It’s hard for us not to see a guilty person as anything but guilty.
“That man will always be the man who murdered my son,” says a father at the conclusion of court sentencing.
“My dad is dead to me because he was never there when I needed him,” says a daughter who refuses to return voicemails.
Whether guilty of a crime, guilty of an act, or guilty of a motive, violators are ‘undeserving.’ They don’t deserve our compassion because they never extended it themselves. They don’t deserve our sympathy, we reason, because where was sympathy when others were being harmed?
Furthermore, a guilty person’s moral incongruity with our worldview of ‘righteousness’ does not permit us to see them as anything more than the verdict pronounced upon them.
We see perpetrators as inferior because they abandoned innocence.
Innocence, on the other hand, is the premiere status. It is a highly prized commodity. So long as we are innocent, we are untouchable. And should someone dare to touch us? We boast of our innocence. To be deemed ‘innocent’ is to be recognized as clean. Innocence is the law’s legacy and the people’s darling.
But what happens when justice is perverted? The innocent are made to pay for crimes they did not commit, and those who deserve punishment are allowed to walk free.
In his book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, author and journalist Matt Taibbi highlights the corporate evasion tactics of America’s financial elite as compared to the ill-equipped urban poor. Taibbi’s real-world account leaves the reader frustrated and reveals the gaping holes in America’s legal and financial institutions, ones which escape justice.
Such incoherence exits because justice is not perfect despite our blindfolded statues and shrines built to the virtues of law. So what happens when justice lets us down? What’s more, how do we reconcile the Christian mandates for forgiveness and love when the ink of guilt darkens our judgment?
Honor and Shame
Often times, students of Christianity do not realize that those who wrote their most sacred texts did not pen them through the western lens of ‘guilt and innocence,’ but through the worldview of ‘honor and shame.’
What are the primary differences?
Where guilt says that you did something wrong according to law, shame says you did something wrong according to your heart. Likewise, where the law says you may be technically innocent, only a person who is upright in heart can truly be honorable. These types of threads are discernible in the songwriter’s cry of Psalm 139, and in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5. By speaking to the condition of the heart and not merely judging behavior, honor and shame speak more deeply to the real issues. Honor and shame create space for the full range of human experiences in ways that guilt and innocence cannot.
Guilty But Honored
On Monday, December 5, 1955, Rosa Parks was found guilty of not giving her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. While she was guilty of the crime—fined ten dollars plus four dollars in court fees—she was honorable in her convictions and behavior. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would later explain in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, there are just laws and there are unjust laws, and any segregation law is an unjust one—ones which deserve to be broken.
But honor doesn’t just make room for those who are unfairly subjected to inferior laws: it also provokes victims to behave in ways which confound a justice-only worldview. That is because honor is not bound to justice but operates independently of it.
Take, for example, the relatives of the Charleston shooting victims in the summer of 2015. While the heinous murders were committed by a psychotic hate-filled gunman, most all of the victims’ families were reported as saying the unthinkable: we forgive you, Dylan Roof. However, this creates a moral conundrum for those who believe that honor is only due to the morally innocent. By what right can families who have lost so much at the hands of a ruthless killer extend such honorable words?
When Justice Conflicts with Honor
A central problem for those of us who struggle with forgiveness is that we often misappropriate honor for justice. Justice, or the sense of it, can be the emotional conclusion of a logical system which attempts to parse the actions of the morally corrupt within society. Honor, however, is not limited to the merits of one person’s character or one nation’s laws. Furthermore, it doesn’t always follow the jury’s findings or the judge’s ruling. Instead, honor always seeks to act in someone else’s best interests, whether they’re innocent or guilty.
Additionally, honor isn’t some rhetorical construct that fulfills a set of conditions. It is a force with a source. Honor emanates from an honorable person for the explicit task of bestowing merit to an unmerited person—something the law cannot support. In other words, one person can treat another person honorably whether or not he or she deserves it. What’s more, honor is most noticeable when it is extended to those who least deserve it.
This dynamic is especially dramatic—and often dangerous—in cultures where justice is the backbone of an entire society. In such cases, the ‘honor/shame’ worldview asserts that the dominant power is not the superior power. For instance, it’s upsetting when someone does not call for the execution of a murderer, instead choosing to extend mercy. Likewise, it is disconcerting when someone insists that a seemingly innocent person actually needs to account for other wrongs they’ve committed.
The Impossible Task Worth Attempting
It is through the frailties of human mismanagement that we see how honor and shame transcend guilt and innocence. Honor can find a way to bless a guilty woman, and shame can secretly confront the heart of an innocent man. Honor is more powerful than innocence, shame more destructive than guilt. While the mode of justice may sometimes ‘get it right,’ honor behaves quite differently. Honor always pledges to do the right thing for the right person at the right time—no matter what. Honor sees the good that must be done for the victimizer as well as the victim since both are created imago dei—in the image of God.
This, no doubt, seems to be an impossible task. Who can possibly know the right thing for the right person at the right time? For the Christian, the answer is self-evident: only the Holy Spirit of God. Moreover, since only the Holy Spirit is able to know all things perfectly, it is only he who can accurately legislate it. Human systems can attempt to mimic it, but never perfectly. Perhaps this is part of what is meant by the kingdom of God coming near to us (Mark 1:15, Luke 10:9): we are to receive and employ an alternate way of treating people.
Are we left hopeless, then, knowing that we can never treat others exactly as God would want them treated? Perhaps. If perfection is our ultimate goal. However, I think it is enough to be ‘like’ our master, and, therefore, looking to him is a better option than looking to ourselves. This means that while our expression of grace may not embody all that his would, it is enough for us to resemble him.
Such a worldview means that where others are calling for the death penalty, we believe there is a more honorable way to deal with society’s ‘despots.’ When others are crying out for vengeance over boundaries and justifying death over borders, we contend for creative thinking that exceeds the limitations of the human call for an ‘eye for an eye’ (Ex. 21:24 versus Matt. 5:38-48). Moreover, in our personal lives, this means we do the hard work of dealing with our own blindspot before pointing out someone else’s blindspot—especially when we know that person has wronged us (Matt. 7:3–5).
This is not to say that justice is exclusive to western society and devoid in the east. Any diligent study of eastern and near-eastern cultures will prove such a notion false. However, the truest forms of the honor worldview never pursue ‘justice alone’ at the expense of mercy, especially Christianity. Justice may be the furniture, but honor is the house.
Where Do I Go From Here?
If you are stuck somewhere between harboring resentment toward someone who’s hurt you and the understanding that you need to forgive, I recommend separating your understanding of guilt (the person’s label) and honor (your response to the person being made in the image of God).
Start by making a simple confession to the people closest to you. Pledge to them: “I will always do my best to do what’s best for you.” Say this to your spouse, your children, your parents, and your friends. This does not mean people get what they want, or even what they deserve. Instead, it means you always act in their best interests because mercy always triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).
Honoring ‘those closest to us’ should be the easiest task as it assumes that we love them. However, applying this same principle to those not close to us gets more difficult. And it is no less critical. Mature Christians not only honor those close to them but speak honorably of those ‘furthest away.’
While societies may treat the guilty and the innocent differently, God’s inspired version of humanity treats all people honorably and, conversely, never shamefully. This doesn’t mean that wrongs are ignored, but it does mean that we rise above mono-dimensional human responses and conceive of alternative ways of responding, ones which recognize that every person’s life matters, as does the honorable way in which we treat them.
If you are in the midst of disappointment at the hands of someone else, see it as an opportunity to respond differently than everyone else might. We know what culture has said about them. Now, what does heaven say? Perhaps our struggle is the very opportunity we’ve been waiting for to display a different reality for a hurting society.
You are not asked to dismiss someone’s evil actions, but you are required to treat them honorably.
For more on this topic, I recommend A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace by Brian Zahnd.