The Twelve carried with them the assumptions, perceptions, and reactions of men raised and socialized in an honor/shame culture. The evidence is close at hand to our text. Malina and Rohrbaugh note, concerning Luke 9:46-50, that “A squabble over honor status would be typical within any ancient Mediterranean grouping” (page 344). The wrangling over who’s the top banana disciple is certainly a prime example of a squabble over honor status.
It’s worth reviewing the highlights of honor-shame societies from Malina and Rohrbaugh’s work. They contrast such societies to the more “guilt-oriented” Western cultures, although I have doubts about that contrast. Nonetheless, “Honor can be understood as the status one claims in the community together with the all-important recognition of that claim by others” (page 310). Such honor is either ascribed or acquired. In Luke 9, the disciples are wrestling with relative gradations of ascribed honor, since they all have been labelled as part of the Twelve.
In our text for Sunday, honor challenges and insults abound. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that Samaritans perceive an honor offense because Jesus is merely passing through. His face is set toward Jerusalem. “Of course the Samaritans perceive this as a slight,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, “while James and John view such rejection of hospitality as insulting; hence their desire to get satisfaction by ‘commanding fire from heaven’ as Elijah did…” (page 345).
It should be clear that the system is working as designed. The Twelve are particularly primed to react to such an insult, given the conversation they’ve been having. They are tightly focused on their status and the honor such status provides them. That honor is tied to the status of their master. Jesus has been deeply disrespected, and such an insult cannot pass unanswered. The response of the disciples, in this system, is not only plausible but required.
Therefore, the surprising response comes, not from James and John, but from Jesus. Life in the Kin(g)dom of God will be anything but business as usual.
I noted earlier that I’m not so sure about the sociological differences between modern, Western societies and the honor/shame culture of the first-century Mediterranean. Indeed, it appears to me that an honor/shame culture has been driving the cultural and political life of American Evangelicalism for two centuries. I think there’s no question that the culture of the antebellum South was an honor/shame culture, with the wealthy White male at the pinnacle of the social pyramid. The defense of White womanhood, the celebration of chivalry, the culture of dueling, and the need for Black people to make up the base of the pyramid are all signs of that culture.
This matters to me because that’s the culture which came out of the Civil War and embraced the mythology of the Lost Cause. That mythology has undergirded White Evangelical culture since the end of the Civil War and has taken firm control of significant parts of the larger American social dynamic, especially the conservative Evangelical Christian part of that social dynamic.
For a full and clear treatment of this culture and its power in American culture and politics, I would encourage you to read (and re-read) Kristin Kobes DuMez’s book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. “Generations of evangelicals learned to be afraid of communists, feminists, liberals, secular humanists, ‘the homosexuals,’ the United Nations, the government, Muslims, and immigrants—and they were primed to respond to those fears by looking to a strong man to rescue them from danger, a man who embodied a God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity” (page 13). Of course, that “strong man” was Donald Trump.
DuMez notes that many early-twentieth century Christians thought they had a masculinity problem. They were concerned that Victorian Christianity had made Christian men too soft and even feminized. This concern was echoed in the larger culture through the rhetoric of men such as President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had suffered shame as a young man for being a weakling, a fancy-pants fop, and a high-voiced girl. He reinvented himself as a cowboy, an paragon of male rugged individualism, and a combatant in the battles of life. One only has to recall Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech to capture the full flavor of his ideology.
This “crisis of Christian manhood” followed American evangelicalism throughout the twentieth century and continues in the twenty-first. I was taken, for example, by many things that John Eldredge had to say in Wild at Heart. The call to a more authentic masculinity in the face of post-industrial existence resonated with me and many of the men in my life. In the end, however, this perspective always ended in violence, subordination of women, and some honor-based classist and racist hierarchy. Anxieties about the honor of men always risk the call for a fiery end to one’s enemies. For Eldredge, the real model of a Christian man was not Jesus but rather William Wallace (as portrayed by Mel Gibson).
If anything, this rhetoric has gotten far worse and far more violent. It’s no accident that the attention of right-wing domestic terrorists has turned toward the transgender community. The anxiety is always about protecting White Male privilege, power, position, and property. Anything that might complicate that status is “the enemy.” In the 1990’s, the attention was directed toward the gay community more generally. The outcome of that attention was events like the torture and assassination of Matthew Shepherd. The White Male Christian rage expressed then and now is a direct result of the worship of privilege, power, position, and property claimed as the sole possessions of White Christian men.
Let’s be clear, then, that Jesus rejects this understanding of real “honor and shame.” As noted in a previous post, the desire of James and John to punish the Samaritans with a fiery death is not an honorable desire. It is, rather, demonic and receives Jesus’ rebuke. The desire for White male Christian power in our time and space is similarly demonic and requires a similar rebuke. This is not “bringing politics into the pulpit.” Rather, I think we need to respond to claims being made in the culture that coopt and pervert the Christian gospel for the sake of White Christian Male Nationalism.
The disciples cannot perceive the meaning of Jesus’ betrayal and death. We read that in the verses before our text. Nor can many people in our own time. When a nationally-known politician jokes that Jesus didn’t have enough AR-15 assault rifles to “keep his government from killing him,” we know that Christian thinking has gone off the tracks and is completely derailed. I can’t read our text without having this conversation in my head. I’m not quite sure yet how I want to have it in the message I will give. But I know that I can’t avoid the topic.
The “kick ass and take names” approach to following Jesus will get us a rebuke from Jesus and nothing more. The view that following Jesus is one lifestyle option among many on our busy calendar (see Luke 9:57-62) will get us an invitation from Jesus to think this whole thing over again. Neither of these responses is what it means to be a Jesus follower. As a disciple I am called to bear the full cost of Jesus-following in my life and to refuse the temptation to offload some or all of that cost onto others.
I can’t find a lot of “good news” in this particular gospel text. I would like to think that Paul can bail me out in the second reading from Galatians 5, but I’m not sure that’s much help either. I don’t know about you, but I have to sit with this one for a while yet.
References and Resources
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Kobes Du Mez, Kristin. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.