In Central Asia, I approached interactions with police from a guilt-justice perspective. Whenever a roadside policeman flagged me to stop (invariably without reason), my response focused primarily on actions —what I did (or actually, what I didn’t do).
Before greeting the policeman, I asked for his badge and wrote down his police identification number, as a power move to let him know he couldn’t pull one over on me! I demanded the policemen treat me justly by showing me the violation in the legal code. Then, as if a trained lawyer, I argued the finer technicalities to demonstrate my innocence, often at great length. On several occasions, I warned the officer that justice would be served when God would judge him for corruption (seriously, I did). Such injustice had to be exposed! It was wrong!
My goal was to prove that my actions were not wrong, and that I was not guilty. Because I believe in objective standards and laws, all behavior should be measured against such, to be determined right or wrong. But my behavior, at every point, challenged the policeman’s honor. And feeling challenged, they just wrote the ticket to prove their authority.
Then after a few years living in the honor-shame culture, I realized “who you are” is more important than “what you do.” (In fact, some local people would just tell the police their family name and were immediately excused. Others acquired special license plate numbers that functionally said, “I’m a big shot, and it would be a big mistake to stop me!”)
So I tried a different approach; I played their game and communicated who I was. When pulled over, I would greet them in their native language (not the trade language Russian) and ask them the ritual introductory questions about family and health. Instead of arguing about my actions, I would simply show them my California driver’s license. The first thing they often did was try to pronounce my name – that is, figure out who I was, by figuring out my family name. Then without fail, they made a comment about either Hollywood, Santa Barbara, Arnold Schwarzenegger – the 3 things everyone there associates with California and, fortunately, very nice conversation pieces for forging a new acquaintance. I invited them to the weight gym our team operated, letting them know the first visit would be free.
And instead of appealing to justice, I appealed to their honorable hospitality for foreigners like me, “Your people are always so welcoming and hospitable to new foreigners like me. Thank you for receiving me as a guest.” When I changed my strategy from arguing “I am not guilty!” to showing “You are honorable!,” both the policemen and I found the interaction enjoyable. We’d laugh, chat, shake hands, and promise to do lunch sometime. I still got some tickets, but more often than not walked away with a new friendly acquaintance.
Presenting who I was (‘a new friend from California!’) instead of what I did (‘nothing illegal, you extortionist!’) made far more sense in their hon0r-shame culture. Needless to say, my attempt at honor-shame ‘relationship building’ with a policeman in Utah fell hilariously flat; he only seemed concerned about mph, and not who I was.
The point of this post is not to provide law-evading tactics, but to explain how HonorShame dynamics play out in one corner of life – specifically, how human identity is constructed. Do you have a similar “WHO, not WHAT” episode to share? What are the relational and theological interpretations of such a reality?
Summary: When understanding human identity, honor-shame cultures ask “who are you?”; guilt-justice cultures (such as America) ask “what do you do?”
This is the first of three posts in the series ‘who, not what’. Next, we’ll examine the anthropological background of this phenomenon, and then the theology of Romans.