There is no simple answer to that question. Some of the answer has to do with the fallen nature of humanity, some of it has to do with the terrible personal histories of the perpetrators of the violence, some of it has to do with the horror of war. But there is also a cultural element to what happened in Japan, a cultural element that has some bearing on what is happening in the world today. This cultural element plays large in stories such as that of Rimsha Masih, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl accused of “blasphemy” and potentially facing life in prison. It certainly has been a factor in much of the recent uproar and rioting in the Middle East over the video that no one seems to have seen but that purportedly mocks the prophet Muhammad. We follow these stories with a certain amount of bewilderment as well as more than a little disgust. The motivations and actions of some of the people involved make no sense to us.
In 1954 Dr. Eugene Nida published a book entitled Customs and Culture: Anthropology for Christian Missions. In it he identified three different kinds of cultures in the world. Many tribal cultures are fear-based cultures even today. Then there are guilt-based cultures. Western culture is primarily one of these. As such we rely on an internal conviction of what is right and wrong. Such cultures value personal integrity, truth, honesty and justice, even at the expense of relationships if necessary.
The third type of culture Dr. Nida identified is the shame-based culture. Many, if not most, of the cultures in the Muslim world and in Asia are shame based cultures. The fact that Japan was a shame-based culture played a role in the brutality that the Japanese people exhibited all too often in World War II. A shame-based culture values relationship and community most of all. In such a culture the right thing to do is that which honors other people in one’s life, including family, community, nation, ancestors, and especially one’s God. Loyalty and honor are the things that matter to people in such cultures. Some echoes of this kind of thinking can be seen in the Old Testament. For instance, Genesis 34 tells us when Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was raped by a man named Shechem, her brothers cooked up a plot not just to punish Shechem, but to kill every man in his town.
For Muslims today the most important thing is that the Prophet and Allah be honored. This is more important to them than what we could consider to be rational, logical, fair and humane. That is a result of the way they think. It is natural for people in a shame-based culture. This kind of cultural clash creates some difficulties for us as we seek to understand this very different culture, to respond to it in this world, and especially to communicate to those of that culture the good news of Jesus Christ. To be continued…