How do we as Christians respond to verbal duels for honor?
The previous blog
introduced ‘verbal jousting’; this blog explores practical ‘fencing moves’ for Christian workers in HonorShame contexts. Once I learned about verbal jousting, I recognized it often (especially between men), but it took time to figure out how to respond.
First and foremost
, we must realize that our honor as Christians is never at stake in conversations – it has been eternally declared and procured by God. We don’t have to compete for honor with our words by criticizing, correcting, arguing, gossiping, being defensive, or being jealous. Rather, being rooted in Christ, we can engage conversations knowing our honor and identity are permanently secure in God. This frees Christians from the pressures of honor competitions, to consider others higher than ourselves. In Paul’s words: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others
.” (Phil 2:3-4). To make this our M.O., the Spirit has to change us from the inside out.
That being said, here are some ideas. None of these are gospel instructions, just suggestions based on experience. And even if you don’t live in honor-shame cultures, understanding the ‘challenge-riposte game’ will aid your interpretation of Jesus’ public interactions (and many contemporary political situations in the Middle East).
If someone challenges you, you can…
If somebody claims honor, you can…
- …ignore the game. For a Western not as concerned about social honor, it is easy to simply write-off their verbal jabs as posturing, and move on. This was my typical response, especially if only my personal honor or national honor were at stake. David’s casual response to Shimei is a good example of not responding to a public challenge (2 Sam 16:11-12).
- …play the game, and respond. Occasionally, I responded to their challenge. When people demeaned Jesus’ honor (by saying he was not divine or crucified), I would respond. Jesus often responded when the Pharisees challenged his honor (cf. Mt 22).
- …acknowledge their claim. There are lots of good things people should feel honor about. When people boasted in a new job, their country’s beauty, culture’s hospitality, family’s home, or own athletic accomplishments, I would congratulate them. Honor should be conferred in those circumstances. Hopefully, this is our most common response – to bless people with a healthy sense of honor.
- …challenge their claim, unto honor. You can present an easy challenge to people, that sets them up for an easy riposte. Lob a fat pitch up for them to hit out of the park. If somebody drove an SUV (a major Central Asian honor symbol), I’d challenge, “Why do you have such a big vehicle?” They would smile with pride and say, “Because I am a big (a.k.a., important) person!” This is a friendly challenge that ends in mutual smiles. This is a fun one people tend to enjoy.
- …challenge their claim, unto shame. When people’s claim to honor is illegitimate, destructive, or wrong, it should be challenged. Their honor bluff must be called, as Jesus often did with the Pharisees. Obviously this is to be done rarely, but there are occasions when people should feel ashamed (“I say this to your shame,” 1 Cor 6:7, 15:34). I usually challenged claims to honor by misbehaving subordinates – such as when students or employees purposefully ignored their work. A firm scolding seemed most appropriate, and they typically responded positively (strangely, that can actually be a way of communicating care). If it is a sin issue with a fellow believer, avoid shaming them publicly by waiting for a nonpublic time to address the matter.
(CAVEAT: These suggestions best serve residents in the cultures of West Asia, such as Mediterranean, Arab, or Turkic. East Asian cultures do not aggressively compete for honor in dialogues.)
So which option is right?
It all depends! The route you chose is ultimately a matter of wisdom and conscience. How you play the verbal jousting game is a personal choice, depending on context. Yet, I believe we are still responsible to understand the game. Remember, this is a central means of communication and identity. Though it has rules like a game, the stakes are much higher than just a game.
Colossians 4:5-6 is most instructive: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”