We Must Dis-Honor God

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I recently watched yet again a film that is a long time favorite of mine, the 1964 Zorba the Greek. But it is easy to misunderstand this classic.

In one horrifying scene, local villagers watch approvingly while an outraged father cuts the throat of a woman he blames for sexual immorality. Surely, we think, we are watching an honor killing somewhere in the Muslim Middle East? That is not exactly right, as the setting is a pious Christian village in Greek Orthodox Crete. Yet this is indeed a crime of honor of the sort that has become such a major element in the critique of Islam, and it reflects real historical events.

In fact, the whole value system that underlies honor crimes transcends faith traditions. Honor-based ideas manifest themselves in many unexpected aspects of Christianity and Islam, and we are only beginning to appreciate how deeply inlaid they are in our faiths. Honor, in short, is the forgotten factor in the making of religion.

Across much of the world, society was until modern times founded on the concept of family honor. This is still widely true across the Middle East, in South and Central Asia, and in some Mediterranean regions. Honor societies are cemented together by certain cultural themes: clientage and patronage, honor and revenge, devotion to family and clan. People struggle to assert the honor and reputation of their group, and to inflict shame upon rivals. In an honor society, your status as an individual depends absolutely on defending collective honor against any potential insult, by violence if necessary. Failure to retaliate means shame for the family concerned. When the state is weak, the fight for honor can escalate into feuds, vendettas and even civil wars.

So what does this have to do with religion? Both Christianity and Islam originated in societies founded on notions of honor and shame, and that fact has repeatedly shaped their thought and their theology. In both religions, we see a constant process of struggle and dialogue, in which standards of universalism and peace are challenged and supplanted by honor-based ideas of competition, rivalry and revenge.

Commonly, religious believers project those secular values into the cosmic scale, making God the ultimate patriarch of a great clan or family, who demands that his followers fight and die for his honor and name. Such a projection means giving sacred status to worldly concepts of honor, as if they were an integral part of the religion itself. The concept of blasphemy is meaningless except in the context of ideas of honor and shame. Honor underlies the idea of sacred names, and sacred images. The fundamental Old Testament word kabod means both God's glory, and his honor. One word serves both purposes.

In modern times, it is Islam that is most often tainted by stereotypes of religious fanaticism and intolerance, but Christians behaved very similarly in earlier eras. Although medieval Christian monks and clergy pledged to renounce personal and family honor as meaningless vanity, they easily transferred these loyalties to institutions. This might mean a violent loyalty to the church as a whole, or to a particular see or monastery. Clergy fought for that church or religious house with all the zeal they might earlier have applied to defending the honor of a city or a clan. Crusaders killed and died to avenge the insult that Muslims inflicted when they took Christ's sacred city, of Jerusalem.

The idea of satisfying aggrieved honor even formed Western theology. Around 1100, the monk Anselm depicted Christ as the only sacrifice meritorious enough to pay the debt of honor to God, which he did through his death on the cross. This theory of the Atonement became standard for both Catholic and Protestant churches, and remains so today. But how many of those who learn the theory in seminaries realize that they are dealing with a vestige of medieval codes of honor and vendetta?

Honor is inseparable from religious ideas of sexuality. In an honor society, families place a unique premium on the protection of their women, their modesty and chastity. Any challenge or compromise in these matters can only be avenged by bloody retaliation, most gruesomely in honor killings. Until very recent times, though, such vigilante actions were notorious in the Christian Mediterranean world, and they remain common in Catholic Latin America. Only in 1981 did Italy repeal a provision allowing an honor defense in the killing of women.

The problem in such honor crimes arises not from the religion as such or its scriptures, whether Muslim or Christian, but from the mores of the society that has come to regard the defense of honor as a sacred obligation. This is equally true of female circumcision, a common African custom intended to preserve and promote chastity, which many modern believers regard as an essential practice of Islam.

But however deeply rooted, concepts of honor evolve over time. As states have grown, they have enforced a monopoly of violence, and limited unofficial family justice and vendetta. Modernity implies a vastly expanded social role for women, the break up of extended families, and a radical shift to individual autonomy. Around the world, it has become ever more unacceptable to use violence to defend family honor or chastity. Still, the transition from an honor community to a society based on autonomy and gender equality can be messy and uneven, and resulting conflicts can actually lead to an upsurge in family enforcement of honor. This explains the rash of "honor killings" across contemporary Western Europe.

In such cases, though, the problem with religious violence and abuse is not the religion itself, but rather the secular honor-based ideas that have become attached to it. The good news is that such additions can be challenged and discarded without a frontal assault on the religion itself, or its scriptures. In principle, this should make it much easier to attack abuses while asserting the power of the faith itself. Increasingly, Islamic scholars distinguish between the authentic teachings of scripture and religious tradition, and such atrocious folk-customs as female circumcision and honor killing.

Not just in Islam, the critical next step in our theologies must be to dis-Honor God.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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