World Council of Churches Central Committee Meeting
Saturday, June 25th, 2016

ISAIAH 54:1-10


Horas is a Batak expression meaning “peace be with you!”
Sisters and brothers in Christ. I thank God for this wonderful opportunity of sharing the words of God with us all here at the Central Committee meeting 2016 in Trondheim and feel honored being as a substitute of my Archbishop Rev. Willem Simarmata, who could not be here and sends his greetings to us all.

And speaking about honor, our bible text today begins with shame and ends with a promise of God’s steadfast love which resulted in bringing back honor.
More collectivistic cultures are still very closely connected with the idea of honor and shame. Honor is something that we achieve in the community. One can feel honored when performing something that is acknowledged by the society or because of something that is trusted to you. You will do your best to keep that honor. One is obliged to maintain the honor, and sometimes one’s shameful action can ruin the honor of the society. The concept is generally connected to the community.

However, in defending one’s honor, someone can commit a crime which makes him guilty in the eye of the legal system. In such society, we need to remember that shame too can be devastating to a person’s identity and emotion. One can be found guilty and yet felt that he has done an honorable action. We can take an example of a person killing another for the honor of the family. Or the person who committed violence, kills others, bomb themselves, in order to bring back honor.

On the other hand, an individual who did well in the eye of the legal system, or doing something that is considered important for the society, can be shamed for doing the right thing. For instance, someone who protects the enemy of the society, or starting peace initiatives, and rightfully doing so based on their ideas of what good is, will be considered shameful by the society.

Wars, conflicts, in Asia and Middle East, most of the times are more complicated than just territorial dispute, money, or even religious, they are intensified by the honor-shame factor, precisely because our societies are based on that aspect. People can attack others not necessarily because of vengeance, but out of bringing back the honor. The memory of what has happened some hundred years ago can bring back the emotion. That is why the honor and shame factor must be discussed and put on the table on such peace initiatives.

Honor and shame are about the relation. Many theologians have tried to understand this, from Augustine, Luther, Barth, Schmemann, Johann Baptist Metz, etc. Your wrong action can exclude you from the community, from your relation with others, and ultimately from God. That is why the heaviest penalty for the crime is not capital punishment or extinction, but being put to exile, cut off from any relation with anyone else (Stockitt 2012). Your face will not be able to meet another face.

It is why the book of Isaiah speaks about bringing back the honor by God’s compassion towards Israel’s exile is the return of God’s face. God will not hide God’s face anymore to the people. The return of God’s face towards the people starts the pilgrimage of Israel returning to their land.

As God’s people, Israel views shame as the result of God’s rejection and punishment. Jerusalem was often warned by the prophets on their failure to be loyal to God, which resulted in public humiliation which in turn is God’s punishment (see Jer. 23:40; Ezek. 16:36-54; Hos. 2:10; Nah. 3:5). God’s rejection is the ultimate shame, in as much that even other nations that failed to protect them will also be shamed. Isaiah 30:3-5 describes that shame and disgrace come “through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit” (Isa. 30:5). In that shame, comes rejection and exclusion. In the Book of Isaiah, we see the story of shame (the exile), the promise of the restoration, and the way God brings back honor to the people by returning God’s face to the people.

The book of Isaiah is divided to three parts, chapters 1-39 are for the prophecy of punishment, second part 40-55 is the promise of restoration, and the last part is the renewed promise of restoration after some people returned to Judah. The text that we read today is part of the prophecy towards the people who are in the exile as a message of hope. It is a prophecy of restoration to the people that are losing their land, identity and their rituals/culture, that they will return as God’s chosen people. We can also connect the second part to the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah (i.e. Isa. 40).

In the text, we can see that there are two types of shame. The first type (vv. 1-3) is the shame that is intended as God’s plan. The woman who was referred in the story is Sara. She was shamed for not being able to bear children. Her shame brings rejection and humiliation. However, God has other plan for her, and this plan includes her shame in the eye of the society. God then brings back honor by making her the bearer of God’s people.

The second type of shame comes as a form of punishment (vv. 4-7). The reference is very clear in verses 6-8a, “6 For the LORD has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God. 7 For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. 8 In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you…” Shame is the result of abandonment in a brief moment of wrath. The text refers to the brief moment of abandonment as the short time of the exile compared to the time when God has accompanied Israel as part of the covenant. The discontinued relation is the punishment which resulted in shame.

Both types of shame is restored by God. We can see that honor in the first type of shame comes as God’s plan in the making of a great nation, and in the second type as a restoration of the relationship of God and God’s people. In both instances, God’s honor is not the same with the honor that we receive in the society. Sometimes, or most of the times, in order to receive God’s honor, we are required to do the acts that the society deemed as shameful. Or, through the process of shaming or the cutting off of the relation, honor can be restored.

We will find in many instances in the bible that the concept of honor in Christian theology is different from the society. In the New Testament, Jesus introduces a new set of honor value against the commonly accepted norm such as “the least among all of you will be the greatest” (Lk. 9:48; see also Lk. 22:26; Matt. 23:11-12). The event of crucifixion is also setting up a new standard of honor. The Jews in that time understood that honor can be shown by God’s blessings and accompaniment, meanwhile Jesus public humiliation and death is the clearest example that God is not with him, which made him shameful. However, the resurrection shows God’s approval of Jesus’ values of honor and shame. What the people saw as humiliation and a sign of God’s abandonment then became God’s approval of Jesus honor, precisely through his humiliation.

In the New Testament, Paul recognizes the values in Jesus’ new concept of honor and shame and changes the idea of honor from social status to ethnic, kinship origins and group affiliation (Phil. 3:5-6) to the gain in following Christ. Paul was against the Greco-Roman culture that saw honor as something that can be gained through the competition at all levels and states the fact that in front of an impartial righteous God, only the people who reflect the ultimate standard of the “the glory of God” can boast of their honor. Since all are sinners (Rom. 3:23), and none can boast about their status in front of God, glory and honor can only be seen as a gift of God (Jewett 2003, 560-561). On the other hand, Paul connects shame with sin and unfaithfulness to God (see Rom. 3:3-5). Human disobedience to God is sinful and thus shameful (Malina 1993, 100).

For early Christian communities, honor is something that they have to gain from the new family of Christian community itself, and not from the larger society that has cast them out (Watson 2010, 147-149). The Christian communities did not consider the larger society’s valuation as essential to their concept of honor. For them, the virtues of Jesus are considered higher than the norms of the society as a whole.

Thus, we need to differentiate spiritual shame and social shame. Spiritual shame is about feeling small in front of the Almighty (see Isa. 6:5). People who are feeling the divine presence should feel in awe. When we are standing in front of the divine humanity, we will feel as if we are standing in front of a mirror looking back at our humanity, at the things that we could have and should have done, but did not. This feeling of awe and sorry is not depressing. It is a feeling of wonder that such humanity and divinity is at the same time embracing my weakness. Lewis Smedes concludes that spiritual shame is, “a painful feeling of acceptability in contrast to the self I see in the humanity of God.” To have shame is honorable.

Then the other type of shame is social shame, which often causes conflicts. Social shame is “the pain that comes to people who live together and yet despise one another” (Smedes 1993, 59). This emotion is more connected with oneself, with how one project his/herself with the fear of rejection of others. It is associated with an act of rejection by others, but the process is more inwardly. This type of shame is not based on reality and kills creativity and joy. It comes from other expectation of who we are and how we should act. Unhealthy shame always makes demands, and the society will decide if one is good enough for them.

Sisters and brothers, to conclude the introduction to our discussion in groups of four, please reflect on this message on God’s face that brings back honor to the shamed people.

As we think about the text of Isaiah 54 and the pilgrimage of justice and peace, we must not forget about bringing back the honor to the people who are voiceless, discriminated, stateless, indigenous people, people with disability, women, and children, who are often being put to exile by the communities. Peace, as God promised in v. 14 “In righteousness, you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;  from terror, for it shall not come near you” is also about God’s grace in returning God’s face and bringing back honor to them. Let us not forget that

Questions to be discussed:
1. What are the honor-shame factors that play a role in the story of conflict in your context? And are they being addressed or over-addressed?
2. How would you see the pilgrimage of justice and peace to bring back honor to the excluded?

Rev. Dr. Binsar J. Pakpahan
Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, Indonesia
Central Committee member (substitute)

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