Playing the Indian Card

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sunday Reading.

A leper. From Wikimedia Commons.

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,"If you wish, you can make me clean."Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean."The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once. 
He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything,but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;that will be proof for them."
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.He spread the report abroadso that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.He remained outside in deserted places,and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
Jesus heals a leper. Byzantine mosaic. Wikimedia Commons.

Note Jesus's instruction, after he heals the leper, that the latter is to tell no one how this happened. This demand for secrecy is consistent through the three synoptic gospels, and is commonly referred to as “the Messianic secret.” That is, Jesus seems to try to keep it secret that he is the Messiah.

But why?

I think this analysis misses the mark by a bit. Unfortunate, because, properly understood, this “Messianic secret” reveals an important secret underpinning Western Civilization.

Which is, after all, really Christian Civilization, “Christendom.”

In Canada, recently, an immigrant family, man, wife, and son, were all convicted of murder for the “honour killing” of three daughters and a second wife. My friend the liberal columnist points out, in explanation, that while “Western” culture is based on “guilt,” “Eastern” cultures are based on “shame.” It’s not about what you do,” he writes, “but about its effect on the reputation of your family, clan, or caste. Collective honour matters more than love, genetics, or moral principles.” A distinction I have heard made before. And, as you can see from this short quote, despite his liberal beliefs in theory in cultural relativism, he seems unable here to see the Western model as anything but better, more moral.

And it is. I think most Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus, would agree, given the facts of the Shafia case.

But note that the terms “Western” and “Eastern” here are meaningless dodges. The real contrast is between Christian culture and all others: the importance of “face” is striking in the Muslim Middle East, Hindu India, the Buddhist Far East, or among North American or African shamanists. It is only Christian culture in which its value is so diminished.

And the reason is right here before us. It is the New Testament, the “Messianic secret,” and such passages as this. Jesus is not trying to conceal the fact that he is the Messiah, as such; he is trying to conceal a good deed.
And this is simply practicing what he preaches. From the Sermon on the Mount:

1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.2“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3“But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.5“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6“But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. --Mt. 6:1-6.

The rejection and condemnation of hypocrisy is one of the most consistent, perhaps the most consistent, messages of the gospel. It is so much of the New Testament that our very English word, “hypocrisy,” --let alone “Pharisee”-- is New Testament Greek.

That is what a “culture of shame” actually is—a culture of hypocrisy.

Christianity alone stands head and shoulder above all other religious traditions on this one point: that of recognizing and combating the natural human tendency towards hypocrisy.

The message is conveyed in the present reading not only by the request to keep the deed secret, but by the deed itself—touching and healing a leper. Lepers themselves were a particularly obvious example of social shaming. As the passage notes, they suffered social ostracism. Not because of any moral fault, not for sin, but for being “unclean.” This was not, as Michel Foucault has pointed out, for medical reasons either. It turns out that it is rather difficult to catch leprosy from another, and certainly the mere act of touching a leper was not going to do it. Lepers wer shunned, and considered “untouchable,” because their disease made them look hideous.

Lepers, Jerusalem, 1906. Wikimedia Commons.

A perfect metaphor, then for shame as opposed to guilt. By touching and healing the leper, Jesus was rejecting and/or overcoming this issue of shame. It is a visible way in which Christ has redeemed the Christian: we no longer suffer under the burden of social shame, and need only deal with our guilt.

The New Testament nails this idea to the wall, again and again.

This strong message has made explicitly Christian societies freer, and on the whole more honest—with less of “such boastings as the Gentiles use,” in Kipling's phrase, less focus on mere social advantage and clawing over to the Eastern Wall at all levels; more on principle and getting the job done.

It has been both a moral advantage, and a competitive advantage in many ways, over the millennia, reducing the social friction in Christian jurisdictions.

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