The Police Stop – WHO, not WHAT

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! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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7 Comments on “The Police Stop – WHO, not WHAT

  1. Great post!
    A few weeks ago, here in Central Asia, I was late in getting a document, that all of a sudden we urgently needed. The lady through whom we were to get this document is notoriously hard to work with, delays returning the document and always demands additional “fees”.
    Being right before a big holiday, I made some pretty cookies, put them in a pretty bag, went to the lady and heartily congratulated her with the upcoming holiday, boasted in my culinary skills and presented her the freshly baked biscotti. She smiled (almost!) and I had my document with in 5 minutes, with no additional fees! My local friends and administrator were shocked that I was immediately given my document with no hassle! They decided to also take cookies the next time they needed their documents!
    I learned this trick and the worldview behind it from serving with Jason. Giving a gift shows honor. Showing proper honor opens doors for relationship or simply to get things done.

  2. Wow! Brought back memories of when a colleague and I took a wrong turn and headed towards the summer home of the K pres – up a one-way street. I U-turned, but not before a policeman spotted me and flagged me over. I had ten passports with me – none mine – and the policeman asked to see them. Not a good sign!

    Things progressed uncomfortably as my colleague and I tried to explain why we had so many passports, why we were near the president’s residence, etc.

    As we completed whatever verbal transactions were needed, I pulled out my wallet, paid the fine (minimal, as yours) then handed over an additional 150 som and said, “Ui-bulomdon ui-bulonguzgo.” (From my family to yours.) The towering policeman approached me; I had done something wrong!

    He gave me a huge bear hug.

    (jd will verify this story.)

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