When logical actions are culturally defined and appear absurdly illogical

I was recently given a copy of The Briefing which contained an article on the Islamic protests against a film, made in the USA, which depicted Muhammad in a less than complimentary light. The article, ‘Marching for Allah‘, considers questions related to why a group of Muslims in Australia would bother to march and protest against a film created in the USA. What were they hoping to achieve and why did this seem like a logical response to the issue?

The article goes on to outline three types of cultural rationalities: guilt-based rationality; shame-based rationality and fear-based rationality. The Western, Judeo-Christian world leans strongly toward guilt-based rationality which “relies on an internal conviction of right and wrong”. The article comments, “western people often think that the right thing to do is the righteous thing, even if it hurts other people. Western people often value personal integrity, sometimes at the expense of relationships. We value truth, honesty, and justice”.

By contrast, much of the Middle East and Asia leans toward shame-based rationality. The article states:

In a shame-based culture, people often value relationship and the preservation of community over a personal sense of righteousness. In other words, people from these cultures often think that the right thing to do is the thing that honours the other people in their life, particularly family, but also nation, ancestors and God. People value and rationalize in terms of loyalty, community and friendship, and right action is about satisfaction, rather than justification.

When we consider these differing approaches to rationality, we come to understand something of why these protests took place. Those marching were not concerned with censorship and stopping the film. Instead, the protest was about sending a message to the world that this sort of depiction of Muhammad was not alright with them. As the articles comments:

Muslims care about the way you think about Allah, even if you aren’t Muslim. They care about the way you think about Muhammad, who had been publicly shamed. Many of them would prefer to defend the honour of Muhammad by any means rather than sit idly by while he is profaned. And so the protest was what rational action demanded of them.

Understanding differing rationalities may help us comprehend the underlying reasons for the recent Islamic protests, however, it should also have the most profound impact upon how we engage with Muslims.

On one level, this may mean framing the gospel less in terms of guilt and personal righteousness and more in terms of shame and exaltation. Certainly the Bible itself does this on occasion (e.g. Ps 25:3Isa 53:3Rom 9:331 Pet 2:6). However, this doesn’t mean we need to throw out the penal substitutionary view of atonement when discussing scripture with Islamic friends. Instead, it means carefully explaining “the righteousness of God wasn’t about God’s own righteousness: God’s intrinsic honour and glory. It was about a righteousness imputed to us; our sin condemned us, but in Christ we stand justified because Christ has dealt with our guilt”.

Our culture, in many ways, determines the way we will do theology. However, the reverse of this is also true: “Much of our culture depends on the way we think about God”. As the article comments:

In Islamic theology Allah is unknowable. He is utterly transcendent, and it is impossible to penetrate the inside of God to enter into any kind of relationship. The best we can do is know his will for our lives, and then honour him by doing it. It isn’t a religion of relationship, it’s about submission—which is what the word Muslim means. This idea of God shapes every area of Islamic culture. The task of the government is to ensure that Allah is honoured by society and that society conforms to his will. Because of this, Islamic culture will always tend towards social uniformity and political totalitarianism. The concept of dhimmitude also makes complete sense, because non-Muslims also must be seen to honour Allah, even if they don’t believe. Life becomes about conformity and obedience. The good life is one where Allah is seen to be honoured.

But consider the difference that Christian theology makes—the Christian church in its better, more self-consistent moments. Consider that the Father of Jesus Christ would humble his own son; that Christ would become man so that we might penetrate the unknowable God and discover the inner nature of the Father. We think about reality differently because of this. All of a sudden, true power is power to serve others self-sacrificially, just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. True being is in relationship: existence for another, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. Consider how much changes when you see God not through the lens of glory, but through a theology of the cross—that God would be humbled and shamed, cast into the despair of a grieving parent. What might it mean for our dialogue with Islam that God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ doesn’t always have to be seen to win?

When we respond to and engage with Muslims, the way we respond is important. The message of Islam is triumphalist, couched in the language of victory. Allah will suffer no rivals and, above all else, he must be honoured. Whilst it is right for Christians to speak up and respond to Islam, we are not called to shout louder nor to make sure our God is seen to win. It is not incumbent on us to make everybody honour Christ with the dignity due to him.

Whilst a time will come when every knee will bow and confess Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father (Rom 4:11), this is something God will do himself and does not require from us. When speaking with Muslim friends, perhaps we must acknowledge there is nothing rational we can say, and then should say it nonetheless (1 Cor. 1:18). “Allah may have his day, while Christians continue to meekly proclaim a nonsensical Trinitarian God, a dishonoured and crucified saviour, while we love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us… We aren’t going to be able to boisterously commend a crucified God”.

Allah’s day is Friday. But it is only one day, and you can’t tell on Friday who wins. Allah may be honoured by all and Christ may be in the grave, but the true God doesn’t always need to appear victorious. The victor will only be known three days later. We live on that Saturday in between. We do not yet see all things subjected to Jesus. Rather we worship, proclaim and honour a crucified God, who bore our sin—and shame—in his own body on the tree. He did it to show us the inner heart of the God who suffers with us. He did it to win forgiveness for the meek and humble, and for those that hunger and thirst for a righteousness that they didn’t see in the placards of the protest march. If it is a message that is foolish, then so be it: we will be foolish. For vindication we must wait. But we wait with altered rationality, with a hidden wisdom. We wait with patience and eager expectation, for Sunday.

Clearly, such a view impacts in the most direct way on how we engage with our Muslim friends. However, this should also cause us to consider which, if any, ‘protests’ are truly worthwhile. Our God and saviour has already suffered the ignominy of the cross. In his humiliation, God shamed himself in the most public and terrible way. When he is derided and mocked today, what is that compared to the shame of the cross? Moreover, though he in no way appeared victorious on the Friday, it is to the resurrection that the apostles continuously point.

Where people seek to shame our God and saviour, are they really going to do any worse than the cross? When our Lord appears to be shamed, must we defend his honour? His dignity, by his own volition, was given up in the most public way on the cross. The Lord will ultimately triumph and everyone will give the honour due to him. However, this is something he will do and for which he needs no help. Why concern ourselves protesting against trifling attempts to shame Christ when he already shamed himself in the most humiliating of ways? Our calling is not to defend God’s honour, he will see to that himself, but to commend a God who so loves the world that he shamed himself to bring people into a relationship with Him.