • When God brings Israel out of exile, he doesn’t merely bring them to a neutral position, but promises to bless them with an honourable status in a fertile land flowing with milk and honey

So although it takes a step of humility for someone in an honour/shame culture to recognise that they are unable to do anything to remedy their shameful state, and that they are indeed in need of rescue, the Exodus narrative gives a good structure for showing how God is not ashamed of His people enough to give them up, but instead gets involved to rescue and restore them.






Honour and Shame i – The Jumping Frog

20 09 2010

Tiswango - Hurricane Katrina

Mark Twain once stumbled across a French translation of his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. He decided to convert the French version back into English, word for word, retaining the French grammatical structure and syntax. There were, predictably, quite notable and humorous differences between the original and the back-translated versions. The latter was clunky, indecipherable and bore little resemblance to the original story. Finally, in 1903, the three versions were published together under the title The Jumping Frog: in English, then in French, and then Clawed Back into a Civilised Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.

Back-translating a document, from one language to another, and back to the original, is a perilous undertaking; a good deal may be lost in the process, and you’ve got to wonder what you’ve gained over simply using the original document!?

I can’t help but feel that the question of how to communicate the Gospel in an honour/shame culture has the potential to fall foul to the hazards of back-translation. The audience to whom Jesus spoke was, after all, entrenched in an honour/shame worldview. And so here am I, not particularly au fait with the intricacies of the honour/shame worldview, trying to back-translate my own interpretation of the gospel into its original form!

I say this not to claim it is an impossible or unfruitful task, but simply to highlight a slight peculiarity about the task in hand, and also to admit that I know very little about honour/shame cultures. I should like to know more, and given that Britain is becoming increasingly multicultural, our interaction with people who hold this worldview is only likely to increase.

A short while ago I had to write an essay on how the gospel could be communicated in an honour/shame culture. It was a challenge and I fear my own observations, given their lack of intricate knowledge, may prove to be as clunky and indecipherable as version three of the Jumping Frog! Reading Carson’s article reminded me that I wanted to revisit the subject and give it some further thought.

Given that the New Testament was written to people in an honour/shame culture, is no great surprise to find that it contains not a few elements, metaphors, stories and concepts that lend themselves to communicating the gospel to these cultures. In these next few blog posts I propose to make a few tentative observations about honour/shame cultures, followed bare-bone structures for how one might present the gospel from six passages of Scripture.

Initial Observations

One of the elements of honour/shame cultures that works in favour of communicating the gospel is that there is already an established understanding of sin. People recognise that some actions are good, and others bad, or at least that certain actions have good or bad outcomes. The concept of sinfulness is therefore relatively familiar to individuals in honour/shame cultures. People will hardly need convincing of the existence and effect of sin, as it is experienced on a regular basis.

However, there are a number of differences between our understandings of the effect sin has. In our culture, which one might call a ‘guilt culture’, the issue with sin is that it leaves us with a sense of guilt for the wrongs we have committed. What we require, in order to appease that guilt, is forgiveness. In honour/shame cultures, guilt is not so much a consideration, as alienation; as a result of your shame, you will be shunned by those you have hurt, and particularly your family. What you need, therefore, is not so much forgiveness – although that will no doubt be a part of it – but reconciliation to your family through the removal of shame.

Sinfulness is often determined in honour/shame cultures by the effect your actions have upon your relationships. What constitutes sin is often defined by how other people perceive your actions, rather than the inherent goodness or wrongness of the action itself. Thus what constitutes a shameful action could vary significantly according to the crowd with whom you interact. [1]

What’s more, the fact that sin is defined as something that brings shame upon the community, may actually prove to be a hindrance to someone making a response to the gospel. In shame cultures, it may be considered a seriously shameful thing to convert to Christianity. Hence many converts who come from Islamic backgrounds find themselves disowned by their family members, or in extreme circumstances threatened with death. The belief that conversion will bring shame upon your family may prove to be a significant stumbling block for a potential convert in a shame culture.

Another potential hindrance raised by the honour/shame understanding of sin is that it has the potential to create self-reliance and promote a works-righteousness mentality. If your actions have the potential to bring honour or shame upon you, then the way in which you obtain greater honour is by performing more honourable actions. This has the potential to create self-reliance and legalism.

Related is the concern that allowing someone to die in your place is a hugely shameful thing to do. Substitutionary atonement will not sit will with someone who believes it is shameful for someone else to take the blame for your iniquities, or that requiring rescue is a sign of weakness, and thus shameful. Of course, pride is not unique to honour/shame cultures, and is likely to be a universally recognised stumbling block, but it is perhaps worth noting.

There is also an inherent and perhaps unhelpful aspect to the concept of shamefulness that produces an inward-looking approach to morality. Take the example of a man who is faced with the potential to exploit someone else’s weakness for their own gain; perhaps stealing from an old lady. In an honour/shame culture the imperative that causes you to resist such a crime is that taking advantage of your strength and someone else’s weakness brings shame upon you. In our culture, presumably, the motivating factor for resisting would be that mugging an old lady is either (i) illegal or (ii) unfair on the lady.  In option (i) an appeal is made to an objective morality that exists apart from us and in option (ii) it is the victim’s wellbeing that is put first. In the honour/shame culture abstaining from robbery has the potential to be a predominately selfish act, motivated by the concern of how your actions will be perceived by others, and what ramifications that will have upon you.

Of course, it is conceivable that the would-be-mugger in our culture may be motivated by the fear that (iii) his actions will leave him unable to sleep at night, a selfish motivation or (iv) the objective morality (in the form of the British legal system) will catch up with him, a selfish motivation which still appeals to an objective moral imperative. But I think the observation stands that actions in honour/shame cultures are more likely to be motivated by selfish ambition than out of respect for the wellbeing of the victim.

Our two cultures are not entirely distinct. There are common elements in each, and it’s not easy to polarise them into neat packages. But nonetheless, with some of these comments in mind, the next two posts aim to summarise six passages of Scripture that appear to address the particular notions of honour and shame, showing how the Gospel could be communicated from each example.

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[1] Of course, this is not unique to honour/shame cultures, and in many areas of the western world relativism is still rife. The motivating factor may be different, (honour/shame = what will people think of me if I do this? Western postmodern = ‘it feels good to me so it can’t be wrong!!”) but the effect is the same; a rejection of moral absolutes in favour of a more flexible morality. Additionally, in honour/shame cultures, they still have a law to which they need to abide, and breaking that law will have judicial consequences; imprisonment, mutilation, death. But in the arena of day-to-day life, the sinfulness of the words you say and the way you treat people will be determined not by a perception of ‘what is good and proper’ but ‘what will cause people to think positively or negatively of me.’