Dave Brisbin 10.15.23
It is absolutely, positively, unreservedly impossible to overestimate the impact of culture on language. Language is a child of culture and can only breathe in the culture that birthed it. When translated to another language, we’ve taken a fish out of water, trying to understand as it flops on the ground. If we want to know a fish, we have to get into the water. If true for modern languages, how much more for ancient ones, where not only culture, but history, science, and technology also affect meaning?

Cultures exist to bind people together, ensure survival by making group experience meaningful and cohesive. So first task of culture is to control behavior—make sure the behavior of individuals is not harmful to the group. We see that as a function of law, because modern Western society is based on what anthropologists call a guilt/innocence culture: order is maintained by creating and reinforcing feelings of guilt and expectation of punishment.

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But the ancient world, and much of the East to this day is based on honor and shame, not guilt and innocence: order is maintained through indoctrination of shame—loss of honor—and the threat of ostracism. Such cultures are collective: individuals exist to serve the group and bring either honor or shame to everyone in it. When shamed, the restoration of honor often through revenge, not punishment under law, restores balance. An honor/shame culture produced our Judeo/Christian scriptures and the impact of those texts can only be understood when we get into that water.

When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek if struck on the right, until we know this meant a backhand slap, a shaming insult that would require vengeance to restore honor, we can’t know what he was asking in terms of voluntary humility for the sake of relationship. And when he says to go a second mile after Roman officials commandeered you for the first, until we see the shame in oppression, we can’t know how everything Jesus is teaching about the assurance and fearless vulnerability of God’s love is never found in the first mile. Only a second mile, beyond honor and obligation, can show us that.


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